Carmen George

Fresno woman with large facial birthmark starts social experiment that leads to ‘Embrace You’

50 artists, 50 interpretations of one woman

Crystal Hodges spent the past four months working with 50 artists from around the world seeing how they would depict her in regard to the port wine stain birthmark on her face. She says the "Embrace You" social experiment allowed her to help other
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Crystal Hodges spent the past four months working with 50 artists from around the world seeing how they would depict her in regard to the port wine stain birthmark on her face. She says the "Embrace You" social experiment allowed her to help other

Walking past a group of street artists earlier this year, Crystal Hodges of Fresno thought of the large birthmark on her face and wondered: If I asked them to draw me, would they include it?

A few weeks later, the 25-year-old took to the streets of San Francisco, ready to find out.

There was once a time when Hodges could go days without thinking of her birthmark, called a port-wine stain, but that was several years ago, before a photo of her face went viral online. She estimates it has been seen by more than 30 million people.

It is, in a way, very vulnerable to allow someone else to depict you – to dare to be seen how someone else sees you.

Bryce Westervelt, one of the artists who drew Crystal Hodges

She has read thousands of comments about her birthmark since 2014. One article went as far as calling it a “ticking time bomb.” While it’s true her port-wine stain is part of having Sturge-Weber syndrome, which affects the blood vessels, her symptoms are only glaucoma and migraines, she says, not death.

To Hodges, there is nothing scary about her purple splotch. In fact, she likes it so much that on the rare occasions that she does wear makeup, she only covers around half her face with foundation – the side that doesn’t contain the mark. She color coordinates her outfits to match her face, and once added purple highlights to her hair.

It isn’t always easy to go into the world this way.

“One time at the hospital, the receptionist, instead of saying, ‘Hi, how are you?’ She looked at me and said, ‘What do you use to cover your hemangioma?’ So she was diagnosing me,” Hodges says. “And I was like, ‘I use basic makeup stuff. I don’t feel the need to hide it.’ 

The woman’s response: “Yeah, it probably bothers other people more than it bothers you.”

After that, Hodges recalls, “I just went to my car and I ugly cried.”

Go beyond what you see. So often, people meet my birthmark before they meet me.

Crystal Hodges

As Hodges approached her first street artist in May, she wondered how he would react.

The experience was painless. He asked if she wanted her birthmark in the image, and she cheerfully replied “sure!” They got to talking, and Hodges explained how someone hijacked a photo of her face and turned it into a meme with the words “1 like = beautiful.”

It appeared on a Facebook page beside prayer requests for children with cancer and premature babies. She felt like a sympathy case, and she hated that.

She countered with a meme of her own, with the message: “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.” Hearing this, the artist excitedly exclaimed, “I thought you were the meme lady!”

The experience wasn’t so positive with the second artist, a Russian man who said: “I don’t know if this is rude to say or not – but it looks as though you were punched in the face.”

She has heard that one before. Her port-wine stain is also slightly raised, making the left side of her face look as if it’s a little swollen. It also temporarily darkens and swells after laser treatments. She has had 50. Hodges does them only for health reasons, to keep the stain from growing and impacting her speech. She gets sad when its color fades.

We’re all different. Some of us just wear our differences on the outside.

Crystal Hodges

In San Francisco, four artists drew her, and all but one included her stain. She took her experiment further, emailing another eight requesting portraits. She sent each five photos: Two where her birthmark is obvious, two where it’s hidden by makeup, and one where it’s somewhat visible. She ended each email: “Please let me know if you have any questions! I can’t wait to see what you come up with.”

Half the artists included her birthmark. Of those who didn’t (she later asked them to add it), one thought it might have been a shadow. Another said her cousin has a birthmark and knew she wouldn’t want it included.

That is when Hodges decided to ask future artists to include her stain. Her social experiment turned into a celebration. She named her project “Embrace You.”

She now has more than 50 portraits painted by artists from more than 20 countries. They range from mermaids and Disney princesses to Picasso-like shapes. Many can be viewed on her blog, thetravelinchick.com. In one of her favorites, she is standing before galaxies. The artist who created it, Danijela Tasic of Serbia, explains: “I was thinking, ‘So what if she has a birthmark on her face, she has energy that can hold the whole universe.’ 

Just because I see myself a certain way in the mirror, clearly the rest of the world doesn’t see me in the same way.

Crystal Hodges

Hodges now works as the social media coordinator for the Vascular Birthmarks Foundation and is campaign manager of the group’s anti-bullying campaign. She has dreams of doing more writing and motivational speaking, inspired by a talk given by Christian singer Natalie Grant, who she shared a stage with in January.

“Sometimes when we look in the mirror, we don’t like what we see,” Hodges writes on her blog. “We’re having a bad hair day, a new pimple randomly appeared on our face overnight, we’ve been bullied, or we’ve just never been friends with our reflections.”

But, she continues, “no two artists have drawn me the exact same way. So, no matter how we see ourselves in the mirror, odds are, that’s not how the rest of the world sees us.”

People have all kinds of stains – external and internal, she says, so stop trying to “fit that mold.” Let’s embrace “who we are as we are,” because only then can we “really dare to dream and change the world.”

Of her own stain, she likes a description from a 12-year-old boy best, who once told her: “You know, they say a stain is a bad thing, it has a negative meaning. But we stain wood to make it more beautiful.”

Carmen George: 559-441-6386, @CarmenGeorge

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