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The Olives of the Body Are Only Skin Deep

Moles have attracted their share of esoteric interpretations in the past. Science offers more grounded answers.

Does a mole on the nose testify to an insatiable lust in the bedroom? Strange as it may sound, some people in ancient Greece used to believe that. Moles were referred to in one early book as the olives of the body. By looking at the shape of a mole and its position, some claimed they could divine the future. It even had a name: moleomancy.

None of it holds up to modern scrutiny, but mole divination was part of humanity’s early attempts at understanding how our bodies worked and what they were trying to tell us. Moles aren’t gauges of our sexual appetites or anatomical portents of our doom, although in certain cases they act as an early warning system.

If we were to zoom in real close on a mole, also known as a beauty mark, we would see that it is made up of a whole lot of a type of cell called a melanocyte. Melanocytes are specialized cells that produce the pigment melanin that contributes to our skin, hair and eye colours. This pigment is a somewhat simple molecule, derived from one of the building blocks of proteins, and when large melanocytes aggregate below the surface of our skin, they form a mole. It is the accumulation of the cells themselves that creates a mole; when our cells overproduce the melanin pigment, we instead get a freckle.

The scientific name for a mole is a nevus (pronounced “NEE-vus”, the plural being pronounced “NEE-veye”), which is Latin for “birthmark” even though a nevus can also be acquired later in life. These acquired nevi typically pop up in the first three decades of life, especially if moles are common in the family, if the person spent a lot of time in the sun as a child, and if their skin is lightly pigmented. Nevi can be flat or raised, they often contain hairs, and their colour ranges from tan to brown to pink, and even to blue sometimes.

Roughly one in every fifty to one hundred people is born with at least one small mole, with larger moles being present at birth in about one in 20,000 babies. Giant moles are sometimes known as bathing-suit nevi because they can cover large areas of the trunk the way a swimsuit would.

It is not completely clear why moles arise in the first place. We know they come about because melanocytes start proliferating at this spot and they extend deep into the skin, but what drives them to accumulate in this way is a mystery. One popular folkloric explanation is that if a pregnant woman does not satisfy her food cravings, her baby will be born with a mole in the shape of the food their mom craved. This superstition is unfortunately part of a long history of blaming mothers for the perceived physical imperfections of their babies: for centuries, it was commonly believed that the beautiful and ugly things a woman was witness to during pregnancy would imprint onto her baby, with distressing sights placing the unborn at risk for physical malformations.

While a mole is not in and of itself cancerous, it does share an origin with tumours: they are both considered neoplasms. The word “neoplasm” means “new growth,” but while cancer is a malignant new growth (meaning it tends to invade the surrounding tissue), a mole is considered benign. Some moles darken with age, others get lighter, seldom a sign that there is something wrong afoot. But occasionally, an innocent mole does develop a melanoma, a type of skin cancer. Small- and medium-sized moles have a less than 1% chance of undergoing this change over a lifetime but the giant ones? One in ten to twenty of those will develop a melanoma, usually during childhood, so they have to be looked at by a medical doctor regularly.

Luckily, there are signs that a nevus may be going bad and turning cancerous, and these signs can be summarized by the initialism ABCDE. When one half of the nevus looks different from the other half (asymmetry), when its margin becomes irregular or poorly defined (border), when its coloration changes (colour), when it starts to grow (diameter), and when it changes in any noticeable way over time, starts itching or bleeding (evolution), that’s when a dermatologist should be consulted. Sometimes, it turns out to be an atypical mole; sometimes, it is a darkening or itching linked to pregnancy or adolescence; sometimes, it’s cancer. As for the popular belief that rubbing a mole will turn it into cancer, there is thankfully no evidence that this is the case.

Moles don’t have any special meaning. They are not omens. They are not caused by horrific sights or unmet cravings during pregnancy. They reveal nothing about our personality. They are simply collections of pigment-producing cells. We may view them as distracting (as in the Mole’s mole in Austin Powers in Goldmember) or as alluring (as in Marilyn Monroe’s signature mark). The beauty (or lack thereof) of beauty marks is truly in the eye of the beholder.

Take-home message:
- Moles are known scientifically as nevi and they consist of accumulations of pigment-producing cells that you can be born with or acquire later in life
- If a mole starts to change shape or colour, starts to bleed or itch, or becomes irregular in shape, it could indicate the presence of a type of skin cancer
- There is no evidence that moles arise because of unmet food cravings during pregnancy, that rubbing a mole gives you cancer, or that moles can be used to divine personality traits or the future


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