"Ugh, what happened to you?" "You're not pretty like the other girls." "No one likes you. You look like you're covered in dirt." "No one is ever going to like you."
These remarks were the norm for me when I was growing up. Every comment hurt a little bit more than the last. I subconsciously hoarded them until they started to become the very things I was telling myself. I have a rare epidermal nevus condition called Phacomatosis pigmentokeratotica, which affects about 1 in 2,000 people. A nevus is the scientific term for birthmark or mole. My case is caused by a genetic mutation, although the specific gene remains unknown. It isn't something you'd see everyday, which was why I garnered this kind of attention.
I might've only been 7 or 8 years old, but I could still understand the magnitude of disgust behind every mean comment. I was constantly bullied in school by my peers. They would make fun of me for looking different. During sixth grade lunch hour, a boy threw food at me and crumpled notes with mean things written on them such as, "You're ugly." The harassment didn't stop with my classmates.
Parents of these kids would tell my mom and dad that I should have surgery to remove them, because I wasn't attractive. Adults walking past me would sneer at the sight of me and take pictures to laugh at. My sixth grade Spanish teacher even publically bullied me in front of class and said, "Why don't you go and connect the dots on your face?" You could imagine the amount of emotional trauma this caused to my self-esteem. I received positive comments here and there, but it was always the negative ones that held more weight to me.
My mom would take many measures to cover me up as best as she could to protect me from the world. I was always outfitted in turtlenecks and long pants. When it got hot, my mom would slather on foundation that was five times too light and too sheer for my skin. I was always running around so the makeup melted off anyway. It was not ideal.
I was taught was to hide and to cover my skin so people wouldn't say anything. But no matter how hard I tried, every negative comment and experience felt like the weight of the world. I hated what I looked like and soon I embodied everything that hurt. I believed that I wasn't beautiful and that I never could be. I briefly contemplated suicide around the end of middle school. If I just stopped everything, I wouldn't have to hurt anymore. I could stop my parents from tirelessly trying to find the best medical care for me, since at the time, most dermatologists didn't know what to do with my case. "Maybe I could stop my parents from having to take the emotional abuse. It would be so easy to end my emotional suffering," I thought to myself. [Editor's note: if you or a loved one feels suicidal, find help here.]
I am now 24 years old, and all I can say is that I am grateful I chose otherwise. It was a painfully slow but steady journey to attain self-acceptance. To this day, I feel like I still have a lot to work on. There are days when I'll cry, but I'm only human, and I need to allow myself to feel emotion. Regardless of those bad days, I know that I will always pick myself up and continue on with my life.
Today, I can't help but tell you how much I love my life and how much I am appreciative for my birthmarks. Not only have they given me confidence in my appearance, but they have also given me the strength and drive to pursue my dreams. I grew up with a lot of negativity, but slowly, I learned to stand up against it. I kept telling myself that they were wrong and that what they said meant nothing to me. I began to apply the mindset of "never taking no for an answer" to all aspects of my life.
Being bullied when I was young made me sensitive. I used to hate that I didn't have tough skin but now, I feel fortunate that I don't. My sensitivity allows me to be compassionate towards people who are hurting and it allows me to pick up on subtle hints that they are in pain. My birthmarks also taught me to be positive for myself and for other people around me. There is enough hate in this world and enough people telling us that we can't do something.
I didn't want to add to that, and instead, I chose to have a positive outlook on my life and to lift up the people around me. When I see the people around me reach success, it's a chain reaction for more great things to come. So I can't help but continue to be positive. I can't express the amount of emotional suffering I went through to get to the confidence level I am at now. I came up with things to remind myself when things were especially difficult, and I hope these tips empower you to believe in your worth and your beauty. You have so much to offer in this world! Without further ado:
1. You have to love you.
This was the most difficult, but most important idea to grasp in my journey to accepting myself. My family and friends were always encouraging about my appearance and say that it's what they love about me. It is what makes me different. What I came to realize was that although the support was strong, I could not accept it until I came to accept myself. Strength at its paramount comes from within. People can be strong for you, but it is meaningless until you truly believe you are beautiful. Once you are confident that you are strong, no one can take that away from you.
