Wednesday 20 July 2011

Stretch Marks

Want to know a secret just between you, me and the entire interwebz? I've never had a baby. I've never been pregnant. But I have stretch marks.

I looked at myself in the mirror one day and thought 'huh. I was sure my appendectomy scar never used to be on my thigh' and then looked a little bit closer and saw that my scar hadn't migrated after all. I had a stretch mark. It was sort of like a small ghostly caterpillar, and when I looked again I saw that actually my skin was now host to a whole family of ghost caterpillars. What on earth? And the more time passes, the more there are.

I always thought stretch marks were what happened when you had a baby. In fact, every time I hear 'stretch marks' it's someone talking about them as badges of honour, a sign of the exchange that women have made for generations, the one that goes: Dear Universe, I would like to trade this perfect youthful body for a baby, please. And it's not just the stretch marks either, is it? It's drooping breasts and weight gain and a hundred other thing and the usual narrative goes this is the price I have paid to become a mother and look at this picture of my adorable child on my iPhone! See? It was all totally worth it.

So how am I, never-pregnant Claudia, supposed to think about how my body is changing, now that I'm in my thirties? I have stretch marks too and I can't tell anybody they were worth it because they got me nothing. They don't remind me of nine months of protecting a child. If they remind me of anything at all, it's that I don't exercise enough, or maybe they remind me of the six months during 2008 when I was really stressed at work and ate way too many oreos. And they remind me that I'm getting older. But none of that is anything to do with maternity, the one acceptable reason for getting round and eventually soft. And so I feel ashamed of the way my body is changing, of the way my body is ageing. Society doesn't have a body-change narrative for just getting old. It's all about bearing children. So if most women bear their stretch marks as battle scars, mine feel like something I got from stupidly riding my horse into a tree. Something to hide.

And then there's body shape. I have heard a lot of people talk about the way their metabolisms have slowed down after they have children and I haven't been there so I'm in no position to argue. But I can't help wondering how many changes women talk about are hormones and how many would have happened anyway, but I don't feel like I'm even allowed to raise the question. Would an endrocrinologist know the answer? I'm so far from being an endocrinologist that I don't even know if he would be the guy who would know those things. Here's what I do know: I've never had a baby, but now that I'm in my thirties my body is slowing down too. It's heading towards a sluggish metabolism and a thickening middle and a control bra but I don't feel like I'm allowed to be this way. I didn't make the trade. I didn't make the baby so I should still have the body. Right? I should still be lean and lithe and unstretched. But I'm not. Really, really not.

Maybe I'm the only one who feels this pressure.

Sometimes I feel like society misses something important when we talk about the way women's bodies change throughout our lives. As a woman who has never had a baby, I guess I'm saying that sometimes I feel like my body is not allowed to get old. Physically, I'm 'pre-baby'. But that doesn't mean I'm twenty. I'm not disputing that pregnancy accelerates physical changes, slams many of them together into nine efficient, terrible months. But in the end, I think they happen to us all. Having an unused uterus does not get me out of ageing. And I look around me at the women I know and I see that there is no difference in body shape between the older women who have borne children and those who have not. I know thin women in both camps and fat women too. I could not tell by looking who has been pregnant and who has not. People say that feeding a baby destroys the shape of a woman's breasts but it seems that so does turning fifty. Or forty. Or, okay, if i'm honest, thirty is already seeming like a good start.

I don't know what my body would be like if I'd had a baby. But society doesn't really know what women's bodies would be like if they didnt' have babies. My guess is much the same. Maybe it doesn't happen as quickly, but baby or no baby I think everything droops in the end.

But this isn't the way the story usually goes. I don't get to be proud of my stretch marks. They aren't a badge of honour. I didn't earn them through making new life. The only thing I did to earn them was manage to cling tightly to this planet while it hurtled round the sun some thirty-odd times, and probably eat too much cake. The only life they signify is my own. That should be enough, but when groups of women gather and talk it never feels like it is.

