The Irrational History of Hating Stretch Marks

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Photo: Tom Kelley Archive/Getty Images

In late October, Victoria’s Secret did something strange. To promote the broadcast of its upcoming fashion show, the brand released a series of photos that showcased one of its star models, Jasmine Tookes, wearing a $3 million diamond-encrusted bra. Tookes was flanked by a hairstylist in one shot, and knelt atop a velvet couch in another. It was what one might expect from the bra behemoth until you looked closely at the second photo. There, the onlooker could see thin rows of stretch marks cupping Tookes’s thighs. The Today show christened the photos as “unprecedented.” Cosmopolitan mused that it was progress after speculating if the release was really unintentional. It was all so revolutionary — not only was Jasmine Tookes, the centerfold of unattainable beauty, afflicted with stretch marks, but Victoria’s Secret actually deigned to show them.

Every frightening story needs a formidable boogeyman, and for the story of skin, the big, bad monster is the stretch mark. A pimple has a shelf life, wrinkles appear later in life, but stretch marks — those cankerous streams of broken elastin that pucker plots of flesh — arrive early and stay forever. And oh, they’re really ugly. At least that’s what we’ve been told. Why else would we make martyrs out of Tookes and Victoria’s Secret for promoting them, indirectly or not?

But it shouldn’t be that way. A stretch mark is one of life’s most common conditions. Studies estimate that up to 90 percent of pregnant women, 70 percent of adolescent girls, and 40 percent of adolescent males will develop the marks. So ubiquitous are stretch marks to the human experience that you’re more likely to run into someone who has them than you are to encounter a coffee drinker. For women especially, stretch marks overwhelmingly appear at times that emphasize femininity’s wake — puberty and pregnancy. It is the one marker of femininity, perhaps, that escapes the gaze of socially constructed norms.

It’s funny then, that something so natural and measured against any other standard, so inconsequential, could strike such a bold spark in the constellation of skin anxieties. History tells us that many of the skin conditions that are vilified today once illuminated unforeseen health quandaries in more primitive times. Dull skin, for example, could lay the signs of internal organ failure; inexplicable rashes, on the other hand, might point to an infection. There’s no beacon in history that clarifies why stretch marks earned their inauspicious reputation. But like any socially driven stigma that’s both feckless and irrational, the denouncement of stretch marks began long ago, and naturally, it was directed at women.

Jasmine Tookes for Victoria’s Secret.Photo: Courtesy of Victoria Secret

My sixth-grade teacher introduced me to ancient Egypt. In class, there were many talks about the Fertile Crescent and its abundance of art, artifacts, and books, but none surrounding the small stone jars that were the familiar companion of wealthy new mothers. These jars were forged to resemble its intended recipient — a naked woman, either standing or squatting, caressing her swollen belly. Inside the jars would store an oil, or ointment of some degree — one of history’s first documented stretch-mark creams.

In fact, ancient texts are rife with rudimentary stretch-mark remedies. In the preserved volumes of Soranus of Ephesus, the first-century gynecologist who practiced along the Mediterranean’s major coastal cities, a recipe to protect the skin covering a women’s “enlarged abdomen” is plotted. Mix oil from unripe olives and myrtle, Soranus suggests, for toned skin. Even the famous poet Ovid dealt a hand in the stretch-mark shame shuffle. In Amores, he envisioned a woman so driven to preserve her pristine body that she orchestrates an abortion: “Can it be possible that, simply to avoid a few stretch marks, you’d make your womb a bloody battleground?” the poet wonders, simultaneously inflicting both question and insecurity.

There’s no need to bury your nose in verse to encounter the global terror of stretch marks in current times. A Google search churns over 11 million results. The vast majority hammer on chords of fanatical self-hate — a compounding legacy of a narrative stacked over a couple of millennia. “How to get rid of stretch marks” and similar derivatives draw top SEO rankings on Google’s main page. And yet, in sharp contrast to the frenzied tenor embodied in these Google results, stretch marks remain virtually invisible within the images we consume the most.

In 1991, Annie Leibovitz was tasked with photographing Demi Moore for Vanity Fair. Moore was seven-months pregnant at the time and agreed to weather the day-long shoot to reap the rewards of promotion for her upcoming movie. Leibovitz conjured the shoot with tepid enthusiasm in Annie Leibovitz at Work, detailing how their day was swept up in gowns and jewels worn by Moore, punctuated by an interlude where she was shot wearing a black lace bra and panties.

