In my memory, I am in seventh grade, sitting in my science class next to a boy I like. The boy sits to my right. This is good, because my right side is definitely my best. At one point during the hour I go to the front of the room to collect an assignment. As I walk back to my desk, I am facing the boy from the other direction. That’s not so good, because it means that he’s seen the left side of my face. Now he’s looking into my eyes. He’s asking me a question, but he doesn’t use words. Instead, he takes his index finger and traces a pattern down the side of his own face.
“It’s a birthmark,” I say, in answer to what he obviously wants to know. I keep my voice level and my eyes down, like a virtuous young woman from the Middle Ages.
“Oh,” he said. “I thought it was a rash or that maybe you got burned.”
I sit down, and I don’t say anything else. What else is there to say? But I remember.
Mostly, I remember the way my classmate’s finger moved down the side of his face, as if tracing the pathway for a coursing tear. And I remember feeling accused. In my mind, the boy’s slender finger grows long and bony, and he points it at me in a gesture of horrified discovery of what I really am: a marked woman.
To be marked carries many connotations. In Western culture, body markings long bore a punitive meaning and were associated primarily with slaves and criminals. In ancient Greece, for example, masters tattooed their slaves as a form of punishment or ownership, and the Greek term for this type of body marking—stigma—has become, via the Latin, part of our own language. Greek tattoos sometimes took the form of an emblem, such as the owl of Athens for prisoners of war, and sometimes of written words. The phrase “Stop me. I’m a runaway,” for instance, might be inscribed on a slave’s forehead in case of escape. Slave owners and other authorities favored the face for such markings since, unlike tattoos on other parts of the body, such as the arm or leg, facial tattoos could not be concealed easily (for above, see Jones). As these authorities recognized, the face speaks. It is a tablet on which, willingly or not, each person inscribes his or her physical identity. Through our faces we recognize self and others, we express emotions, and we both mirror and see mirrored the approval—or disapproval—of the society of which we are a part. We always strive to present our best face to the world. When slave owners marred a face, they initiated a series of far-reaching exclusions, like ripples that spread across a pond after a stone is thrown in. Tattoos negatively affected a person’s sense of self and then redefined that person’s presence within the community (Gustafson, 25). Physical stigma became social stigma. Different. Outcast. Rejected.
Like the punitive marks of Greek slaves, my own “stigma” is inscribed on the left side of my face, for all to see. I bear the type of birthmark known as a port wine stain, the result of an excess of blood vessels that formed beneath the surface of my skin when I was still in the womb. The extra blood resulted in a splotchy mark, medium red in color, that extends from my temple to below my cheekbone.
Like a Greek slave’s tattoo, my birthmark defined my physical and social existence from an early age. Transforming my appearance, it set me apart and let everyone know that I was different. The exchange with my seventh-grade classmate typifies my experiences. A glance, a question, a word of pity—all these responses taught me that I belonged on the fringes of society. I learned to live on the edges and in the dark corners. Eventually, life on the edge turned into a life of hiding. I spent hours shut in the bathroom peering into the mirror, admiring my good side, and thinking that if it weren’t for that other side, the one I didn’t want to look at, I’d be almost pretty, almost normal. I learned to case a room and choose a spot where I could put my bad side to the wall. Capitalizing on my intelligence, I undertook difficult tasks and set high goals to make up for my less than perfect appearance.
When I turned thirteen, I chose makeup as my ultimate form of hiding. I began using Lydia O’Leary’s Covermark, the first cosmetic, as its website proudly announces, to be patented to hide skin imperfections. While other girls used the lightest of powders and glosses, I stood in front of the mirror every morning and applied the creamy, heavily tinted Covermark with a trowel, pairing it with a finishing powder that I dusted on my cheek, left for ten minutes or so, and then brushed off.
The beauty industry calls the art of hiding skin imperfections “cosmetic camouflage.” The military overtones of this phrase are entirely appropriate. When I wore makeup, I dressed in fatigues so that I would blend in with the landscape around me, and I did battle with myself. If, for example, a girl in my French class asked me why I wore so much foundation, I couldn’t give her an answer. I had to let her believe in my hopeless naiveté because the whole point, after all, was to hide my imperfection. I couldn’t blow my cover by talking about why I wore the makeup. This kind of tortuous reasoning dictated my days and nights as my life threatened to become a kind of adventure plot where I constantly sought new ways of hiding from the enemy.
