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. ♦