Family in Focus
By Crystal Hodges
Collapsing on my bed after a long day of classes, I kicked my shoes off and opened my computer. Once my screen lit up, I signed onto Facebook for a short, mental break. I had my usual 15 notifications, but one from a friend really caught my eye: “I saw your picture in my newsfeed today.”
My picture was in her newsfeed? Confused, I clicked on the attached link…and there I was…along with a stranger’s logo and three simple words: “one like = beautiful,” I was going viral.
Like most people who venture into the world of social media, I post an occasional “selfie” on my Facebook page or blog, but my face doesn’t look like everyone else. Along with millions of other people, I have a birthmark…mine just happens to cover a large portion of my face.
Until my early 20s, I did not realize just how different I look from others. It was then I began to notice the stares and comments. It’s rare to spend a day out in public without people reacting to my unique appearance.
As a child, I suppose I rarely noticed these reactions. I was too busy enjoying the latest episode of Barney or play dates with my cousin. My mom protected me from these reactions like a mother bear, often physically shielding me from a stranger’s unkind gaze. As an adult, however, my mother can no longer protect me, and I have come to understand how cruel the world can be.
I constantly “swim upstream” against a world that tells me I am not beautiful enough. I’m not beautiful enough to walk into a restaurant without disgust-filled, wide-eyed stares. I’m not beautiful enough to walk into a store without degrading marks from strangers who act as if I cannot hear their hurtful words that sometimes cause me to feel as though I am only half a person because of the appearance of half of my face.
I have been told I have skin cancer, that something is seriously wrong with me, that it’s not really a birthmark. Complete strangers have persisted that I should have surgery to “fix” my face, even after I explained that I’m happy the way I am. Others have told me that if they were me, they would never leave their house.
More Than a Birthmark
I’m more than a girl with a facial difference. I’m more than a birthmark. My name is Crystal. I love to travel, capturing beautiful moments with my camera, pen, and journal. I’m a baker, a Jamba Juice™ addict, and a college student who is passionate about learning American Sign Language.
I’ve lived overseas by myself, journeyed to a dozen countries, even swam with dolphins. I have also experienced the loss of a niece and watched my mother care for my father in poor health. I’ve experienced tremendous joys and gut-wrenching sorrows. I am more than a mark on my skin.
My birthmark is called a Port Wine Stain and is caused by extra blood vessels that extend deeper than the skin. In my case, the birthmark covers the majority of the left side of my face with a purplish hue and travels all the way to my brain. Some people think my birthmark is shaped like Australia, while my friend’s 10-year-old son recently asked her about her friend “with the heart on her face.”
Because the extra blood vessels go all the way to my brain, many aspects of my health are affected. Some are obvious. The birthmark itself is hard to miss, and my lip is lopsided and swollen. Other areas aren’t as noticeable. Due to increased pressure in my eye, I have Glaucoma. Usually, this disease affects older generations, but since age eight, I’ve lived with the fact that my left eye could go blind at any time. MRIs are a regular part of my life as doctors check to see if the extra blood vessels have expanded to the point where I am in danger of brain damage or epilepsy. I’m a regular at my dentist's office, as the teeth on my left side are prone to cavities and disease.
Little can be done for this type of birthmark, but to avoid future health problems, I undergo laser treatments every two to three months that stop my birthmark from growing. During each treatment, laser pulses are sent through my skin, bursting up to 300 individual blood vessels. This leaves my face swollen and a darker purple than normal for several weeks. The medicated salve only makes it look worse. I stopped these treatments temporarily at age 11, but started again at age 20 after researching the long-term health benefits.
Shocked and Confused
At age 23, I’ve had 47 of these surgeries. I have become accustomed to the effects of these treatments, and I forget that others don’t understand the trauma to my face. I didn’t think twice about posting Facebook photos after returning to my treatments, but I quickly learned many people were confused about what I was doing…and why. One friend from afar asked, “Why are you having these treatments? Don’t you know you’re beautiful just the way you are?”
To eliminate the confusion, and to help my friends and supporters understand my reasoning, I shared my story publically on my blog. I had always been extra cautious of what I posted online and paid close attention to social media settings. But in spite of my attempts to be safe, on that warm August afternoon, I suddenly found myself in the middle of a Facebook Fiasco.
I grabbed my computer and ran to the kitchen to show my mom. “Look, Mom! I’m going viral.”
Ever practical, she responded, “What does that mean?”
After looking at the image that was spreading across the Internet, with a dose of humor she responded, “Well…I don’t have a face that could go viral.”
Then she left for an appointment, leaving me alone with my thoughts. Disbelief and confusion engulfed me, and I began to pay more attention to the details of what was happening. Within eight hours, the photo had received over 14,000 “likes” and more than a thousand comments.I began to research the page that had posted the picture. I quickly learned they had over 3 million followers, claimed the Christian religion, and expressed they “want to reach others for Christ.”
Continuing a staring contest with my non-blinking selfie, a thousand questions swirled in my brain: “Who did this? Why did
they do this? How did they get my image? Should I be alarmed, offended, or flattered? Why do they automatically assume I don’t feel beautiful without their help? And what does taking a person’s image, adding the text ‘one like = beautiful’ have to do with reaching others for Christ?” I continued my mental venting: “I believe in God and follow the faith they supposedly promote…but I don’t believe in this!”
After five minutes of researching their site, I hit the limit of what I could take. I was overwhelmed with questions and emotions so I quickly spaced myself from this unexpected twist in my life. I turned my computer off.
