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When I was around 10, back in the days before marketers had divided every three years of life into a targeted market category (I’m looking at you, “tweens”), I blew the fuck up.
I’d been a skinny kid, so skinny my mom was always pushing food on me. For her, food is love. It wasn’t kosher being thin with a mom who could never quite trust the “anemic, rail-thin” Oprah and who breathed a sigh of relief when Ms. O returned to her pleasantly plump self.
For the most part, though I didn’t like being fat, it didn’t get in my way too much. I was active. I rode my bike a lot, enjoyed hiking, and I later became a marching band nerd. And y’all, being in a high school marching band in Texas is damn near as strenuous as being on the football team.
But the rapid weight gain wreaked havoc on my skin. Stretch marks inched their way across my body just like that black alien goop oozed its way across Tobey Maguire and (spoiler alert) Topher Grace in that uber-bloated Spiderman III flick. Because I had amassed weight so quickly, by age 12 the stretch marks were visible on my hips, across my belly, my thighs, and my blossoming boobs.
But the worst, most frightening, and most visible were the ones on my arms. Their deep lines crisscrossed into a road map, one that etched into my skin from the tops of my shoulders, traveled south toward my ashy elbows and pointed their way to the middle of my forearms.
And like diamonds, stretch marks are forever.
Deeply ashamed of these lines that most women would never have to grapple with until their first pregnancies, I hid my arms. I never wore halter tops or spaghetti straps. Regular short sleeves had to be long enough to reach my elbows or they’d remain languishing in my closet. Afraid that my sleeves might fall back and reveal the crosshatches that marred and scarred my limbs, I avoided raising my hand in class. Even getting shots at the doctor’s office was an embarrassment, as nurses struggled to find a vein underneath the ragged marks that trailed the inside of my arms.
The hatred of this part of my physical self didn’t abate during times that I felt more confident about my body as a whole, because no matter how my body might change or tone up when I was more consistent about exercise, the stretch marks would never go away. Subsequently, I neglected my arms -- triceps atrophied, underarms flapped in the wind like those of someone’s recently nursing-homed great grandma.
When I met my first husband and shared the shame of my arms, he kindly referred to the marks as tiger stripes. It was one of the few times he said anything that actually alleviated rather than increased the shame I associated with my body. And unfortunately, he felt plenty other parts of my body deserved his criticism instead.
Last year, I turned 40. And with that milestone came a shit-ton of self-reflection. These arms of mine, with their road-weary streaks striped across my flesh, comfort my child after scary dreams and lead to my hands that caress my lovers’ cheek, and fingers that type these words to you and help me make a living for myself and my son. The stretch marks that have tagged my arms like a vandal ain’t going anywhere -– they are a part of me: my history, my present, my future.
So, I decided to try to make peace with them.
Last July 4, I made my first attempt. I bought a new swimsuit, in slimming black, and headed to the beach, or the close approximation that is Galveston. I stepped out of the car and onto the sand, sans cover-up, upper arms and shoulders fully exposed to sunlight for the first time in many, many years. It felt good. I let my arms bake, soaking up the rays they’d missed for decades, my vitamin D deficiency being vanquished with each minute under nature’s UV lamp.
I frolicked in the water with my son, my boyfriend and his friends and felt free and happy. It was the best day of the summer.
Then the next day, his friend posted pictures of us and my arms -- to Facebook. Then. She. Tagged. Me!
It was like having the white sheets declaring the taking of your maidenhood on your wedding night hung out on the window ledge for all to see. Remarked one person, “I see you working that tan. The beach looks inviting, though.” Quipped another, “Thanks for posting this. Good memories.”
I couldn’t take the scrutiny anymore. I commented, “I would really like to be cropped out of this one.”
Then came the incredulous response: “Yvonne, why?????? I removed the tag.”
The friend then emailed me privately and asked if I wanted the picture taken down. I realized my panic would seem a bit ridiculous to anyone but me. I scanned the photo carefully, trying to see it the way someone who hadn’t lived inside my body, with these arms, for 41 years might. The only thing more hideous, awful, and cringe-inducing than my flabby stretch-marked arms was the fact that I’d taken my laptop to the friggin’ beach.
Still, I instructed her to leave it up.
Then I went into my email and pulled up a picture that my boyfriend had taken of me that day, away from the maddening crowds. He promised he wouldn’t post it anywhere. It would remain safe, just between us. But now it's at the top of this post. And you know what, I think my arms and I look positively radiant.