Living with a birthmark: Why I’m proud to have a large port wine stain
- Credit: Charlotte Bond
ANDREW PAPWORTH describes how he is proud to call his large port wine stain birthmark on his left arm, chest, back and hands part of his identity - despite some insensitive comments.
Since birth, I have something which makes me appear a little different from everyone else.
Like just 0.3% of the population, I have a type of vascular birthmark called a port wine stain - or a capillary malformation, to give it its scientific name.
Mine is perhaps even more unusual still, due to its deep red/purple colour and size - it stretches along the entire length of my left arm and hand, up to my chest and back. There are also patches on my right hand and arm.
Throughout my life I've fielded questions and, sadly, the odd insensitive remark about what it is, why I have it and the effect it has on my life.
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Some have amused me but they've never really bothered me. Most questions tend to come from children and younger people, who perhaps have never have come across a large birthmark before.
However I still get questions from adults, such as: what's wrong with your arm? Is it a burn? Does it hurt? Why does it change colour?
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Are you treated differently if you have a birthmark?
I should say from the outset that I don't wish this article to sound like I've been fighting a daily battle against discrimination.
The majority of people don't seem to notice it, nor treat me differently. Many of those who do ask questions don't mean to offend but genuinely don't know what it is.
I don't make any efforts to hide my birthmark or put it on show. Most days, I don't give it a second's thought. I've never written about it before and this article is probably the most thought I've ever given it.
While a small number of birthmarks are known to cause medical complications, mine has no effect on my life. The only difference for me is that I have to take greater care around sharp objects, because birthmarks bleed more heavily when cut.
I like to think most people just accept my birthmark for what it is. Hopefully, they do.
'An ugly, hidden prejudice'
However from time to time, I have come across jokes and insensitive remarks about my birthmark made behind my back. And when you hear those, it is like an ugly, hidden prejudice coming out.
I suspect there are more unflattering comments made out of my earshot which I've never even been aware of.
If that's the case, I don't take it personally. Instead, I feel sorry for those who have such a narrow view of the world that they can't accept someone who is a little bit different.
However others with birthmarks, quite understandably, find those types of comments more hurtful.
When working in a shop as a teenager, I once met a customer who had a birthmark very similar to mine along the entire length of his arm.
I was struck by how he walked around with one sleeve rolled up in an act of defiance. It was his way of standing up to those who treated him differently.
While my port wine stain is already very prominent, I'm sometimes asked if I would feel differently if my birthmark was on my face.
I honestly don't feel I would. In the same way others think nothing of their hair or skin colour, to me my birthmark is just normal. I'm sure it'd be the same if it was elsewhere on my body.
Treatment or not?
However for some people the stigma of having a birthmark becomes so great, they choose to have it removed. Suffolk popstar Ed Sheeran famously had a port wine stain on his face removed when he was a child.
It was a question I myself faced at a very young age, when I was due to have laser treatment at Birmingham Children's Hospital at the age of seven.
Indeed, I got very close to having the treatment. My parents had squared the fact that I would be having regular time off school to make the journey from near Barrow-in-Furness in Cumbria, where we were living at the time. I told my friends there were days I wouldn't be around.
But the night before I was due to go for my first appointment, I decided I really didn't want to go. As well as to wanting to miss school, which I enjoyed, I was not ready to lose something which was - and still is - and important part of me.
Having stayed awake at night worrying, I steeled myself to make one hell of a fuss the next morning. I was prepared to scream and shout for the entire three-hour journey to the hospital if I had to.
But, much to my relief, when I told my mother that I didn't want to go, she phoned the hospital straight away and told them I wasn't coming. I went off to school and never thought about it again.
Some people with birthmarks decide they do want them removed. That is perfectly fine - people should be free to decide how they want their bodies to look.
But if anyone does make that decision, it should because it is their choice - not because they feel pressured by others in society to look a certain way.
I am proud to have a birthmark and call it part of my identity. I like to think most people accept that. But we still need to educate others, so everybody is as accepting of all birthmarks as I am of mine.
Birthmarks are coloured marks which appear on the skin. It is not known what causes them.
There are two main types - vascular birthmarks, which are often red/purple and caused abnormal blood vessels nor under the skin, and pigmented birthmarks, caused by clusters of blood cells.
Many birthmarks are harmless but a small can cause medical complications.
For those who decide to have their birthmarks removed, laser treatment is available at a number of hospitals across the UK - although it works better with younger children than it does adults.
There is more medical information about birthmarks on the NHS website.
The Birthmark Support Group aims to provide help and advice for anyone with a birthmark, as well as their family and friends. Visit its website here.