By Denise Winterman
BBC News Magazine
In a world obsessed by looks, those living with facial disfigurements often find things a struggle. But they are now learning they can be different and be happy.
At just eight years old Beverley Fulker started wearing thick, greasy foundation to hide the port wine stain birthmark on her face.
"My face looked as if it were covered in mud because of the amount of make-up I put on. It looked awful but I didn't think I had any other option, it was still better than showing my birthmark."
She continued to camouflage it for a further 28 years, until two years ago. Now she has set up a website called Love Your Mark to encourage others to embrace their birthmarks as part of who they are and start feeling better about themselves.
People from around the world started contacting her through the site and she soon realised that those with prominent birthmarks experience the same problems. She also realised there was no one saying it was OK to be yourself, to embrace your mark instead of hiding it.
"As a child, I would have been ecstatic if I had been able to meet others with birthmarks," says Beverley, from Leigh-on-Sea in Essex. "I want to make it easier for children and adults to face the world."
Often the biggest problems people with birthmarks experience are psychological. They can have low self-esteem and be cripplingly shy.
Top psychologist Dr Linda Papadopoulos, who has studied and written books on body image, says what Beverley is doing is hugely important and positive, especially in an era when everything is distilled down to being thin and beautiful.
"Very little of a woman's worth is measured by anything but how she looks," she says. "This minimises a woman to just what the size of their bums and boobs are.
"When I studied facial disfigurements I thought there would be a correlation between the size of a disfigurement and how affected people were by it, but it doesn't work that way. People with the smallest mark can be hugely traumatised.
"It is all about how you choose to see yourself, which is why this website is so important. To be happy people need to change the way they think of themselves, rather than sit there waiting for a new laser to be invented that will totally remove a birthmark."
Problems often start at a young age, when people become aware they are different. Treatment can include laser surgery, injections or drugs, but success depends on the individual. Some birthmarks can never be removed.
"I was raised by loving parents who never made me feel my birthmark was anything to be ashamed of," says Beverley. "I was such a confident child, always out making friends. I think subconsciously I knew I'd never seen anyone else with a birthmark like mine, but it didn't matter.
Caused by small blood vessels not draining properly, so blood pools just under the skin
One in 10 children born in UK have some kind of birthmark
If left alone, 70% of marks gradually fade away
"It was only when other kids started calling me names when I was about eight that things changed. I instantly wanted to hide my mark and I asked my parents for plastic surgery. The hospital told said it would be a big job and suggested camouflage make-up. I started using it immediately."
She finally threw her make-up away at the age of 36 after seeing a documentary about a woman with a birthmark similar to her own.
"The woman felt as if her birthmark had ruined her life," says Beverley. "I just knew I had to do something, I wanted to get across that a birthmark was nothing to be ashamed of. None of us are made of plastic, no one is blemish free. I wanted people to know you could have a birthmark and be confident."
Sarah Kaye says up until she logged on to Love Your Mark, the advice she received was all about covering or removing her birthmark.
"I don't blame people for that because those were the questions I was asking them," she says. "To find people who are confident and leading successful lives is inspiring.
"I never showed my birthmark to people because I'm afraid they'd find it repulsive. It was like someone going out without their clothes on, I felt naked without my make-up. Now I am learning to accept myself and it is quite liberating. You realise not that many people are staring at you after all."
Love Your Mark is for anyone with a facial disfigurement, like Beverley Hammett. She had nitric acid thrown in her face after she was mistaken for another woman by a hitman hired by the woman's estranged husband.
"I have always remembered that if anyone has a problem with me looking a bit different, it is their problem not mine," she says.
"I come from a family where we were brought up thinking it mattered more to be a good person than to have good looks. It's what you are like on the inside that counts."
If just one person starts seeing themselves in a more positive light after contact with people like Beverley Hammett, then Love Your Mark has done its job.
Add your comments using the form below.
I have a Port Wine Stain on my arm and after 16 years I decided I wanted laser surgery. I had a year's worth, every 6 weeks, of going to the hospital. It was very painful and my mark has not really gone away. After a few more year I have decided that I have to live with it and there is nothing I can do about it. I still get some cruel comments but most people think I have been punched. And they mention it. I can't love it yet but my partner and parents know it as a part of me and wouldn't change it. I just hope I can learn that there is nothing I can do to change it.
I was born with a cleft lip and was lucky to have a fabulous surgeon who made a repair so good that it fools most folk - but - growing up with a slightly 'wonky' nose and teeth that grew where they felt like - I was made to feel like a second class citizen by children my age and perhaps more alarmingly by adults. My family and circle of friends were / are amazing and know me for my sense of humour and me being me! I wish that the detractors could take a long hard look at themselves. I've been ridiculed by persons more worthy of wearing a paper bag on their head than me!! but then I forgive them - it's their problem - not mine!!!!
