What learning to love my birthmark has taught me about confidence
Ahead of International Birthmark Awareness Day tomorrow, Hannah Bullimore shares how to commit to loving the skin you're in.
By Hannah Bullimore
Confidence is a funny thing. Each of us finds it in different places: our ability to feel heard; our jobs; our friends; how we feel about our appearance; how valued we feel by the people around us.
We all face different challenges to our confidence and one challenge I have only recently learned to overcome is my birthmark.
The 15th of May is International Birthmark Awareness Day and while I know it can feel as though we are faced with a constant deluge of International Days of Just-About-Everything, this was one I really wanted to celebrate. For years, I have felt ashamed of my birthmark which stretches up my left hand and arm and onto my shoulder blade. But as I approach my 30th, birthday I have realised I am done with feeling embarrassed about something I have no control over.
As a child, it is fair to say that I hated my birthmark despite my family’s best efforts to reassure me. After all, kids can be unkind. And to be honest, so can adults.
As recently as just a few weeks ago a stranger asked me if I knew my birthmark could be removed. I told her I did, but that I wasn’t bothered.
‘Really? I would be.’
The comment almost put a dampener on my night, but after a pep talk from my sister-in-law, I was able to shake off my embarrassment. A few years ago, there would have been tears and I would have experienced a sickening feeling of shame for days.
In the last year I have worked hard to feel more comfortable in my own skin. Of course, this is not just to do with my birthmark and I hope that anyone reading this can take heart from what I have learned about confidence.
What I have realised is that not everyone needs to like my birthmark. But there are some who even find it beautiful – and most days I am one of them.
So, there will be no more sweating through yoga in a long sleeved shirt out of embarrassment as I used to at 20, there’ll be no more worrying if a guy will think my birthmark is gross, and there will be no more making self-deprecating jokes to try and get in there first.
Instead, I am committing to loving the skin that I’m in. After all, this body – all our bodies – won’t last forever. And we all deserve to enjoy being exactly who we are.
What is a birthmark?
Birthmarks come in many forms, colours and shapes. For some, they fade in the first weeks or months after birth, while for others it takes years or, like me, they never fade.
My birthmark is a port wine stain, which just means there is a unique formation of tiny blood vessels in the skin. My birthmark is pretty noticeable because it ranges between a deep pink and purple, depending on how warm or cold I am. As I am really pale, the marks stand out quite vividly. I also think that because they’re on my hand and arm, not my face, people feel as though they can mention them or comment on them and it shouldn’t bother me.
Before Building My Confidence
As a teenager, I was very self-conscious of my birthmark and would always choose long sleeves over short. Even into my early 20s I used to dread my birthmarks being mentioned. On nights out or when working in retail I would often have strangers and customers asking me about what they were.
On one particularly horrific date a few years ago, a guy made some awful comments that don’t need sharing here. Those comments took me months to move on from and he is still infamous amongst my friends.
All of this chipped away at my confidence and I think the reason I would take comments like this to heart was because I was bullied at school and always felt a bit different. I didn’t realise that most people at that age feel a little odd compared to the rest of their peers. I am sure that most people reading this will have something that they have felt self-conscious over or a comment that has stuck with them since they were young.
Even as recently as two years ago, when I started teaching, I can remember a learner asking me if the marks were a birthmark. I felt embarrassed but tried to brush it off. She’ll always stick in my mind because she grinned and said ‘I think they’re the coolest thing ever’ and I realised that I always assume people are thinking negatively of my birthmarks but that isn’t the case.
Curiosity and wanting to learn is such a positive thing yet whenever I am asked about my birthmarks I assume it’s because people find them ugly.
Even in situations where I have been with someone I really care about, I can assume they’re asking because they find them unseemly. Yet, there have been times I’ve been told they’re beautiful. Funny how we always hang on to the negative comments, rather than the positive.
Growing In Confidence
Working as a teacher has definitely taught me “the fake it ’til you make it” approach to confidence. The last thing you want a room of teenagers to know is that you’re unnerved. So you bat back the banter, you brush off the insults and you wait out the noise.
Aren’t those lessons we can all take into everyday life?
Alongside my growing confidence at work, I have made a conscious effort since the pandemic to say “yes” to more things and to put myself out there. Nights out, dating, solo hikes, paddle boarding, solo holidays. A whole load of things that would once have made me anxious are now an exciting possibility.
While there have been times saying “yes” has led to less than positive outcomes, for the most part trying new things has taught me that I am capable of so much. And, most people are good.
An important lesson that has helped me overcome my own self-consciousness (and by “overcome” I mean I am able to ignore that little anxious voice most of the time), is that every single person has their own stuff. They have their own worries, their own fear, their own neuroses. They are worried about that. For the most part, they are completely uninterested in whether I can stand up on a paddle board, hold dancer pose or whether I dance like an absolute idiot in Revolucion de Cuba on a Friday night.
And if they are looking, they are usually laughing along with you.
Comments about my birthmark? Nine times out of ten they come from curiosity and with a lack of thought that they might be triggering rather than actively wanting to be unkind. And if they are coming from a place of wanting to be unkind, then why would I care what they think anyway?!
Now that rant is over, here are some top tips to help anyone and everyone improve their confidence:
- Surround yourself with people who lift you up. And let them. Whether it be friends, family, colleagues, it doesn’t matter – just listen when you receive a compliment and let yourself believe it.
- Find something that makes you feel good in your body. For me, yoga has hugely lifted my confidence, because it has not only made me feel good in my body, but also (because I’ve spent a lot of years practicing) it’s something I can honestly say I’m good at, too. I can turn up to most classes and feel comfortable. So whether it’s yoga, dancing, running, a book group, a stitch and bitch, find your niche and revel in enjoying your own ability at whatever hobby you have.
- Dress for you. Over the years I have realised the power of a nice outfit and a bit of makeup. Now this might not apply to everyone, but if I’m in a slump (physically tired or mentally anxious), I find that dressing up a little does wonders to lift my mood and boost my confidence.
- Plan something. Whether it’s a goal for your career, a plan for a holiday or just a girls night in, having something to look forward to will give you something to focus on. I have found filling my diary has really helped me to feel more confident as I feel as though my time is more valuable.
A big change that I have recently made is accepting compliments.
One of my manager’s at work made me admit, out loud, that I am a good teacher. There is something programmed in my brain – whether because I’m British or female or what – I don’t know, but I have always cringed a little at taking ownership of compliments.
However, it is an important skill to be able to recognise your own worth and acknowledge what makes you unique. From there, confidence will flow.