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Despite the anesthesia and heavy numbing ointment, the laser's bite still reached me, penetrating through layers of skin around my eyeball like fire. Little red sparks exploded across the black screen of the protective shield secured across my sclera. With each rhythmic zap, prompted by the accelerating hum of the laser, a queasy stench of smoked flesh — mine — wafted through my nostrils. Over nine months of painful cosmetic treatments awaited.
Several years ago, a dermatologist diagnosed me with Nevus of Ota, an overproduction of melanin pigmentation in and around my left eyeball. Blue-gray, the slate color of bruises, this unsightly imperfection encircled the entirety of my socket without the inflammation of a real black eye. Since its emergence in puberty, I'd seen various doctors, who dismissed the strange blemish as a result of "bad allergies" or "poor sleep," until finally settling upon the vague but innocuous determination of an ever-darkening birthmark. In the realm of physical deformities, it was perceived as nothing. I was advised to get some thick makeup, put on my big girl panties, and get over it. So I did. But then the spot continued to darken, and the public harassment I faced increased tenfold.
Like many women, I was already used to catcalls from strangers. And like many women, I tried to ignore and deflect such comments with indifference, however feigned. But as I left adolescence, my Nevus of Ota continued to darken, appearing more and more like a bruise, and those unwanted sexual remarks took on a harsher tone.
Growing up, I was the bullied kid, relentlessly mocked over my appearance. There was a standard of American beauty that I failed to measure up to, be it issues with my weight or the shape of my nose. I grew immune to the insults, and a part of me dismissed others who got nose jobs and cosmetic work done just to look sexier. Why should I care what others thought of some stupid birthmark?
"It gives you character," a friend said.
During the last semester of college, the dean called me into his office to explain that someone had expressed concern over my well-being. He gestured in a circular motion over one of his eyes to further communicate the issue.
"Are you sure there's nothing wrong? No trouble with any boyfriends?" he said.
I smiled and shook my head, ignoring the shame burning up my insides. He squinted hard at me, disbelieving. Once again, there was something unacceptable about my looks. I needed to be called out and questioned.
Get over it, I thought. Still, I knuckled down on an already extensive search for the perfect concealer, though nothing seemed to work.
Some years after college, I moved to a new city and began graduate school. Not long after settling into my new neighborhood, I was cornered by a woman in a post office who seemed adamant, even hostile, about me being in an abusive relationship. I politely but firmly replied that I was not.
Over the next few years, similar experiences occurred where I was met with comments and accusations, so often edged with an aggressive, disconcerting concern. I was approached at work, at professional conferences and writing residencies, in the grocery store, on the street. Again and again, it was always the same:
"What happened to your face?"
"Are you OK? Are you sure you're OK?"
"Looks like your boyfriend's been beating on you."
The last comment sunk its teeth into me hard. I thought of a hairdresser I'd seen in high school, whose talent I admired. Once, when I arrived for an appointment, I noticed a prominent bruise above her right cheekbone. We exchanged brief greetings, but it was obvious from the second I sat in her salon chair that she was in no mood for talking. Still, I wondered if I should say something. Would saying anything make any difference at all? I kept quiet as she reshaped my hair, gazing only in the mirror to study the graceful way her hands moved with the scissors and comb. Afterwards, I thanked and tipped her — as always, she'd done a great job — and she bobbed her head at me without remark.
I left the salon feeling like a coward. I wanted to comfort this woman in some capacity, but doing so only threatened to humiliate her. Instead, I said nothing out of fear.
In the end, I sought out cosmetic surgery because of that same fear. My Nevus of Ota triggered a profound discomfort in others, and I became afraid of the consequences of their fear. More than enduring further harassment, I feared the subtle discrimination that might be projected upon me during job interviews or at professional events. Would people immediately assume that I was too troubled to hold down a job? That my perceived drama might contaminate them somehow? The judgment and stigma is always there, even if it doesn't belong to you.
"You really don't need laser surgery, but let's play it safe," the dermatologist said before I started treatment. About four percent of Nevus of Ota cases result in intraocular melanoma, along with an increased threat of glaucoma. Because of the cancer risk, my health insurance covered it. The dermatologist used a special Q-switched laser to destroy the excess melanin in the skin around my eye. It wouldn't eliminate the cancer threat entirely, but perhaps it might finally ease the discomfort the mark evoked in others.
Months after my cosmetic surgery ended, the street harassment cooled. For the first time in years, I could go out without wearing makeup and not be insulted or shamed.
With that relief came guilt — was I wrong in modifying myself just to make others more comfortable? Was there a better way to tolerate or respond to their behavior? I've continued to struggle with the fact that I was able to escape such public scrutiny while countless others, for various reasons, can't. My Nevus of Ota imparted some painful insights into the ways fear so often shapes our behavior.