What is even more important is that once you love yourself, the negative comments you receive become so irrelevant to you that you barely even notice they exist. You can create your reality. If you bottle up those negative comments and make them a part of you, then they will overcome you. But, if you believe that you are strong and beautiful, then that will in and of itself become your reality.
Something I do to feel strong inside and out is that I go to the gym! I love lifting weights and circuit training. I make sure to work out each muscle group throughout the week. I also rarely eat out, because I love to cook healthy. The combinations of both working out and eating clean make me feel great both physically and mentally.
2. When times get tough, get tougher.
There were many situations in which I found myself behind closed doors by myself, crying because I didn't know what I did to garner such negative attention. I would just sit there and feel so bad for myself. It came to a point when I would be sitting in an ocean of used tissues, dizzy from hyperventilating and unable to squeeze any more tears out of my eyes. I realized that life goes on. It's not going to sit and wait for you to feel bad for yourself. There are things out there to be done. Goals to be reached. Empowerment to be gained. Success to be earned. I bit my bottom lip and redirected my energy into the things I felt made my life worth living.
I channeled this energy into becoming a doctor. I had been exposed to dermatology my entire life and have been fortunate to meet some incredible and inspirational physicians who changed me forever. I also have had over 60 major and minor surgeries, so I have also been exposed to the field of plastic surgery. It's something I want to dedicate my life to because I want to help people through what I am currently going through. Because of my birthmarks and the arduous journey with having them, I feel I am able to relate to my patients and lead them to a physically and mentally healthy life.
So, my lesson for you is that you need to take life by the balls and own it. Find something worth being tough about and run with it. The world is yours. You have to choose to take it.
3. Stop trying to hide it — own it!
My mom insisted that I use makeup to cover my skin when I was younger, but now, all I want to do is show the world that I am proud to be me. I tried to use foundation once, but I looked so silly. The coverage was too sheer and the amount I had to use was ridiculous. I honestly didn't feel authentic. If people look, I say let them look! Let them admire your beauty. In a world where people are dying to stand out, we are lucky to already have that trait.
Though I decided to forgo cosmetics for coverage, I still have products to protect my skin from damaging UV rays. My beauty secret is to use a broad-spectrum SPF moisturizer and body lotion. It'll also prevent premature aging, an added bonus. My favorites include: Jergens Natural Glow SPF 20 ($11) for the face and Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry Touch Sunblock ($7 each), SPF 45 and SPF 100 for my body. I encourage everyone, even to those who do not have birthmarks, to use SPF. I love Jergens Natural Glow for its smell and its self-tanning product. Since I can't go out and tan, this my way of getting some color. Neutrogena's Dry Touch line is amazing because it doesn't feel heavy. I've gone through too many greasy sunblocks and am glad to say that this product line definitely does not disappoint.
4. Be compassionate.
The comments that people make must never define you. Sometimes, people will say mean things that will hurt you to the very core. It's an uncomfortable situation, especially if the topic of your appearance is an extremely sensitive subject. It's important to keep in mind that people are curious. Sometimes they are ignorant. If they are mean to you, it is because they still have more to learn about life. They just don't understand how to process your beauty. Continue to be kind, for they are simply naive.
As I get older, less mean things are said to me, but I still get asked about them. I realize that the questions come from curiosity. It's harder to understand this when it's a sensitive topic, but it's important to be compassionate and to not be defensive to those who question. I get asked all the time if I wanted to get them removed and my answer was, is, and will continue to be: no. My birthmarks made me the person I am today. They gave me the confidence to pursue my dreams in more ways than one. They have given me the confidence and grit to continue my goals of being a doctor. They made me compassionate and optimistic.
I want people out there who are going through what I went through to understand that it's OK to be a little insecure sometimes. I want you to know that you are beautiful and that you are loved, even if you can't see it. You don't have to prove your worth to anyone but yourself. You are already great. You have the potential to be even greater and you have it within you to never stop until you reach success. Believe that your differences make you unique. Be confident that they can change your life once you accept them and love them for what they are and who you can be.
Jenna Lee is currently workong on completing a Masters Degree in biomedical sciences; follow her on Instagram here!