But this is the reality: I'm getting older, and my skin is getting thinner, and I've got stretch marks.

And that's just the way it is.


  1. I hear ya, sister. I've had many, many people tell me I am lucky not to have had a baby as I avoided stretch marks and I'm always tempted to play show and tell. Wish I had a good reason for a poochy tummy, but I think it's just good food and being 38 (and the "IVF 20"). Ah, well.

  2. "I don't look as great as I used to. That's okay, its the price I had to pay for staying alive."
    I have my mother's exact body. We were both very thin through most of our 20's. My mother gained weight right around 30 which coincided with her giving birth. I gained weight right around 30 which coincided with, um, me turning 30?. And was a full 10 years before I got around to getting pregnant.
    I had a room-mate in college whose mother taught her, "It is better to look good than to feel good." What a sick, sick, sick message to give a girl/woman/child.
    At the time I wasn't wise enough to counter that motto with one of my own, although I believe I did say that that was crazy. Having read your post now I would say, "It is better to have stretch marks than be dead."
    (But I will admit, that I really, really hate my spider veins.)

  3. I think that motherhood itself can age a person, and cause weight gain. I didn't grow my child in my womb, but I have gained weight since she came to be with us. And I have more grey hairs. Would it have happened otherwise? The grey hairs, probably, but the weight gain not as much. But I constantly feel less than when I speak with mothers whose children came to them via pregnancy, as if I don't have an excuse for my extra pounds. Or even worse, when they've given birth and have snapped right back to their pre-pregnancy size. When I reason it out, I see how much being a mother has changed my life, and how many things fall by the wayside in favor of meeting my daughter's needs, but it's still hard to accept my body as it is. I am working on it, though, because I want my daughter to see me at ease with myself, accepting of what time and parenthood together bring.

  4. I love everything about this post. And it's so true and so wrong. This whole thing was exactly what I was going to post about tonight (not related to pregnancy, but weight and society's view on it, etc). But you are so right on.

    But wouldn't you, when you really think about it, prefer stretch marks and a life truly and wonderfully lived rather than stretchmarkless body and a life only half lived? I know that's certainly true for me (and, as I told "workshop for beginners" my ass looks like the map of Iowa. no joke). I know that's what you're saying here, but why is it so hard to just live in that space all the time and not vacillate? ugh

    Love to you.

  5. I was 38 when I had my son and so it was long after my stretch marks had started (around 30) and way long after gray hair (20.)

    My best friends were my two maiden aunts (who has maiden aunts any more?) Mimi and Re. They were in their 50's and 60's when I was born. Because of them I always looked forward to getting older. Heck, in 3 years I'll be 50 which is still younger than Aunt Mimi was when she met me. If I could give my girlfriends anything I would give them my feelings on aging and beauty. I don't know what my mom and my Aunts did right but I sure am glad they did what they did. I have two boys and I feel like my knowledge is wasted. Boys always think they are terrific. Even at 50, 60+ and on. Wonderful, interesting post. Thanks.

  6. My stretch marks on thighs and boobs and lower back didn't come from my pregnancy either. I suddenly noticed them in my early 30s, and have also gotten some spider veins that I hate more too. Aging is going to suck no matter what you've done along the way.
    Great post.

  7. Oh finally! Someone is talking about the stretch marks!

    I havce them. Mine are like yours...not baby induced.

    And as a woman about to turn 40, I can attest to how the body ages and slows and does some weird things and I know they have nothing to do with giving birth.

    Just Mother Nature reminding us who is in charge :)

  8. you're so very good at this. getting to the heart of the matter. I think you are right about so much of this, and so awesome for saying once again, what others are kinda thinking.