The whole issue came to a head during my sixteenth summer, when I attended a two-week arts camp in Oklahoma. I played the French horn (one of those difficult projects I insisted upon undertaking), but I hung out with the ballet students. They were lean and willowy, so at ease with their beautiful bodies and glowing faces. How I wanted to be like them. I wanted to wear tights and lip gloss, to sweep my hair off my face in a careless bun. I wanted the art students to sketch me as I lay first in one graceful position and then another. Instead, I spent my days hunched in a chair, a permanent indentation above my upper lip from ramming my horn’s mouthpiece into my face, my birthmark glowing lightly from the exertion of it all.
One night, the tornado sirens went off after lights out—this was June in Oklahoma, after all. Procedure dictated that all campers file out of their cabins and head for the main building. When the lights went on in our cabin, my roommates groggily roused themselves while I grabbed my hand mirror and frantically went to work. The other girls laughed. “Oh my God! She’s putting on makeup!” I think that some of them actually liked the idea, although they probably didn’t understand why I, a shy girl who always kept her face to the wall, became our cabin’s leader in the twenty-four-hour cosmetics revolution. I couldn’t join them in their laughter, though. I didn’t have time if I wanted to finish my job in the seconds before our counselor herded us out the door. I joined my dancer friends—languorously stretching—in the hallway of the lodge, makeup in place and emotions firmly in check.
That night, I so wanted to be beautiful. This one desire lay behind all my attempts to camouflage my face. But I also wanted to rest—and not because I’d gotten up hours before the break of day. I yearned for relief from the exhaustion of covering my birthmark and holding back my emotions. As I discovered, hiding leads to isolation, which is a kind of emotional and spiritual death. This is nowhere more poignantly illustrated than in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, in which poor Arthur Dimmesdale suffers and dies because he could not bring himself to reveal the stigma hidden on his chest. Confession would have uncovered the ugly truth, but it also would have saved his life. In the end, it is Hester Prynne, living like a marked slave of the ancient world, who finds freedom from pain and guilt. The moral of the story is clear. “Be true! Be true! Be true! Show freely to the world, if not your worst, yet some trait whereby the worst may be inferred!” the narrator exhorts (Hawthorne, 1991:198). But Hester’s freedom comes at great cost, and for a long time I could not solve the dilemma the story poses. Is it a greater kindness to be forced to show your worst or to be able to hide it? Should I walk freely but in ignominy or travel at night, like a runaway slave?
Slaves themselves received a kindness when, in 316 AD, the emperor Constantine—who three years prior had legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire—forbade facial tattoos in recognition that the face “has been fashioned in the likeness of the divine beauty” (Gustafson, 21). Constantine’s own portrait head of 313 AD pays monumental tribute to this idea. Standing over eight feet high, the emperor’s face is youthful and clean-shaven, with large, geometric eyes that gaze heavenward, toward the vision of the cross that earned him victory on the battlefield and made him God’s appointed ruler on earth.
In forbidding facial tattoos, Constantine made a bold statement about the heights to which human beauty can soar. Flawless faces, he claims, approach the divine. Constantine may have had the Christian deity in mind when he gave his edict, but as far as visual models go, he possessed numerous examples of divine beauty in the pagan artistic tradition to which he was heir. In Greek and Roman sculpture, especially works of the Classical bent, the gods take on idealized human form. They are often larger than life, like Constantine’s portrait head, and assume elegant poses. A close look at their faces reveals symmetrical features, restrained emotions, and—needless to say—no hint of physical defect. The satirist Lucian, writing two centuries before Constantine’s rule, adopted Phidias’ statue of Athena Lemnia as a paragon of divine beauty. He singled out this Athena particularly for “the outline of her whole face, the softness of the sides of her face, and the well-proportioned nose” (Pollitt, 63). Phidias’ goddess possessed the type of flawless profile to which slaves—and rulers—in the ancient world surely aspired.