At the end of the day, Leibovitz, who had worked with Moore several times before, prepared a few additional shots for her personal collection. It was then that Moore removed all of her clothing and clasped her bare breasts and underbelly, alternately, with her right and left hands. Her gaze focused on something unseen in the background. There Moore was, a 1990’s rendition of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus.

Of course, the image was too awesome to go unpublished. It became one of Vanity Fair’s most celebrated covers and the clarion call for pregnancy-body positivity. Dozens, if not hundreds of magazines followed suit. What’s missing from the equation though, is the presence of stretch marks. Recall that up to 90 percent of women develop them over the course of a pregnancy. However, these marks have been erased from the triumphant narrative of the pregnant body in media and pop culture. The undulating current of assailing the female form is part of a powerful stream, indeed.

A vintage stretch-mark cream ad.Photo: Courtesy of Palmer's

Around the same time I was learning about ancient Egypt in school, I was growing stretch marks of my own. I hated them because I knew they were ugly. I knew they were ugly because I had heard about these unwelcome streaks of flesh before. The word was passed down from a friend, who relayed a conversation she overheard between her mom and her girlfriend. Or maybe it was a commercial, an ad on TV, or the neighborhood know-it-all who was allowed to read Teen. Point is, 12-year-olds are well-versed in body insecurities, too.

My stretch marks lapped around my breasts. My boobs weren’t even that big, really, so the marks felt cosmically cruel. And treating them was exhausting. From time to time, I plopped into the local Rite Aid to spend a portion of my babysitting earnings on miracle creams. I’d rub the lotion with a nervous sense of seriousness and hoped that my dedication might eventually pay in dividends. I’d squint my eyes and swear I’d caught wind of improvement, only to realize that the marks looked more of the same. In hindsight, I wish I’d have spent less money. In hindsight I wish I’d have talked to Dr. Brooke Jackson, a dermatologist.

She would have told me that I wasn’t the tarnished ghoul I conceptualized in the mirror. “I’m always super conscious, particularly with young girls, about putting this into perspective,” she told me on the phone last week. “It is very, very common. Reality is, teenagers get stretch marks because they’re growing. You can be a little skinny ballerina and still have stretch marks.”

And those creams? They don’t do a thing.

You see, the skin-care industry is a lot like the Wild West: Unexplored expanses in science and skin-care maladies tempt companies with the promise of lucrative profits, and since the FDA only investigates cosmetics after they hit store shelves, a lot can slip through the cracks. While regulations prohibit cosmetics from laying claim to skin enhancements like stretch-mark reduction, many companies get around this by performing terminology acrobatics. Palmer’s, one of the larger stretch-mark cream manufacturers, puts it this way on each of its packages: “helps reduce appearance of stretch marks.” The key word being appearance. In other words, “this cream won’t cure your striped legs or chest, but it certainly might look that way.”

But doesn’t moisturized skin always look better? One would think so, and it’s there that cosmetics companies attempt to cash in. Don’t be fooled, Dr. Jackson warns. “All of those creams are moisturizers. A stretch mark is not caused by dry skin. Will it make your skin look a little more hydrated? If it looks hydrated, will it look smoother? Yes. Is it going to affect the pathophysiology of the stretch mark? No.”

Bio-oil is one of the many companies currently marketing stretch-mark creams

Stretch marks are an internal event, rendering topical solutions utterly useless. They form when collagen, the support system for skin, wears thin. This happens during periods of rapid growth (such as puberty) or weight gain (pregnancy, for example). The resulting fissures are scars that lay underneath the lower layer of the dermis. Because the root of stretch marks are buried beneath skin, only a laser can etch a noticeable difference in treatment. There are multiple lasers on the market today that, when administered by a physician, can address the individual needs of different skin tones (until recently, most lasers would severely damage, or prove ineffective for darker skin colors). The process requires multiple, painful sessions, and even then might only deliver a marginal improvement.

But if a stretch mark is the written code on your body documenting moments of growth and maturation, why erase it? Besides, a thing couldn’t possibly be that ugly if it’s been a part of us all along.