On highly visible birthmarks

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Photo: Getty

When my mother was small she accidentally tipped a saucepan of boiling water on herself and was hospitalised for burns on her arms. It has become a family joke that it was, in fact, the greatest time of her life. Endless attention, confined to reading book after book in bed, the need to only whimper and have someone run to her bedside. In a large family, living in a small house, this was luxury. Her sisters were nearly incandescent with jealousy.

My mother has scars from the burns, some 55 years later. And, Hallmark card-esque as it is (not that there is a card that says ‘sorry about your burns but glad they made you into the person you are!’), they tell a story about her; but not the only one.

I’m thinking about her scars because I went to see a cosmetic surgeon recently about the clumps of red, spidery veins creeping up my legs, and he told me that they were a birthmark; one that is very rare and that comes later in life. It has made me feel perversely special. I have already cancelled one appointment to get the redness removed with a laser. Because after years of being asked if I was sunburnt, hot, or plain old ''what’s that on your legs?'' it isn’t bothering me as much. Maybe because scars and birthmarks make us interesting, maybe because our imperfections are a good way of sifting the good people from the jerks. Possibly because I like feeling special.

In Tina Fey’s memoir Bossypants she wrote about the ways people react to the scar on her face that she got when someone slashed her in a back alley when she was a child.

“I've always been able to tell a lot about people by whether they ask me about my scar. Most people never ask, but if it comes up naturally somehow and I offer up the story, they are quite interested. Some people are just dumb: 'Did a cat scratch you?' God bless. Those sweet dumdums I never mind ... Then there's another sort of person who thinks it makes them seem brave or sensitive or wonderfully direct to ask me about it right away. They ask with quiet, feigned empathy, 'How did you get your scar?' The grossest move is when they say they're only curious because 'it's so beautiful.' Ugh. Disgusting.”

It’s similar to when people ask about the redness on my legs and then say ''you can barely notice it.'' You really can notice it. My friend once asked a school pal if she’d been punched in the face, only to have the person say she was actually experimenting with a smoky-eye look. ''It looks really good!'' my friend said hurriedly, and very untruthfully. It’s like that.

For Fey, the scar doesn't define who she is, nor is it beautiful. It was only on writing the book that she realised that all of the attention she was lavished with as a child was because she ought to have been feeling ''lesser than'' because of her slashing. But the effect was the opposite, with Fey believing (and rightly so) that she was most likely a superior person. It is worth remembering that our scars, birthmarks and imperfections aren’t for pitying, but they don’t need false praise either.

My legs will never be beautiful (and had you seen me at three in a swimsuit you could certainly agree that I was somewhat doomed), and that’s fine. I don’t need to be told that my clumps of red veins are interesting, or barely noticeable. They’re not, and they are. The way people react to scars and imperfections, either rudely or in faux hushed tones of respect prove that there’s a way to go in allowing people to be imperfect.  You know, we really don’t have to boldly bare our scars and lumps and bumps and proclaim them to be beautiful. Because that just proves that all that matters is beauty.

The Cut's Ann Friedman summed this up well in in her critique of the latest Dove ad to go viral with its emphasis on 'real' beauty and women being their harshest critics,

"These ads still uphold the notion that, when it comes to evaluating ourselves and other women, beauty is paramount. The goal shouldn’t be to get women to focus on how we are all gorgeous in our own way. It should be to get women to do for ourselves what we wish the broader culture would do: judge each other based on intelligence and wit and ethical sensibility, not just our faces and bodies."

So I keep hesitating about removing my newly-claimed birthmarks. They’re part of my story, but not my only story. The marks on my legs don’t tell all about me, but they do tell a lot about others.

15 comments

  • I had a big, raised, hairy, crusty birthmark behind my ear, which a girl behind me on the school bus said looked like I had a piece of s*@t stuck to my head. I had it removed and I'm happy I did so.

    Commenter
    Jackie
    Date and time
    April 30, 2013, 8:55AM
    • Brilliant article. It is very true and I agree that we need to stop judging each other.

