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Beauty,Spring 2005
Fifth Web Papers
On Serendip

Marked From Birth

Lauren Sweeney









I never really think about it until someone else points it out to me. It isn't as if I can see it without a mirror; it's out of my range of vision. How else would I know that it was there at all? Sometimes I wonder if it would be better or worse if I couldn't see it when I look at my own reflection. Even as it is, in a way, I guess you could say that I don't see it when I look in the mirror. Unless I am actively seeking it out, it doesn't register in my mind that there is something unusual about my appearance.

My mom tells me that when I was first born she and my dad and the doctors couldn't see it either. She doesn't know if this is because it hadn't yet developed on my skin or if it was just hidden by the rolls of baby fat under my chin. She tells me she noticed it a few days after they brought me home from the hospital. I've seen pictures from when I was an infant--it was a lot more noticeable then, a solid dark purple football- or egg-shaped mark. I don't know when exactly it became the pink spray of an oval that it is now.

Even when I was very young, I don't remember many people saying anything to me about it, just the occasional "what's that on your neck?" generally accompanied by staring and pointing in a very bold and unselfconscious way, but never offensive or insulting. It never bothered me. The questions never bothered me and the mark's very presence never bothered me. I considered it to be as normal as my elbows or my feet, a part of my natural part of my physiognomy that belonged there and was necessary to my body.

Maybe the reason it never bothered me is the fact that I can't see it. Maybe it's because I knew two people (a friend's mother and another friend's sister) that had much bigger ones on their hand and arm respectively. "Strawberry marks" they called them. I thought that they looked like burns or an animal's markings more than anything else. I know that people like my mom and other adults went out of their way to make sure that I knew that there were other people like me and that my birthmark wasn't the only one of it's kind. They made sure that I knew I wasn't unusual or a freak of nature and that I should feel comforted by the thought that there were others like me. Despite their efforts, I didn't make the connection I didn't feel like we were really in the same category. I could see how my birthmark was similar to Katie's mom and Sara's sister, but theirs were gross deformities. To me, their birthmarks were scary but mine was interesting if not completely unworthy of mention. My birthmark was a non-issue to me for me.

It wasn't until I started baby-sitting and spending considerable periods of time with little kids that I ever felt the need to explain its presence to anyone. Most little kids think that I've hurt myself and ask, "What happened to you?" or "Is that a boo-boo on your neck?" "No," I tell them. "It's a birthmark. It's kinda like a freckle." This definition generally suffices, but some are not completely satisfied with just that. Some want to touch it. "Does it hurt?" they ask. "No," I say. "It feels just like regular skin." Some don't know what a freckle is in which case I point to one on their own skin and say, "There. That mark there is a freckle. Does it bother you? Does it hurt? Did you even know it was there?" Most of them never take the time to look so closely at their own skin, but when I point out a freckle to them, they become preoccupied with it and search for more.

I'm always surprised at the audacity of children to ask such questions, not because I'm offended when they do ask, but because they don't seem to be afraid of offending me. I know that when I was younger I would have had to be extremely close to and comfortable with someone to ask them a question that I would consider to be so incredibly personal. The truth is, they have no idea what it is. It could be anything. It could be leprosy for all they know. They don't know if it's painful for me to think or talk about it. It's weird and marks me as "different," but why do they feel that it's okay to ask me about it?

I suppose that the explanation for the children's audacity might be rooted in the fact that most children are unselfconscious and generally curious and honestly want to know what happened to my skin. I sometimes get the sense that some little kids are afraid of it and want to know if the same thing will happen to them. But this curiosity mixed with fear about a deviation from the "normal" appearance is not limited to children alone, nor is it confined to just supposed deformities like mine.
As a group, people always want to know about something remarkable or different about someone's appearance. My roommate is extraordinarily short (measuring in at only 4'6") and people constantly ask her about it. "What is it like to be so short?" People want to know. Once, in a dorm room, one particularly inquisitive young man asked, "does this room look huge to you?" Though her situation often leads to such stupid questions, it is also an invariably great conversation starter because people always want to hear her talk about it. Nearly everyone she meets thinks that her size is unusual and wants to know more about it, or wants to mention it, though sometimes the short jokes made at the expense of her most distinguishing physical trait can be trying. No one with a distinguishing physical trait can escape the questions or the jesting which invariably ensues.
I was twelve when the accusations began. I remember a lunch break at my summer theater camp when a tall, much older girl pointed at me from down the hall and shouted "Hickey! Hickey!" At first I didn't realize that she was talking to me, but when I did, I laughed, partially from embarrassment and partially at her foolishness. "It's a birthmark, I swear!" I called back weakly. I knew at that moment that she wasn't going to be the last person to make the same assumption. For a few years I thought about getting it removed or covering it with makeup or only wearing shirts that hid the mark, but I decided that it just wasn't worth the effort. Why should I go out of my way to hide something about my appearance that doesn't really bother me? Yes, people are going to stare and people are going to make comments, but what difference does it really make? I feel that I would rather get asked about it rather than spend thousands of dollars to have a doctor laze it off.

I now get asked regularly, Is that a hickey? Is that a love-bite? Is that a sucker-bite? I had no idea that there were so many names for the same thing, but I always know what they're talking about based on context clues. Pointing and staring are common, as are people indicating with their hands on the left side of their own collarbones. Once, two men in their seventies came into the restaurant where I work and one of them asked if that was a hickey on my neck. Even after I told them that it wasn't, the other man playfully punched his friend's arm and said to me "You'd better watch out or he'll give you a matching one on the other side! I know he's given plenty in his day."

