"Witch!" – A Cultural History of Birthmarks Courtney Barnett

About 80% of people are born with some form of birthmark, which the cheeky mistress that is science likes to explain as the accumulation of blood vessels below the skin surface or an abnormal development of pigment cells. Parents who like to rely on cute explanations for everything about their babies like to call them angel kisses, stork bites and any other creepy pairs of words that could also describe soap.  Some marks fade over time while others can take over the majority of someone’s body, but oftentimes they are fun and unique traits specific to you as a person.

I’m a part of an even smaller percentage of people with such skin abnormalities, having been born with a penny-sized birthmark located between my right eye and brow. My parents, like any normal ones would with a baby with puppy spots, stressed about what to do about it throughout my first couple of years. Then they realized that when it came to dealing with permanent stuff on my face, a benign skin mutation would inevitably be way cooler than a scar. Hooray, character!

It made grade school a little weird, like any quirk would, and moving to a new high school as a teen I had to experience some “what’s the deal with the girl with the mole on her face?” because kids are silly and cruel and hey, it was unusual. Fortunately, the birthmark was the least weird thing about me during those years. The taunts were few and far between then, but increased as an adult because grown women are even crueler and find more things to get all grumpy about.  Even living in Los Angeles I’ve experienced a spike in comments on it, as if it pops out more to people when they realize that it certainly couldn’t be TV-friendly. Oh, Hollywood, you fickle beast.

While it joyously kills me that I’ll probably never be asked to join the cast of The Bachelor, I’m not here to complain at all that having a prominent birthmark has been tough or anything. I’m actually pretty thankful for it, and not just because of the free drinks I’ve gotten at bars from guys who felt bad about telling me I had makeup smeared on my face. I love the significance that no one else I pass on the street will have the same kind of thing I do, and in a world of 7 billion people, it’s nice to have those simple reassurances of individualism.

What’s even more fascinating, and something that I had no idea about until recently, are the vast beliefs of many cultures and the symbolism birthmarks hold. While there obviously can be no scientific evidence that a birthmark can affect anything about the kind of person you are, your level of intelligence, or whether or not you’re some kind of demon spawn, reading the different perspectives is a fun way to make you feel like you’ve got some sort of untapped Buffy or Potter powers.

To any fellow speckled readers, here’s some of the varieties or superstitions:

Reincarnation

Probably one of the most interesting beliefs, Dr. Ian Stevenson, head of the Department of Psychiatric Medicine at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, has researched the possibility of birthmarks representing a fatality in a past life. Yep. And you were worried about that ketchup stain from last week coming out. In one case, he studied a young boy from India who had birthmarks all over his chest and claimed to remember the life of a man named Maha Ram. When the identity of Maha Ram was uncovered, it was found that he had died from close range shots in the chest. Chills!

When I found this out, I went a good week trying to convince people I was the reincarnation of a French Revolutionary that had been shot in the head, citing my croissant addiction and sleep-screaming, “Vive La Revolucion!” as valid proof. Some people just have no imagination, guys.

Read more about Dr. Stevenson’s research here.

Chinese Folklore

The Ancient Chinese believed that the very placement of a birthmark holds a specific meaning or personality trait, especially if on the face. For example, moles under the eyebrow or on the forehead represent intelligence, leadership, and creativity, while those by or on the nose are said to be negative, suggesting gambling and overzealous flirting. Don’t worry if the placement of your mole suggests your floozy potential, having it removed is also thought to alter your destiny. Hmm, I wonder if it works the other way around. Can destiny be fooled by a Sharpie?

If you want to know what your beauty mark says about you, check out this detailed diagram. Like a treasure map for your mug!

Spanish, Italian, and Arabic Folklore

The word for birthmark in all three languages, voglie, antojos, and wiham, translates to “wishes,” as they believed to represent unsatisfied wishes of a mother during pregnancy. Yeesh, talk about some heavy guilt. I’m sorry that you had to carry me for nine months and that Dad couldn’t make it to Albertson’s often enough for your ice cream tacos, Mother! You know he tried!

Other assumptions include that the mother was either startled during pregnancy, resulting in a birthmark, looking at a crescent moon, eating red foods, or that strong emotions felt by the pregnant woman caused the imprinting of a mark. If that’s the case, who are these 20% of people without birthmarks whose mothers clearly had a stress-free time growing another person inside them?

Witches’ Mark

Be glad you’re finding this out now and not during 17th century witch-hunts. While Monty Python said that a witch weighs the same as a duck, early modern England believed that birthmarks were a more accurate giveaway of a woman’s association with the devil. Moles found in discreet places, like the inner eyelids or underarms, were certain to prove that a gal had been using her broom for more than just sweeping her cottage. Fortunately, the hunt for witches’ marks had disappeared by 1700, but has since reappeared in the form of an Austin-based metal band if anyone still uses MySpace.

Omens

Any of you have a birthmark on your right arm? Congratulations, you will have prosperity in life! Too bad for ones on the left, which are believed to suggest financial struggle throughout your days. How about the feet? Spots on the right foot mean lots of traveling, while one on the left signifies intellectual ability. If you have them on both, you’re probably the kind of savvy tourist I’d like to vacation with at some point because I’m a horrible planner.

Tell Me I’m Special!

While all of these beliefs can vastly contradict each other, it’s wildly entertaining to put all of the pieces together and look at your imperfections as a sort of human vision board. I like to look at having  birthmarks as a secret code for “I am MAJESTIC!”  Much smoother than wearing the words on a T-shirt. So, to those of you who relate to this post, might I suggest giving that cute little melanin mutation a rub for good luck before job interviews or awkward social events. After-all, you were a High Priestess in your previous life, but it’s not their fault they don’t know that.

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  1. While I have a variety of freckles, small moles, and birth marks, my absolute favorite is the one in my eye. Yup, IN MY EYE! I have blue eyes, but one has a splotch of brown that takes up about 1/4 of my iris, sort of like a pie slice. It’s called sectoral heterochromia. It’s silly, but it makes me feel unique.

  2. I too am majestic! I have a birthmark on my lower back on the right side and I have always been very fond of it. My Dr and Mother want me to remove it but I refuse! It isn’t hurting me in any way and it makes me feel special because know one else in my family has one. My parents have no idea how I have one. Its like my own special secret.

  3. I’m MAJESTIC too LOL and I will be having prosperity throughout my life since my birthmark is on my right arm LOL. This article is awesome …love it!

  4. I have two I have one on my left arm that looks like a tear drop and one on my leg that is hardly ever seen because it’s always covered by clothing

  5. I LOVE this article!!!

    I have a rather large group of birthmarks on my right arm. I like the idea this could mean prosperity. I’ve also been told the stories about it being linked to mother’s cravings whilst pregnant. On questioning my mother she said it was rubbish! I’ve also been told about the birthmark linking you to a past life and a friend came up with the story that I was attacked by a lion or tiger and the birthmarks on my arm are remnants of the claw marks.

    Who really knows right!?! But it is fun to wonder!

  6. My husband has a mole beneath his mouth that I totally forgot about until my daughter would push it like a button. He makes silly faces each time she “pushed” it. And I think, according to your lovely research that since I have a birthmark on both hands, I will always have just enough to have a happy life.

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