Live Through This

Beauty Mark

I didn’t hate my mole, just the attention it got.

Illustration by Suzy X.

Illustration by Suzy X.

I’m spotty, like a leopard. Like a connect-the-dots game before the lines are drawn. My body is covered in more freckles and moles than I care to count. Small, big, flat, raised: There are entire galaxies of dark spots on my stomach and back. I’ve had some of them since before I can remember. Others seem to pop up overnight, after just a few hours at the beach. I even have a little brown fleck on the sole of my foot, where the sun certainly don’t shine.

Maybe you have a lot of spots, too. We’ve all got marks here and there. But I always felt extremely self-conscious about my embellished epidermis. It seemed to me growing up that all the other girls had glossy, monotone limbs, perfectly smooth torsos, and clear, unblemished faces—or delicate freckles speckled evenly across their nose and shoulders. I had the kind of skin that made adults go, “WOW! Have you been to a dermatologist recently?” Which is exactly the right thing to say if you’re trying to make a prepubescent girl feel insanely self-conscious at a pool party.

My moles weren’t cancerous, my parents made sure. Like millions of other similarly spotted humans, my skin is just more prone to creating little clusters of pigment. When I was seven or eight, a raised, round mole appeared on the left side of my nose, above my mouth. At that point, I had picked up from my classmates that freckles were cute, but moles were not. Even the name was guttural and ugly, evoking the blind, subterranean mammals that burrow through the earth. Embarrassed, I brought it to my mother’s attention. She called it “a beauty mark,” and pointed to supermodel Cindy Crawford, who also had a famously conspicuous mole near her lips. So did Madonna, and she often penciled it darker for her Marilyn Monroe drag (Marilyn—another moled-up babe).

The beauty mark has fallen in and out of fashion many times over the course of history. The ancient Chinese and Indian civilizations practiced moleomancy (!), the divining of people’s destiny based on the location and appearance of their spots. During the witch trials, moles were sometimes said to be the mark of Satan. In 18th century France, wealthy women painted or pasted on a dark patch called mouche (“fly” in French) to contrast with their powder-pale skin, and also to signal complex messages to their lovers. In the court of Louis XV, the location of my spot would have indicated indecisive flirtation, or perhaps flirtatious indecision. Some of the courtesans of the era even wore them in the shape of hearts, stars, or horse-drawn carriages to send more-detailed missives.

I didn’t think about any of this too much while attending my tiny, hippie elementary school, but when I moved to a middle school three times bigger, things changed. Everyone seemed to have spent the previous summer growing boobs and doing sexystuff at sleepaway camp, while I’d spend my time at a farm milking cows and playing with kittens, and those are not euphemisms. All of a sudden every inch of our bodies was subject to intense scrutiny. If someone didn’t wear a bra (me) they were teased until they begged their mother to buy them something ill-fitting from an old-lady lingerie store (also me). Conspicuous leg and arm hair, or head hair that wasn’t blow-dried into submission—everything was up for critique. I tried not to care what anyone else thought, but obviously I did.

I invited most of my class to my bat mitzvah, because I was hoping that if it was fun enough, I’d make some new friends. At my request, my parents had made one of those signing boards featuring a big photograph of me at age four, laughing joyously, my hair a halo of white-blonde curls. It was set up on an easel at the edge of our awkward 13-year-old dance party like a memorial to my former cuteness. It went OK, I thought to myself, after the music ended. The last people to leave were some of the most popular in my class. Girls in short dresses suggestively perched on the boys’ knobby knees. I sat at their feet wondering if this meant we’d all be friends now. Afterwards, I helped my parents clean up, packing presents and picking up discarded cardigans. As we were loading the signing board into the car, I noticed that someone had defaced my baby picture, using a Sharpie to draw a big black dot on my face in the approximate location of my beauty mark. I tried to imagine why someone would do such a thing: (1) One of my guests—someone I considered a friend or someone that I wanted as a friend—thought that it would be funny. (2) One of my guests did it specifically to hurt me. (3) One of my guests did it to be funny, and they just didn’t care if it hurt me. None of these explanations consoled me. I choked back tears of humiliation, filled with shame that my parents might assume that I was disappointed and ungrateful for the nice party they had thrown for me, one I had hoped would make me feel liked and admired. Instead, I felt pathetic and embarrassed, my entire existence defined by a tiny dark spot.

