All About Birthmarks

Birthmark Myths and Social Stigma

Birthmarks have spawned myths and superstitions throughout human history. Every culture has a slightly different take on these spots -- sometimes good, and sometimes very, very bad.

Many societies once believed that a pregnant woman's behavior could cause birthmarks. Some believe that eating too many red foods caused strawberry marks. Others believed that strong fearful emotions or overwhelming desires in a mother imprinted the marks. More recently, people thought that X-rays directed at a pregnant woman left marks on her baby.

Birthmarks have other meanings in some cultures where reincarnation is prevalent. In some cases, people believe that the marks indicate an area where a person was injured in a previous life.

Some interpretations of birthmarks are more insidious. People with birthmarks have been cast out of normal society and demonized as witches because they were born with the "devil's mark." And in Japan, many pregnant women were warned never to look at fire, lest their baby be born with a "burn" on his skin.

Contemporary societies aren't exempt from these kinds of stigma. In India one woman recently was ostracized from her peers because they thought her birthmark suggested that she was possessed. Fortunately, not all birthmark legends have such negative connotations -- in some eastern European countries, it's considered good luck to touch someone with a birthmark.

But even without superstitions and myths adding to the confusion, birthmarks often come with heavy emotional baggage. Many people ridicule children with disfiguring birthmarks, leaving psychological wounds much deeper than the marks themselves.

Parents and friends of children with clearly visible birthmarks can help prevent and dampen emotional distress caused by birthmarks. Because children learn to respond to ridicule or shock by observing others, treating birthmarks as just another normal part of a unique childhood may make things easier. And being supportive in all aspects of a child's emotional development will help them learn to deal with their birthmark gracefully as they mature.

If you're interested in learning more about your skin and other related topics, follow some of the links below.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles


  • American Academy Of Dematology. "Vascular Birthmarks." (Sept. 16, 2009)
  • American Osteopathic College of Dermatology. "Moles." (Sept. 16, 2009)
  • "Old Wives Tales." (Sept. 16, 2009)
  • Bohn, Deborah. "What Parents Should Know About Birthmarks." Huggies Baby Network. (Sept. 16, 2009)
  • Children's Hospital Boston. "Hemangioma." (Sept. 16, 2009)
  • Children's Hospital Boston. "History: From Folklore to Science." (Sept. 16, 2009)
  • Ethington, Glenda. "Types of Birthmarks." (Sept. 16, 2009)
  • "Birthmarks." (Sept. 16, 2009)
  • "Birthmarks And Other Abnormal Skin Pigmentation." (Sept. 16, 2009)
  • The New York Times Health Guide. "Port-Wine Stain." (Sept. 16, 2009)
  • Plastic and Craniofacial Surgery for Infants and Children. "Treatment & Options." (Sept. 16, 2009)
  • Schweizer, Estelle. "Folklore, Facts, and Fallacies." (Sept. 16, 2009)
  • "Birthmarks." (Sept. 16, 2009)
  • Vascular Birthmarks Foundation. "Hemangioma Information." (Sept. 16, 2009)
  • WebMD. "Birthmarks - Topic Overview." (Sept. 16, 2009)