the beauty of pigment: growing up with birthmarks
Birthmarks used to mark you as a witch, demon or sinner. Today we know they’re cosmetic, but that doesn’t mean their bearers aren’t still sometimes punished.
Almost every culture has a theory about birthmarks. Some believe they form in utero as impressions of a mother's behaviour. Others have claimed they're the result of a diet rich in red foods that leave shadows on unborn skin. Historically, mothers have carried the blame for a marked child—blemishes were sometimes seen as the imprints of overwhelming feelings, fears or desires. In Dutch the term even comes from the word for mother.
In other cases, the birthmark was an ominous indication of something undone—a penance for a crime committed in a previous life. Those with birthmarks were frequently ostracised, seen as witches, demons or sinners. Today we know that we're marked for countless reasons, but none are as romantic as your mother's broken heart. They're usually collections of pigment or raised blood vessels; and while they don't identify sinners, their bearers are still sometimes punished.
I never thought the strawberry hemangiomas that licks my neck and ear was the sign of a past life trauma. I like my forever blush. Growing up my mum did a tidy job of making me feel special for it, suggesting it was a sign I was marked for big things. Maybe she subscribed to the Eastern European idea that touching someone with a birthmark is good luck.
But while my mark didn't attract superstition it did draw stares. As a kid it was a constant source of questions, and I was hardly alone in my occasional unease. Nusha Gurusinghe despised the birthmark on her upper arm as a child. Speaking to i-D she remembers, "I thought it was the end of the world and that I would have to cover it up for the rest of my life it was so ghastly."
Things were slightly less stressful for Bridget Griffiths, she was more fond of the congenital hairy nevus on her forearm. "When I was a kid I called it my Furry Nebus. Personally, I think the whole furry thing suits it better, it's a more endearing way to speak about it".
She was proud of her mark and enjoyed the attention it drew. Without her own cultural backstory to call on she made up outlandish origins for it. "When I was six I would tell my classmates I swapped one patch of skin with a man 'from the island' for some sort of voodoo ritual practice," she adds. "I'm guilty of telling several fellow seven-year-olds mine was a burn from saving a litter of kittens from a fire. The only time I considered having mine removed was when it reminded me a little too much of my adolescent acne."
Rose Willis' birthmark is on her neck and depending who you ask it resembles a heart, apple or map of Tasmania. People are always stopping her to comment how lovely it is. Like me, her parents made sure she always felt lucky to have it. But as a teenager, it became more difficult. "I went to an all girls school, and I remember loving winter because we got to wear scarves with our uniforms, which meant I got to cover it up."
Even Bridget had second thoughts about her prize patch of "swapped" skin. "In high school I became self-conscious of body hair so I decided to trim and eventually I removed all of the hair from it. Only in the last year or so I have let it grow out back into its natural and furry form."
As we've gotten older, all our marks have drawn less attention. Maybe shedding adolescent awkwardness made us less visible; or maybe people have just stopped looking. Perhaps conversations about diversity have accustomed strangers to people who appear different. In a time when Shaun Ross and Chantelle Winnie are mainstream modelling stars, my mark looks comparatively underwhelming.
But your relationship with your birthmark doesn't stop evolving when you break through the veil of adulthood. When I asked if she felt she'd be a different person without her loveheart markings Rose hesitated, "I think my character goes further than my birthmark, but it has definitely taught me a lot. Without it I'm not sure if I would have learned the same lessons." She continued, "it's an accelerant towards acceptance. It has deepened my relationship with my own skin, but also highlights its frivolity."
Bridget feels a similar way. "It has encouraged me to consider how marks on the body can inspire a stronger sense of individualism. I believe my birthmark was the first thing that helped me to embrace myself as an individual, well before anything else." Having a birthmark is an early reminder you're different. My berry stain started a dialog around how I see myself and allow others to see me that I've never really ceased.
While my 13-year-old self laboured over the choice to remain birthmarked, I'm glad she decided to leave her skin untouched. My strawberry hemangioma isn't a marker of sin or fear or desire, but rather a membership to a quiet crowd I'm proud to be a part of.