And so did I. Indeed, I believed wholeheartedly in the promise of Constantine’s edict. And I didn’t have to know a thing about art or history to understand it. Under other names, the Classical ideal had a foothold everywhere I looked: in the media, the cosmetics industry, and even my childhood church, which was full of well-preserved men and women who seemed made to showcase the link between divinity and flawlessness. Constantine may have legalized Christianity, but for me, “divinity” was a nameless god whose game was perfection. And so Mr. Dimmesdale’s dilemma came to be solved, for a time. I went to school, attended church, and continued to apply makeup, all the while dreaming of being born again, this time into a perfect body. I took art history courses in college and adopted Botticelli’s Venus, rising newborn and perfectly formed from the waves, as my image of rebirth. I wanted everything: the blond, rippling hair, the gently curving body, and most of all, the rosy skin with nary a mark. I was willing even to stand forever in contrapposto to get it.
The opportunity for such a transformation presented itself the summer I graduated from college, when a laser surgeon, wielding a small gun, covered my face with red dots the size of pencil erasers. This procedure went far beyond my feeble attempts at hiding. The surgery presented nothing less than an opportunity for rebirth. I seized this chance to become my own Venus, rising newly formed from the doctor’s table the way that Botticelli’s goddess rises from the foam-speckled waves. I gritted my teeth through the pain of the laser gun, which felt like the sting of hundreds of rubber bands snapping against my skin, and hoped for an alteration so complete that my father wouldn’t recognize me when I emerged from the doctor’s office.
As the dots faded over the course of six weeks, they took a good deal of my birthmark with them. It shocked and stung, however—just as the laser gun stung my skin—when I realized that they didn’t take it all. However minimized my birthmark may be, it won’t ever completely disappear. My dad still recognizes me, and when I look in the mirror, I see the same old face staring out.
I had hoped, by undergoing surgery, to bypass Mr. Dimmesdale’s dilemma once and for all. Instead of deciding whether to hide or not to hide, I sought to wipe out my marks and attain a shimmering, classical beauty that surely approaches the divine. But Hawthorne again calls this very desire into question, this time in a story that has even more bearing on my life. In Hawthorne’s dark and moralistic tale, “The Birthmark,” the prominent scientist Aylmer becomes fixated by the only physical flaw possessed by his wife, Georgiana: a small hand-shaped birthmark on her left cheek. Save for this mark, Georgiana is a perfect specimen of womanhood. The mark threatens to destroy their marriage until Aylmer successfully removes it in a prolonged medical procedure. However, he did not count on the mark’s strange power. “The fatal hand [the birthmark] had grappled with the mystery of life, and was the bond by which an angelic spirit kept itself in union with a mortal frame,” the narrator informs us (Hawthorne, 1987:130). Only Georgiana, as she lies dying, realizes Aylmer’s mistake. She tells him, “Do not repent that, with so high and pure a feeling, you have rejected the best that earth could offer” (Hawthorne, 1987:130). Of course, Aylmer had a good deal for which to repent. In his zeal for perfection, he could not see an important truth: Georgiana’s birthmark was inextricably tied with her life.
Given my experience with a similar medical procedure, Hawthorne’s story disturbs and provokes. It implies that I, like Georgiana, might have died (physically? spiritually?) had all vestiges of my birthmark disappeared. Indeed, the story suggests that flaws are a necessary part of human existence. They even contain a spark of the divine (recall that Georgiana’s birthmark is the “bond by which an angelic spirit” kept her tied to life). In my own flawed mortality, perhaps I, too, possess a hint of divinity. But then, it all depends on what kind of divinity we’re talking about. I have come to realize, albeit reluctantly, that no unblemished Venus beckons me toward a rosy-cheeked future. I am modeled after a different god, one who became a man—and then suffered and died. My path takes me away from the classical ideal and over the Alps to the gory, dripping-with-blood crucifixions of the Northern Renaissance.
