I crouched down and tried to make myself as small as I could. In my ten-year-old mind, I had the ridiculous notion that if I made myself small enough, then the children skipping past gripping their mothers’ hands and the men in suits striding towards the station, wouldn’t see me. I thought I would be invisible. Maybe I was. Or maybe those children, and those parents, and those men rushing for their trains, just didn’t care. They were all preoccupied with getting to where they were going on time and weren’t inclined to pay me any mind. I looked at my watch. Still eight minutes early. I gave up trying to hide. Nobody was paying me any attention. I moved out from between the graves and sat down on the church steps. I opened my backpack and pulled out my book. It was the latest in the Sweet Valley High series. I was hooked on the adventures of Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield. I had read every one in the series. They were probably meant for much older children, but I was always a good reader and by the age of nine, I had pretty much exhausted everything in the school library. I began reading and within minutes, I was engrossed. A train squealed and I looked up. Everyone had gone. I looked at my watch. It still said 8.52am. For a moment I was confused and then I realised it had stopped. I jumped down from the steps and looked up at the church clock. It was 9.24am. That’s when I wondered why it hadn’t occurred to me before. I stuffed my book into my backpack and headed off for school.
As I ambled down the road, I saw the coach pulling away from the school gates. Perfect timing. That’s when I broke into a run. By the time I sprinted across the playground and crashed through the front door, I was convincingly out of breath.
‘I’m so sorry Miss. My watch stopped,’ I gasped.
The look on Miss Croft’s face, together with the stifled, sarcastic laugh, told me that she didn’t believe me. And to be honest, I didn’t blame her. It was the fourth pathetic excuse in as many weeks. This one just happened to be true. But no matter how outrageous the excuses got, and how much I cringed when I told them, it was better than the alternative. I was NOT going swimming.
I can’t remember at what age I became aware of being physically different to the other kids. It may have been when I started primary school. In those days, there were no school changing rooms and, in actual fact, no PE kit. It’s difficult to believe now, but ‘Getting changed’ for PE was stripping down to your underwear in the middle of the classroom. That would have been the first time I experienced the other children pointing and squealing ‘eeeugh, what’s that?’ I know children don’t mean to be cruel. It’s natural for a child to be inquisitive and to question differences. But as the five-year-old child being pointed at, the child who doesn’t understand why they’re different, it has a lasting effect. Looking back, I wonder if this was a trigger for my lack of confidence. Growing up, I was painfully shy. I would hide behind my mother when anybody spoke to me. I wouldn’t go into a shop alone to avoid interacting with a stranger. Although I was a bit of a nerd and was always top of the class in every subject, if I was asked a question by the teacher, I would blush and stutter. Sometimes even cry.
When I was ten, my school introduced swimming lessons. By this time, I had endured five years of crippling self-consciousness. I’m pretty sure my school friends were used to it by then and didn’t even comment anymore, but I was so conscious of my hideous birthmark, that the thought of wearing a swimming costume in front of them was more than I could bear. For several months, I invented increasingly absurd excuses until the school finally contacted my parents. It was eventually decided that it was having a detrimental effect on my mental health and that I wouldn’t be forced to go. The result of this, was that I never learned to swim. When I was twelve, we went on a family holiday to Camber Sands and my cousin pushed me down a water slide. I panicked and spent what felt like several minutes, drowning. I was fished out to the sound of my mother screaming and I’ve been terrified of water ever since. It took several years to brave the shower as opposed to a bath. I couldn’t bear the water crashing onto my face.
My birthmark is what is known as a Port Wine Stain, which is a great description. It’s very, very dark red, almost purple in places, and very mottled. It starts on my chest, covers my right breast completely, continues around under my armpit and down my right side, covers the whole right side of my back from the shoulder blade to below the ribs, and just crosses the spine. In the grand scheme of things, it’s a small part of my body. As a small child, it felt vast.
My mother tried to tell me that I was ‘special’. My nana told me that being different was God’s way of showing you that you were one of his favourites. I didn’t believe them. My perception was that I was ugly and deformed.
