Stretch marks: the true story
Abby OReilly // 10 February 2008
A friend of mine was recently upset about her “ugly” stretch marks. Apparently puberty had “slashed” a number of silvery-white lines across her thighs and hips, which meant that not only was she ruined forever but also that she’d have to spend thousands of pounds on expensive “reconstructive surgery” to reverse the damage nature had etched across her body. At this point it’s probably worth mentioning that she’s a size 10, with an enviable figure and is an absolutely lovely woman. She showed me these so-called marks of Satan, sliding down her skirt just enough for me to see the top of her hips. I watched her face. She squeezed her eyes shut as tightly as she could could, her lips twisted, and she contorted her cheeks into a number of monstrous painful-looking poses. Had I not known better I’d have thought that either a) she was peeling back her skin to reveal a dermis consisting entirely of slimy silver fish or b) was in the process of expelling a particularly obnoxious turd. For a brief moment I expected to be confronted with a chunk of flesh covered with the remnants of nature’s red silly string (which would have neither repulsed nor disgusted me in all honesty – what difference do they make?). I wasn’t. As far as I could see there was nothing but unblemished skin on show; there was certainly no cause for anxiety. I could, however, understand her insecurities, and the reason why so many women feel that they have to strive for flawless perfection – it’s what we see every day.
Stretch marks are considered a source of shame. It’s something my friend and I had never spoken about before, and something I would not usually bring up over a quiet pint and a packet of cheese and onion. While it’s acceptable for us to speak about our pubic mounds, however hairy, and our intimate grooming techniques (whether we choose to let the fanny forest flourish or to weed the area, removing all stragglers in the immediate vicinity) stretch marks are a no-go area. We don’t want them, and we don’t want anybody to know we have them. They are seen, for many, as embarrassing, nothing more than evidence of a bad genetic constitution, an unhealthy lifestyle and a pathetic beauty routine. So, now for the confession. Deep breath. I have stretch marks on the sides of my breasts. I have had them since the latter half of my teenage years. Why I have them? It’s probably owing to a combination of a surge in hormones in my system during puberty and over-eating. I have quite a substantial chest (proportionate to the rest of me) and so it’s not that surprising. As I’ve grown older they’ve faded from red to white, but they are definitely present. I blushed as I wrote that, which probably confirms my belief that this is a good topic to post about. It’s time to speak about this as not only is it something that affects a large portion of the female population, but because it strangely continues to be a taboo subject. I have felt self-conscious about these marks in the past, concerned that I would never be aesthetically pleasing or feminine owing to the fact I could not emulate the photographs of perfect figures splashed across magazines and showcased on television programmes. I felt I was fundamentally flawed, and could never understand why reaching maturity had left me “scarred” in such a way when every female celebrity as far as the eye can see has emerged from the chrysalis of youth shrouded in supple soft skin that would make a new born babe blush. My skin is not silky smooth or flawless. But learning to accept these marks as a part of my body, albeit an overweight considerably-less-than-traditionally-perfect-body, and realising that they were not impinging on my health in any way made me realise that they really did not matter, even though advertising makes every woman feel like she is the only one “suffering” with this “deformity.” Had I not felt slightly concerned about my friend catching a cheeky glimpse of my pale nipples I would have pulled them out there and then to show her she had nothing to worry about, but as it was she thankfully took my word for it.
