Monday, August 22, 2016

Embrace You: A Social Experiment and Celebration

Walking down the streets of New York City for the very first time, I noticed several artists drawing tourists in the middle of the pathways in the city.  Gazing at their artwork, I couldn't help but wonder, "If I asked them to draw me, would they include my facial, port wine stain birthmark?  Would they ask if I want it included in the image?  Or would they make that decision without asking me?"

While I didn't act on that idea in that moment, a few weeks later I found myself contacting several artists with one goal in mind: To see how many people would naturally include my birthmark in an art piece, and to see how each artist interprets it.

As I started this journey, there were only two rules that I gave each artist:

1. Each piece must remain politically neutral.
2. My character must remain modest in her attire.

Why Call this Project, "Embrace You"?

Sometimes when we look in the mirror, we don't like what we see.  We're having a bad hair day, a new pimple randomly appeared on our face over night, we've been bullied, or we've just never been friends with our reflections.

While this blog entry rooted from an idea attached to my birthmark, I've had days where I've struggled to embrace my appearance because of "normal" reasons.  My hair never wants to cooperate, I've always struggled with my weight, and while my birthmark as a whole doesn't bother me - my face isn't symmetrical because of the extra blood flow...And that's all my personal, internal dialogue going on there.  I've also been turned into a meme because of my difference, been told I'm "contagious", and was once approached about being on the shows "Too Ugly for Love"/"The Undateables".

Trust me, I get it.  It's hard.  It can be a constant, uphill battle - both internally and externally.

Yet, in the last four months, I've worked with 50 artists, and no two artists have drawn me the exact same way.  So, no matter how we see ourselves in the mirror, odds are...That's not how the rest of the world sees us.

Artists of San Francisco

To start my social experiment, I went to San Francisco.  The day I went, there were very few artists out working due to some morning rain. However, I was able to meet four different artists.  Here are the images that were created:

The first artist I met asked me if I wanted my birthmark in the image.  With a smile, I told him, "Sure!"  We talked the whole time, getting to know one another.  At some point it came up that I was  once turned into a meme - which went viral to 30 million people.  Excitedly he exclaimed, "I thought you were the meme lady!!  Wow.  I never thought I would see someone's picture online, then see them in-person, and draw them."  He is from the US, and you can follow him here on Instagram.

As this artist from Russia started drawing me, he pointed to my face and asked, "Is that permanent?  Do you want that in the drawing?"  He told me he often asks men the same question about their facial hair because "maybe they forgot to shave that day".  About 15 minutes later, he told me, "I don't know if this is rude to say or not - but it looks as though you were punched in the face." #YouShouldSeeTheOtherGuy

This artist was from China, and never brought up my birthmark.

This artist sat by the first artist mentioned above, and is also from the US.  As he listened to our conversation, he told me, "I wouldn't of asked you if you wanted it in the picture.  It's a part of your character."  So, I asked him to draw me too.

Going Online

After my interactions with the four artists in San Fransisco, I knew I needed to take this social experiment a step further.  It was time to take it online.  

Going to both Craigslist and Fiverr, I emailed several artists, asking them to draw me.  Two of the artists requested at least 5 photos, so I made a rule: every artist that draws me will receive the exact same photos.  So, I sent two photos where my birthmark is super obvious, two where it's hidden by special makeup, and one where it still shows - but the color is calmed down due to a lower-end makeup brand.  After attaching all five images, I ended each email with, "Please let me know if you have any questions!  I can't wait to see what you come up with."

I emailed 8 artists online.  In the end...
- One artist Googled me and found my blog, and quickly learned that my birthmark is something that I celebrate.
- One artist added my birthmark, without asking about it.
- Two artists asked me if I wanted my birthmark in the image.
- The rest initially left it off, until I asked them to include it.