Over the course of the next few years, my parents periodically let me know I could remove my mole if it bothered me. But when I asked myself if it really did bother me, I wasn’t so sure. It wasn’t the mole itself that was the problem, it was the attention it got. I didn’t like the idea of carving myself up just because I felt self-conscious. I wanted to be proud of the things that made me me, like my wild hair and my inability to fake friendliness and my insanely accurate memory. Even if I had it removed, my skin would be still be marked with a scar where a mole had been. It wasn’t like I was ever going to get back to some pristine, unblemished state. So when my dermo told me that my moles were “regularly irregular,” that it wasn’t necessary to remove all the ones that weren’t perfect circles, I thought it sounded like a compliment, or at least a metaphor.

The summer between my junior and senior years of high school, I went on an educational teen trip to learn about Buddhism in India. The other kids were from all over the U.S.: Mormon Utah, Texas cattle ranch, Scarsdale cul-de-sac, urbane Chicago. We were strangers to one another, and yet the thousands of miles between our hometowns seemed like nothing compared to how removed our experiences were from the people we were meeting in the high-walled monasteries of the Himalayas. We drank butter tea with monks and talked to dissident Tibetans in exile and visited 50-foot statues of the Buddha. We were curious and respectful to our hosts and to each other, even when we had dysentery, altitude sickness, or just missed home.

After a few weeks, it felt like we had known one another forever. One day, I saw a list of names crumpled in the trash of a boy’s hotel room where we were all hanging out. Because I am an unrepentant snoop, I sneakily pulled the piece of paper out of the wastepaper basket. It was clearly a note he had written to himself to remember the names of girls on the trip, one he no longer needed. Next to each was written an identifying physical quality: Great smile. Black hair. Green eyes. Next to my name was one word: mole.

That familiar feeling of disgust came over me. This time, I caught myself before I descended into total self-hatred. Why did it make me feel bad that he noticed what I looked like? He wasn’t saying I was UGLY. Because I didn’t like it, I turned his noticing into an insult, but it didn’t have to be. In India, people openly stared at us on the street. We all look at one another all the time, reducing a complex individual to disembodied body parts, skin color, style of dress, defining characteristics. The details are the expression of our regular irregularity.

I’d like to say that after that I eventually made peace with my mole, that I learned to like it, even love it, and that we rode off into the sunset together and lived happily ever after. But over winter break during my freshman year of college, I got it removed. More moles and freckles had begun to crop up on my face, and the one that got all the attention had started to bother me. It was too prominent. I didn’t like seeing it in the mirror. I didn’t think it was cute. Most important, I spent too much time thinking about it. It felt like a stubborn symbol of a version of me that I wanted to leave behind, that wounded person who too often had let herself be paralyzed by self-consciousness. I had come to believe that I would not betray who I was by getting rid of my mole; keeping it out of principle would be giving it more power over me than it deserved.

When it was over, the procedure healed into an almost invisible scar. I’d run my fingers over my cheek, delighting in the smoothness. I felt lighter somehow. Surprisingly, for all the energy I’d spent worrying about it, the only friend who noticed was the one girl at my college who had gone to my high school. One night at a party after spring break, we were waiting in line for the bathroom. She leaned in close, peering at my face in the hallway’s dim light. “You had your mole removed, didn’t you?” I felt a tinge of guilt, but also something like relief that it really was gone. “Yeah, it was time, I guess,” I said, turning my face away from her gaze.

It sounded like a cliché, but it was the truth. By that point, I’d had a chance to get naked with someone else, and I’d experienced how the discovery of a scar or an unexpected freckle could amplify my love and desire rather than squelch it. If his imperfections could give me pleasure, why should mine give me pain? To me, this meant I could take off every mole on my body or sprout 100 more and I wouldn’t really be changing anything. Funnily enough, these days, my scar has taken on the color of a light freckle, and resembles a much smaller version of the mole that once occupied that same spot. I don’t miss it, but if you look closely at me, you can see where it used to be. ♦

25 Comments

  • KaylaKaliope May 24th, 2013 7:35 PM

    I totally understand how you feel on this one. I had a huge raised mole on my arm that I recently had removed because it made me self conscious. Unlucky for the plastic surgeon did a crap job and I now have a very visible scar.

    But it’s nice to hear about someone else speckled with moles. I’ve got “beauty marks” all over my face and body and even at 20 I occasionally feel like a bit of a polka-dotted freak

  • Sophie ❤ May 24th, 2013 7:35 PM

    FANTASTIC ARTICLE! I can really feel you through you through this.

