by Jessica Lin
I hardly think of it anymore when I look in the mirror, because it’s so normal for me. I forget that I look different. A round, brown mole sits in the center of my forehead just above the line of my eyebrows. Well, technically it’s closer to the left side, but you wouldn’t notice unless you looked closely. My mother tells me that I was born with a fresh, clean face, but when I was a few months old, a faint brown spot began to appear. It’s been growing ever since. I don’t remember my face without it.
It's what makes you super smart! It's where you get your superpowers,' he laughed. 'You shoot out your crazy brainwaves from it.' He mimed rays shooting out from his forehead, complemented by sound effects.
In kindergarten, I entered among inquisitive four- and five-year-olds who hadn’t yet learned to restrain their curious questions as adults eventually do. Every so often, someone would ask me what was on my forehead. And I would explain, and explain again. At first, I didn’t even know the word for “mole,” so I would defensively mutter something like, “Um, I didn’t put it there. It just grew there.” My teachers never inquired, though; they were probably afraid to hurt my feelings.
A classmate in middle school, Kris, always joked about my mole. By then, I’d established myself as a proficient student. “It’s what makes you super smart! It’s where you get your superpowers,” he laughed. “You shoot out your crazy brainwaves from it.” He mimed rays shooting out from his forehead, complemented by sound effects. His jokes irritated me immensely. I’d wonder if people only saw my mole and not the rest of my face. The questions continued throughout middle school. By high school, most people had either come to know me with it or were, like my elementary school teachers, afraid to broach the subject.
Besides the responses from peers, from the time I was young, I also started to notice unusual looks from strangers. I would get particularly questioning looks from Indian people. As a child I was confused, until I saw Indian women with dots on their foreheads and made the connection. They must have been wondering what a Chinese girl was doing with a Hindu marking on her forehead. It made me uncomfortable, the way heads would swivel as I passed, so I walked by all Indian people faster and with my head down.
I never asked what the Hindu dot meant. I was too embarrassed at first and then gradually accepted my vague understanding of it as a Hindu custom. It wasn’t until this past April that I found out. I was waiting for a dormitory tour during MIT’s Campus Preview Weekend, when a pair of Indian parents standing next to me tapped me on the arm and exclaimed, “Oh, so it’s a mole! We saw you a few times yesterday and were wondering what it was.”
I wasn’t surprised by the remark, but it was the first time Indian adults had come up to me directly to inquire about it. Now I felt curious. “What does the dot mean to you?” I asked.
The parents exchanged looks. “Well, it means a woman’s married,” said the father.
“No, no, no,” interjected the mother, as if afraid I’d be offended. “It’s like your third eye.”
“There once was an Indian prince who wanted to take young women from this village, and the mark began as a way for women to tell him they were married and off-limits,” the father continued to explain.
“But really, spiritually, it’s like your third eye,” reiterated the mother.
Afterwards, doing my own research on the Internet, I found that for Hindus, red dots, called bindis, mark married women, though younger girls also wear them as decorations. The Indian father at MIT had confused the significance, and maybe other people did too. So I understand part of the reason for the strange looks I’ve received, if people thought I was a married five-year-old.
A mole shouldn’t have to draw this much attention. It’s not as if I’m one out of a thousand with a strange skin condition, because almost everyone has moles. But what makes the difference for me, as any advertising company will tell you, is placement. A mole almost anywhere else--on my cheek, arm, leg--would probably just be accepted or ignored. Because mine is so well centered, though, there’s a perception that my mole is different from others, that there’s a story behind it.
It’s impressive the controversy my mole has bred among family and friends, all eager to offer their opinions. The decision whether to remove it has surfaced from time to time, and people have adamantly taken sides on the issue. Once, when I was elementary school age, a family friend brought me to badminton practice with her, and led me over to an old man sitting on the sidelines who was supposedly a dermatologist or Chinese traditional medicine doctor, I don’t know which. He inspected my mole for about a minute and pronounced, “You should get it removed.” From that day on, that friend campaigned for me to remove it. She told stories of her husband’s moles, which had been found potentially cancerous after they were cut out.
My mother’s opinion on the issue has wavered. For a while she supported my keeping it, but gradually she began to dislike it. I would be sitting next to her, reading a book, and she would suddenly turn around and put her finger over my mole to imagine what I’d look like without it. She knew I didn’t like her doing that, so she’d have to use sneak attacks. She gave up on those attacks, finally. Still, she says the mole takes over my face, that it’s a dark splotch that interrupts a clear complexion. It bothers me that even my own mother can’t accept me for the way I am, but I don’t tell her. She wants me to look good, I guess.
By all means, had my mother been in charge of my mole, it would have been removed by now. And it almost was. A couple of years ago, my mother had convinced me that getting it removed was for the best. An early teenager becoming more concerned about my appearance, I was very unsure myself whether I wanted the operation or not. My uncertainties made it easy for me to be swept along by her arguments: Getting it removed now would prevent possible cancerous mutations later. Getting it removed now would create a smaller scar, since all the doctors said it would continue to grow. Getting it removed now would make me prettier… We were ready to make an appointment with the dermatologist, but then a force even stronger than her willpower intercepted us—family.