Here are some of the images I received, and some of the stories behind them:

Many of the artists left my birthmark out of the image when they weren't told to add it.  However, I was okay with that, knowing there is so much more to me than my birthmark.  If an artist didn't include the mark without my prompting, I would ask them why.  This artist (from New Zealand), for example, explained, "You're birthmark wasn't left out intentionally (I happen to think it's beautiful), its only a part of the process in creating the art.  The style only shows the shadows that are created by outlines (hair, face, glasses) and depth of facial feature curves (mouth, eyes, nose, smile lines). If your birthmark happened to have deeper lines like a scar perhaps, then the lines would be there to show it. I certainly hope I didn't offend you - I really do happen to think you're birthmark is beautiful. :-)"

This artist from Venezuela specializes in a few different styles, one being Disney.  Going off my favorite Disney Princess, Belle, this is what was created.  And since it's based off of Belle's character, I asked him to include the book, "Looking for Lovely", which was written by one of my favorite authors, Annie F. Downs.  Looking for Lovely was written to help encourage others to search for the little lovely things in life, during the good times and the bad - which is what I've strived to do for years.  Life is too hard to dwell in the hardship, and those little lovely moments are crucial, which is a lesson I learned early due to my journey with a facial difference - and just by living every day life.  But y'all...Read. This. Book.  Find your lovely.

The cool thing about this Picasso style image is that the artist (from Argentina) included my birthmark without asking about it.  They also added purple highlights - which I sometimes have, but weren't included in any of the images I sent them.  

This artist from Venezuela originally left my birthmark off the image that she created.  Messaging her back, asking why it was left off, she explained to me, "I didn't know if you wanted your birthmark. In the beginning I wanted to make a lot of flowers on your face that represent the birthmark but I was not sure. So I just let the flower around you."  In addition, she also explained that she has a cousin who has a birthmark just like mine.  While she's never drawn her cousin, she is certain her cousin would ask her to leave off her birthmark.

A Social Experiment Turned into a Celebration

After a while I wondered how the images would differ, if I intentionally asked people to include my birthmark in their art.  What would people come up with if I asked them to celebrate the birthmark, and/or a part of my story?

Encouraging me along the way, when the artists found out about my project, several of them offered to draw my images for free and/or at a discounted rate - which was extremely kind of them, and I am forever grateful for their sweet hearts.

Interestingly enough, one artist (from Japan) left my birthmark off, even after I asked them to include it from the get-go.  Also, out of all the artists I messaged with - only one told me they did not want to be a part of my project.  When I inquired why, the artist from Spain told me, "...This is not my type of project.  My beauty in my eyes should not be the same to you, so I think I can't satisfy you in my own ways, it will be different which may worry you."  That being said, I'm not sure if they meant they didn't find my birthmark to be beautiful, or they were afraid of being given full creative rights to celebrate it without specific parameters.

Here, however, are some of the amazing pieces I did receive...

My good friend, Rick Guidotti (from the US), is a camera guru.   He's an award winning, former fashion photographer who used to photograph models, such as Cindy Crawford.  Through his organization, Positive Exposure, he now travels the world photographing people with different medical conditions, celebrating every single person he meets.  (He's even done a TEDx Talk, which you can find here.)

This was created by artist Ossain Cardenas, from the United States.  Looking me up on Instagram and here on my blog, he saw a picture of my favorite "She Will Not Be Moved" necklace and included it without any prompting.  He told me, "I felt the message on that necklace was the perfect piece to complete the portrait...I believe it gave my interpretation of your image more power."
This artist is from Serbia, and while sharing what inspired this image, she told me, "I was thinking: so what if she has a birthmark on her face, she has energy that can hold the whole universe."  Definitely a favorite!  (Okay.  Real talk.  I may say that about every piece listed here...But this one is definitely on my "top 5" list.)

While I've never given a TED Talk, it is on my God-sized dream board to do so, and it was important to me to have this image drawn.  Working with the artist, she asked me if I preferred a more realistic look, or more cartoon style.  Wanting to give her wiggle room to be as creative as she wanted, I let her pick - with the request of including one of my favorite necklaces from Natalie Grant's collection, "She Will Not Be Moved", and a bracelet from 3Strands Global - an organization fighting back against human trafficking.    This artist is from South Africa, and as it turns out, we both have TED Talk dreams!  I want to give a talk, and she wants to do animations for them.  (What are the odds I would ask an artist to create an image representing my TED Talk dream, and that they would also have a TED Talk dream too?)

