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To the Woman at the Mall Who Stared at My Legs

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To the woman who stared at my legs at the mall,

First of all, I’ll say this: I get it.

A photo of the author's legs

In a world where we are told perfection is the norm and flawless skin is the only skin we’re allowed to show off, my scarred and marked up skin, some of which is covered in bandages, is shocking. Maybe even unnerving. Imperfection usually means brokenness or contagiousness.

I can’t blame you for recoiling to what society has told you to. While it’s frustrating that people constantly fall into these thoughts, I know breaking free of them isn’t easy.

I have a disorder called dermatillomania. Officially, it’s called excoriation (skin-picking) disorder, but dermatillomania is the term I learned first. It was what helped me identify what was going on with me and helped me come to terms with the state of my mind and the state of my skin. I pick my skin because of this mental illness, which is an obsessive-compulsive related disorder called a body-focused repetitive behavior. Someone else might pick at a spot on their skin and be done with it, but for me, and others like me, it’s much more difficult to control. That’s why my legs and the rest of my skin look the way they do.

A few years ago, your stare would have crushed me. The second I saw your lingering eyes, my cheeks would have flushed, I would have withdrawn, and I would have wanted to cry.

Today, when I saw your eyes flicker down to my scarred and marked up legs and stay there for longer than normal, I wasn’t bothered at all.

Before I went out, I knew wearing shorts meant people might stare and I wasn’t sure how I would handle it. I wasn’t sure what I would do or say if anyone confronted me with words or stares. I wasn’t sure if I would break or if I would hold my ground.

Seeing your scrutinizing gaze somehow made me feel powerful. I felt proud that I didn’t feel like hiding, and I felt strong for being confident enough to walk around like I did.

I will also say this: the above is just my story.

It took me years to get to the point where I was comfortable to even try going out in public with my skin looking the way it does, but many others are still hiding. Not just people who share my disorder, but people with other skin conditions or scars they are embarrassed to show because they’re afraid of the stares or the questions.

In the summer weather, it’s extremely difficult to going around in pants or long sleeves, but people do it every day. I used to do it every day. I used to feel like I was melting because my physical comfort was less important than my mental comfort.

But you, and everyone else, can help.

Next time you see someone with skin like mine, try not to stare or at least try to soften your gaze. If you have questions, gently ask. Not everyone will be comfortable enough to answer truthfully or even at all, but a gentle question is much better than sharp words and a harsh stare. Even a kind smile can brighten someone’s day when they might not feel so confident about the state of their skin.

To the woman who stared at my legs at the mall today, I say thank you for helping me realize I am able to withstand and get through it. But to you and anyone else who might do the same, all I ask is that next time you consider gentleness rather than scrutiny.

Originally published: July 1, 2016
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