This is my fiancé’s favourite photo of me. He took it a few week ago mid conversation when I was poorly with tonsillitis. I’d spent two days in bed, hence the greasy hair and no makeup. I’m goofily laughing at something he said so my eyes are screwed up, showcasing every single one of my laughter lines that are only made to look deeper by my tired eye bags, but he loves this photo.
I have to admit, despite the completely barefaced this-is-what-you-look-like-without-a-filter quality of the photo, I quite like this photo… until I see my birthmark in all it’s red, raging glory in the middle of my forehead. I wish I could say I still loved the photo, but my heart tugs and I feel ashamed to admit that’s my face, that that birthmark deformity is mine. I’m ashamed because I have grown up feeling like my face is one that I need to be ashamed of.
For most of my life, my relationship with my birthmark has been hate-hate. I was jealous of people who had ‘love-hate’ relationships with their insecurities because mine boiled down to pure loathing. Most insecurities you can easily hide, but when your insecurity is a red, strawberry shaped blotch in the middle of your forehead, it’s a little harder to mask. And trust me, I’ve tried every trick in the book, every concealer, every overpriced foundation imaginable to try and mask it, but it has always stood strong. It’s stubborn, just like me.
It’s never really been clear to me when exactly that this hatred began because for as long as I can remember it’s always been there. My family have never made my feel bad about my birthmark, other than the occasional ‘strawberry head’ comment from my brother when I was annoying him. My mum even tells me that my birthmark is where I was kissed by an angel. But outside the safe confines of the family home, the rest of the world was never as kind or as accepting of the mark that made me different to everyone else. People have always drawn attention to my birthmark, reminding me that this rosy brand makes me different and ugly in their eyes.
I was never bullied about my birthmark to the point that I didn’t have friends, but there hasn’t been a stage of my life where my birthmark hasn’t been commented on, mocked or ridiculed by others. At primary school I remember a group of children asking if I’d been hit on the head by an iron. When I blush my birthmark darkens, so they kept asking and making comments to embarrass me enough to make my birthmark glow darker in fury. Another group of boys spent one breaktime hitting them self on their forehead and saying ‘still not as bad as Jess’ head’. In secondary school I was told I was ‘the ugly Jess’ because of my birthmark. I was told ‘I could be pretty if I wore makeup and covered it up’. A girl once threw a 2p coin at my birthmark as ‘target practice’. I was told that I should get a fringe to cover it up. I spent most of my time feeling invisible to others and in the rare moments I wasn’t made to feel invisible I felt like the class freak.
When I worked at a supermarket during my time at university I had a mother and her teenage son list the horrific accidents my birthmark made me look like I’d experienced. ‘It’s like you’ve gone through a car window’ they scoffed thoughtlessly whilst they packed their bags and I tried not to cry. People have told me to go on TV shows like ‘The Undateables’ and ‘Too Ugly For Love’ because of it. I’ve had strangers ask if I’m okay and point to my head as if something awful has happened.
One of the worst experiences I’ve ever had was at a makeup counter. Those counters are intimidating enough for any girl whose makeup skills would be described as just passable at best, never mind for a girl with a distinguishing mark on her face that defies every social concept of what beauty normally is. For years I would desperately go to these counters hoping for a magic cure, buying bottles of expensive, thick foundation to try mask my birthmark the best I could. I used to love it when a professional layered up their thickest cover up on my forehead and turned the mirror around to me. ‘I look normal’ was always, and still is always, my first thought after these skilful makeovers. This time in particular I’d read online reviews of a new miracle foundation I wanted to try and approached the counter. The girl working on it looked relieved when I made my request – ‘I was hoping you were going to ask for my help covering that up’ she said, pointing her makeup brush at my birthmark and wrinkling her nose. I bit back tears as I sat in her chair, listening to her say what a tough job it was to hide it and how brave she thought I was for walking around with it on my face every day. I bought the foundation not because I wanted it but because I was too hurt not to.
The ramifications of interactions like this are bigger than most people could probably imagine. Going into new social situations terrifies me because it opens me up to getting a negative reception to the way I look. A lot of the time I hate meeting new people just because it is the unknown. If I meet someone for the first time, I wait anxiously for the moment their eyes scan over my forehead, waiting for them to take in what they see and react. Usually they don’t ask and look quickly back into my eyes, determined for me to think they aren’t staring. The first time I was due to meet my fiancé’s parents I asked him to warn them that I had a birthmark, not because I thought they would dislike me for it but because I didn’t want the all too familiar awkward moment of having to explain what it was to someone who had innocently asked if I had bumped my head. Those reactions are never reactions I mind, but the fear of receiving a snide comment or being told how ugly I am to someone makes every new interaction a terrifying one.
I know it could be worse. I have seen people with worse birthmarks and I have seen people with disabilities and conditions that are so much harder to cope with than a birthmark. I have a great fiance, family and friends who never let me feel like I am hideous for too long. I know I should focus on my features that I do like, the fact that having a birthmark hasn’t stopped me from doing anything, that I am loved, that I am healthy. These are things I tell myself and things that I work on daily.
The truth is that I am getting better at liking myself. Recently I’ve been doing things I never would before. I’ve been going out of the house without makeup on at all. I wear my hair tied up – something I would never do because it drew attention to my forehead and left me without my hair to hide behind. I’ve looked at myself in the mirror and thought ‘you look nice today’. I’ve walked into a new surrounding and haven’t inverted into my shell immediately. The older I get, the more I’m learning to just simply shrug my shoulders when someone tells me how different I look.
Yet there are still days when I feel that all too familiar sense of shame and disgust come creeping in. There are times I look in the mirror and want to cry because I’ve forgotten I have a birthmark, I’ve thought I was ‘normal’ and then I’ve caught sight of my reflection and realised I will always look that little bit different to everyone else. There are times I look at social media and see the same rigid ideology of what beauty is, a standard I can never compare to because I wasn’t born able to compare to, and am made to feel like I will always be just an outsider. There are times I read people’s negative comments about flawless, thin, toned, tanned people and think ‘if they’re saying that about them then what would they say about me?’ There are days where I can’t think of myself as anything other than the girl who could be pretty if she just looked different than she does now.
One of the main things that I have learnt as I’ve got older is that confidence is a battle, not just for me but for everyone. Everyone has things they would change, even if it isn’t a strawberry birthmark. Some people can fake it better than others and some people have worked through their issues enough to really feel and embody their confidence. Then there are others like me are still at the start of their confidence building rollercoaster, and that’s okay, just like me having this birthmark is okay. Having a mark that makes me look a little different to other people isn’t necessarily a flaw. My face is just a little harder to forget and I think I’m okay with that. My mum doesn’t have to lie and tell me I’m lucky because it’s where I was kissed by an angel anymore because I’m getting there with it. It’s a part of me, like it or lump it. I’ve spent too many years of my life hating it – I think now it’s time for me to start liking it, one barefaced selfie at a time.
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