Gill Richardson, Bradford UK
It's a great thing when people make weapons out of their imperfections. I'm sure it's liberating.
Alan Eddie, Dublin
My older sister has a brown birth mark on her cheek, about the size of a 1p piece. While she was teased at school, she hasn't mentioned it for years, but said a few weeks ago that she had considered having it removed. As her family we were aghast. As far as we're concerned it is a part of her very beautiful face. Without it she would not look like her anymore. Who wants to look like everybody else.
Naomi, St Albans
We are none of us unflawed. I've found the best way to deal with other people trying to make you feel like there's something wrong with your physical quirks is to turn it around. Make them feel as if the problem is theirs for even noticing it. This takes a bit of bravado, yes, but it teaches an important lesson to those who obsess with the shallowness of surface appearance.
Sharon, Maryland, USA
My 2 year old daughter has a birthmark between her eyes. Of course I noticed it when she was first born but now when I look at her all I see is how beautiful she is. The only time I am reminded of it is when people, usually friends, ask 'what is that mark on you baby face'. All I hope is that it doesn't affect her when she goes to school as she is such a confident and gorgeous little girl it would be a shame for her to change over something so menial.
Good for her. It's okay to look physically different. I don't have anything unusual on my skin except the odd scar (including one I gave myself as a babe) and the fact that my hairline meets my eyebrows, but I am under 5 foot tall. I get silly amounts of people saying things like "you're really short!". Really? I hadn't worked that one out for myself thanks. I know other short women wear shoes to make themselves taller. I don't. There's no point. I am who I am. The same with people with birthmarks. Don't let it control your life, but do accept that it is part of who you are.
Charlotte, Devon, UK
Life is too precious to let it be destroyed by a birthmark or a skin condition. We should all feel lucky to ever have been born and try to enjoy what life has to offer as much as we can. don't let something minor that has no effect on your actual physical health spoil who you are or your. At least it is your own special way of testing people around you so you know who is your friend and who is not.
I am one of 6 siblings, the only one with a birthmark that is noticeable. I have a brown birthmark that is on my chin and most of my neck it looks like the map of England. My birthmark is too big to hide behind makeup. Only in my teens was I really affected by it. A friend of mine at school had a skin graft for something different, which is what I thought I wanted. It didn't turn out very good so I decided a skin graft wasn't for me. My mum told me I was special and that I'd be loved for who I am and not what you look like. It's strange because my birthmark is apart of me I don't notice it most times. It's only when I am stared at, I usually smile at these people which helps because they can see I am not an ogre or special needs, but a human being. Explaining what it is to most people diminishes any stigma. Whether as I have grown older or because I am a confident and happy person I don't feel people stare as much. I do think I am special.
Yvonne Marquez, Leeds
I just want to say well done to this lady there should be more people like her how stand up for what she believes in and she's right it isn't what you look like its what you are like in the inside and I you should have to hide your birth mark away good luck
I got psoriasis all over my face, 2 years ago, and refused to leave the house. I got so depressed my relationship suffered, as did my work. After 5/6 months of realising nothing would change I started to stop worrying, went out a little more, and started to deal with the odd look. Once I got used to that, my stress reduced and my psoriasis lightened a lot on my face. I still have it, but now know how to control it. It wasn't permanent, but for those 6 months I learnt a lot about myself, and the confidence needed to go out and face it. As well as the way it feels like to be stared at. It takes more beauty inside to say "this is me" on the outside, than vice versa. It could always be worse.
Ed S, London, UK
It's so true - when do you ever see an advertisement where the model has moles (other than strategically placed, glamorous ones), or anything more than a delicate arrangement of freckles? It's the same for men too. If other people can't see below the surface, that's their problem to deal with, not yours.
This is a very positive message and these women are role models for young girls with image problems. My birth mark is white blotches all over my arms, I am dark skinned so it looks like I was burned when I was younger. I never wear short sleeved shirts because I am embarrassed of them. Lately I've been trying to just let it go, but from years of hiding its hard to. I am glad to see these women happy with themselves and it is becoming a rarity in our society to do that.
Mai, Malaikah, Vancouver, Canada
Be proud of who you are and forget about superficiality. It's very hard to achieve this as a young person, but as an adult it's possible. I have a huge scar on my foot from a major injury, but I wear my sandals with pride! Such a small part of life. If you're reading this and not directly affected by the issue, you can impact those who are by not staring at someone next time you see them!
I have this teeny black mole on my nose. I got it when I was 5 and I am 40 now. I have always been conscious of it (even more than the acne scarring I have). Strange isn't it! And I still try to cover up using concealers and foundations, although I do realise that not many people even notice the mole on my nose - at least not until I actually point it out to them. Why on earth are we (well, some of us at least) so obsessed. Maybe we really need to lighten up and accept ourselves as we are and love ourselves first. I really respect all those women who have the courage to be confident about their bodies despite being less than what is conceived to be perfect.