      Commenter
      Janie
      Date and time
      April 30, 2013, 9:04AM
      • My husband was born with a visible 'birth defect' and it's a wonderful d*ckhead detector. It's amazing how people react to something so superficial. Kids are the best because they ask straight-out with pure curiousity and no judgement but adults can be horrible, the worst is false sympathy. He doesn't need any sympathy, fake or otherwise. It's been a big eye-opener for me watching strangers treat me one way and him another, or worse, one way to his face and another behind his back. We are so much more than the skin we're in.

        Commenter
        dasher
        Date and time
        April 30, 2013, 9:48AM
        • My mother has a couple of birth marks on her feet, one in particular is like a purple bruise across her toes that gets more pronounced when she is cold, it's always funny to hear people ask and her reaction be "oh I dropped so and so on my foot, no just kidding it's a birth mark"

          It does however remind me of when I was in primary school and there was a guy a few years older than me that had a extremely pronounced birth mark over at least 3/4 of his face.

          Commenter
          Sarah
          Date and time
          April 30, 2013, 10:02AM
          • My 7 month old daughter has a stalk bite birth mark on the back of her head, its dark reddish purple and because her hair, which is fair anyway, has not grown in fully it is very noticeable and it drives me mental that so many people point it out as though i didn't know about it or think they are being funny when they say "did you drop her?", a third of people are born with this particular birth mark and on the back of the head/neck they rarely fade with age, its just your hair covers it, so yes i do know about it and no i did not drop her on her head!

            Commenter
            Stalky
            Location
            Sydney
            Date and time
            April 30, 2013, 10:59AM
            • I developed a strawberry birthmark on my chest when I was 6 months old. Now aged at 23, I get a lot of disgusted looks from people who mistake it for a hickey.
              Rather than hiding or removing it, I ignore these looks from others and embrace my birthmark as a unique part of me. I agree that there are is more to me than how I look, but I don't see any false praise in accepting and loving every part of myself whether it is marked or not.

              Commenter
              Haylee
              Location
              Melbourne
              Date and time
              April 30, 2013, 11:57AM
              • Having a clearly visible birthmark and much like you Annie, I have learnt that this is me.

                We all have our 'issue' whether it is clearly visible or deeply hidden. Mine 'issue' just happens to be visible.

                Commenter
                Liz
                Date and time
                April 30, 2013, 12:30PM
                • My 4 year old son was born with a "port wine stain" its red and angry when its hot and purple in colour when he is cold. Its on his right calf and is rather large and he couldn't care less. The children at kindy don't bother about it and for the kids that are quite inquisitive they ask my son what happened to his leg and he tells them nothing its just a funny bit of skin and they are all happy with that, yet the mothers at primary school are horrified at his deformation and how could I not get it lasered? My son turned around and said to them there is nothing wrong with his leg and he is normal. We high 5ed and left there was nothing more to be said he put it perfectly. No one has the right to judge and it took a 4 year old to tell them that.

                  Commenter
                  Bec**
                  Location
                  Queensland
                  Date and time
                  April 30, 2013, 1:31PM
                  • I have a couple of small birthmarks and my cousin has one almost identical to mine, as well as another 'port wine' mark that covers most of his lower arm. It too changes colour with the temperature. Very handy when he was a baby! He's 20 yrs younger than me and we always knew whether he was hot or cold. Every baby should have one! He was never distressed about it and other kids would ask him what it was. 'It's my birthmark' he'd say proudly. My aunt however had a very different experience. She was often asked 'Oh my what happened, did you burn him?'

                    Commenter
                    grlcook
                    Date and time
                    April 30, 2013, 1:57PM
                    • I have a large birthmark across my face and neck. I can say without self-pity, it has ruined my life. I was teased about it from kindergarten until the day I dropped out of high school. I couldn't get a boyfriend. Because of the terrible abuse I had copped, I lost the confidence to do anything where other people would look at me. I hate going out during the day. I cross the road to avoid people. My whole life is planned around avoiding people looking at it. There. I don't usually talk about this to other people - I think that's the first time I have ever expressed it.

                      Commenter
                      Portia
                      Date and time
                      April 30, 2013, 1:58PM

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