In the coming days, I tried to process my feelings. I wondered what I was supposed to feel. Was it dramatic to feel angry? Violated? Judged? Misunderstood? Though the shock of the situation faded, confusion remained and intensified. Sharing my images and my story on my blog and on Facebook was never a ploy to gain attention, and I never intended to become a nameless, spotlight Internet attraction. And while I have always known I was a little different, I never realized I was so different that I would become a sympathetic symbol for millions because of one man’s perception.
Weeks went by, and I learned that five other Facebook pages had begun using my image. The picture traveled around the world, posted
a minimum of 16 times, with over 256,000 likes, 13,000 comments,
and thousands of shares.
Many friends expressed their outrage. Others chided me: “Whatever you put online will be used somewhere else.” “Once you post it, anybody can use it.” (This is not true; laws exist to protect people from these situations.) Others encouraged me: “I know God can and will do some amazing things with your story…Just let Him use you if the door opens!”
It took six days to determine a public reply. I really wanted to run from the situation, but I knew I had to respond. I took time to think, pray, and seek counsel before responding through a blog entry and a picture of my own.
Taking the original photo, I added my own logo and the text: “Like and share this if you agree that women (and men) don’t need the Internet and thousands of strangers to validate them and their beauty.”
People often ask me, “When did you become comfortable with who you are? When did you finally learn to feel beautiful?” Thankfully, this never has been a major part of my story. Sure, I have had weak moments about my physical appearance, and that is normal. Most people struggle with their appearance from time to time. But for the most part, I have simply accepted myself as I am. Sadly, in the months following the Facebook Fiasco, I found myself wondering, “Am I really as different as they made me out in their stupid-but-very-successful post?”
For the first time, I saw myself through the eyes of thousands of people who freely shared their opinions about my looks from the safety of their home computers. It was excruciating. For the first time in my life, I truly felt uncomfortable in my own skin, catching myself looking down towards the ground more than I care to admit in response to my temporarily depleted source of confidence.
Yet, I was also reminded daily that God created me just how He wanted me. I was raised in a family that reminds me constantly that I have a God who knit me together in my mother’s womb (Psalm 139:13). For the first time, the meaning of that verse hit me. God is a “knitter.” He stitched me together Himself. Had God not wanted me to have a purple patch on my face, He wouldn’t have switched colors. God color-coordinated me to the plans He has for my life—plans that included sharing my story, speaking at camps, schools, and hospitals…and maybe even going viral.
Beyond the Stain
A month later, I found myself struggling to speak to 70 women in an old, wooden retreat center surrounded by lake and forest. I nearly canceled the speaking engagement after the Facebook Fiasco, but I couldn’t let a temporary, discouragement stop me from sharing deep truths of true worth and beauty. When I finished, my friend Denise Nicholes walked to a keyboard and began to play and sing an unfamiliar melody:
I wear no disguise; please see me through my Father’s eyes.
I didn’t ask for this door; I was made for this and so much more.
What do you see, when you look at me?
The hurt will one day fade; in His image I am made.
I’m more than what you see; I give Him all praise and glory
What do you see, when you look at me?
The hurt will one day fade, in His image I am made.
Oh I can take the rain, please try to see this girl beyond the stain
Beyond the stain, I am strong, and I am free.
Beyond the stain, this is who I’m meant to be.
I will worship Him through joy and through the pain.
I hope you see I am so much more beyond the stain.
It was my life put to song in the most beautiful way. For the first time in weeks, I saw beyond my stain. I tearfully began to see myself in my Father’s eyes, and while the stain on my face remains, the stain on my heart has begun to heal.
As I write this, I realize that most people don’t have a birthmark like mine, and their pictures haven’t gone viral. However, I’ve also come to realize that most people have their own stains they feel other people can’t see past…even if their stains don’t show physically like mine.
As you read this, you may feel stained by a decision or mistake you’ve made in the past, by the way someone has treated you, by difficult experiences in life, or perhaps even a physical feature. I’m here to tell you that you are beautiful, and you have so much to offer the world.
I’m also here to tell you that God “knitted” you, color-coordinating His plans for your life. He will never leave nor forsake you, and He sees beyond these earthly stains to His child, His incredible, perfect creation—a beautiful person with a story to tell that just might change the world. Beyond your stain, God sees you!
About the Writer: Crystal Hodges was born and raised in California. She is pursuing mass communications, and has been published in a number of online and print magazines. She loves traveling, snorkeling, and her dog, Miss Ruby Ann.
Get a Viral
To avoid Crystal's painful experience,
consider a few social media safety tips:
Only add people you know.
Arrange settings for maximum privacy.
Understand that everything you post is at risk of being shared—no matter your settings. And once something is online, it’s hard, almost impossible, to remove.
Add logos and copyright information to your photos (and articles), especially when blogging.
If you do “go viral,” know you have rights. If your image is ever used without your consent, refer to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998. Most social media outlets have procedures to remove inappropriate posts.
Understand that removing a post is an uphill battle. Of 16 image of Crystal, only eight were removed.
Although social media is instant, you don’t have to respond immediately. Take time to consider how the moment will define you. You may notice that Crystal was careful not to share the Facebook groups involved, or the names of those who run them. Six months after her ordeal, she courageously contacted the man behind the original post. After she shared her story, the two are considering ways they can work together in the future. We never know what God may do next!