Beauty Marks: A History Lesson

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I don’t know when my beauty mark first appeared, but I do know it was some time before I could tell the difference between left and right. Now it resides just above my mouth on the right side of my face, and when I was a kid, the only way I could be really sure I’d turned to the right was by touching the mole first. Weird tic, no doubt, but it worked.

Now I more or less forget about it, outside of spacey moments when someone asks me to turn at a traffic light or move this way or that for a photograph. But once, after a bad sunburn sent me to the dermatologist, the doctor asked if I wanted to have it removed—not because it was cancerous, just because it was there—and I left her office in a huff. My beauty mark is a part of me! If it wasn’t dangerous, it wasn’t going anywhere. There was comfort in this certainty.

Call it what you will—birth mark, beauty mark, or overachieving freckle. A mole by any other name would be just a mole…but a mole of distinction? Interpreters of old believed there was more to these spots than met the eye. Let's explore, shall we?

*Everything always starts with a jealous God

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The mythical explanation of antiquity was that the gods, concerned that some mortals were just too beautiful, sent dark spots down to mar pretty faces. Meanwhile, on our earthly plane, scribes were writing about “olives of the body,” attemping to deduce the science of moles. They came up with a guide: a mark near the mouth indicated gluttonous tendencies; one on the neck foretold a possible future beheading, and so on. Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, developed a more complicated system of mole mapping informed by astrology. And even though flawless skin was always preferred, Romans would apply leather patches to disguise pockmarks or scars as beauty marks instead.

*A royal game of telephone

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Medieval Europe, always the downer of any historical round-up, saw moles as evidence that the devil had entered a body—this is why witches are imagined with hairy moles on their gnarled noses or chins.

The mood lightened up by the 18th century, when moles were all the rage in the royal courts of Europe. Courtiers of both sexes would wear artificial beauty marks called mouches (French for “flies'). These adhesive patches were made of silk, taffeta, or velvet, and came in a variety of shapes—including hearts, spades, clubs, even tableaus (an entire horse-drawn carriage-shaped patch has been documented). They were so popular in Venice that an entire street—Calle de le Moschete—was dedicated to vendors of paste-on birthmarks.

Placement was a language unto itself; the infamous mistress of Louis XV, Madame Du Barry, created a crib sheet for mouche-decoding. A mouche on the cheek meant you were a flirt, while one near the lower lip suggested you were discreet (but still wanted to let everyone know it). Even private messages were sent via beauty mark. In Spain, one suitor learned the status of his beloved’s relationship with another man by reading her face: a patch on her right temple let him know a break-up was on the horizon and she would soon be back on the market. It certainly sounds like a fun game, which you and your loved ones can play at home with the help of Bell’occhio’s Mouches Pour Bal, Hottiedots, Marbella’s Beauty Mark, or just some strategic waterproof eyeliner application.

*Read my face

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In some Eastern traditions, moles are seen as symbols of luck. Mian Xiang, the Chinese practice of face reading, views red and black moles as auspicious and dull or brown moles as bad omens. Spontaneous bleeding or sudden appearance? You better watch yourself. A Mian Xiang reading of my face suggests I may “tend to have foot problems' and will “need to prevent water-related accidents,” but could also have a balanced and successful life, and be rich, famous, and enjoy a lavish lifestyle. I’m crossing my fingers for that last one.

*Ms. Pac-Man, the ultimate sex symbol

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In America, early film starlets like Clara Bow and Jean Harlow sported migrating spots that ushered in the celebrity beauty mark to rule them all: Marilyn Monroe’s. As Norma Jeane, it was just a faint freckle on her cheek. In the '60s, Elizabeth Taylor, Etta James, and Edie Sedgwick sported beauty marks that seemed to grow bolder as their stars rose. The '70s featured the spunky moles of Goldie Hawn and post-yé-yé France Gall. And the beauty mark of the '80s projected a sultry-smutty glamour on the lips of Madonna and Cindy Crawford—a look later channeled via piercing by Amy Winehouse and tattooing à la Dita Von Teese. Meanwhile, Ms. Pac-Man was cast as coquette in 1982 with an 8-bit beauty mark and a bright red bow and has been going strong ever since.

Plenty of celebrities have opted for removal—Sarah Jessica Parker, Madonna, and Enrique Iglesias, to name a few. And given the very real dangers of skin cancer, it’s hardly a choice you can fault them for making. SJP, for her part, worried after fans admonished her for “getting rid of her trademark,” A valid concern, only made more interesting by the occasions when magazines opt to erase celebrity beauty marks and freckles for the sake of cover art. Recent Top Shelf-er Lilly Hartley expressed frustration with the practice—even going as far as to demand it's replacement on her face. Which goes to show what's been true in the case of beauty marks since antiquity: Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but a beauty mark is what you make of it.

—Lauren Maas

Photos via Vogue Paris, Lula , Lynch/Forst Productions, Paramount Pictures, The Cut , Genlux , Oyster , Twentieth Century Fox Film Coporation , Mark Abrahams, Clash , MGM Studios , Paper , Vanity Fair , Interview Russia , Paramount Vantage , V Magazine , Nickolas Muray, Vogue Australia , Dior, W Magazine , Sony Pictures , and Alexander Wang.