In Italian art, the suffering Christ often seems to be related to the Greek gods. Even on the cross, he is muscular, strong, and unmarked, a true bearer of divine beauty. Northern artists, by contrast, celebrate Christ’s brokenness. In Dutch and German crucifixion scenes, blood flowing copiously down Christ’s side follows the curving contours of his body and falls into chalices held aloft by angels. Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Crucifixion, in particular, dwells on pain and suffering. In this painting, Christ’s body erupts in festering sores and bristles with splinters. His fingers splay in agony. His feet swell, his arms pull from their sockets, and his skin turns a gangrenous green. His sagging face drips with blood from the crown of thorns pressed upon his head. Ah, that wounded head. Some artists even made a special study of it so that viewers could come face to face, so to speak, with the pain radiating from Jesus’ eyes. Through its emphasis on anguish and gore, Northern Renaissance art unabashedly appeals to the viewer’s emotions. It seeks to draw us in and make us participants in the pictured drama. And as Northern artists recognize, there exists no greater drama than the suffering of Christ.
Whether or not all modern viewers appreciate so much blood and gore, the Northern Renaissance artists got one thing right. For Christians, the real pin-up figure is not Venus but the crucified Christ. Instead of smooth skin, we revere scars—in the form of Christ’s suffering on the cross. There are, of course, many aspects to Christ’s life that the faithful study and appreciate: his miracles, his teachings, his treatment of the poor and dispossessed. But to call Christ our savior means that, above all, we celebrate what he did on the cross. Christ accomplished his real work by suffering and dying. His wounds, in turn, deliver us from death. How can they not be seen as utterly beautiful?
Ordinary people have come to see their own marks of suffering as beautiful, too. The apostle Paul, for example, bore numerous physical injuries witnessing for Christ. In his letter to the Galatians, he compares these injuries to Christ’s wounds: “Let no one cause me trouble, for I bear the brands of Jesus in my body” (Galatians 6:17). Originally, the Jews underwent circumcision—another physical marking—as a sign of their participation in the community of God. Now, Paul says, Christ’s brands are the only legitimate ones. Paul’s own injuries testified to the integrity of his message and the completeness of his identity in the crucified Christ.
I read Paul’s letter for years before discovering that the word he uses for “brand” is, in the Greek, stigma—the same word that described the tattooing of slaves in the Greek and Roman worlds (Jones, 10). In co-opting this term, Paul gives it new meaning. No longer are we slaves of our earthly masters, he says; we are now slaves of Christ. Marks of suffering sustained for Christ neither shame nor degrade. Instead, they point to the one who first bore his marks for us.
In the centuries following Paul’s letter, many Christians began voluntarily to tattoo themselves with the sign of the cross or with words that proclaimed their identity in Christ. Tattoos had suddenly become subversive (Gustafson, 29-31). But perhaps the most dramatic turnabout in the history of body marking comes from those men and women for whom an affinity with Christ’s suffering produces nearly continual wounds. These sufferers turn the word stigma completely inside out, even giving it a separate dictionary entry: stigmata.
Stigmata are the marks of the Crucifixion. They are wounds on the hands, feet, or side received by those who identify strongly with Christ’s pain on the cross. Stigmata differ from all forms of earthly wounds, even those sustained by the Apostle Paul, because Paul’s wounds, although holy, still bore association with the ancient system of slavery. In fact, Paul used the term stigma in order to make himself understood by people who lived in a slave system. The marks of stigmatics, by contrast, come from no human hand or earthly experience, but result from immersion in the suffering of Christ Jesus himself.
Saint Francis of Assisi became the first recorded stigmatic in 1224. As he prayed at sunrise on the Feast of the Holy Cross, he saw a vision of a six-winged seraph affixed to a cross. Francis wondered at this vision, and then,
His hands and feet seemed to be pierced by nails, the heads of the nails appearing on the inside of his hands and the upper side of his feet, and their points protruding on the other side. On the palms of his hands these marks were round, but on the outer side they were longer, and there were little pieces of flesh projecting from the surface which looked like the ends of nails, bent and hammered back. So too there were the marks of nails imprinted on his feet, and the flesh was swollen where the nails appeared. His right side was scarred as if it had been pierced by a spear, and it often seeped blood, so that his tunic and undergarment were frequently drenched in it. (Thomas of Celano, 96)
Francis’s biographer describes his wounds in loving detail because, like Christ’s wounds, they reveal a sacred beauty. They are vivid, bright red examples of what it means to suffer for and with the wounded savior.
