Dear Lily June,
They say a leopard can’t shed his spots. And why would he? The speckled skin a leopard slinks around in is part of what makes him beautiful. Women (and men, to be fair) are often not taught to be proud of their marks in the same way, and culturally, you may be expected to see certain parts of you–pocks, pimples, bumps, bruises, scars, stretchmarks, moles, blemishes–as flaws and imperfections. But I found myself asking someone recently what it would be like if we didn’t live that way: if we saw each part of our bodies as equally essential and didn’t feel the need to cover up these markings, but rather could embrace them as souvenirs of our life experiences?
Thinking that way, I want to tell you a bit about the markings on your family member’s bodies, to let you know that like a leopard cub to its leap (isn’t that an amazing word to describe a pack of leopards?), the future of your skin comes from somewhere. It is a part of who you are and a part of your legacy.
On Freckles & Cherry Angiomas
Though she hated them herself when she was a kid, your Grandma Raelyn’s freckles were always a source of wonder to me. She had fair skin, and when she’d go out in the sun, her freckles would seem to pop out in 3D or blur into a blotch like a batch of cookies that had been cooked too close together. She hated going out in the sun for just that reason, but to me, it represented the magic of my mother’s face.
Of course, she’d also burn fairly easily, so she didn’t expose her arms and back to sunlight often, but when she did, she had a second source of interest to my childhood heart: her cherry angiomas. They looked, to me, like freckles made of blood, and I thought every part of her skin was beautiful. When I got pregnant, I didn’t pick up her freckles, but I did get her skin’s red dots, sprouting across my arms and over my extended belly.
My mother told me then, when I told her how I used to admire her spots, that the “cherries” she couldn’t stand were just broken capillaries, risen to the surface of her epidermis. She said she hated the freckles, too, until Davy Jones, a popular musician when she was a kid, had said on television that he thought girls with freckles were cute. Then and only then did she spy some value to them. It doesn’t look like you or I got the gene for the freckles (though I don’t know if, as your skin develops, you might later inherit them), but be wary: You may have some cherry picking in your future! I was surprised that I did.
On Moles, Scars & the Adventures of Spot
I feel like it was around the time I hit puberty–and started realizing that I wouldn’t be the only one to ever see the skin I kept under my clothes–that I started to notice a strange constellation was growing across my chest. I had a collection of moles that must have arisen as a result of hormonal changes in my body (I got even more when I was pregnant with you, so that’s why that’s my guess).
Two moles, though, seemed to have always been with me–one on my right arm (on the inside of my elbow) and one on the top of my right foot. The one on my arm, when I was around nine or so, started changing in size and shape (the sign that your spot can be dangerous), so I had to go to a dermatologist to get it cut off. It didn’t hurt, little Lily, so don’t worry if you go through the same. They put in stitches that were supposed to dissolve (but didn’t!), and here’s the best part–the healing scar got me out of the class I detested most: gym! In fear the school would be held liable if I ripped a stitch, I got instead a free pass to sit on the bleachers and read. I milked it for a month or so, and then had to get right back into my uniform and start huffing and puffing again. But what a beautiful vacation my mole had bought me. I still look at the scar where it used to be fondly.
The mole on my foot was a different story entirely; it’s still there and likely always will be. When I was a kid and my feet were much smaller, I hated it. Open-toed shoes would only serve to display my deformity, I was certain, so I tucked it up into “tennies,” and didn’t give it much thought. But my mother loved seeing it and she’d hold my foot at night to tell me stories about it. She gave it a name, Spot, like the dog in the classic readers of her childhood (like See Spot Run), and she’d make up adventures my mole had had during the day when I couldn’t see it. She would talk to Spot, and though now that all seems a little absurd and bizarre to say, she gave me a reason to love it.
I feel the same way now about two matching moles your father has, one on his neck and one on his calf, near his ankle. They’re like a match set, two moles that set off the boundaries of his body–practically head to toe–and I used to, early in our relationship, find excuses to kiss them.
On Sebaceous Cysts
In lieu of a picture of sebaceous cysts–a bump found under the skin on parts of your father’s body–I’ve put a picture of beautiful rolling hills. Why, Lily? Because this is how I see your father–like a landscape of skin that, in places, has some raised elevation. He sees his sebaceous cysts, which he inherited from his own mother, your Granny Gramma Allison, as something to be ashamed of.