We never speak about stretch marks because we never see them. They are traditionally associated with rapid weight gain, puberty and pregnancy, three states of being where a woman is considered to have lost control over her body, be that through greed or owing to biology and hormones (something over which we have no jurisdiction). They appear when the skin has been placed under unnecessary stress, and so not surprisingly loosing a lot of weight rapidly can also cause them to form, since the skin is unable to shrink fast enough to cover a new, smaller frame. Owing to the current demand for self-perfection, with the size-zero remaining in vogue, having the ability to gain or loose weight in the blink of an eye has become the ultimate signifier of one’s self-control. Developing stretch marks are never factored in as part of the plan; they are unattractive precisely because they illustrate a body supposedly working against itself and its owner. Stretch marks develop when the dermis, the layer of skin below the epidermis (which is the outer layer we touch and feel), is unable to accommodate the rapid expansion of the skin. The function of the dermis is to shape and support the epidermis, and so when this breaks down we are, in scientific terms, fucked. It’s a medical fact. Some people may be predisposed to developing stretch marks, others may not, either way that does not make anyone immune. What I have never been able to understand, however, is how everyone in celebsville manages to remain taut and toned, never developing stretch marks, regardless of the fact that the stress placed on the skin through beefing up or quickly sliming down is a primary cause of the tiger effect. This fostered my own sense of inadequacy, and doubtless makes other women question their own bodies. Pregnant celebrities strip to their scanties, and some to their birthday suits, to display their flawless baby bumps, even though 75 to 90 per cent of all expectant mothers develop stretch marks. But then, they are privilege to photo shop. Every blemish is removed, touched-up and gone, promoting the idea that to show these women in their natural state would make them less beautiful, whereas in reality showing the hint of a muffin top or the odd stretch mark here and there would make them seem more intriguing, more appealing and more popular.
Many would argue that this isn’t what we want, that had pregnant Christina Aguilera bared all for Marie Claire in a cropped leather jacket showing an abdomen not entirely dissimilar to a map of the British Isles that she could kiss any chance of re-igniting her sex siren popstress image goodbye. Celebrities have to be flawless, as more often than not their looks and their bodies are their product, their livelihood. They have built a career on looking good, and apparently stretch marks aren’t part of the package regardless of the fact that they are made of flesh and bone just like everyone else. It’s an unfair pressure to place on famous women, especially during pregnancy when the female body has to go through a number of changes to accommodate a growing foetus. The body is stretched and distended to sometimes mammoth proportions in stalk contrast to the usually taut tight appearance of the celebrity midriff, and so the development of stretch marks would be, for some, unavoidable. But so what? It happens and this should not be a source of embarrassment. Bombarding us with photo-shopped pregnancy perfection on a daily basis does nothing but foster a sense of inferiority in the everyday woman, and present an unrealistic idea of what happens to the body during pregnancy. When a woman then does develop stretch marks or an outbreak of spots on her face when she is carrying a baby she cannot help but question her own actions, and wonder what it is she is doing wrong. Nicole Kidman is clearly already feeling the pressure to stay in shape, and has been photographed exercising with a personal trainer to keep those extra pounds at bay, and Jennifer Lopez, when speaking about her pregnancy, was not exactly over brimming with joy and happiness but rather expressed her hope that she would not develop stretch marks. We are told we want perfection by the media, it’s a belief created and maintained by celebrities who are too afraid to show that they are human. Ironically, this means that at the same time as placing pressure on the female population to strive for the ideal body, they are forced to try and maintain the unrealistic self-images pedalled by the press, which perpetuates the problem further. If we saw famous women displaying their stretch marks, something common to the vast majority of women, then we wouldn’t feel like nothing more than distended deflated sags of flesh every time we catch a glimpse of our own supposed imperfections in the bathroom mirror.
It’s precisely because we never see them that stretch marks are considered a big deal. I’m not suggesting that we round up every pregnant or post-partum celeb, or every young woman who has just lost or gained weight, or just about finished puberty, to photograph them in all there stretchy glory to create a giant montage consisting of daguerreotypes of skin that’s lost it’s elasticity. Showcasing them in this way would suggest that it’s abnormal, circus freak skin designed to be glared at through the goldfish bowl as an example of what’s wrong with the human body. What I am saying is let’s ease up on the photo shop, let’s show people how they really are, so that having the odd scar, stretch mark or bit of loose skin is no longer seen as front page news. Some women are lucky, they don’t get stretch marks, they can loose or gain weight without consequence, and can ping back to their pre-pregnancy shape so quickly that they have to be treated for whiplash. But for the majority, this is not the case, and they do not discriminate on the basis of money or attractiveness; if you’re going to get them you get them. OK we’d rather not have them, but if we do, we do, and that’s that, it doesn’t change us.