I knew that I shouldn't, but I had to laugh. I've come to accept that there's absolutely no escaping it; everyone, from little kids to old men, notices this thing on my skin. This is a part of my physical appearance as obvious as my hair. Unless I wear a shirt that covers it, anyone can see it and most people probably do. The difference between a birthmark and hair is that most people have hair--most people don't have a permanent red mark on their necks. If you get close enough, you will realize that I am different and it's obvious.

When I greet people it's amusing when I find that sometimes people address questions or responses or even hold conversations while maintaining "eye contact" with my birthmark rather than my eyes. Many women worry about certain males holding conversations with their breasts but I don't even consider that option because I know they're looking at my birthmark. Women do it too. It's funniest when they're aware that they're staring and their eyes flicker back and forth between my eyes and my throat. It's natural for people to want to stare at something unusual and I know that I would do it too, so I don't attempt to stop them.

I think that I first began to actually appreciate my birthmark when I read that the ballerina Anna Pavlova had a mysterious mark at the base of her throat, which she always had retouched in photographs. I wondered why she wouldn't want anyone to see it. What difference would it make? She was a world-famous ballerina--who cares if there's a birthmark on her neck? No one would be looking at her neck--I bet no one could even see it from the stage. With the prestigious position that she held in the realm of physical beauty, she had the authority to make her mark a symbol of her beauty. One example of this is Marilyn Monroe, whose mole became commonly called a "beauty mark." As one of the universally recognized "most beautiful women in the world," this imperfection of her skin has become one of the reasons why she is considered to be so beautiful. In Julian Robinson's article "The Quest for Human Beauty" there were numerous examples of cultures that decorate their skin to adorn it and make it appear more beautiful. Anna Pavlova's mysterious mark, Marilyn Monroe's, Cindy Crawford's and Eva Mendes's beauty marks as well as my birthmark are all marks of distinction and originality. These are proof that there is no one in the world like us. I'm an original copy, complete with imperfections.

As a young very young girl with a very active imagination, a family friend once told me that freckles are angel kisses (he had been kissed all over his shoulders and back.) I liked to combine this with the outstanding theory that my birthmark was a hickey and imagined that an angel had given me a particularly passionate kiss on the collarbone, at the base of my neck on the left side. How metaphysically romantic! Just like the movies Ghost or City of Angels or the ballet Le Spectre de la Rose. (In each of these stories a male ghost/angel/spirit falls in love with a mortal woman.) Sigh. Just think; an angel, in love with me--a mere mortal, but obviously of striking beauty as to be able to attract supernatural attentions. What a lovely thought.

This sense of mysticism about beauty seems to be a common theme throughout cultures. The idea that beauty is a gift bestowed by benevolent forces greater than man is one that appears over and over again in fairy tales like "Sleeping Beauty." In his article Robinson writes that the Mende people of Sierra Leone believe that perfect female beauty, which is "God's finest handiwork" and "the standard [against which] other creatures and objects are judged," is "divine, unearthly, from paradise" and not to be achieved by human beings (37.) This is a perspective that I feel our culture has unknowingly adopted and is now starting to deconstruct. I think this is why our class discussions about human beauty became so heated. We understand that women are beautiful, but the establishment of a strict standard is where the problems are begun.
We oftentimes equate beauty with goodness and truth, but this is a dangerous way to live. Though we learned that in math and science symmetry and simplicity are often the characteristics that distinguish a beautiful equation or experiment, the same standards cannot be applied to human physical attractiveness. We all agreed that the Golden Ratio was an interesting phenomenon, but certainly not the definitive way to determine human beauty. Thinking of physical attractiveness based against a predetermined standard, as a virtue equivalent to truth, is not only unreasonable and unhealthy, it is impossible. You can never really know with full certainty whether or not a statement is "true" based on the nature of reality. This is the first lesson I learned in my biology class last semester and it has since made an impression on the way I view "truth." The same thing has happened to me in this class in terms of the word "beauty."

Now my perception has altered. Human beauty is dependent on deviations from the mean, on individuality and diversity. If everyone looked the same, no one would be called ugly, but then again, no one would be beautiful either because there would be no need to make such distinctions. As in Ted Chiang's short story, the inability to perceive a difference in people's appearance is what erases our ability to see beauty. I have come to understand that like Marilyn Monroe, mine is a mark of beauty.

The doctor continues to inform me at my annual physical that "they can take care of that with lasers you know." "I know," I tell her. "I don't mind it." This is sort of a lie because I more than "don't mind it." In fact, I like it. I like to hear what people have to say about it. Now when people ask me "what's that on your neck?" I ask them, "What do you think it is?" I'm always amused by the responses I get. A few weeks ago in Starbucks the barista asked me what my "tattoo" was supposed to be. The other night at work a customer exclaimed "Holy shit, is that a hickey?!" One time the checkout guy at Trader Joe's told me that it looked very elegant and suited me.

Most people who mention it still think it's a hickey, some think it's a tattoo but very few say something if they think it's a birthmark. One man, who identified himself as a musician, very nervously and embarrassed but clearly genuinely curious asked if I was a violinist because apparently they sometimes get red sores on their necks from playing too intensely. I liked that one. It was different.

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