It doesn’t matter, it seems, how many times and ways I’ve tried to convince him that these barely noticeable marks are what make him genuine. They are part of the unique territory of his body and so, like every other inch of him, I love them. I used to try to kiss or touch the one on his stomach before we’d go to bed each night, but it just made him too self-conscious. (If he reads this post, which I’ve made public, he’ll probably want to kill me.) But I’ll tell him this as I hope to one day tell you: No part of your body is wrong, and each part is loved by me more than you can imagine. Should you develop these same cysts someday, Lily (they are, after all, hereditary), I hope you are able to embrace them.
On Stretchmarks & Deep Pores & Acne
All things being even, there are parts of my flesh I’m not exactly attracted to myself, so I’ll share those with you in deference to your dad. When I was a teenager, I started to sport stretchmarks along my thighs and pimples across my face. These are very difficult things to see, now, in my thirties, as anything less than flaws, so I’m trying to look at them more metaphorically these days, like my body is a map, and these are just ways to orient yourself along the path. Each pock scar is a landmark; each stretchmark like a river dividing the land into a time before I grew curves or, better, you.
My pores are deep, like my mother’s, but they remind me of a line in one of my favorite romantic comedy movies, The Truth about Cats and Dogs (a movie about how love changes the way you see beauty). In the film, the character played by Janeane Garofalo, is accosted by a makeup woman in a mall, trying to sell her a pore minimizer. She says,
“I’d like a pore maximizer if you have one. Sometimes you just wanna put loose change somewhere, or keys.”
In other words, Lily, I hope that towards what you don’t love about your skin, you’ll have a sense of imagination or, at the very least, a sense of humor.
On Birthmarks: Cafe au Lait Spots and Hemangiomas
When you were first born, your dad and I didn’t think you had a spot on you. As time went on, though, you developed a circle of little red dots on your back that were disconcerting. Could that ring of dots be a sign of infection? Sickness? Ring worm? Proof that fairies danced across your back as you were born, sprinkling their magic into you? Your dad and I just didn’t know, so we asked the pediatrician, and he used a term we’d never heard before: Hemangioma.
It sounded like an exotic island, but all it really means, Lily, is that you’ll have this mark on your back, which you’ll likely never even see, as a result of some extra blood vessels working too hard in your infancy. It’s technically (I know, scary) a tumor, but it’s totally benign, and first it grew to look like the rare steak you see above, and eventually it will shrivel and disappear (most likely by the time you turn five). Until then, it remains one of my favorite parts of you because it’s all your own, something neither your dad or I had, and like a little red plant on your back, it’s something we can watch grow.
My birthmark is a classic cafe au lait spot, named after its color with the French expression for coffee with milk in it, and it’s remained for the entirety of my life. You can barely see it unless you know where it is on the bottom of my right thumb, but it’s a reminder that I should take every mark of my body, and use them to teach you how to love yourself, Lily. You see, daughter mine, when I hold it upside down, it’s in the shape of a heart. (Of course, like everything else in my life, I could just be reading way too much into this. Maybe it was just the universe’s sign that I’d one day love coffee.)
- “Leopard in the Colchester Zoo” by Keven Law – originally posted to Flickr as Those damn Monkeys…. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Leopard_in_the_Colchester_Zoo.jpg#/media/File:Leopard_in_the_Colchester_Zoo.jpg
- “Freckles black and white” by Paigedemaio – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Freckles_black_and_white.jpg#/media/File:Freckles_black_and_white.jpg
- “Clouds over hills” by vsz/Victor Szalvay, profile – Clouds over hills. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Clouds_over_hills.jpg#/media/File:Clouds_over_hills.jpg
- “Paris printable tourist attractions map” by Tripomatic.com – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Paris_printable_tourist_attractions_map.jpg#/media/File:Paris_printable_tourist_attractions_map.jpg
- “Capillary haemangioma” by User:Zeimusu – Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Capillary_haemangioma.jpg#/media/File:Capillary_haemangioma.jpg
- “CALSpot” by T Gnaevus Faber – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:CALSpot.jpg#/media/File:CALSpot.jpg