I was reading a book the other day and one of the characters commented on her own stretch marks by saying, “Ugly, aren’t they? But they make me think of my babies.”
As someone who is 28 with zero pregnancies and more stretch marks than I can count (many which have been there since before I was in high school), these types of comments have always poked at something in the back of my brain. Made me angry. It’s true that part of this anger comes from this idea that women can (or should) only come to accept or love or value their bodies’ “flaws” if they are a byproduct of creating the miracle of life — a wonderful, powerful thing that should be celebrated, of course. But it’s always felt more like an insult to me, a line of thinking that seems to say, “Well, your body may not be beautiful, but your babies are, so it’s OK. You’re OK. You have an excuse. You still have worth.”
But, if I’m being honest, the truth is that it also bothers me because it makes me feel jealous, ashamed. Bitter. Not of babies or pregnancy (haven’t gotten to wanting those things quite yet), but of the excuse. It reminds me of being 14 and dreaming about having kids one day, not because I craved motherhood but because I fantasized about having a way to explain away my stretch marks or my cellulite. I hadn’t experienced even a sliver of life yet and there I was thinking: What a relief that I’ll finally have an excuse to exist in this body.
The truth is that I was thin when I had these thoughts, but the picture I had of myself was so warped that I had no idea. I couldn’t have fathomed that the version of myself I saw in the mirror wasn’t the real one. It also didn’t matter; it never really has. To be on a constant mission to shrink myself felt like protecting myself. If I’m always dieting, no one can say I’m not trying. No one will have to lie to me and say I don’t need to. If I shame myself before anyone else does, then there are no surprises. One step ahead. Now, years later, these thoughts mostly make me sad, but they don’t sound entirely foreign, either.
Sometimes it’s the smallest of details, like that tiny line in a book, that set me off. Make me want to be able to explain away my body in a way that makes me feel more worthy in the same way I did in high school and college and after that, too. So many things about how my brain works are the same as when I was 14 or 18 or 20. I kind of suspect they always will be. But things are different now, too.
For example, there’s also this: For the past year, I’ve spent one hour of nearly every single week working with a therapist. I expected this experience to heal my relationship with food or to calm my health anxiety (and it has, in many ways), but the more impactful lesson has been something I didn’t expect or want at all, really. It has been accepting that, for most of my life, I truly have believed l that I am not worthy because of my body — that not being able to be thin enough said everything about myself that would ever matter. No matter how successful I was or how funny or how creative, that was the thing that would define me, the boldfaced failure that everyone would see first. This impossible thing that I lacked.
I resisted admitting this for a long time. I felt myself physically cringed at the thought of it or the thought of admitting it or writing it (hi). I knew it was true, of course, but it made me feel weak and insecure in a way that I felt I couldn’t afford. To not be thin felt bad. To not be thin and be insecure, too, felt like it would crack me in half. To be 28 years into life and still believe, at a cellular level, that stretch marks meant I was ugly or that the first thing everyone noticed about me was my weight felt, frankly, pathetic. But it didn’t change that it as true. And somewhere along the way, I was able to really be honest about that, to really allow myself to feel the weight of the sadness of it. And then to let it go.
Being honest with myself (and feeling the not so good things) felt, at first, like I was putting myself at risk of something. I felt exposed, like suddenly everyone would turn to me and confirm my deepest fears about myself, my greatest shames. But instead, it felt like power. Like taking a deep breath, and letting the things no longer serve me slowly fall away and stay behind. It helped me realize, for example, that I am tired.
I’ve learned that constantly rationalizing the space I take up in the world has exhausted me. Thoughts like: Well, if enough people like my photo, then my body must be OK, right? If I have babies, then stretch marks aren’t quite as ugly, right? If I exercise every day and I’m still not thin, then I’m still valuable because I’m trying, right? have made me bone tired in a way that aches. I’ve spent so much time asking myself these questions and setting myself up for failure with answers that always came from a place of shame. So I’m trying to be done with that. Done with all the questions. Done with calculating what I need to gain or lose or hide or change to just be here. I am giving myself permission to exist without needing an excuse for it because, really, what else matters? To deprive myself of that is to deprive myself of life, this single precious thing, same as me.