The Taiwanese do something called face-reading, which is like palm-reading for the face. According to this practice, the shape of your forehead, nose, and other facial features--including moles and freckles--says something about you. It’s a traditional superstition and I’m convinced the conclusions are complete fiction, but it still holds power over some people, particularly the older generation. Apparently, Buddha had a mark in the center of his forehead symbolizing his wisdom, so in face-reading a mark there is special. There’s a Chinese goddess of some sort with a mark on her forehead, too. I don’t know what purpose she serves; I’ve only seen a drawing of her in my grandparents’ home over the altar.
My mother should have known better, then. She called one of her sisters in California to announce our decision to remove the mole. A few hours later, our phone rang. My mother picked up. It was my grandma.
So, there's always a nagging voice in my head saying, 'Hey, wouldn't that be a stupid way to die? It's perfectly preventable, you fool.'
I stood next to my mother, listening as she chattered on the line in Chinese. From her responses, I could imagine what was said:
“What? You are removing the mole? How dare you!
“Yes, we decided t—”
“If you do that, I’ll never talk or see the two of you again!”
And the line drops dead. My grandma has hung up.
Until high school, I wanted to keep my mole. It was a part of my body, and it was how I’d seen myself forever. It wasn’t strange to me; life would have been stranger without it. And despite the discomfort of sometimes being stared at and made fun of, I kind of liked the attention. Everyone desires to be special in some way, and this was one way in which I was special. Cosmetically, I was afraid of the scars from removing it. A scar across my forehead would have made me look like Harry Potter. (I was a fan of the series, but not enough of a fanatic to want to be disfigured.) Socially, I feared a barrage of new questions. People had gotten used to me with my mole, and now I didn’t want to explain its sudden disappearance. I could just see it--the cute boy behind me in class asking me, “Whoa, where’d it go?” How embarrassing!
Now, I’m not so sure. In high school, as my interest in human biology took seed and intensified, I became more aware of the risk of skin cancer that my mole posed. Situated on my forehead, my mole is constantly exposed to the sun’s ultraviolet rays, a known melanoma-inducing mutagen. So, there’s always a nagging voice in my head saying, “Hey, wouldn’t that be a stupid way to die? It’s perfectly preventable, you fool.”
I know what the real doctors have said. Besides the aforementioned badminton-playing doctor, I’ve also seen two legitimate dermatologists. One was working at a community health fair, a tall, gentle-looking inquisitive guy who sat me down in a dentist-style chair and squinted at me through a huge magnifying glass, like the kind you use at the science museum to look at miniscule fossils in mock archeological sites. He wore a light around his head as he bent over me, which further made him look like an exploring archeologist. Making me the specimen.
“There’s no real danger right now,” he concluded. “If you’re concerned, you can have it removed, but it looks fine right now. Just keep an eye on it.”
I was glad.
“It’s nicely centered,” he added, and grinned.
The second doctor was a cosmetic surgeon. In his waiting room, I saw a man with his head covered in bandages. He looked really beat up, as if he’d been in a car wreck the week before. There were other people in casts. All I had was a silly mole on my forehead, and I wondered if I had come to the right place.
This doctor was a handsome gentleman dressed in a brown suit. For some reason, he reminded me of a lawyer. He had a sparkle in his eye and a bemused smile throughout our appointment. His conclusion was the same as the other doctor’s; my mole was not dangerous now, but I should keep an eye on it. Just to show my mother and me, though, he traced an oval around my mole where he would cut and stitch if I were to get it removed. I must have looked uncomfortable, because he asked, “Well, do you want to get it removed?”
“Umm…” I stalled.
“Ah, it looks like you haven’t decided. Well, why don’t you come back when you’re sure?”
Afterwards, walking back to our car in the parking lot, my mother joked, “Did you see how he was looking at your mole? He kept on smiling. He probably wondered why you’d even want to get it removed… He probably thought it was attractive.”
“Oh my god, Mom, shut up.”
It’s been five years since I’ve seen these doctors. I look in the mirror every day, and I haven’t noticed much change over these years besides a gradual enlargement of the area, as the doctors predicted. It’s now about as wide as the eraser on a pencil, which is the size over which a mole might be dangerous.
This is my body. American pop culture, which breeds shows like Extreme Makeover and The Swan, tells me I should get rid of the blemishes on my skin, and plastic surgeons are happy to offer their services, for a small fee. I’m lucky, though, that the doctors I’ve met have been more level-headed and less eager to “nip/tuck.” Now, I’m old enough to make decisions about my body. My mother, who still occasionally instructs me on what to wear and eat in addition to suggesting that I remove the mole, recognizes that she can’t just bring me to a dermatologist and tie me down on the table.
As time goes on, I’m less bothered by it. I don’t think much of it on a day-to-day basis, and I no longer power-walk past Hindus. I’m not sensitive about explaining my appearance to people who ask because I’d rather they know and not let it be a constant distraction from the rest of me. I realized this in my junior year of high school, when a friend I’d known since kindergarten turned around on the bus one day and asked, “Hey, what’s that thing on your forehead? Is it, like, a mole?” I was more bothered he had waited eleven years to find out.
Sometimes, though, I still mull over the possibility of removal. On the one hand, I’m used to how I look. I even harbor some attachment to this mole—it’s set me apart. On the other hand, I tell myself, I have to consider what may happen to it a couple years or decades from now. I’m going back to Taiwan this winter, the first time in years I will see my grandmothers. Maybe after that, removal will be an option.
But if I do make a change, at least now it will be because I’ve thought about it carefully and decided by myself. My father, an engineer, once told me as we were fixing up a window in the attic, “Measure twice, cut once.” For this, I know I’d better think twice, because there will only be one cut.