“Dalmatian.” “Chocolate chip cookie.”
Growing up, Lorena Bolanos was taunted with nicknames like these because she was born with birthmarks.
More than a dozen raised moles, also known as congenital melanocytic nevi, cover her body, including a large one that spreads over most of her torso.
For most of her life, Bolanos, now 24, was too ashamed to show much of her skin in public. Despite the warm climate of her hometown of Querétaro, Mexico, she dressed in long-sleeved T-shirts and scarves.
Still, Bolanos was once asked to leave an ice skating rink because a customer suspected she had measles and worried she would spread the virus. In high school, a bully urged her to take her own life.
But Bolanos’ attitude toward her appearance began to change earlier this year, when she witnessed another woman on Facebook get trolled for having a mole.
“I saw a guy comment on one of her posts that her mole disgusted him,” she said. “I thought to myself, ‘She is so beautiful! How can anyone talk to people like this?’”
It was that moment, says Bolanos, that she began to make a conscious effort to rise above the negativity she’d experienced growing up. She posted a photo of herself in a bikini, birthmarks and all, on Instagram.
“For my whole life, I had covered up because I was ashamed, but I just decided to tell my story and show the world my marks,” Bolanos says.
The outpouring of support she received shocked her.
Mothers wrote to Bolanos, explaining that she’d inspired their daughters.
She was also invited to be part of “Underneath We Are Women,” a photo book celebrating different bodies and championing diversity.
“I want to change the concept of beauty,” Bolanos says. “Before, my moles weren’t beautiful to me, but I’ve learned to accept myself and love my body because it’s the only one I’ve got."
The effects of birthmark bullying
While Bolanos is now comfortable in her own skin, many other children and teens with birthmarks continue to struggle.
“Statistics indicate that one in every two children will be bullied in their lifetime, and that number is higher for children with birthmarks,” explains Linda Rozell-Shannon, PhD, founder and president of the Vascular Birthmarks Foundation.
Kids who are bullied can suffer from depression and anxiety that may persist into adulthood. They’re also more likely to do poorly in school or drop out entirely.
And don’t forget the impact birthmark bullying can have on parents.
“People walk to up them and say, ‘What’s wrong with your kid?’” says Rozell-Shannon.
What you can do
Here’s some advice from experts on how to deal with birthmark bullying.
Educate your child. “Take away any confusion by explaining what their birthmark is in simple terms,” advises Charles Sophy, DO, an osteopathic psychiatrist and medical director of the County of Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services. “Tell them it’s not bad. It’s not contagious. It’s just a collection of cells from their body and that’s where they settled,” he says. “Knowledge gives them a lot of power.”
Educate other kids. Offer to go into your child’s childcare center or classroom, whether you read a picture book about birthmark bullying or answer their classmates’ questions. “Presume no one has any idea what a birthmark is and try to dispel ignorance from the very start,” says Rozell-Shannon. You can also encourage kids to sign a bully-free pledge at birthmark.org.
Know the signs of bullying. Is your child having trouble sleeping? Having a tough time with schoolwork or not wanting to hang out with their friends? If you sense something is off, says Sophy, talk with them right away.
Don’t give up. Not all kids — especially tweens and teens — will be eager to talk about what’s going on. If so, “keep telling them, maybe even in a text, ‘I’m here if you need me,’” Sophy says. “They may not want to talk about it… but that’s when they need you the most.”
Get help. Find someone who can help you help your child, whether a teacher, counselor, or pediatrician who can talk to your child about whether they’d like to pursue treatment for their birthmark and the options available. “Coming up with an action plan will make your child feel more comfortable,” Sophy says.
Find support. Talking with others who also have a birthmark may make your child feel less alone. Look for a local or online support group. Your child may also find inspiration in seeing or reading about people like Lorena Bolanos, who’ve learned to openly embrace their birthmarks.