Ina, Toronto, Canada
I have a huge birthmark on one side of my belly and I actually like it - it's cute. I wear a lot of skimpy outfits so I get tons of questions and glances from strangers... I guess I like attention, I don't know.
Quintessential New Yorker, New York City
My aunt has a port wine birthmark covering her right eye, and while I am certain it caused her no small amount of angst growing up, now it is part of what makes her so unique and beautiful. It reminds me of Keats, "Beauty is truth, truth beauty" - so let everyone show their truly beautiful selves proudly to the world.
Dan, Denver, Colorado USA via Barcelona, Spain
From a small child I had a raised hairy mole on my chin, which I came to hate. My mum called it my 'beauty spot' but I thought it was more like a witch's wart. So when I was 14 I had it removed. I have always regretted it, as my stitches became infected so I was left with a more noticeable scar than it should have been. Instead of being called 'witch face' I was then called 'scar face'. Now I'm in my 40s I think I should have just got on with my life, and that a small imperfection like a mole is nothing compared to what some people have to live with. Cindy Crawford is famous for her mole!
Sarah Allen, Somerset, UK
I have a massive brown birthmark on the outside of my left thigh. And even though it is something that would rarely be seen, I still hide it. I have tried to hide it from boyfriends over the years, I always wear something to cover up on the beach, I don't own any shorts and I would not buy a dress with a slit up the leg. The way I react to my birthmark all stems from having other children mock me when I was in primary school.
Good luck to these ladies. I have psoriasis on both my legs and complete strangers march over demanding to know what is wrong with me. I tell them its ringworm and highly contagious - they usually disappear very rapidly. I'm more embarrassed among people I know, so I only go bare-legged at home or where I'm not known. I've had this since I was 14 and I'm 41 now, but it doesn't get any easier to live with.
Sadly the face and the outer part of the body are what we perceive first - we are visual creatures, and while I agree that every person must accept his or her appearance, we cannot change the priority as much as we should. Evolution has worked in this direction; we tend to see 'beauty' where a look of health is, where a partner has the appearance of the health needed for offspring. That said, I do think that we thinking creatures are able to overcome some of this genetically-programmed behaviour - after all, our societies are not genetically-programmed in detail. People with a 'disfigurement' often come across as perfectly normal once one gets to know them. One simply gets used to the 'disfigurement' and at some point it is 'no longer there'. So, good luck ladies!
D. Fear, Heidelberg, Germany
Wonderful story! I have a port wine stain birthmark on the right side of my face and am ecstatic when some of "our tribe" find acceptance and validation from the rest of us! I work for birthmarks.com and love that other avenues like "Love Your Mark" exist to help us all to leave our mark on the world! Well done!
Charles Cale, Austin, TX
I have a port wine stain birthmark on my left arm. It goes from my fingers all the way up to my elbow and I love it. People ask about it and then never really know how to react after I have told them what it is, which makes me laugh. I am proud of my birthmark, it makes me, me and also gives me something to put on my passport under " Any distinguishing features" .
Leanne , Wolverhampton
As someone suffering from Neurofibromatosis, I always thought myself lucky that I had it mildly and that the 'Cafe-au-lait' patches (a side affect) I did have were contained to my arms and hips, I even thought they were a cool talking point. However, secretly, I lived with the fear & depression of what it might develop into. So with my face being unmarked, for now, and my insecurity kept hidden, I bounded through life and admit to even being quite vain at times. But my dark thoughts became a constant drain. Then one holiday, I met some other people who had much worse conditions than I yet they were the most charming, positive and inspirational people I had met, and their marking soon seemed to diminish until you couldn't see them any more. So I learnt that my preoccupation wasn't a productive use of my energy and reclaimed my confidence my focusing on all the other things I had and not taking personally other peoples ignorant comments. Its important to have the encouragement and support of your loved ones because I have found their worries about me more difficult to deal with. I feel my new positive outlook has served me well because 1 year ago now, I developed Vitiligo all down my left cheek. At first I was down and defeated, but remembered the power of the way you view yourself and your outlook which picked me up the first time. And when I smile these days, I get more people telling me I'm handsome then I ever did before my story began. Its hard but you do have the power within yourself to change the way you feel.
I had a temporary disfigurement called a Chalazion, which is an infection of the oil glands in the eye lid which produced a massive cyst. I had complete strangers ask me what was wrong with my eye! They made me feel uncomfortable and embarrassed, I can't believe how rude people are! I totally sympathize with anyone with a facial disfigurement, people's attitudes to appearance has become very unhealthy.
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