I grew up thinking that my birthmark made me repulsive. Setting and tracking habit goals helped me change that.
I have a huge birthmark on my left thigh. It’s large, brown, and hairy. It runs vertically from the bottom part of my butt to just about above the back of my knee. Cross-wise, it covers half of my upper leg. The shape is abstract and reminds me of my archipelagic country, the Philippines.
But unlike a beautiful archipelago, my birthmark isn’t a sight to behold. It never was. Growing up, I could never associate “beauty” with this slab of imperfection on my body. Nor could I remember accepting it as a unique part of me that makes me beautiful.
I did not love it either. I rejected it because people around me always made me feel that it was a source of embarrassment. When I was younger, I remember being told that I should be happy that at least my birthmark isn’t on my face. I was a child whose entire world revolved around my elders, so I interpreted that as though a part of my identity, my birthmark, is repulsive.
I know I’m not alone. Especially for those in an Asian household like me, appearances, no matter what form, matter. Grades, awards from school, and professional titles matter, but so does looking good, prim, and proper. I was constantly told to cover my legs. People will say mean things if they see my birthmark, they said, without realizing they were the first to do so.
Living in a tropical country did not help because everyone wears shorts all the time. And because I’m part of a culture that worships a woman’s legs, it’s also hard not to feel insecure. Like most who struggled with a negative self-image, I blamed myself. I was born unlucky, so I get to see this botched brown painting on my skin every day of my life.
For so many years, my birthmark was a symbol of repugnance, something to be detested. But now, it isn’t.
I got out of my private hell of self-hate in my mid-20s. Others with the same predicament can do it sooner or later, but it does not matter as long as we all walk free.
My freedom arrived after a painstaking fight to know and accept more of myself. But others may require more active outside help, maybe from a psychologist, to learn how to accept themselves more. Finally, I have built systems and relationships to prevent myself from reverting to my prison. Others will have to establish their own.
How I earned my freedom was nothing spectacular. It was a lengthy process of me moving back and forth between pledging to accept everything about myself one day to despising my body the next until all of my hard work finally led me to the former. I was an insecure person growing up, so it was tough to steel my nerves whenever I saw those beautiful girls with beautiful legs on Instagram. If you’re like me, just one trigger and all resolve gets flushed down the drain.
I realized that learning to accept myself is an endless fight, but not when I have bigger things to set my eyes on. I did not avoid my problem, however. As I grew older, I just learned to pick my battles more wisely. I chose not to continue making a battlefield out of my birthmark. As a woman in a patriarchal society, I realized that my body is the last thing I want to have to fight for.
So I started buying short pants and dresses and going out in them. I did not put a lot of thought into it; I just started using them to go to public places, visit my friends, and eat out. I treated my new fashion style as something natural and enjoyed it the best I could. Or I thought I did, at first.
The mental shift was not easy, as strangers always threw curious glances. Even my friends who had finally seen my birthmark for the first time looked at me with undeniable pity, thinking I’d gotten burned when I was younger. It was easy to go back to my comfort zone and wallow in embarrassment. I did for a while.
But I realized soon that that’s just the first stage. The first steps are always the most difficult, mind-wrecking, and fear-inducing part of the journey. No matter how much I forced myself to think short clothes are a natural part of my wardrobe, I was still afraid to be judged. If you have the same problem, you would be deathly afraid of judgment too. It is only natural.
What finally worked for me, and what I hope will work for you too, is to put systems in place to guide me to walk the talk of self-acceptance. After a lot of back and forth between trying to accept my body and hating my birthmark, I finally got the hang of it. I did not need more mind conditioning; I needed a tangible progress report to keep me going.
Notion, a note-taking app, became my best friend. There, I listed places I usually frequent: grocery stores, malls, my boyfriend’s house, and coffee shops. I also listed places I like but rarely visit: beaches, museums, amusement parks, and friends’ houses.
My old strategy was to force myself to wear shorts to at least one of these places per week. I changed this to simply counting the times I went to each instead, with a goal in mind. For the places I usually frequent, I put a goal of five. For those I don’t visit as often, I set a goal of wearing shorts whenever allowed. My timeline was for the latter half of 2019.
