I’m not sure how it happened, but in my youth I completely missed the memo about being ashamed of stretch marks as “unsightly flaws” (scars resulting from rapid growth stretching and tearing the skin), Around age 12, I grew hips and thighs and breasts and streaks across them all, which I accepted as normal, not knowing any different. Much of my life I viewed them with the same affection as the curves over which they ran.
Later I noticed the lotions marketed to reduce the appearance of stretch marks, yet another in a long line of marketing ploys to sell fabricated insecurity to me for profit, dating back to marketing ploys of the early twentieth century to tell women that their natural bodies were offensive to men and in need of deodorizing, depilation, and douching.
And so I find myself in adulthood on the web sighing heavily at every “tiger stripe” or "warrior marks" story, article, photo, or meme that cycles through my news feed every couple of months with the same general message about accepting one’s stretch marks as beautiful by proof of achievement:
One such example shows the tummy and hips of a slender fair-skinned woman with white stretch marks on her hips. Text over the photo says, “Your body is not ruined. You’re a goddamn tiger who earned her stripes.”
Such images and articles create a social narrative that tells women can earn the right to love their bodies if they have borne children (presumably because childbirth is touted as some altruistic universal moral imperative). But, like many women, I’ve had stretch marks since I was a child. Am I supposed to hate myself for healthy pubescent growth? This narrative makes it very clear that I have not earned the right to body acceptance until I’ve fulfilled my role as broodmare.
Lest you think I’m making this up and looking for reasons to be offended, let me quote Tanis Jex-Blake in an article profiling her as one of these stretch-mark mommies who dared to stand up for herself:
I'm sorry if my first attempt at sun tanning in a bikini in public in 13 years “grossed you out”. I’m sorry that my stomach isn't flat and tight. I'm sorry that my belly is covered in stretch marks. I’m NOT sorry that my body has housed, grown, protected, birthed and nurtured FIVE fabulous, healthy, intelligent and wonderful human beings. I’m sorry if my 33 year old, 125 lb body offended you so much that you felt that pointing, laughing, and pretending to kick me. But I’ll have you know that as I looked at your ‘perfect’ young bodies, I could only think to myself “what great and amazing feat has YOUR body done?”. I’ll also have you know that I held my head high, unflinching as you mocked me, pretending that what you said and did had no effect on me; but I cried in the car on the drive home. Thanks for ruining my day. It’s people like you who make this world an ugly hateful place. I can’t help but feel sorry for the women who will one day bear your children and become “gross” in your eyes as their bodies change during the miraculous process of pregnancy. I can only hope that one day you’ll realize that my battle scars are something to be proud of, not ashamed of.
Jex-Blake was openly mocked on the beach, which is shitty, but so is putting down others to prop yourself up.
“But I’ll have you know that as I looked at your ‘perfect’ young bodies, I could only think to myself ‘what great and amazing feat has YOUR body done?’”
You know what my young body has done? Not that body positivity or human worth are in any way dependent on individual accomplishments or others’ opinions, but my body has overcome literally crippling knee pain and persistent depression to run three half marathons, a 15-mile obstacle course, and a few score other races; raised thousands of dollars for local and global charities; and used its privilege to promote body positivity without restrictions while inspiring dozens of others to feel and do the same. Not to mention that it’s spent fully half its life suffering incessant expectations and explicit wheedling for grandbabies without regard for bodily autonomy or health, largely thanks to people like Jex-Blake who perpetuate the idea the childbearing is the single worthiest thing a woman do to validate her existence in this world.
Our society’s obsession with women’s ability to bear children as their primary purpose in life overlooks entirely those women who’ve miscarried and lost children, who are infertile, and who are transgender. Messages that tell women they’re only worthy or useful as mothers are deeply harmful.
Womb-worship aside, this “earn your stripes” narrative relies both on fat shaming and objectification by expressing pride exclusively in young, skinny, white women’s hips and stomachs.
Another viral stretch-mark image comes from Rachel Hollis (also slender, young, and white) with what’s described by supporters as an “inspiring” caption she wrote:
I have stretch marks and I wear a bikini. I have a belly that’s permanently flabby from carrying three giant babies and I wear a bikini. My belly button is saggy. . . (which is something I didn’t even know was possible before!!) and I wear a bikini. I wear a bikini because I’m proud of this body and every mark on it. Those marks prove that I was blessed enough to carry my babies and that flabby tummy means I worked hard to lose what weight I could. I wear a bikini because the only man who’s (sic) opinion matters knows what I went through to look this way. That same man says he’s never seen anything sexier than my body, marks and all. They aren’t scars ladies, they’re stripes and you’ve earned them. Flaunt that body with pride! #HollisHoliday
The problem throughout this trend is encouraging people to celebrate specific so-called “flaws” only if they’ve earned them through the martyrdom of childbearing. In this specific example, readers are eating up the message that body pride is acceptable if one has lost weight and made her body acceptably small by society’s standards, and happiness is imparted by being suitably desirable to men, and they call this “empowering.”
Case in point: The comments on the Hollis article include “Yeah, she’s hot enough for me,” and “I’d hit it.”
One wonders for whose pleasure are women’s bodies and appearance when we call statements like Hollis’s “inspirational” and “empowering?”
To quote the character Inigo Montoya, "You keep using that word. . . . I do not think it means what you think it means."
And what of those 95 percent of dieters who regain weight; what of women who never lost weight or never lost enough to become slender; what of men, who have no equivalent body positive paradigm shift as of yet? Should we just accept that not every message is useful to every person and let people take their happiness where they can find it?
NO. Not when those messages effectively harm others by lifting up only one narrow body ideal. Not when those messages hinge upon objectification and outside approval.
When I brought the tiger stripes memes up for discussion among friends, one commented:
I have stretch marks from gaining and losing weight in a short time span.
Hurray mental illness!
Hurray mental illness!
If we’re celebrating stretch-mark scars as proof of overcoming difficulties, why don’t we see social celebration and acceptance of scars left behind from self-harm?
Over and over we see these articles, photos, tiger stripe memes featuring skinny white women. I searched the web to find a comparable meme-type image for women of color but came up short.
Thought experiment: Do you think we’d ever see viral photos of a fat woman’s stretch marks? Or a conventionally attractive woman’s photos with the depression comment? My pics with a caption bragging about puberty-induced stretch marks? Stripes on a woman of color, on a man, on someone just in their underwear in a slum rather than sunning herself on a beach?
There’s nothing wrong with any woman’s enjoyment of her body, though the reasons given in the viral examples above are problematic in very many ways. But the greater issue is our society’s deification of childbearing and using it as validation and excuse for just more objectification of women’s bodies, assuming they otherwise fit the standards of conventional beauty by being young, slim, and white.
The “earning your stripes” message is absolutely not body positive. Body positivity is not conditional, not exclusive, not based on ability or health or size or weight loss or class or gender or childbearing or any man’s opinion of a woman’s worth based on her sexual desirability. Think twice about sharing memes that lift up a few at the expense of many.