    Sophie

    http://plainlysophie.wordpress.com

  • Kimono Cat May 24th, 2013 7:43 PM

    I, too, am a moley person. I have 12 moles on my face and neck, which I find distressing only because most of them appeared within the past few years, and thus they feed my skin cancer anxiety.
    I used to have an incredibly sinister mole on the bottom of my foot. It was very dark, irregularly shaped, and it was located underneath the top layer of my skin. Most significantly, it throbbed sometimes at night. Because of this, my mother took me to the gp. She said the mole was suspicious, and refered me to a specialist. The specialist agreed with the gp, and ordered an autopsy. This meant that they had to cut out my mole so they could examine it and see if it was cancerous. The autopsy was carried out, and I was fine. I was crippled for a while though, because you *really* can’t walk when you have stitches in your foot.
    Slightly-surreal.blogspot.co.uk

    • Maddy May 24th, 2013 8:47 PM

      **biopsy
      you don’t want an autopsy at this age…

  • elliecp May 24th, 2013 8:14 PM

    this post it just perfect. I totally get the issue with the mole…it doesn’t necessarily bother you, but you want to be defined by something other than the pigment on your face. I think this sums up the way a lot of people feel about their imperfections, I for one. I had incredibly wonky teeth, but it never bothered me until I realised in secondary school that I was ‘the one with the wonky teeth’. It seemed like the worst title, and even though I’d never been bothered before, I suddenly became obsessed with my teeth and couldn’t relax until I had a brace firmly glued onto them. I don’t regret it at all, but it makes you wonder if other people hadn’t defined me by it, I might never have felt the need to get them sorted out.

    http://roseandvintage.blogspot.com/

  • peppermintmoo May 24th, 2013 8:25 PM

    Great article. I can totally relate; I have tons of moles but the one that bothers me the most is one underneath my left nostril right against my philtrum. I go between hating it and tolerating it and forgetting that it’s there. Sometimes people think it’s a booger, and it’s embarrassing. My mom is willing to let me get it removed, but I can’t decide if I should or not. It’s in a weird spot so I don’t know if that would make a scar more noticeable. Mahh!

  • Katherine May 24th, 2013 8:26 PM

    I have moles all over the place, especially on my arms (19 one one arm, 21 on the other), and they make me feel very self-conscious. What helped me was looking at pictures of Laura Spencer, who also has moles on her arms. It’s much better to think “I’m like a very beautiful actress,” than to think “I’m like a Dalmatian.”

  • Maddy May 24th, 2013 8:50 PM

    I have too many moles to count, but I love them. They’re not raised, though. My favorite is on the side of my nose, a little brown dot.

  • silvermist May 24th, 2013 8:58 PM

    Thank you for this! I don’t have moles but I have this huge birthmark on my shoulder and upper arm and by 6th grade I started feeling self-conscious about it. I remember wearing a sleeveless shirt to school and my mom telling me she didn’t like seeing on me so I assumed it was because of the mark and after that I basically never wore a tank top or a sleeveless dress (I actually wore a dress for prom but I didn’t take my jacket off). In the following 9 years I heard people ask me what was that brown thing on my shoulder, if I got burned in a fire. I had friends and kids from summer camp pulling up my shirt sleeves to touch the mark as if it I had some alien landing on my shoulder.
    Last year I finally starting to get rid of it. It turns out taking this out is expensive and it actually hurts even using laser – I had to stay at home for 3 days after the first ’round’ and I still have more 2 to go.
    I don’t know if I’m ok with all of this. I feel guilty for spending so much money and guilty for giving a fuck about the way other people see me and yet I am somehow excited to see the results as if being without the mark is going to be like a magical solution for every body insecurity I have.
    It was nice reading your experience :)

  • GaLing May 25th, 2013 1:19 AM

    Haven’t read yet, but I would like to say that that is the exact position (and size) of my mole.
    Super coincidental, I guess.

  • jwells May 25th, 2013 5:48 AM

    I am covered with moles and freckles and every boyfriend I’ve ever had has always complimented them. I love my freckles and moles. My mum always told me they were kisses from the sun so I figured the sun must like me a lot.

  • I W May 25th, 2013 5:54 AM

    I have quite a lot of dark freckles, which I quite like, but I also have those sort of light orange-y brown ones on my nose, which are not quite as nice. They just look like blemishes.

    doxographies.blogspot.co.uk

  • dragonfly May 25th, 2013 7:04 AM

    Great article and illustration :) I especially loved “We all look at one another all the time, reducing a complex individual to disembodied body parts, skin color, style of dress, defining characteristics. The details are the expression of our regular irregularity.”

  • NotReallyChristian May 25th, 2013 9:20 AM

    My boyfriend is a really moley person – not on his face so much but his arms and legs and body are COVERED with moles. I’m incredibly pale with really sun-sensitive skin so between us we’re Team High-Risk-for-Skin-Cancer … anyway just to say that if you have a lot of moles keep an eye on them to make sure they always look the same, and if they start to look different (changing size, shape or colour) then get them looked at by a doctor. Get someone else to check any that you can’t see easily!

