‘It was pizza day in school. ‘Your face looks like a pepperoni.’ My friend got up and slapped the guy.’: Woman born with port wine stain learns to embrace her beauty, ‘I needed to be myself’

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“I was maybe around 6 months pregnant when my spouse asked me, ‘Do you think our baby will have a birthmark?’ And honestly, up until that day, I really haven’t thought about it. In April of 2017, Ava Malee stepped into this world and while I don’t recall paying close attention to it, she was not born with a birthmark like I was, 25 years ago.

Relieved you may wonder? Truthfully, a bit. But in a selfish way.

I was born with a big Port Wine Stain covering half of my face. I honestly gotta say, from my mom’s telling, I was one of a hell of a confident, little, sassy girl. I love when she tells me stories about myself back in the day.

Courtesy of Lea Charles

But back to the worries and wonders of, ‘Will my baby be born with a birthmark just like I was?’ I say, selfishly, I was relieved, because I realized even more so after becoming a mom, that my birthmark was not only a mental challenge for myself but much more so for my parents, especially my mom. When I was only a few days old, my parents were sent from hospital to hospital, to go through different check-ups with me.

They didn’t know what a port-wine stain was back then and if it had any other health consequences. Especially in the head area, port wine stains can mean damage to the brain, blindness, or be accompanied by Sturge-Weber Syndrome. Luckily, mine wasn’t and it was only considered a ‘beauty mistake.’

Courtesy of Lea Charles

My mom and grandma started taking me to see a natural healer when I was one year old. Now you might think that’s crazy, but I do believe that it has helped me a lot on my journey. She may have not been successful in ‘healing’ my port wine stain, however, she has done some important mental healing and strengthening for me.

It was a few years later when I received my first laser treatment. My mom says it was one of the hardest decisions to make: not knowing if the removal of my birthmark was what I would want for myself, not to mention watching your toddler go through such pain every time. In the ’90s, the science and technology of lasers weren’t as advanced as they are today. It was trial and error.

At first, they would only laser a small part of my port wine stain at a time because it was so painful. Later on, treatment was only possible under anesthesia. I remember the doctor telling me that the anesthesia mask would smell like gummy bears and then waking up to a pack of gummy bears on my bedside. After laser sessions, my face would swell up and turn dark-purple. Big crusty dots covered my port wine stain. Some sessions left my birthmark with more scars and worse burns than before. My mom would be worried sick about me as she recalls ‘the smell of burned skin getting in her nose.’ It was hard for my parents. They would question over and over again if it was really necessary. After all, in their eyes, I was the most beautiful girl, and I was such a happy kid with a cheerful personality. It was conflicting at times.

Courtesy of Lea Charles

As a mom, I can only imagine what an extreme mental toll that must have been. Years of laser treatments had passed and when I was old enough to decide, I didn’t want to continue treatments any longer. It was a no brainer for my parents. They were relieved and happy that I was finally able to make a decision myself. I was no longer getting treatments for the removal of my birthmark. I was happy and thriving, living my best childhood. No worries, not bothered.

As I got older I felt people staring more. Adults would stop in the middle of the sidewalk, saying, ‘Wow,’ and kids would point and say, ‘Look at that.’

Growing up with an older brother who’s always been protective of me and with my mom teaching me early on to be strong, I developed some tough skin. You wouldn’t believe that people become really uncomfortable when you stare back at them. Imagine a little girl asking a grown woman, ‘Can I help you?’ That was me growing up. I also had amazing friends and family that would always stand up for me.

Courtesy of Lea Charles

I remember like it was yesterday. It was pizza day in school. One guy, trying to be extra funny, said, ‘Your face looks like a pepperoni.’ As a response, one of my girlfriends got up and slapped the guy with a piece of pepperoni. It’s silly, but I like to laugh about and remember little things like that.

Puberty was a turning point for me. With puberty coming, my sassiness and confidence faded and the desire to be like everyone else grew. Around the age of 13, I discovered makeup. I was so excited to have found something to help me look ‘normal.’ I became obsessed very quickly. I wouldn’t go a day without it. Believe it or not, at sleepovers, I wouldn’t even take it off. There was a time when my own parents didn’t see me without makeup for months.

But it wasn’t enough. I looked beautiful with makeup while others looked beautiful waking up. I wanted to do more to permanently remove my birthmark and feel beautiful. New technology and better lasers gave me hope that maybe this time treatment would be more successful. So we picked it back up again. I also remember researching and asking about skin transplants. It quickly turned out not to be an option, as it wasn’t possible for the size of my birthmark without causing permanent damage to skin and nerves.

