Stretch || Don't Break
Guest writer Aja Bailey shares her lessons of how she came to embrace her stretch marks, through the unabashedness of theatre culture and from witnessing the carefree attitude of her young niece. Aja leads us through her journey of acceptance and empowerment, with anecdotes of her youth and observations of younger women coping with (or embracing) their own scars. Aja is a dreamer originally from Northern Virginia. When she's not writing, you'll find her stumbling around in search of creativity, pizza, and root beer.
This summer, my 12-year-old niece came to stay with me. I watched her transition from childhood to young womanhood across mere months. Over this time I began to notice my niece's stretch marks appear on the back of her thighs, making me reflect on my own growth over the years, from my first angry scars of almost-womanhood to my post-college, faded ones of present-day. One July night, taking a long and much-needed break from job hunting, I searched for some liberating voice of reason —via humorous Whisper App quotes—for any comment about stretch marks, or, as the internet fondly calls them, "tiger stripes.” To my disappointment, all I could find were wails from self-conscious women on a variety of websites from women of all shapes, ages, and sizes. Reading their anguish took me back to a time when I made a similar cry for help.
I was 6 years-old when I saw stretch marks for the first time on my mother's stomach. When I asked what they were, she simply replied, "These came from ya'll [my brother, sisters, and I]." At that time, I was familiar with the basics of pregnancy:
A mommy has a baby on her.
A mommy's tummy gets big.
The baby comes out.
I assumed only pregnant women get stretch marks. Alas, my sweet innocent soul was so wrong.
My first scars came quietly, without much notice, in 8th grade on right side of my abdomen when I reached 200-pounds. It was only three or four scars. They stretched further up and down the sides, eventually appearing on my left side. Like any unlucky fat teen, I was eventually bullied because of it. I was thankful that no one outside of the locker rooms saw what I considered to be my hideous skin disfigurement that coincided with my chubby cheeks. By the 10th grade, these stripes reached my thighs, my breasts, my back, my arms...every-fucking-where. My only bold attempt of reducing them was during my senior year of high school, when my friend recommended cocoa butter—the stuff of magic. I thought this remedy was working just fine until it gave me a bad skin rash—my body rejected the cure. my body was literally rejecting my attempts to hide my shame. This was my first lesson of acceptance.
My second lesson came during tech week of my very first play. The theater company I'm currently a part of has no dressing room, so we basically stop, drop, and change wherever in front of whoever. At that time I was still new to the whole acting thing and not yet 100% comfortable with showing my body to anyone. This brought me back to my middle school years of awkwardly changing in front of wandering eyes. While I briskly slipped into my costume, I took in the different physiques of the theater gang. I trailed over their bodies and saw a mixture of stretch marks, slim stomachs, hairy chests, bulging tummies, and colorful tattoos. Their skin was as different as their personalities were beautiful.
My third lesson came months later, on the night I lost my virginity. One of the many nerves-induced thoughts were "Jesus Christ, please ignore my stretch marks. Look at my tits, not my stomach..." To my amazement, he didn't pay any attention to them as his hand ran over my skin and gripped my sides. Ah, what a relief it was. It took entering the world of theater and sex to realize that the people who enjoy my company doesn't give a shit about my stretch marks…and, quite frankly dear, neither should I. These stretch marks are here to stay. They have made my body its home and I have no intentions of evicting them.
The fourth lesson came just recently this summer, watching my niece goofily dance in shorts without caring that her marks are seen. I admired how carefree she was, how free of embarrassment or inhibition she still is.I know one day she'll question some aspects of her body, so will her younger sister, and their cousins, too. I hope they'll make peace with whatever scar they’ll encounter, either external or internal.
I echo that last sentence to all the women who are self-shaming their imperfect bodies. Over the years of self-discovery through weight loss, weight gain, and confidence gain, I've come to realize that stretch marks are the copyright seal of who we are: a mother, a carb-lover [me], a woman, an elastic soul.