    One offering I have to give about one point of the post: feeding a baby or two, for a few months may not kill off breasts but I can assure you with the Biblical truth, I will send you pictorial proof if needed, that nursing three babies for a total of 5 years and pumping for one year does SCARY things to breasts. I don't have 50 year old boobs. I have 70 year old boobs. I have no idea how to mentally get over this because every time I see myself in the mirror I want to die. I am 31, and my body has A-G-E-D. And though society might throw sunshine at it and say "oh it was a sacrifice, it's understandable" doesn't make self-love come any easier.

  9. If it makes you feel any better, I got stretch marks at puberty!! I've never even been overweight, but I got curves and I got them fast--hence the stretch marks. I made it through 9 months of pregnancy without them though. Go figure. I think every woman's body is different, and I do think that having a baby does change your body in different ways for every different woman (I got deathly ill and lost a ton of weight during my pregnancy and ended up with a better body after...who knew?). But I do agree that age is probably the biggest factor. My boobs are done for--was it nursing my kid or just aging? I pee myself every time I sneeze. I just wish as women we didn't feel the need to dissect the whys and wherefores of all of this. I wish we wouldn't be so hard on ourselves and each other.

  10. Love this post. I had my first two bio babes in my 20's. Gained 65 points (over half my body weight) with the first and nearly that with the second ... and got NO stretch marks. Zip! I thought "wow, I'm blessed." Had my third babe in my 30's, gained too much weight, but still gained no stretch marks. Three years later, I'm at the pool last weekend and noticed ... you guessed it, stretch marks. I could blame pregnancies, but that would be a big fat lie! I guess I could blame mid-30's thin skin and perhaps the extra 10 pounds I've carried for the last couple of years, but cannot blame my babes. And they are on my hips. Dang you time and aging ...

  11. I got stretchmarks at puberty too. Ironic I suppose that my quickly grown "child-bearing hips" never grew children. A boyfriend saw my hip stretchmarks when I was about 27 and commented on them, not in a bad way but he was just surprised. I don't love them but I've always had them, so I just accept them as part of me. It helps to have a husband who thinks nothing of them and who actually really digs all these "imperfections." Great post.

  12. To gravity !!

  13. I had a boyfriend once who was a tall, long, lean, perfectly fit marathoner. One day I noticed stretch marks on his shoulders. He'd been a big bulky football player in high school, long before I met him, and when he grew up & let all that muscle mass go and became a runner: voila. Stretch marks. My best friend has some kinda brutal ones on her upper arms & thighs because of all the weight she gained years ago during intense and terrible steroid dosages to combat a life-threatening GI disease. *My* stretch marks are a symbol of the weight I lost a few years ago through hard work & determination. They come for all sorts of reasons, they are not only the result of pregnancy. I've never had a baby, but yes, my midsection has thickened as I've aged. My boobs are still in pretty good shape, but that's mostly because they are so small. Some stuff is just going to go to rack & ruin and believe me, pregnancy or not makes no difference. (Just wait 'til you need bifocals, girlie.)

    My body is imperfect, but it is a good, strong, sturdy body that gives me a lot of pleasure - I run, I dance, I make & drink sparkling white sangria, I hug my loved ones.

    YES. It is better than NOT staying alive. If I were living my father's life, I would have less than 20 years to go. Stretch marks? I'll take 'em.

  14. "It is better to have stretch marks than be dead." Perfect semi-feral, perfect. ;-)

    I am on a new quest- to appreciate myself. My body. My emotions. My ups and my downs.

    So far I'm doing a shitty job.

    I think this is one reason why a lot of women who adopt their children get tattoos- a way to show the journey on their bodies. It's certainly a reason why I've thought about it.

  15. Let me tell you - I had stretch marks in my late teens, I think it was. When my body very suddenly curved. I'd been ballet-thin before.

    I do have additional stretch marks now post-babies BUT and this is a big BUT (as well as BUTT) they have nothing to do with the babies as I didn't have them during the pregnancy. It was the eating when I went back to work!

    I'm happy with my body BUT I could always grab a bunch of fat on my hips and bum that I would love to have gone!

  16. PS I'd post pics but am WAY too vain :)


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