Human Parts
Published in

Human Parts

LIVED THROUGH THIS

Facing the Truth

Why I conceal my birthmark

A woman with red hair and a birthmark covering her left eye and the left side of her forehead.
Image: author

The morning hustle has always been hard in my house. On one particularly harried morning about eight years ago, I was running late and realized I forgot to put makeup on. Upon arriving to my sixth-floor office, one of my co-workers flat out asked if I was a victim of domestic violence. I have a birthmark on my face that she mistook for a bruise. Her bluntness was harsh, but it was not the first time I’d been suspected as a victim of trauma. Being confronted by the same question from individuals I would normally not discuss personal matters with has created an invisible shield between me and the world.

As an introverted kid in the eighties, I often felt uncomfortable in social settings. As if my red hair wasn’t enough of a conspicuous feature, the birthmark covering my eye and left side of my forehead also created unwanted attention. “What happened?” This was a common question from complete strangers in Harvard Square, on the subway, or at the Cambridge Common playground. Even at recess when the lower grades would mix with the upper grades to play Double Dutch or tag, older kids who didn’t know me would assume I’d gotten hurt. I must have been trained well by my mom, who brushed the questions aside and never went into a long spiel about my eye. I would just reply “It’s a birthmark.”

Merriam-Webster defines a flaw as “an imperfection or weakness.” The medical term for what I have is called Sturge Weber syndrome, a congenital disorder that can affect the neurological system, eyes, and skin. National Organization for Rare Disorders estimates that only 1 in 20,000–50,000 babies are born with Sturge Weber. A facial birthmark, or port-wine stain, is usually the most notable symptom. The birthmark can vary in shade from light pink to dark purple. In my case, the disease didn’t affect my cognitive abilities, but it did cause glaucoma due to the abnormal blood vessels pushing up against the back of my eye. This has led to a considerable loss of vision in that eye despite three surgeries and a daily regimen of eye drops. This aspect of the disease is invisible, but the birthmark is a distinguishing feature that has forced me to navigate microaggressions from an early age. While I realize my particular case is not as severe as some patients’, it’s still had an impact on my self-confidence.

One of my earliest memories is from when I was around two years old. I was sitting on the floor of a studio apartment just outside Harvard Square where my mom and I lived for a few years. I was playing with a life-sized baby doll and had somehow gotten my hands on a permanent marker. In my two-year-old mind it made sense to make my baby resemble me, but this logic was soon corrected when my mom’s response to the scribbling over the baby doll’s forehead and eye was filled with disappointment. I don’t fault my mom for having this response; it was a common parental reaction seeing an expensive toy defaced at the hands of a toddler. However, I remember feeling a sense of shame that I had ruined the doll when I was only trying to see myself in my baby’s face.

When my mom talked on the phone in the evenings after dinner, I’d sit beside her on the floor and line up her tubes of lipstick and bottles of nail polish on the coffee table. I remember assigning each of them a role in a dance routine, picking up two at a time, holding them between my forefinger and thumb, and cartwheeling them across the table to meet each other center stage. Choreographing tiny objects against the comforting backdrop of my mom’s voice was my earliest memory of handling makeup. I was probably six or seven at the time.

A year or two later, Maybelline cover stick became a part of my morning routine. The oily makeup did a decent job of concealing my birthmark to the outside world, but it did little for my self-esteem. I became increasingly aware of how I was different from my classmates, none of whom had any physical impairments. I recently asked my mom how I came to use this product at the early age of eight. She wasn’t exactly sure, but said it coincided with a change in schools. She doesn’t remember if I approached her about using makeup, or if she suggested I try it out, but she recalls that cover stick was popularized in the eighties.

In fourth grade, I tried laser surgery to permanently lighten the area above my eye, but the treatment was incredibly painful and too expensive for my mother to continue to pay on her limited budget. It would have taken several rounds to achieve the desired effect. This was during a time when it was considered a cosmetic procedure and health insurance didn’t cover the cost. Concealing my birthmark every day became a form of self-defense, but in doing so, I internalized the belief that I had something to hide.

Because my birthmark continues to darken as I age, I almost never leave the house without makeup. I’ve found that powder foundation is the best product for my skin type and provides the most longevity throughout the day. On the rare occasions when I do venture out and bare my true self to the world, sometimes I get looks. Because of the position of the birthmark over my eye, people assume that I suffered some form of trauma, whether I got struck by another person or by an object is unclear, but I’ve noted that most often it’s the former. I recently called my ex-partner who I lived with in the early 2000s to ask him if he remembered any instances of this assumption during our relationship.

Listening to his recollection, an image of a supermarket employee comes to mind for the first time in years. She was ringing up our groceries as we stood in line. He says, “I noticed the way the cashier was staring at me. I didn’t like it. I didn’t like her vibe or her energy. She just made me feel very uncomfortable. And she just kept staring at me to the point where I just felt disgusted.” When my partner moved down to the bagging area she whispered to me “Are you okay?” as if to insinuate that he hit me. “I know that that cashier seen a Black man and a white girl and said to herself, ‘Something’s wrong here.’”

Video: Facing the Truth by witness/author via Vimeo

Perception Institute describes implicit bias as having “attitudes towards people or associate stereotypes with them without our conscious knowledge. A fairly commonplace example of this is seen in studies that show that white people will frequently associate criminality with Black people without even realizing they’re doing it.” With the incident in the grocery store, two sets of biases were at work to weave an incorrect characterization of an interracial couple.

In a scientific study published in 2019, researchers found that people have implicit biases against disfigured faces and people with facial birthmarks. I acknowledge that having a birthmark that can be concealed is not the same as having a facial disfigurement that cannot be touched up on a daily basis. Furthermore, my race affords me a privilege in a country built on white supremacist ideas; I will never experience the discrimination my ex-partner faces on a regular basis as a Black man in America. The findings in the study specifically relate to my own perceived flaw and the stigma that I’ve experienced. The authors explain that disfigured faces and faces with birthmarks evoke lower neural responses from the area of the brain that is responsible for feeling empathy toward others and inferring other’s feelings and mental states. The authors’ findings show that people implicitly judge flawed faces as flawed people, and that corrective measures can have social and psychological benefits.

In my own case I agree, that corrective measures such as using concealer and foundation every day do have positive benefits for me, the people I’m with, and the strangers who interact with us, but at the same time it acts as a Band-Aid to a deeper rooted issue of feeling flawed. Over the past two years being faced with my own reflection on Zoom, I’ve noticed how my left eye droops and appears half closed. Covid restrictions, and the more permanent changes in how we collaborate and communicate have all contributed to my own reckoning with how others perceive me. If I don’t plan to leave the house, I generally don’t wear makeup, but attending virtual work meetings has caused me to pause.

People wear makeup for a variety of reasons, but most often it’s to feel more confident. I’ve come to realize that I cover my birthmark with makeup to make other people feel more comfortable.

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Whitney E. Waddell

Whitney E. Waddell

I write about parenting, wellness, and other personal musings.

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