I was not a “pretty girl.” With a six-inch port-wine stain birthmark covering nearly the entire left side of my face, I spent much of my teenage years struggling to avoid teasing and humiliation. From the age of four to 30, I applied a mask of thick makeup to my face every single day in an effort to hide my disfigurement from the world.
Like a normal teenager, I yearned to be liked and I did what was necessary to run with the popular crowd. My life revolved around an endless parade of boys, parties, and, regrettably, sometimes drinking and drugs as well. I was overwhelmed by my own desire to fit in and never-ending pressure from my parents, so I lashed out with outrageous behavior as a release. This was a common feeling for many of my friends at the time, but inside, I was carrying a heavier weight than most. I knew that if I let my mask slip – let people see who I really was, birthmark and all – the result would be too painful to even imagine.
I saw escape as my only means as survival. I knew I was different. I wanted to be something else and I didn’t know what, but I knew from the very beginning that I needed to go somewhere else. When I enrolled in college, I set out for the big city to chase my dreams, but I soon made a mistake that would knock me off my true path for many years. Instead of fulfilling my aspirations, I got married. My ill-fated marriage quickly fell apart, but with two small children and only myself to lean on for support, I had no choice but to move forward.
Happily, medical science had made progress in treating port-wine stains like my own and I began undergoing treatments to remove my birthmark, over 50 surgeries in all over a 20-year period. By the time I was complete, my birthmark was all but invisible. For the first time in my life, I felt began to feel beautiful.
Looking back over my years of hardship as a teenager, I realized that the people who were mean to me treated me badly not because I somehow deserved it, but because they felt bad about themselves. If I could go back, I would hold that truth in my heart and let those people keep talking, because if you know you’re living your life right and being who you are, then no one can put you down. Instead of chasing the approval of the popular crowd, I wish I had sought out people who made me feel good about being myself.
If there’s one thing I wish I could tell every girl in America, it’s that it’s all about how you approach a challenge. Everyone faces challenges in their lives, but a challenge is really a gift, an opportunity to become a better person. No matter how bleak it seems at the time, when you look back at today’s challenge it will never seem so bad as it does right now. That’s because with every hardship you overcome, you change and grow and learn, and you become better prepared for whatever life throws at you next. It’s important to step aside, take stock in what’s going on, and review who and where you are and what this challenge is about. And always seek professional help if you need it.
Though I’m glad to be rid of my port-wine stain today, I’m grateful for the strong character that my childhood flaws and early mistakes helped build. Life is totally different because I don’t feel the pain and uncertainty in myself that I used to feel. I have done so many things that I’m proud of. My hope is that every girl will hold tight to her uniqueness and trust in her own value, no matter how difficult life may be. My hardships gave me an opportunity to do something more special than I’ve ever dreamed and I wouldn’t trade my “ugly duck” experience for anything.
Susanne Veder Berger is an author, educator, business executive and mother, who currently lives' on New York City's Upper West Side. Susanne has held a variety of executive positions in the field of marketing for CitiGroup, the U.S. Tennis Association and a number of other companies and organizations. Over the past 4 years, Susanne has been working with inner city high school students in Brooklyn, New York helping them develop self-esteem, prepare for college and secure internships – Susanne Veder Berger's work in education is centered around the implementation of extra curricular activities and the development of student-run journalism programs.