In January, at an event called Dare to Be, one of my God-sized dreams turned into a God-sized reality: I shared the stage with the woman who said "yes" to speaking, so that I could say "yes".  I shared the stage with Natalie Grant, and her British pal, Charlotte Gambill. While I have a video of this moment, I don't have a good picture.  So, I asked my new friend, Sara Erb (also from California), to draw this moment for me.  Once again, I gave her freedom in how she chose to celebrate this moment, and I love what she came up with.
The sweetest 5-year-old in the world drew this picture for me.  Rayna, my cousin, drew us together by a house that "we're going to buy and live in together for forever".  It doesn't get much sweeter than that. (Rayna is from California.)

My dear friend, Brittany Echols (from Alabama), drew this piece for me.  After drawing this piece, she told me what inspired her creation, "While I was creating this piece I thought about the purpose behind the piece.  Often beauty is defined in certain terms or ideas.  It seems to be black or white.  This is beautiful, and this is not.  Beauty is often found in the most unexpected places and it's not black and white.  Beauty is often found in one-of-a-kind pieces.  Crystal Hodges is that through and through!  She is beautiful and one-of-a-kind on the inside and out!"    You can follow Brittany's blog here.

A couple of years ago, my friend Denise Nicholes, wrote a superhero story for me.  So, in turn, I thought it would be fun to have a superhero created in honor of the story Denise wrote for me.   The character's name is Amethyst, which is represented by the "A" on the shirt. And I have to say - I love the pink highlights in the hair!  (This was drawn by an artist here in the United States.)

Let's be real.  Floating books, flying pens, and a map?  This. Is. So. Me.  (This artist is from Indonesia, and she totally gets me.)

I've probably said this about all the images during the last four months, but this is definitely one of my favorites.  This artist is from the beautiful country of Uruguay, and even included my dog, Ruby.  I mean, come on, y'all...I'm a paper doll! How cool is that?  When I asked her about how most people react to being drawn, she told me, "Sometimes people want me not to draw their glasses or make them look younger, or straight hair instead of curly.  Nobody seems really happy with themselves!...I thought that you couldn´t be prettier: Your purple spot seems to me a watercolor brushstroke!!"
While I gave this artist the freedom to be as creative as she liked, I did request this image.  It took me nearly 24 years before meeting anyone with the same conditions that I have (a Port Wine Stain birthmark and Sturge Weber Syndrome), and I wanted this moment to be celebrated.  Drawn with me is my friend Sophia.  She's from Australia, and has quite the story.  To learn more about Sophia and to hear more of her story, you can find her page here on Facebook.   The artist who drew this is from Macedonia, and was excited to be a part of this project. 
This artist is from Venezuela.  This was the first time she's drawn a person in this style, and I think she did a great job!  Looking at this art piece, my friend Gabby told me, "I like that she made your face asymmetrical, since the birthmark does affect the symmetry."

Trying to figure out the right color for my fin and for the background, we talked about different possibilities.  I threw out a few colors, one being blue, since that's the color of my eyes.  The artist replied, "I liked your suggestion of blue because it helped bring out the color that makes your birthmark shine and be truly you. :)"   This talented artist is from the US, and you can follow her here on Instagram.

Drawing me in a Tim Burton style, this artist from Macedonia told me, "Like the sky, every person is beautiful.  The sky can have loads of shapes, and colors, but no matter what it's still beautiful.  Behind the clouds the sky is always clear."

This was drawn by my new friend, Bryce Westervelt, from the United States.  He told me some stories about some clients who requested to be modified so much that they became more of a "Utopian" version of themselves, after requesting some major artistic "plastic surgery."  Talking about my project, he told me, "It is, in a way, very vulnerable to allow someone else to depict you - to dare to be seen how someone else sees you." 

