'In a world where everyone is saying that stretch marks are beautiful because they created new life, it’s enough to think they’re beautiful because they’re part of your life—your existence.'

By Olivia Muenter
August 20, 2020
Advertisement

The first time I noticed my own stretch marks was when a friend noticed them. I had grown seven inches the summer before and had the pink and purple streaks all over my hips and thighs, a result of the intense growth spurt and puberty in general. I was 12 or so when I was changing clothes in the same room as a friend and she pointed them out.

“My mom has them too, but it’s because she was pregnant,” she said, matter-of-factly. Then, quickly, she became embarrassed. “Oh, but I didn’t mean it that way. I’m sorry,” she apologized profusely. It took me a second to realize she was embarrassed because she thought she had been implying my body was bigger than usual in the same way a pregnant person is. It took me another second to realize that the implication was that I, too, should be embarrassed.

As I got older, my stretch marks became my most dreaded physical benchmarks when it came to what would be a decade-long obsession with losing and gaining weight. As I started college and no longer had weekly, hours-long sports practices, stretch marks started to appear on my breasts and higher up on my hips.

Olivia Muenter

When I was 19, I started a new form of birth control and promptly gained 10 pounds. This is when I noticed the first marks on my arms. It had been the night before a family cruise when I had been shaving under my arms and ran my finger over one, feeling the familiar soft groove. I cried in the shower, convinced that my trip was ruined—that I didn’t deserve to feel good in a bathing suit or relax by the pool. The stretch mark was all the proof I needed that I had failed at my lifelong goal to lose weight—to become smaller. 

It wasn’t until a couple years after I graduated college that I discovered things like body neutrality and health at any size, both concepts that I was mainly introduced to by, surprisingly, influencers. These were people who proudly posted on Instagram about their bodies and their insecurities. They taught me that I could be happy at any size—that  I deserved to be. They also reminded me that I wasn’t the only person in the world who was a size 14 or had stretch marks.

The first time I truly believed that neither of those things meant I was unhealthy, ugly, or a failure wasn’t until I was 24. But as I continued to follow these body positive influencers, there was one narrative that got under my skin—one that made me question if I was really allowed to be OK with my stretch marks. And that is the one that ties into pregnancy. 

I saw post after post of someone proudly displaying their stretch marks, the photo paired with a caption that always said something like: “I have these stretch marks because I was pregnant and created new life. Creating new life is beautiful and therefore, my stretch marks are beautiful.” Of course, the actual messages were almost always more eloquent than that—but the underlying message was exactly the same. Pregnancy made the stretch marks beautiful, natural, acceptable.

At this point, I had stretch marks across my stomach, hips, arms, and rib cage, and not a single one of them resulted from being pregnant. As happy as I was to see other people being confident about something I had felt insecure about for so long, I wondered if that narrative included bodies like mine at all.

Ashley Dorough is a plus-size fashion and lifestyle influencer who posts often about body image. She’s also posted about her own stretch marks before—something that she says she had long before she ever was pregnant with her two children. 

“My worst memories of high school are homecoming and prom, because I was forced to bare my arms and I was so terrified someone would notice [the stretch marks],” Dorough says. “I went on to develop both health and unhealthy obsessions with food and exercise, and even at my lowest weight or strongest most ‘fit’ times in my life, those stretch marks remained.” 

It was discovering people on Instagram who were transparent about their “body love journeys, mental health issues, and motherhood” that finally motivated Dorough to feel confident in her own body, no matter what. And not only that, but to start sharing about her journey as well. 

Dorough was one of the first people who I saw talk about stretch marks on Instagram in a way that normalized them as existing outside of motherhood. Immediately, I felt less alone. It was the first time I admitted to myself fully that for a long time, I had looked forward to being pregnant one day because I would finally have an “excuse” for my stretch marks. Something that finally made them OK made me OK.

It was also the first time I finally accepted that most of my feelings and shame about stretch marks had to do with fatphobia, whether I liked to admit it or not. 

“People associate stretch marks with fat, and people are scared of being fat,” Dorough says. “We've been conditioned to believe that fat is bad, fat means you're unhealthy, etc. When truly, you cannot actually determine someone's health based on their weight of their body or how much visible fat is on your body.”

The impulse to justify stretch marks or make them OK through any sort of narrative is ultimately reflective of the fact that it’s not enough for people (women, in particular) to simple exist in their bodies. We’re expected to go through so many mental gymnastics to explain away something that is ultimately just a natural part of existing in a human body.

Whitney Catalano is a registered dietitian nutritionist and host of the popular podcast, Trust Your Body Project. Catalano says that society’s obsession “with weight loss and shaming weight gain is really illuminated in the conversation around stretch marks.” 

“We completely disregard the role of normal human growth in the development of stretch marks. And then it becomes this really shameful conversation when stretch marks happen for all different kinds of reasons,” Catalano says. “Your skin just needed a little extra room. That's it. It's not anything that we need to read into. It's not good or bad. It's neutral.”

Catalano also says that no one should have to justify any part of their body, for any reason—and that includes when it comes to stretch marks. 

“You don’t owe anyone an explanation for what your body looks like," Catalano says, nor do you have to identify with the message that your body is allowed to be ‘flawed,' as long as it's for a functional reason. She's touching on something that I think Instagram in particular can sometimes make it difficult to remember: Someone else’s journey doesn’t have to look like yours. 

Just because someone else has come to accept their stretch marks if they resulted from pregnancy doesn’t mean that my journey to acceptance has to look the same to be valid. In fact, what Instagram also makes it sometimes hard to remember is that there doesn’t have to be any journey at all.

I used to think that policing my body and its changes was the way to keep myself safe from being embarrassed or ashamed in that same way I was when I was 12 and my friend first pointed out my stretch marks. I thought that if my stretch marks had an origin that was something other than my body occupying more space, then I would be that much more worthy of feeling confident.

Now I know that in a world where everyone is saying that stretch marks are beautiful because they created new life, it’s enough to think they’re beautiful because they’re part of your life—your existence. It’s also enough to not think anything about them at all. 

“You don't have to be proud of any part of your body, but you and your body are on the same team at the end of the day...and you're allowed to exist and feel worthy of love and respect and kindness and...a fulfilling life in the same way that anyone else is,” Catalano says. “You don't have to earn it.”

To get our top stories delivered to your inbox, sign up for the Healthy Living newsletter