I remember the first time I saw my stretch marks. I was 16 years old and trying on a brand-new swimsuit. Looking in the full-length mirror, I posed and turned, trying to see the suit from every angle. I stopped my faux modeling abruptly when I saw what looked like scratches on the inside of my legs. When I ran my fingers over them I could feel the indentations in my skin, and I was confused. It seemed like they appeared overnight, these vein-thin purple lines on my upper thighs. I knew what stretch marks looked like; I had seen them on my own mother, who had earned hers after giving birth to three healthy girls. But why would I have them? I hadn't rapidly gained or lost any weight, and I'd been consistently measured at the same height for about a year.
I sat on the floor of my bedroom, and after thoroughly examining myself for any more blemishes, I cried. I hated my body for doing this to me, for betraying me without my even noticing. I wondered if my lifestyle was to blame. Could I have avoided this by exercising more? Eating healthier? Moisturizing every day? I was a teenager full of shame and regret for something that was ultimately out of my control, but I didn't know any better. No one had told me what to expect, and I was too embarrassed by my body to ask.
Fast-forward five years later, and I'm still coming to terms with my body. I am definitely more at peace, but I regret not asking questions, even when I was ashamed, because I ended up filling in the blanks with misinformation and negativity. In the future, if a teenager asks me about stretch marks, here's what I'll tell her/him:
1. They're not simply caused by your skin stretching
It's a common misconception that stretch marks appear because your skin is literally stretching to adjust to your growth (whatever it may be). Many people confuse the appearance of stretch marks with the actual physical science behind it. In reality, stretch marks occur because of a change in hormones that accompany rapid growth, and not simply as a result of your skin expanding.
2. They're probably genetic
My mom and I sat down to talk about stretch marks for the very first time just a few days ago, when I was preparing to write this article. She told me how common it is in my family to have stretch marks and how we even tend to develop them in the same places on our bodies. According to a study published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology, there is a connection between certain gene mutations (including elastin) and the development of stretch marks. So your stretch marks may have been unavoidable no matter how hard you work out or how hydrated you keep yourself.
3. They don't only affect pregnant women
When I was growing up, the only stretch marks I saw were on my mother's stomach. I was familiar with but also detached from them. I thought that they would only become an issue for me when I got pregnant, and by then I would have had plenty of time to prepare myself. So when I very obviously had stretch marks and very obviously was not pregnant, I was sure something was wrong with me. However, it wasn't long until one of my close girlfriends from high school whispered to me that she had just found stretch marks of her own, and just like that: poof! Everyone had stretch marks. You know that weird phenomenon where you talk about something once and then all of a sudden you feel like you hear about it all the time? Well, that's how it was for me and stretch marks. Pretty soon every girl I talked to was worried about them and I was no longer drifting in a sea of pregnant women by myself.
4. They'll fade over time
In the five years that my stretch marks and I have known each other, I have seen them fade from red to purple to white. They are definitely less noticeable now than they were originally, but they are still there. Now they've taken on a new role for me: instead of being a loud proclamation of my inadequacy, they're a secret triumph that my body and I share.
5. They don't change how beautiful you are
After I noticed my own stretch marks, I started looking for them on every woman I saw. When I went to the beach or the pool, I just wanted some reassurance that I wasn't alone. I still felt flawed somehow, even surrounded by all these amazing women who had learned to love their lines. Then one day, while at the pool, my friend zeroed in on my marks and said, "Those are so beautiful. Don't you feel like a work of art?" Hearing her say that made me uncomfortable but also validated. I could still be beautiful even with stretch marks, and the marks themselves hold their own beauty too.