Harry Potter?  #YesPlease
(This was drawn by an artist from Russia.)
Okay.  So I PROMISE this was created before I found out about the Pokemon GO app.  Gotta love being a 90's kid!
(This was created by an artist from Mexico.)

Interestingly enough, while I often have jokes about color coordinating my clothes to my face/birthmark, I literally never wear orange.  Yet, so many of the artists incorporated orange into their creations - and it looks amazing.  (This artist is from Pakistan.) 
"Everything is AWESOME."
(I know - I now have the song stuck in my head too...Oops.)
This artist is from Vietnam and I love that she included my Winter Jam concert swag in this piece.

Several people have told me in the past that my birthmark looks like a heart.  Recently, an article was published about my story, which also describes it as a heart shape.  So, I thought it was interesting when this artist from Bosnia and Herzegovina saw it the same way.  
My dear friend, Anna Donahue, drew this for me.  She's 11 and drew this before ever meeting me.  This summer I had the joy of meeting her and her family last month, and hearing about Anna's journey with Spina Bifida.  (You can learn more about a nonprofit her mom, Annie Beth, started called Signposts Ministries here.)

So...What now?

I don't know where you're at in your life journey.  But please know - from your physical appearance to your talents and passions, you are beautifully (or, swaggfully, if you're a dude) and wonderfully made.  You're talented, and one of a kind.  Your dreams are worth fighting for, and you are worth more than you know.

My friend...You are a rockstar.

It's time to 'Embrace You'.

The Travelin' Chick,

Follow me on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.  You can also find me on Snapchat: crystal.hodges


  1. That was AMAZING, my friend! I'm simply floored.

    1. Thanks, friend! These aren't even all the images that I received. I have a minion one, Peanuts character, and several more! There are so many talented artists out there!

  2. I loved all of the paintings. They are beautiful just like you! You are an inspiration to us all!

  3. Awesome as always! Why not make a little "grid" of all the pics together, or all the "other" ones that you didn't feature. I"d love to see that!

    1. I'll definitely have to do something to feature all the pieces. :-)

  4. What an incredible idea of having different artists draw you!! You are so creative to think of this idea. I love love it!! Brilliant!

  5. Wow it's an honor to be apart of this social experiment! Great post!

    1. Thank YOU for being a part of it! I'm so thankful for you.

  6. Replies
    1. I linked to your post from

  7. Hi Crystal,

    This was a really clever and interesting experiment! Thanks for sharing it.

    Also, it's great to hear you sharing your story about having a port wine stain in such an open an positive way. I'm sure you're helping a lot of people. Keep up the great work!

    1. Thank you for reading, Matt!! I'm glad you liked this entry. If you're interested in seeing the rest of the images, I just posted part two last night. :-)

  8. Crystal... We need a gallery to display them all.

    1. Wouldn't that be fun?? I'm actually working on a video right now to display them all in one spot - I figure it's the next to best thing for now.

  9. I really enjoyed reading the article and seeing the pictures. Thank you for creating that. As a mother of a son with a facial PWS I want him to embrace it as you do, but I do worry about how others will treat him. Thank you for your transparency and openness. God is definitely using you!

    1. Thank you for your comment, and for coming to my blog. I'm so glad that this blog entry has encouraged you! If you're interested in seeing the rest of the images, I just posted part two of Embrace You. Check it out! :-)

  10. Omg! I love this! You are beautiful!!! <3

  11. Love this! The universe one is pretty amazing. My daughter has a hemangioma in almost the same spot. We treated it for medical reasons,and now for cosmetic as well tho there will always be a shadow of it there, which is good with me bc it's very much a part of who she is while it doesn't define her. I feel like you have that perfect balance and know that's not an easy thing.

    1. I usually do have a good balance, although there are a few off-balance days. You sound like a wonderful mother, and I'm sure your kiddo will grow up with a good and healthy balance as well! :-)

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