By setting quantitative goals, I was not only able to measure my progress, but I was also more motivated to reach them. The first I finished was visiting the grocery stores in my shorts. I remember feeling giddy at my 3rd, 4th, and then 5th grocery run and finally marking that goal as completed. The thought that people may look did not even cross my mind. My grocery run became a prelude to something marvelous, not dreadful.
It also helped me get reaccustomed to these places. The thought of visiting the malls in my shorts used to sound scary—but it didn’t when I had done it at least five times already. The act of visiting my boyfriend’s place in my shorts was frightening because of his family’s presence. But once I did, they saw my birthmark, politely did not ask about it, and moved on, making me feel that my birthmark did not change the status quo. Honestly, as my boyfriend assured me, it never will.
Going to all these places at a comfortable pace but still with a goal in mind also helped me manage my anxiety. If you’re like me, it is preferable to take things more slowly, not impulsively. Taking small steps is already exceptional and more sustainable. By not forcing myself to do all these scary new things on a tight deadline (and blaming myself whenever I don’t meet the deadline), freeing myself from my negative self-image happened slowly but surely.
Not meeting the set goals will happen. It is natural for ordinary events to unfold and hinder you from reaching your goals. But we continue tomorrow if not today. Again, slowly but surely. I remember when I did not want to visit coffee shops in my shorts. Unlike malls and grocery stores, I want to take my time in the coffee shops to maximize my purchase.
But I realized I am not comfortable exposing my birthmark in one place for extended periods. It scared me because I felt like I was on display, not just a random birthmark girl that passed by in the grocery.
I refused to go to coffee shops in my shorts for a while, but my friends had better ideas. I went to coffee shops with my friends or boyfriend, making me more comfortable and not prone to thinking I’m on display. I did the same in those other places I seldom visit. I did not go alone to the beach or amusement park—I had people with me who helped me enjoy the experience, rather than falling into thinking about my fears.
There seems to be a widespread belief that doing things X number of times will turn it into a habit. For my experiments, I did not stop at five. Before 2019 ended, I visited those places I frequent at least eight times each, in my short pants or dress. I could have increased that number, but the cold holiday season wasn’t appropriate for wearing shorts.
When 2020 began, I pledged to continue with my progress, albeit without writing it down anymore. I believed I already earned the confidence and finally wanted to make shorts feel natural, not experimental. Treating my past struggle with self-image behind me also aligned with my feminist agenda of being comfortable in my own skin.
Of course, I worried about the possibility that I would revert. What happens when my old fear comes back, and I suddenly feel like I don’t want to wear shorts? Maybe I still need to write things down and track my progress.
Turns out, I did not need to. Three things helped me keep my newfound confidence: my relationships, associations, and a new focus on bigger things in life. I asked my boyfriend and friends if I could ask them to empower me in my moments of weakness. My lovely tribe accepted and did so.
I also associated my birthmark with something lucky: money. I always felt that I’m fortunate with money and that my birthmark somehow has something to do with it. So why hide something that brings me good fortune?
I also found a role model for self-acceptance. Mimiyuuuh is a new local influencer known for being a happy ball of confidence and humor. I love his way of treasuring his imperfection as a unique part of him. His two front teeth have a smaller tooth wedged between them. However, he claims he will never change it.
By focusing on bigger things, I also used less energy listening to my inner critic and had more energy to make better use of my time. I started reviewing for my entrance exam in business school for my MBA degree, a goal I’ve always had.
I learned two valuable lessons from this experience. One is that nobody really cares about my birthmark. Strangers saw it and moved on with their lives. People I know did the same.
I also learned to forgive. I know no one from my childhood will ever apologize for contributing to my negative self-image; they’ve already forgotten about it. So rather than blaming my past, I forgave them and focused on the present.
All these are what worked for me. Tracking my successful trips in public was the one system that allowed me to break free from my long overdue childhood trauma.
You may have the same body insecurity but have different circumstances. Still, my experience may help you carve out your own route to freedom. The most important thing is to get started and to be consistent with your progress. Taking things one step at a time doesn’t hurt, and you don’t have to be alone. Take your friends and loved ones on your journey, as long as they give you their permission.
A future where you don’t have to make a battlefield out of your body will come. Again, slowly but surely.