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After bullies mocked her birthmark, this woman became a force for kindness

Crystal Hodges took a bad situation (finding a stolen photo of herself mocked on social media) and turned it into a cause.
/ Source: TODAY

Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder. But 25-year-old Crystal Hodges from Fresno, California has a much more powerful message: That real magic happens through kindness.

Crystal Hodges is using stories about her port wine stain birthmark to empower herself and others.
"As a kid, I never questioned my confidence," said Hodges. "I had wonderful, supportive friends and family ... I never realized that I looked different."Crystal Hodges, Rick Guidotti

Hodges was born with a birthmark known as a "port wine stain," a genetic mutation that causes a high concentration of blood vessels to cover half of her face. Hodges' birthmark also affects her ears, nose, eyes and brain; she's had 51 treatments to keep it from growing outward and compromising her nervous system and facial symmetry.

But beyond making a few extra trips to the doctor, Hodges never felt like a victim of her condition. "As a kid, I never questioned my confidence," Hodges told TODAY. "I had wonderful, supportive friends and family ... I never realized that I looked different."

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That changed in August 2014, when Hodges' photo was stolen and turned into a mean-spirited meme. "Suddenly, 30,000 people were laughing at me on the internet," she said. "People would recognize me at the store, in restaurants ... That was when I first started to hesitate. I almost deleted all of my social media."

Crystal Hodges port wine stain birthmark
"Now that it's out there, I like attaching my name to this photo," Hodges explained. "It reminds people that there's a human behind it."Crystal Hodges

Luckily, Hodges' ironclad support system was able to help build her back up again. "I have friends who believe in me, who ask me hard questions and keep me accountable," she said. "They had bigger dreams for my life than I had for myself." One friend even wrote a song about her called "Beyond the Stain."

Hodges was ultimately able to turn her ordeal into a positive: She now writes a popular blog and gives talks on cyberbullying and self-acceptance. A recent story she shared on her personal Facebook page was shared by Love What Matters. In the post, Hodges recounts an interaction with a man who told her she was beautiful while standing in line at the post office; it went viral with over 67,000 likes and thousands of shares.

Hodges isn't surprised that so many people connected with her anecdote. "Everybody has something about themselves that they don’t particularly like," she said. "Hair, weight, freckles ... We all have a story."

She continued, "I've gotten messages saying, 'I thought I was the only one,' or 'my husband makes me wear makeup to bed.' It's great to know we're not alone. But it's also important to share the positive moments ... people need to see something kind."

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Offline, Hodges has come to see her birthmark a built-in icebreaker. "It's like a magnet for people to come and talk to me," she explained. "It's opened doors to make new friends and connect with others."

And while she's happy to answer questions about the stain, she hopes people will make the effort to get to know the woman behind it, too. "People meet my birthmark before they meet me," she said. I would love if people, instead of addressing the birthmark alone, remember that I am human — and whether being kind or not, go beyond what they saw."

She added, "Let's break stereotypes before they're built."