updated 11/3/2008 8:21:10 AM ET 2008-11-03T13:21:10

I came into the world with a purplish-red port-wine-stain birthmark that cups my chin and continues across one cheek, into my ear and down my neck.

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About 3 in 1,000 people are born with this kind of marking, caused by dilated blood vessels below the skin’s surface. My family acted as if it wasn’t a big deal, so I, too, accepted it as yet another way I was different from my three fair-haired siblings. I was the dark one with the birthmark.

Then I started kindergarten, where my appearance prompted constant questions from my classmates: “What’s wrong with your face? Is that a rash? What’s that red stuff? What happened? Did you spill something on yourself?”

“Tell them it’s a birthmark and that you were born with it. If they tease you, ignore them,” advised my mother, a New York City toughie who drank Schlitz and roasted a mean sauerbraten. But even at 5, I was all about self-preservation. So I kept my head down, hoping that if I didn’t notice my classmates, they would return the favor.

By fifth grade, though, anger roiled within me. When the boy who sat behind me leaned in close and whispered, “Hey, Red Beard! Red Beard!” I could barely suppress my rage. But I felt I had no right to defend myself. After all, I was stained.

In eighth grade, my English teacher had each of us write ourselves a letter, which she said she’d mail when we graduated high school. In fat, round print I wrote, “I sure hope you’re not as lonely. Remember how you couldn’t wear makeup? Well, next year, you can. I hope you’re better-looking now.”

The following September, a freshly minted high schooler and finally old enough, in my mother’s eyes, to wear makeup, I became adept at smoothing thick concealer over my red areas, then dabbing on powder to absorb the oil. The transformation was shocking. For years I’d prayed to God to take away my birthmark, but this secondhand solution—makeup—was a miracle. To my surprise, with this new face, in my new school, I was considered beautiful. I wore my lipstick and foundation like a shield but felt secretly giddy inside when a senior got down on his knees to beg me to go out with him. I filed away every compliment. Before, I’d wanted to disappear. Now I was eager to be seen.

Two years after I began wearing makeup, I heard about a laser surgery technique that erased birthmarks like mine. For my 16th birthday, my mother took me for a consultation, and I signed up, expecting a dramatic makeover worthy of Fantasy Island.

Instead, I had to go to school with a greasy ointment smeared over the test spots. Desperate to keep my secret, I mixed camouflage cream with Neosporin, telling people I’d burned myself with a curling iron. (It was 1988. No one questioned me.) Instead of deliverance, I got a scar on my chin. I decided to stick to makeup.

Master of my masquerade
When I covered up my birthmark, I masked my emotions as well. If a boy liked me too much, or if I liked him too much, I’d walk away. After years of loneliness and teasing, I couldn’t risk being vulnerable. So I became the master of my own blissful masquerade. Once, I went out dancing and was asked to be on the after-school dance party, Club MTV. Another time, a fashion photographer asked me to pose for him. It’s not that I wanted to be a model; I wanted to be considered able to be one.

Then I went to college, the first in my family to go. Naomi Wolf’s "The Beauty Myth," about the damaging impact our beauty-driven culture can have on women, was required for my women’s studies class. Wolf’s ideas unleashed the anger and sadness I’d suppressed. Makeup had shielded me during adolescence, but now I felt as if half of me was trapped beneath a shellacked surface.

Yet I couldn’t contemplate being invisible again or, worse, ugly. So I kept painting myself in, dreading every hug and kiss. A casual peck on the cheek meant carefully swinging my hair between my face and the kisser’s to avoid branding him with MAC Cosmetics Studio Fix NC35. Sometimes I’d step back and wave to avoid a physical exchange, which killed me, because my natural level of enthusiasm is akin to that of a puppy.

I hated bright sun and wind, especially when it blew my hair away from my neck. On hot days, I checked my makeup every hour or so: Unless I kept blotting, it would mix with my sweat and I’d look as if I’d dipped my chin in canola oil. All my actions were calculated to prevent scrutiny, to keep from being found out.

Soon after college, a friend introduced me to a cute guy named Andrew, and we talked until I lost my voice. On our fourth date, he told me he’d once unknowingly dated a married woman, then mumbled something about deception. My first thought was, Oh, God, I need to be honest about my face.

Later that night, back at my place, I interrupted a long kiss. “There’s something I need to tell you. I have a birthmark on my chin, cheek and neck,” I said, waiting anxiously for his reply, which came quickly. “I tweeze my eyebrows,” he confessed.

After that, we got serious. But although I let Andrew see my body, I never let him see my naked face: I slept in makeup, applying new over the stale. Until one day, when he came into the bathroom while I was showering and I impulsively pulled back the curtain, exposing my birthmark for the first time. I raised my hands up as if to say, “Well, here I am.” He gave me a kiss and smiled.

Andrew accepted me, but there were reminders of my freakishness. After he and I moved in together, I stayed home one day to let in the cable guy. “What’s wrong with your face?” he asked.

I gave my pat answer. “It’s a birthmark. I was born with it.”

“Do you normally wear makeup to cover it?” he continued.

My cheeks burned. “Sometimes. But not always, because it’s important for ignorant people like you to see it!” Just like that, the hidden, stained part of me was finding her voice.

Throughout my 20s and early 30s, I shifted between two distinct personas: At work and out on the town, I was Shmance—short for “fancy pants.” The nickname was bestowed by friends because the foundation I used erased the color from my face, which meant I had to paint each shade back in with lip and eyeliner, blush and eyebrow pencil, a result that didn’t exactly go well with sweatpants. So my clothes had to be equally done up, preferably ’70s disco dresses with strappy sandals. That perfectly coiffed girl was Shmance.

Seeing the sum of me
My other half was a bare-faced nameless girl who preferred overalls to dresses. Pressing her cheek against someone else’s seemed like a gift, as did the feeling of sun and wind on her skin. I loved her for that. Shmance, on the other hand, exhausted me. She drank a lot and was always saucy and social, but she rarely connected to anyone deeply. It was time to put her to rest.

Except that merely thinking about going to my magazine job with no makeup made me cry; I was terrified of letting go of the power of beauty. Then, one night, I came home to find that my makeup mirror, which I’d left on the dining room table, had caught a ray of sun, scorching a hole through the fabric of a chair. Had the mirror been tilted higher, it would have hit a nearby pile of papers, possibly destroying our home. The message was clear: My vanity was destructive.

I started seeing a therapist, who told me, “You have a presence beyond your face.” I worked hard to see that, looking at pictures of myself without makeup and gazing at my face in the mirror. I needed to see the sum of me instead of the parts. The first morning I ventured out with bare skin, I cried all the way to the subway. On the train, I noticed two teenagers giggling, whispering and looking at me. I gave them a fierce stare, but they moved closer to each other, still whispering.

When I got to work, I hid in my office until someone finally knocked. When my colleague came in, we talked about a story; he didn’t seem appalled by my appearance. With each interaction, I felt a bit more confident.

Now, three years later, my old compacts sit in a dusty pile in the closet. My makeup bag holds little more than mascara, a brow pencil and lip balm. Andrew and I are married, and we have a 2-year-old daughter. I don’t want her to ever see me ashamed. I’d like her to learn that being real is never wrong. And even though people still stare at me from time to time, these days I hardly notice them. I no longer think of my face as stained. I prefer to think of it as…memorable.

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