As a youngster in the 1950s, Joie Davidow idolized the comic-strip heroine Brenda Starr and avidly followed the daily adventures of the gorgeous "girl reporter." But one strip in particular changed Davidow's life forever. In it, a little girl with a disfiguring facial birthmark refused to step outside. Brenda "rescued" the child by giving her a jar of Covermark makeup. Talk about product placement: Covermark, the brand name for a type of densely opaque foundation, had been recently formulated by Lydia O'Leary, a young chemist born with a red mark covering her face from brow to chin.
The little comic-strip girl stepped outdoors at last, ready to show the world her "clear and radiant" visage. Davidow ran to her mother with the newspaper and begged for a jar of the stuff.
She, too, was marked: A splotch covered half of Davidow's face, spawning such playground taunts as "Monster Girl" and "Grape-Juice Face." You might not believe it to see her now. But then, neither would some of her closest friends, who were stunned to learn about Davidow's birthmark for the first time when reading her new memoir, Marked for Life.
"There were a lot of very surprised people," says Davidow, who spends part of every year with her family in Berkeley. "The vast majority of friends and colleagues had no idea."
You might also not believe that someone who struggled so intensely with self-image would become a fashion journalist. But that's exactly what she has done. In the 1970s, Davidow began writing a fashion column for the Village Voice. In 1978, she cofounded the LA Weekly newspaper, for which she won an Upton Sinclair Award. Subsequently she founded LA Style magazine, then in 1995 founded Sí, a national lifestyle magazine for Latino readers. She has appeared as a lifestyle commentator on Oprah, CBS This Morning, and CNN's Sonya Live.
But this is now, that was then. Painful childhood memories still throb, such as the recollection of an old man she once saw on a subway car: a "scary man" with "ugly purple all over his face" -- a birthmark very much like hers. "I'm a nice little girl in a pretty new dress," she told herself, eyeing the lonely figure. "It can't be possible that I'll be like that man when I grow up." But to this day she is haunted by the sight of "him standing there, swaying, holding on to the metal pole, trying to be invisible."
In those days, doctors insisted that nothing could be done. Makeup was the only option -- and Covermark was only the beginning. Davidow became quite an artist with it, even dating and forming long-term relationships with men who, she is sure, never knew about her mark. Pulling off this subterfuge made her feel "as if I had dressed in drag, disguised myself," she notes, "knowing all the while that I was really a fake, hiding a secret."
Applying and wearing that daily makeup "mask" was a never-ending battle, and the book cites many incidents during which that false face threatened to dissolve. Even though she trained herself never to cry, Davidow was regularly betrayed by her sweat glands. One hot Indian-summer afternoon when the powder she had patted on over her foundation pilled up into "little doughy balls," she attempted to correct the meltdown by putting underarm antiperspirant all over her face. The result was total torture.
"My skin couldn't breathe," recalls the author, who stood there imploring herself in despair: "What sort of pathetic freak am I, standing in front of the mirror for an hour, putting on layers of makeup trying to make myself look like anybody else?"
When she was an adult, the birthmark started oozing blood. It was then that a dermatologist finally referred Davidow to an MD in Pasadena who was experimenting with a ruby laser.
Because the state of cosmetic surgery was much less advanced two decades ago than it is now, those initial treatments had little effect but to mingle white scar tissue with the persistent and still-visible red mark. However, as technology raced forward over the years, further treatments faded parts of the birthmark so effectively that Davidow could apply her makeup in minutes rather than hours. Moreover, she now opens her front door to unannounced visitors without wearing the makeup mask.
"I don't worry about scaring the mailman or the UPS guy anymore," she declares. But as far as going out in public unmade-up -- "No, never!"
She acknowledges how lucky she is that the birthmark has finally faded. This point was brought home to her when she started corresponding with others via the Birthmarks.com Web site and eventually attended an annual conference full of people who were, as she describes it, "marked with bloody stains" similar to hers. The experience proved overwhelming, yet also cathartic.
As was "standing in front of an audience" talking about the mark after "having worked so hard to keep it secret for so many years."
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