They sprawl across the mountainous forms of my body like lightning bolts, creeping over the top of my underwear to curve along valleys of belly fat, descending as whispery white rivers branching out from the insides of my arms, reaching from my armpits towards my breast like wavering fingers.
They are multicolored reds, purples and creamy whites. They are smooth, crinkled, puckered and embossed. They are a part of my body that represents physical change, like rings of growth found in the dissection of a tree, externally captured in the skin that keeps me together.
They develop naturally, when skin is stretched so suddenly that the middle layer (the dermis) breaks as it pleases, allowing deeper layers of skin to peek through.
They happen as a result of normal to extreme fluctuations in weight, pregnancy, growth spurts, drug therapies, or any other number of things -- and people of all sizes and backgrounds are capable of obtaining them.
They are stretch marks; and we have been conditioned to hate them.
One simple Internet search will reflect our culture's distaste:
"71% of teenage girls SUFFER from stretch marks." (The word "suffer" here being incredibly hyperbolic -- this isn't a health condition, it's a goddamn part of human nature!)
It should be no secret at this point that society loves to teach us how to prevent, or reverse, offending imperfections -- and stretch marks sit alongside cellulite as the most common (and most hated) of them all.
Creams, oils, laser treatments, and lotions galore will all implore to erase the stripes of change that so naturally develop on our bodies. There is no end to the amount of products and procedures made available to us in the battle against ourselves.
We are conditioned to buy into the hate in order to buy into the products and the diet industry. We are conditioned to bring about a profit at the expense of self empowerment and love.
At age 11, I was prescribed Retin-A Micro, a cream used to combat acne. This was at a point when I was most confused and conflicted about my appearance. My body had shot up, ballooned out, and sprouted painful acne that would not diminish - all before starting middle school.
"This is very strong stuff so be careful, but if it works with your skin you might consider using it to diminish your stretch marks," my dermatologist explained as she handed over the prescription.
"HOW DOES SHE KNOW!?" I thought, having just recently noticed the presence of fresh stripes on my stomach and inner thighs, unsure whether or not I was meant to do something about them.
I started applying the stuff to my skin, along with copious amounts of cocoa butter, praying for smoothness and even tones. It turned out to be pretty ineffective, aside from the whole horror-movie experience of removing my pants to find the skin from my inner thighs falling away as if it were melting from my body.
ACTUAL LAYERS of my skin peeled away while my stretch marks remained. They were indestructible.
From that point on, I stopped trying to prevent or get rid of them. I didn't particularly like them -- in fact, I hated them and opted to keep them covered -- but just like my chronic skin conditions, I knew there was only so much I could do to control it -- and that I would rather not waste all my time and energy on such insignificance when I had, you know, a fucking life to live.
Since that time, I have learned a lot about how to replace the media's representation and harmful communications about bodies with the cultivation of my own media sources.
At age 20 I went on a "media diet," rejecting major magazines and mainstream media in favor of controlling my own media intake via grassroots/underground efforts -- the only "diet" I would ever condone from that point forward.
Once I turned to the sort of radical body appreciation and self worship that can be found on blogs and Internet communities, in uncensored photographs and artist renderings of the human body, everything changed.
As more stretch-marked bodies passed across my retinas every day, my definition of "normal" began to shift. I studied little differences and realized the beauty in marks and skin colors, the kinds of details that are absent from the pages of the magazines I once consumed.
The more I became fascinated, the faster I fell -- and I find myself now completely, and unabashedly, in love.
I like to document their presence in photos and note how they disappear and develop on my body over time. I often study myself in the mirror to welcome the latest formations and smile as I run the pads of my fingers over the fresh routes etched across my skin.
(Sometimes I don't smile, and that's OK; I refuse to blame myself for "not loving my body enough" because I mean, it's natural to want to crawl out of your skin sometimes when the oppressive culture we live in takes its toll.)
When listed, my "imperfections" add up quite nicely:
• sensitive, easily inflamed, hive-riddled skin
• acne, dermatitis flakes, and red patches
• scars, scabs, blemishes, dryness, and gaping pores
• stretch marks galore
• body hair in "unladylike" places
• fat fat fat
But I assert that these things are not imperfect to me, they are me. Perfection and imperfection need not apply.
What if I stopped trying to hide all of these details? What if I embellished them with glitter and made people stop to look at them? What if I let them define me in a different way? What if I started wearing crop tops in places other than around my house?
Maybe in my own actions, I can set a new course for the people I affect.
Maybe my niece will look at her own marks differently some day, if she grows up with an aunt who bares her belly and exclaims nothing but love for all of the above.
Maybe my sister will finally find the beauty I can so easily see in her own stomach, laden with marks, having endured the growth and change of pregnancy in order to bring precious life into the world.
I can't be the only one willing to proclaim my love for stretch marks. What is the actual deal? How do you feel about them and why? Let's get real in the comments.