At eleven, my mother told me the story of when I was born. It was 1975 and, although my parents had been together since the age of twelve and married for a year, they were still only 17 years old. As well as my birthmark, I was born with a deformed right foot. It was facing inwards and without treatment, I wouldn’t have been able to walk. For six months, my parents took me to weekly appointments at Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital in order to undergo intense physiotherapy. It was during this time that the doctors discussed the birthmark. In order to cover it, I would need months of incredibly painful skin grafts. They would slice small samples of skin from the tops of my legs, grow it in the lab, and re-attach it to cover the birthmark. The nipple would also have to be removed and re-attached. Following all this, there was no guarantee that the skin would graft successfully. My mother explained that they couldn’t bear to put me through it. After six months of physiotherapy, they decided that enough was enough. After discussing it with the family, they decided that a physical birthmark wouldn’t affect my life sufficiently enough to justify that level of pain and distress. They concluded that they would let me decide when I was old enough to do so. I was fuming. I couldn’t believe that they could have saved me from a lifetime of humiliation and that they chose not to. As it turns out, it wasn’t a lifetime of humiliation at all. But at the time, I was absolutely livid, and gave my mother hell.
As a teenager, I was very conscious not to wear low cut or low back tops. There is a part of the birthmark, at the top of my right breast, that just peaks outside of a scoop neck vest. In typical teenage fashion, the most popular remark was ‘Oh my God, is that a love bite?’ I tried to cover it with make-up, but it didn’t work. The pigmentation was too dark. Instead, I spent my early teenage years in high neck tops.
When I was sixteen, I met my first boyfriend and a year later, everything changed. The first time I undressed in front of him, I was terrified. I agonized over whether to pre-warn him. In the months prior, I worried that he would think it was disgusting. I would remember the children at school, pointing and asking questions, and I would imagine a scenario in which he would do the same. I needn’t have worried. It was like he hadn’t even noticed it and I was totally confused. I spent the next several months trying to find the courage to start a conversation. What if he thought it was disgusting but just couldn’t find the words to tell me? What if he was more and more repulsed every time he looked at it, and one day he would just leave me?
When I finally confronted the elephant in the room, it turned out there wasn’t one. I had spent so many years convincing myself that it was this huge, ugly thing that completely dominated my appearance, it never occurred to me that other people didn’t think the same.
We were watching TV. ‘Why have you never mentioned my birthmark?’ I asked without looking at him.
His reply was immediate, and he just carried on staring at the screen. ‘Why would I?’ he asked.
I didn’t know how to answer. My eyes welled up with tears and I stifled a sob.
He switched off the TV and looked at me. ‘Tan? Why are you getting upset babe?’
‘I don’t understand why you’ve never mentioned it. Is it because you think it’s repulsive and you don’t know how to tell me?’ I managed to whisper.
‘Oh my god, no! I can’t believe you think that. I’ve never mentioned it, because it doesn’t matter, and I didn’t want you to think it does’.
He took me by the arms and forced me to look at him. ‘Tanya, your birthmark is a part of you and that makes it beautiful. I love you. All of you. You div’.
He held me and I cried. I cried and I cried, and I cried. There was such a mixture of emotions that I just couldn’t stop. I was crying for seventeen years of self-inflicted torment. I was crying for the months I wasted worrying about this moment. But most of all, I was crying with relief. In all the years I had spent torturing myself, I had never asked anybody what they thought about my birthmark. It had never occurred to me to find out if my own distorted perception of myself, was what others saw too.
After that, it was a series of baby steps. I began wearing scoop neck t-shirts and gradually progressed to vest tops. Later that year, we went on holiday and, although I had to explain to him that I couldn’t swim, and why, I actually wore a bikini around the pool. I even went in the shallow end. My confidence was knocked slightly when, a week into the holiday, a guy asked me if I had been burned and I had to tell him that no, it was just a birthmark. The guy was mortified and could not apologise enough. He was so much more upset than I was. For the remainder of the holiday, every time I saw him around the pool, he apologised again. This was a huge turning point for me; I felt much worse for him, than I did for me.
My boyfriend was so proud whenever somebody commented on my birthmark and I laughed it off. He would kiss me and tell me I was beautiful. And I would believe him. We were together for five years, and during that time, he taught me to love myself. He taught me to be proud of who I am, and he taught me to embrace my individuality.
I learned to love my birthmark. Not to just to live with it. But to really love it. I learned to believe what my mother and my nana always tried telling me, that it made me unique and special. My confidence grew and by my mid-twenties, I was a supremely confident woman. Something that I never thought possible. I would wear low back dresses, vests and swimwear, and never feel the need to apologise or explain myself. When I married at 25, I didn’t choose a dress to hide it, I chose a dress to show it off, and I wore my birthmark with pride.
These days, I still get the odd comment, but not many. Or maybe I just stopped counting. One thing is for sure, I am eternally thankful that my parents turned down that operation. My birthmark played a huge part in making me the person I am today (with a little help). And that person is a strong, confident, beautiful, and totally unique, individual.