At 16, Eddie is tall and athletic. He’s been treating closed comedones on his forehead and chest off and on for a couple of years.
"I hope you can help him," his mother says. "There are days when he won’t go to school, he’s so embarrassed."
If you sat people down and asked them to list what people hate about their bodies, they wouldn’t come close to guessing what we dermatologists run into every day. Here are some cases I’ve seen lately. I’m sure you can easily come up with your own examples.
• A 50-year-old attorney with a wart on the dorsum of his right hand wanted me to take it off. "I sign a lot of documents," he said," and I’d prefer that clients remember me for my legal skills, not the wart on my hand."
• A 36-year-old waiter with a picker’s nodule over the proximal interphalangeal joint of his left fifth finger said I just had to get rid of it. "I’m a waiter," he said. "This is killing my tips."
• A 36-year-old woman gave up yoga a year ago, because she was sure the woman on the adjacent mat was disgusted by her plantar warts.
• A sprightly retiree, age 88(!), insisted on paying out of pocket to remove dermatosis papulosa nigra lesions from her face. Her explanation? "My children want me to stay at home, but I want to get out and be social!"
Self-consciousness doesn’t require lesions. For instance, I saw an 11-year-old last month with widespread atopic dermatitis, the kind that’s lifelong, miserably itchy, and hard to control. Yet she wasn’t even being treated. Why had she come now?
"What bothers you most about this?" I asked her.
"This brown patch on my neck," she said.
That’s right – not the itch, not the scratching, not the staying awake at night. What bothered her was the postinflammatory pigmentation on her neck that other kids would see and comment on.
She’s not alone. Another mother brought her 8-year-old daughter to see me. The girl’s eczema was being treated with nothing but moisturizer (which was "working, sort of").
"The reason we’re here," said Mom, "is that now she is starting to get self-conscious about the dark staining on her hand."
As doctors, we’re trained to think functionally so we can measure the ways disease impairs functionality: length of life, duration of fever, days out of work, oxygen saturation, percentage of involved body surface.
But you can’t measure shame. Nor can you predict what will produce it. Even after all these years, people surprise me all the time.
The secondary codes some insurers demand to cover wart treatment include pain, rapid growth, or bleeding. They do not include, "Clients are staring at my hand at real estate closings." Or, "This bump is reducing my tips." We could, of course, tell people not to mind being stared at, but they will not agree. They know how people look at them, and what parts of them they look at.
If any of us had a big welt over one eye, we might think twice before going to work, knowing that every patient and staff member are going to ask, "What bar were you in, and what does the other guy look like?" The teenager with the stain on her neck and the boy with the papules on his forehead and chest feel that way every morning.
Basically, nobody wants to stand out. If we do, we’d like it to be for some admirable quality. The truth is, we shouldn’t really take credit for being called handsome, smart, or healthy, but we do anyway. By the same token, it’s not our fault if we’re ill or different, but being singled out for either makes things worse – not functionally, just humanly.
Many years ago, a 15-year-old girl asked me to take off a mole from the top of her foot.
"The mole’s fine," I said. "Why do you want it off?"
"It’s embarrassing," she said.
"How?" I asked her. "Don’t you go to pools in the summer?"
"I stand with the one foot covering the spot on the other foot. Nobody has ever seen it."
Not everything people are embarrassed about can be removed with a cream or a hyfrecator. But shame is powerful, and we need to recognize it for what it is so we can address it if we can.
Dr. Rockoff practices dermatology in Brookline, Mass. He is on the clinical faculty at Tufts University, Boston, and has taught senior medical students and other trainees for 30 years.