‘Nature gave me these tattoos’: Meet the girl whose entire body is covered in birthmarks
Someone once asked ‘did you go through a muddy puddle?’
Around one in 50,000 people are born with a rare skin condition called Congenital Melanocytic Naevus. Leeds Medical student, Gemma, is one of them, with visible birthmarks all over her body. While it used to bother her, now she’s 21 and quite simply, doesn’t give a fuck what anyone thinks about it. This is her story:
How often do people ask you what is wrong with your skin?
To be honest not all that often, probably a handful of times a year, and usually by people that have got to know me and out of curiosity want to know what it is and the effects it has on me.
When you were younger how did other kids treat you?
When I was younger occasionally other kids wouldn’t understand. For example someone once asked me, “did you go through a muddy puddle?” and another asked, “do you have galaxy bar on you?” I was also once asked why I had such stupid tattoos. When I was 14 I heard someone say, “that girl has face AIDs”, which obviously upset me. But the thing I’ve noticed most is the way that people stared at me when I walked past them.
Depending on the day, I could react by just giving them a big exaggerated grin, other times I’d stare back at them. Gawping can be pretty rude but there’s not much I can do about it. At Fresher’s week recently in Leeds, a drunk person asked me if I’d spilled tea on myself and if I was OK.
How have you learnt to deal with it?
As a child I have always been told I was different and special. My parents taught me to tell people “this was just how I was born” and to move onto a different topic of conversation. I think people only treat you differently when you act like it affects you. If you show people that it doesn’t bother you, like I didn’t when I was young, then people just go along with that. People are very reactive to how you react and how you express yourself.
If you are in that phase in your life with a low self-esteem and acting in a way that draws attention to the fact that you are different in a negative way, then people are going to respond to that in a negative way. But to be able to go from that and break through to the other side and feel good about yourself can be quite difficult for some people and it’s only been in the last couple of years that I’ve really got to that stage.
Have you found it difficult at times, for example, in the summer on the beach in a bikini?
After years of being worried about showing my birthmarks, at 18 I decided I was fed up of being so hot in the summer from covering up. I though “this is stupid, I don’t need to act like this” and so I booked a beach holiday with some friends in Spain and I put a bikini on for the first time in ages and nobody said anything.
I’d gone with a load of teenage boys and I was surprised that nobody reacted strangely. It was a realisation that I can do this. I thought I might even be able to get a tan! I was more concerned about how pale I was, as all the Spaniards jokily called me “blanquita!”. I now love travelling and going to the beach.
Have you been in any awkward situations with a boy and his reaction?
I like to call my skin condition a “jerk deterrent” because it means I’m hopefully not going to be with anyone superficial. Although a boy that used to fancy me once shouted “Dalmatian girl!” as an insult when he was angry. I never spoke to him again. At one time I used to be quite nervous about how I looked and felt I had to warn the boy before undressing. But they would just say, “don’t be stupid Gemma, it really doesn’t matter, I don’t care”.
Going to an all-girls school made me worry I would never find a boyfriend, but when I moved to a mixed school I had a constant stream of boys. I now have a boyfriend, Matt, who is really supportive and sometimes lovingly calls me “chocolate chips”. He says my birthmark is pretty and has artistic qualities to it.
Have your birthmarks affected your confidence or self esteem?
When I was a teenager it used to affect my choice of clothing and the activities I did. I used to do dance at school and would get nervous about what costumes they would choose for the shows in case I’d reveal too much of my birthmark. Before my teens I used to do trampolining and gymnastics and then stopped when I started to feel self -conscious. I started to care and wore scarves on hot days, and if my friends invited me to go swimming I’d make up an excuse not to go. But I think I just felt self-conscious in the same way other friends wouldn’t like their greasy hair or spotty skin or being fat.
My insecurity was just a bit different. Now I’m a lot better, but I still don’t like tying my hair up. When I’m with my boyfriend he encourages me to tie it up to get used to it. Admittedly I avoid wearing low cut tops too, but I’m getting more comfortable doing it. A big turning point was spending about five days in Paris last summer at a jazz festival. So many people complimented me and offered to buy me drinks. I think it moved them to see someone who you might expect to have self- image problems actually just having fun. But I’m not trying to show off that I’m different though, I’m just trying to go about my life normally.
Do any models that have the same type of skin ‘uniqueness’ inspire you?
Yes, a girl from Ukraine called Yulianna Yussef has an inspirational Instagram. She used to be bullied as a child but then worked as an attractive yacht hostess when she was older. She is beautiful. We actually have similar markings except that her main birthmark goes round her back whereas mine goes round my front. She uses the “bare my birthmark” hashtag so I’ve started doing the same with my own photos.
After receiving so many messages from families with children of similar conditions she decided to quit her job and dedicate her time to giving advice and motivating people, which I think is really brave. She gets mixed reactions though, as some articles written about her receive mean and sometimes patronising comments.
If you could have it surgically removed, would you?
For vanity reasons, no. It has formed part of my identity. However, from when I was born until I was two years old I had about 25 operations to remove some of my birthmarks because doctors told us it was dangerous with a high chance of me getting skin cancer. So I had a lot of trauma when I was little, and even had to have a blood transfusion. Sadly since then they realised that surgery doesn’t help and in fact could increase the risk of Melanoma. Obviously at the time my parents thought it was the best thing, as that was what they were told.
What would you say to other people with birthmarks?
Michelle Obama did a speech that I watched recently in which she said that people who overcome adversity are stronger people. Having this skin condition could have caused me this adversity if I’d let it do that, but choosing not to has helped me shape my personality and give me more confidence to make the most of my opportunities. So to everyone out there with birthmarks, I’d say bare your birthmark, and embrace it, because nature gave you these tattoos.