Yet for me, modern conventions of beauty long vied with the beauty of Christ’s wounds. I remember the day I first considered my own marks in relation to God. My therapist asked me if I could imagine Jesus being present as my younger-self applied heavy makeup in the midst of the Oklahoma tornado. No, I answered. I really could not. Instead, I wanted to yell at him, “Where the hell were you? Why did you do this to me?” I felt less like Saint Francis than I did like Amy, an angst-ridden teen from the TV drama Everwood. In one episode, Amy bursts out, “Daddy’s being excruciating!” Her father answers, “Excruciating literally means experiencing the pain of crucifixion. I think we can all agree that Jesus had it worse.” Amy’s reply? “He wasn’t here.”
It is dishearteningly easy to believe in a classically restrained, non-suffering, and altogether non-present Jesus. But I have only to remember Jesus’ own desperate prayers to correct this distorted vision. Jesus himself cried out against suffering and death. He, too, wondered why he seemingly had been deserted. I think that Jesus’ anguish legitimizes my own anger,but it also reminds me that he really was with me that stormy Oklahoma night. I just couldn’t see his face for the cosmetic-ridden one in my mirror.
The only Jesus that could have been with me that night is the Jesus whose own face bled and scarred. No other Jesus makes sense to me. When I have trouble seeing past the ghost of Venus at the fringes of my reflection, it helps me to remember the Savior’s ravaged face. I recall that just as Jesus knew our experiences of hunger, fatigue, and temptation, he also knew what it means to be scarred. My own wounds are memories, or vestiges, of Jesus’ wounds. They are stigmata—in the sense that they manifest Christ’s compassion (certainly not in the sense of manifesting my own saintliness!). When viewed in this light, my marks change. My face opens like a flower turned to the sun, and my birthmark becomes a wellspring from which flows Christ’s compassion, or co-passio; literally, his “suffering with.”
With the help of a friend—itself a manifestation of co-passio—I have come to see the compassion enfolded in the seventh-grade incident with which I began this reflection. One day, I told the story to my friend, Julie. I was beginning my mantra, “He pointed an accusing finger at me,” when Julie stopped me. “Don’t you see?” she chided me gently. “That boy didn’t point a finger at you. He pointed to himself. ”It startled me to realize that Julie was right. Literally, my classmate did not point his finger at me. He traced the pattern of my birthmark on his own face. In so doing, he took my birthmark upon himself. What I insisted upon seeing as an accusing gesture could just as easily be interpreted as a gesture of solidarity, of one person sharing pain with another. In this small yet monumental way, my classmate took on the role of a stigmatic or even of Christ himself, who suffered everything that we suffer.
I still find it difficult completely to escape the specter of slavery when I look in the mirror. I am gradually coming to realize, however, that a different and far kinder master owns this slave. I need feel no shame in my marks, for my master bears them with me. The blood pooled beneath my cheek is the same blood that trickled down his face when the thorns pricked his brow. It is the same blood that gushed forth when the soldier pierced his side, the blood that in Renaissance paintings the angels catch in chalices and bid us drink in the form of communion wine. Surgery may not bring results, and I may fail to rise from the waters like Venus. Instead, I rise with Christ, whose blood paints me in his image, a reflection of divine beauty.
Lisa Deam is a writer and art historian.
Gustafson, Mark. “The Tattoo in the Later Roman Empire and Beyond.” In Written on the Body: The Tattoo in European and American History. Ed. Jane Caplan. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000: 17-31.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “The Birthmark.” In Nathaniel Hawthorne’ s Tales. Ed. James McIntosh. New York: W. W. Norton & Company,  1987: 118-131.
_____. The Scarlet Letter. Ed. Ross C. Murfin. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s,  1991.
Jones, C. P. “Stigma and Tattoo.” In Written on the Body: The Tattoo in European and American History. Ed. Jane Caplan. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000: 1-16.
Pollitt, J. J. The Art of Ancient Greece: Sources and Documents. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Thomas of Celano’ s First Life of St. Francis of Assisi. Trans. Christopher Stace. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2000.