Courtesy of Lea Charles

The days I went for laser treatments I was ‘forced’ to take my make up off. I remember feeling so uncomfortable that I wouldn’t wash it off until I was in the bathroom of the doctor’s office. The next day, I would skip school to let the swelling go down before I was able to apply makeup again.

My birthmark is not just a thin layer on the surface of my skin but it reaches very deep through my inner cheek. Hearing other peoples’ success stories of their port wine stains fading after a few laser sessions has always kept up my hopes, but just wasn’t a reality for me. I felt desperate. I cried a lot behind closed doors. I hated myself. I would ask, ‘Why me? What is the lesson in this? Why can’t I be as naturally beautiful as others?’

I didn’t see another option but to cover up with makeup for the rest of my life. I saw myself as an 80-year-old grandma, wearing camouflage makeup every single day. Don’t get it wrong, my life was great. I had great friends. I would say I was considered ‘pretty’ in school. I mean at this point, even my friends didn’t know what I looked like without makeup anymore. I had a boyfriend. I was class president. Life wasn’t bad. But I had to deal with what was going on inside.

This went on for years, and the older I got, the more I felt like I was living a lie that I constantly had to keep going. I would cross paths and make friends and the more connected I felt with people, the more I felt the urge to let them in on ‘my little secret’ and let them experience the real me. But I was careful.

Then I met a guy who was unlike any other guy. We met in person but somehow didn’t really connect until we were miles apart and started talking on the phone.

Courtesy of Lea Charles

We clicked immediately. I could see myself having a future with him. The only problem, he didn’t know me without makeup.

One day something came up and I had to hang up the phone, sit down, and think to myself, ‘Lea if you really like this guy and you think he’s the one for you, you gotta show him the real you before it gets serious.’

I debated, I cried. I was scared, ‘What if he doesn’t like me the way I am?’ But then I also thought, what if he did? ‘All these amazing people are in my life because we share deep values and connections. If he’s supposed to be in my life, he will like me just the way I am.’ Spoiler Alert: almost 6 years later, we are married and have a beautiful baby girl together. He didn’t care. If anything, it has brought us closer together.

I still didn’t feel confident and happy in my own skin. Makeup was still part of my daily morning routine. I still cried at times. Being pretty was more important than being real. Falling in love doesn’t just change that.

Courtesy of Lea Charles

My husband would tell me I wasn’t able to hold eye contact in conversations with others. I would always turn my face away, trying to hide. I was insecure and not able to be my true self. It was poisoning and very lonely. Trying to figure out who I wanted to be and who I was.

It took some time, but one day I woke up and I felt ready. I needed to be myself. It was a process but I had to step outside my comfort zone and into the real world. Almost 2 years ago, I took that step, leaving the house for the first time not wearing makeup, no longer hiding.

I have found my passion for fitness and wellness and also the passion to share it with others. Health starts from within. How could I possibly teach others if I didn’t start with myself? I had a lot of cleaning up to do. Affirmation and self-healing books in one hand, a dumbbell in the other.

Courtesy of Lea Charles

The cool thing about fitness is anyone can do it and you really are in charge of your results. If there’s one thing I love more than anything, it’s being in charge. Yes, I was born with a port-wine stain that is and was always out of my control, just as much as the success of different treatments was out of my control.

In fitness, I found something that I was in control of. If you don’t like how you feel or look, you are always able to do something about it. I am able to change, and I no longer worry about things that are out of my control. Health leads to happiness, and happiness is the ultimate life goal. It all makes sense now. I’ve never felt more like myself and more comfortable in my own skin.

Now it would be foolish to say only one single thing has changed everything. I believe it’s more like a big puzzle piece slowly coming together.

All my life I had everything and everyone tell me that I am loved and beautiful the way I am. I was set up for success to love myself. This was so important. Thank you for never giving up on me. No matter how many times I heard it, I had to feel it and believe it. Fitness has been the glue for me to put it all together, to feel strong and empowered and comfortable in my skin. To believe what I’ve been told all these years.

I am grateful to be able to pass this on to others. To help others accept their flaws and grow. To be a role model to my own daughter, and teach her about self-love and the beauty from within.”

Courtesy of Lea Charles
Courtesy of Lea Charles
Courtesy of Lea Charles

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Lea Charles of Hope Town, Abaco, Bahamas. You can follow her journey on Instagram. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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‘I can’t! I can’t leave the house without makeup!’ I was shocked. He looked me in the eye. ‘You can’t, or you won’t?’: Woman embraces port wine stain birthmark after years of ‘feeling ashamed, insecure’

‘The bride who refused to cover her birthmark.’ People wonder why I’m not ashamed.’: Woman with nevus birthmark celebrates her ‘distinctive look,’ reminds us to ‘love ourselves’

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