How I Finally Learned to Accept My Stretch Marks

POPSUGAR Photography | Grace Hitchcock
POPSUGAR Photography | Grace Hitchcock

Since I was 16 years old, I have hated being shirtless in public. That was when a sudden autoimmune disorder turned my life upside down. It ravaged my body, destroyed my spirit, and shut down my kidneys. The doctors placed me on a medication that caused me to expand, quickly and ceaselessly. Within a month, deep, jagged stretch marks carved themselves into my skin.

The whole ordeal lasted two years. I suffered through a misdiagnosis, more prescription medications than I could count, peritoneal dialysis (a process which replaces kidney function), a proper diagnosis, a new treatment, remission, and finally, a kidney transplant. My quiet but brave brother, Jason, donated his kidney to me, and just after I turned 18, my nightmare was over.

After this tumultuous journey, I was left with souvenirs: deep scars and stretch marks on my torso. The marks appeared as a purple color before fading to pink. They're translucent, too — you can see the veins underneath them. I thought they were gnarled, monstrous, and ugly. For women, stretch marks are open territory. They complain about them, they buy fancy creams to treat them, and together, they try to embrace them. But as a man, I didn't have access to the same open dialogue. I felt isolated by my own body issues.

POPSUGAR Photography / Grace Hitchcock

Those who wear scars look at them every day — sometimes they define us, other times they tell our “war” stories. Mine spoke to me, whispering awful things. They told me I was damaged merchandise. They told me I was worthless. They told me I didn't deserve love. And for a long time, I believed them.

I couldn't decide which was worse: having people ask about them, or feeling their silent gaze on me as I walked by. There's always a different way of interacting with them.

"Excuse me," said the stranger next to me at the pool. "Can I ask how you got those?"

"Whoa, what happened to your skin? It looks like fire!" my college roommate commented. "Can I touch them?"

"I know how you must feel," my cousin's wife assured me. "I got mine from my three pregnancies, and I hate them so much. They're awful."

When it came to intimate situations, I was just as worried. What would my partners think of me? Would they want to see me again once they'd seen my body? And so, when romantic endeavors fell flat or didn't follow through, my stretch marks told me it was because of them. The scars always had an answer. They always came up with a reason that explained why I was more broken, why I didn't deserve any of it.

POPSUGAR Photography / Grace Hitchcock

Right after I healed from my kidney transplant surgery, I saw a plastic surgeon about erasing them, destroying the evidence. But I didn’t have enough skin for a stomach tuck, and any other options would only reduce their appearance rather than eliminate them entirely. In the end, it didn’t seem worth it. It felt like I was avoiding the real problem.

Today, my stretch marks have faded significantly since they first tore my skin almost a decade ago. And I have to be honest: I still look at them the same way. I still see the same thing in the mirror. I do not think they are beautiful. But I've come to realize that I don’t have to think they’re beautiful — ever. It is not about looking pretty, it’s what they stand for. These “wounds” are the product of overcoming a traumatic medical experience. One that I survived. That carries a greater power than any cosmetic conclusion ever could.

What I eventually learned is that the chatter never stops. Scars will always whisper. But there are ways to drown out the noise. Feeling comfortable with and embracing my stretch marks is a daily struggle, but I face it with as much confidence as I can muster. And I remind myself that it could have been worse — I was battling a potentially life-threatening disorder.

POPSUGAR Photography / Grace Hitchcock

To overcome my insecurities, I talk louder than my stretch marks, reiterating the things I really need to hear. I tell myself not to worry when I take off my shirt. Others can stare if they want. I tell myself I deserve whole, unbridled love, and I don't need the validation of others to earn it. I tell myself I'm not damaged merchandise after all, but instead someone with good character and a meaningful history.

Strangers ask what happened, and I proudly offer them the uplifting words I hear in my own head: I'm a warrior. That these are marks of bravery, strength, and resilience. That I've literally earned my stripes. That once upon a time, a frightened little boy faced a terrible ordeal, and instead of giving up, he fought back and won. And that’s how I learned to love my lines.