Getting a photograph of a high-profile woman who’s considered to be in less than perfect physical shape is now the primary objective of the paps. The standard has now been set so high, that the very people who enforced it are now unable to keep up. I did a bit of googling on the subject and discovered just how narrow-minded some people can be. The man who caught a glimpse of Katie Holmes’s post-partum tummy displaying what looked to be red stretch marks in 2006 must have creamed his pants at the thought of the readies he’d get for taking that beauty. But who cares? She’d just given birth, Suri was just four weeks old, it’s to be expected. Why was this photograph sold and syndicated throughout the world for this specific reason? Especially since many women probably looked at it and thought how lucky she was to have been left with so few marks, which, incidentally, do nothing but show that she had carried a life inside her. But making this news means that it’s considered to be something abnormal – something disgusting. Yes, show the photograph of Holmes, but why make the fact she has a few marks on her stomach a central issue? Demi Moore apparently displays some pretty impressive badges of honour across her stomach in Striptease, which in itself is the topic of many a discussion forum. She’s has been considered one of the most gorgeous women in the world for over twenty years, and yet she is discussed as nothing more than damaged goods. Similarly Cindy Crawford was recently photographed looking fantastic in a bikini. She is a woman in her forties, with a figure that would be coveted by a lot of women half her age. However, she did have some loose skin and stretch marks on her abdomen. This, in my opinion, did not make her less attractive, and yet the Daily Mail thought this image worthy of an entire article. Similarly, in the same daily drag, an article was published towards the end of last year illustrated by photographs of Amy Winehouse, Scarlett Johansson and Kate Beckinsale displaying stretch marks on their breasts. So what? Why write about it? Winehouse is still hugely talented, albeit it troubled at the moment, Jonahsson is still considered to be one of the most beautiful women in the world, and Beckinsale still has a lucrative career in Hollywood. Nothing changes. Naming and shaming (which is essentially what this article attempted to do) does not make the average woman like myself think, wow, they have stretch marks too, but rather that they truly must be “unsightly” (as stated by the mail journalist) and unpleasant owing to the fact that a national has gone to such great lengths to expose and analyse them. Women are more prone to developing stretch marks than men, but they are not unheard of in the male realm, it’s just that nobody cares, and in reality who does but the person they belong to? The beautiful Jayne Mansfield had stretch marks on her breasts, as did Anna Nicole Smith. We see very few celebs with these marks not only because technology means they can be hidden, but also because they have the money and the contacts to undergo cosmetic procedures to permanently remove the signs of weight change, puberty or pregnancy as and when they please. We may not, but that doesn’t make us any less feminine. A very open friend of mine at university once turned to me and said “we’re women, and women have hips, we have breasts, we have stretch marks, they’re part of being a woman,” and she was exactly right.
From what I understand there’s little one can do to prevent the appearance of stretch marks, especially during pregnancy, and that is not as accepted as it should be. Poor Jessica Alba, who announced she was pregnant at the end of last year, has been subject to the scrutiny on anonymous ‘reviewers’ online, who claim that now she is “knocked-up” she’ll be “runined” by stretch marks and swelling. When a woman who is considered traditionally beautiful is berated in such an offensive and denigrating way, how are the rest of us supposed to accept changes that take place in our body. Alba is pregnant and in a relationship, and yet her partner is not subject to the same physical scrutiny despite the fact that, essentially, it is Alba who is doing the hard work. What makes it worse is that more often than not those who will cast judgement on others are far from perfect physical specimens. So what practical steps can be takne? Right or wrong it’s unfortuante that this can affect our self-esteem and, as it seems that the world at this point in time is not going to change, anything that can ensure we’re as confident as we can be is only a good thing. Coco Butter and Bio Oil claim to prevent the appearance of stretch marks, although in reality there is no definitive proof that anything applied externally to the skin can do anything but lessen the appearance of already existing blemishes. This is because the damage has taken place below the outer layer of skin, and so taking Vitamin E supplements is likely to be more productive, as is drinking a lot of water, as it encourages the skin to repair itself from within. Exercise is also credited with being able to lessen the appearance, as the muscle below the skin is toned, providing more support. In all honesty, however, I think we are likely to be more concerned about them than anyone else. In reality no-one notices or cares, and if they do they should probably turn their critical eye inwards because, as the old adage goes, nobody is perfect, which is what makes us interesting, even though it is easyto loose sight of this.