  • lydiamerida May 25th, 2013 12:11 PM

    Thanks for this!!! I think lots of people can relate. I have light skin, but moles pop up all the time. I don’t have any dark ones at the very front of my face, but i have 20-30 on the perimeters of my face and my neck :)

  • madame_addie May 25th, 2013 11:59 PM

    thank you so much for this!

  • SweetThangVintage May 26th, 2013 2:52 AM

    I’m not an incredibly moley person but I have a few. I have a big raised one on the back of my neck and one day at speed practice one of my teammates said “Moley moley moley” and tapped it with his finger. It still makes me crack up! I have the biggest grin just typing this.

    It’s odd how that would have been offensive if it wasn’t someone I knew well, but it wasn’t because I was comfortable with the person who did it.

  • abby111039 May 26th, 2013 3:19 PM

    I don’t have an issue with having moles or anything, but I feel the same sort of shame about my nose. I thought a nose job was my only option for a while, but now I’m trying to reconcile myself with my natural appearance, and this article really helped.

    • Rose May 27th, 2013 11:15 PM

      Your comment makes writing this essay 110% worth it. Sending you the best vibes. xoxo

  • Smriti May 27th, 2013 1:15 AM

    This was a nice article. Lot of girls feel conscious about their looks. My nose was operated when I was 3 because I had put something inside it and it clogged one side and I could not breathe. The doc made some mistake and my nose cartilage was damaged. Only rectification was cosmetic surgery and that too after 18. All the years it was like living with a bump on your nose. I was commented upon by children and parents and everybody else. My parents started feeling upset about what I must have felt. 2 years back I underwent a surgery which was painful and I could not touch my nose properly for months. Now its normal (to a large extent) but it’s painful to know how people can make you feel ugly and nobody cares about who you are as a person… :( :(

  • Afiqa May 27th, 2013 4:16 AM

    My face too is covered with lots of tiny moles and people weren’t really shy pointing it to me. Friends would come up and say that I had a lot and they were always tempted to draw constellations on my face or they would count openly the number of moles I had. I also had a big one at the back of my neck and for years I would cover it because it was big and right there in the middle of my neck for all to see when I tied my hair into a ponytail. The mole itself didn’t bothered me much but the people who noticed did. My maid used to always say I was a bad person just because of the location of that mole as if it defined me while my friends would laugh at times at its size. When we were little, they would be scared since it reminded them of a folk tale about vampires and how people used a nail behind the neck to prevent them from becoming one. Getting rid of it is not an option so I have to deal with all this. It’s sad how some girls get so unconscious at how people think yet they do the same at laughing at other people’s differences

  • Madame Butterfly May 31st, 2013 3:35 PM

    I have a raised, just a-tad-too-large mole on my left cheek and a very small one, same side, on the apple of my cheek, close to my nose. I’ve always felt the smaller one made me look unique so I would always cover the larger one with makeup or hair.
    You know, I can’t even remember the times when someone had made fun of me for my moles, maybe because I try to suppress those memories or maybe I never got a lot comments because the larger one was so well hidden. But I still feel ridiculously self-conscious about it. It’s hindered me from being social.
    But over the years I’ve truly learned to love myself and learned a lot about what beauty meant to me. So maybe someday I’ll have it removed, but until that day I’ll just learn to love myself a little more.

    So, thank you for this article! Reading something like this really brightened up my day, and made me feel a little less alone.

  • amescs June 8th, 2013 4:39 PM

    I really loved this article. It’s rather coincidental that I stumbled across it today actually, because it was just last Wednesday that I got 2 raised moles on my neck removed. A few months ago, they didn’t bother me, but it was only after a boy in my science class said “urgh” when I showed them him (by the way, I didn’t just randomly flash him my moles, I was complaining about them being sore and he asked what was sore), I began to care. So I got them removed last week. Then, when I went into science class with a bandage on my neck, another boy asked me what had happened, and I told him I got some moles on my neck removed, and his reply was “I never even noticed them.” Just goes to show, a lot of the time, we think things are worse than they actually are.

  • speakthroughvision August 29th, 2013 4:47 PM

    My face is covered with freckles, but after each summer I noticed them becoming darker and darker. Constellations grew out of bounds. I panicked. At the age of 13 thoughts like: What if I become covered?? I’ll look like a farmer!!! Socially doomed!!!!! flogged my brain when it came to my skin at the end of the summer.
    Now I love seeing my sun-loving spots come out to play on my complexion. I learned to love my skin no matter the season.