Love letter: To my stretch marks
My stretch marks became a testimony, not of the fact that I have given birth, but of my own rebirth.
I recently messaged my strength training coach to inform her that my stretch marks had become more visible, thereby proving that my sagging stomach had shrunk a bit. “You are magic!” I texted her enthusiastically, and she replied with, “Oh my god, you’re shrinking, will you disappear?” and we had a good laugh. And it hit me suddenly, like mist from a fountain you are too close to, that my stretch marks, always meant to be hidden and disregarded, were being celebrated.
Ever since pregnancy-related stretch marks entered my life, I have battled with the realisation that they are a keeper. That they are not going anywhere. Even if, in my naivety, I have wanted them gone.
With my first pregnancy, it was really the last thing on my mind, considering that landscape – my mind, that is – with all its familiar buildings of independence, freedom, comfort, and lazy Sunday afternoons was being bulldozed by this thing called labour. By the time I was wheeled into the labour room, my mind was littered with mountains of debris. And then motherhood meant picking up the pieces that fit the jigsaw of my new life and trying to find myself again. One would think the second pregnancy would have been better, the bulldozer would have rusted and retired, and I would have had the good sense to use glue to stick the pieces I had picked up earlier, but no such intelligence prevailed. I muddled through it like I had just found daylight again. And through it all, like a river cutting through the mountain, the stretch marks remained – quiet, resilient, and maybe, having the last laugh. If I saw them, I didn’t really notice them. That is, until I became single again.
Like many women conditioned by an unforgiving system, I have grown up believing that desire and sexuality are things to be wary of. They are like strangers in the bus – you try your best to maintain your distance within those cramped surroundings, and then you breathe a sigh of relief when your stop arrives, knowing only too well you are going to get on that bus again. Sometimes you are squished and squashed, sometimes you make new friends, sometimes you have a fun ride, and sometimes the bus can give you nightmares. But now, with this unlikely armour etched on my skin, I am not that wary as I stand at that stop. I am hopeful, like a sapling emerging from a crack on a concrete wall.
I find it strange and funny, mostly because of the paradox it simmers in, that I first truly saw my stretch marks when I had lost weight. As my body and stomach shrunk in size, they rushed out of the wings, like eager children on stage for the first time. There was no reticence about them, no complexes that they carried, and they beamed at me like a lighthouse on a dark night. My instinct was to withdraw like a turtle in a shell. As a 37-year-old single mother, venturing out into the unknown waters of dating, stretch marks were not the best friend or wing women I could hope for, considering my long history with body-image issues.
Growing up on ghee-roasted cashews, endless amounts of chocolates, and one-can-of-Pepsi-per-day, I was the quintessential unhealthy and obese child. A distinct memory I have is that of my sister at 4 a.m., the skies still dark outside, my family around me in a flurry of activity to catch a flight, and my sister, struggling to hook a skirt around my protruding belly. She kept telling me to suck in my breath and then she would heft her hands and pull until I burst into tears and the skirt fell around my legs like a stain I wouldn’t be able to erase. I would spend my school years in oversized skirts and t-shirts, and wear my first pair of jeans at 17 because I thought I was too fat. Looking back, at my near-skinny school and college photos, I marvel at how deep some roots can go, clutching with tenacity to the earth of my memories. Even when I had lost weight naturally – that thing called “puppy fat” – I tenaciously believed I was overweight.
So one can only imagine what happened when I became twice my size during the course of my pregnancies. I despised what my body had become, I forgot what it meant to feel desire and be desired (and, in any case, have generally had a tenuous, bus-full-of-strangers relationship with desire), and I drowned in what I thought was a pool of apathy, but was only that irrepressible stain that had grown beyond recognition. I was not equipped to deal with the physical changes my body would undergo, and the emotional strength I would need to discover my body again through generous (and addictive) doses of strength training (another essay for another day).
And then along came my stretch marks; they became a testimony, not of the fact that I have given birth, but of my own rebirth. And a reminder of their own genesis – it was desire that brought the stretch marks to me and it will lead me to it again. That ugly stain is now cut up into islands by them, the lines of emergence, of a new me shedding old skin. They have unconsciously become the barometer of all that my body has been through, the battle-wounds of a fragile past, and all that it promises to be – not thin or fat or disproportionate or shapeless, but one that can create stories of endless desire – of life, living, strength, sexuality, being, and growth. The only things that will shrink and disappear are shame and embarrassment.
So maybe I am ready to get on that bus again. And, this time, I will remember to love and desire deeply, without inhibitions, because if there is anything that stretch marks have taught me not to be afraid of, it is imperfection.