I was in gym class when I saw my first stretch mark. I was sitting against the padded wall with the other girls who really didn’t want to play basketball. My legs were crossed, and I was laughing with my friends about something — a crush, maybe — when my eyes drifted downward to my inner thigh. There it was. A faint purple crevice crawling along the seam of my gym shorts. I remember when I bought my first real padded bra. I was maybe 13. My friend’s father had dropped us off at the mall for a few hours, and we ambled into Victoria’s Secret. Standing naked in the dressing room, I noticed them. Somewhere between that day in gym class and this moment here, I had sprouted B-cup breasts. Shallow white lines branched out like riverways from my sternum along the inside of my cleavage — skin desperately trying to keep up with my new womanly figure, which would eventually stretch to reveal curvy hips and D cups. These lines have traveled and twisted and turned and deepened through every phase of my life.
“Think of the skin like a basket weave,” says Ellen Marmur, a dermatologist in New York City. “Collagen is that nice, tight, woven surface. A stretch mark happens because there’s been a disruption in that pattern.” As we literally stretch out, the skin pulls apart that weave, and we’re left with what feels and looks like a divot in our skin. It’s like our body is outgrowing our skin. And if you’ve ever worn a bikini to the beach (hi), you know that bright sunlight is very effective at showing you exactly where your stretch marks are and how many you have. An estimated 80 percent of women have stretch marks, and they can be the result of any number of things — the stomach stretching during pregnancy, a growth spurt (upward or outward) during puberty, building muscle too quickly, weight gain. Which is to say: Almost all of us get them. Models, moms, men, teens.
Stretch marks are, for better or worse but mainly worse, a part of life. Studies have even shown that they could be hereditary. Thanks, Mom and Dad! The fact that they’re basically inevitable doesn’t mean we don’t do our damnedest to get rid of them, of course. A staggering 78 percent of pregnant women surveyed by Mintel in 2016 had used creams marketed as “stretch mark solutions.” But do any of them work? Some research has suggested that you can maybe, sometimes, reduce the probability of getting stretch marks a tiny bit with preventive creams packed with everything from vitamin E to enzymes and peptides. But most studies come out pretty unimpressed with the options.
“Stretch marks are, for better or worse but mainly worse, a part of life.”
One published in the British Journal of Dermatology in 2015 found that there was virtually no difference between pregnant women who applied lotion containing cocoa butter and vitamin E to the abdomen breasts, and thighs and those who used a placebo. “I am not aware of any well-designed clinical trials showing that any type of topical prevention cream works,” says Anne Chapas, a dermatologist in New York City. In other words, doctors don’t believe the evidence is strong enough to tell patients that these creams actually help stave off anything.
And after the fact? Once the damage has been done? Well, first off, not all stretch marks are equal. “The red ones are fresh and a little more treatable,” explains Marmur. “I once treated a model who had a bathing-suit shoot three weeks after giving birth. We were able to make a pretty great improvement with just one Fraxel laser treatment.”
But once stretch marks have turned white — usually within one to two years — “they get finer and tighter, and it’s harder to erase them,” says Marmur. “Young, healthy people can build up collagen really quickly, so they have a better chance. After 40, it’s not as easy, so it takes more sessions with a fractional laser.”
Some might even say that making a real difference in stretch marks, at any age, is virtually impossible. “We can put a man on the moon, but we can’t fix a stretch mark,” says Joubin Gabbay, a plastic surgeon in Beverly Hills. We can attempt to make it somewhat less noticeable, though. In additional to fractional laser treatments, Marmur uses microneedling combined with radio frequency to create micro-injuries to the skin in order to stimulate collagen production at the site of the stretch mark— and she manages expectations every step of the way. “I try to underpromise and overdeliver,” Marmur says. “I tell patients I can make their stretch marks between
10 and 30 percent better, but what I’m hoping for is 60 to 80 percent.”
“Some might even say that making a real difference in stretch marks, at any age, is virtually impossible. “
And yet the fight continues. One of the latest solutions: a tattoo needle. Beverly Hills cosmetic tattoo artist Dominique Bossavy offers a procedure called Nano Color Infusion in which she tattoos your stretch marks so they match the skin on the rest of your body. This option runs at least $3,500. The results are impressive (if not a little scary to those of us who have no tattoos at all) (hi again), but is it worth it?
“Someone who is obsessing about stretch marks may not be appreciating the rest of themselves,” says New York City psychiatrist Katharine Phillips, who specializes in body image and body dysmorphic disorder. “That’s not what other people are appreciating; they’re appreciating all of you. You have other attributes and more important strengths.” We should probably stop focusing our energy on something that 1) likely no one but you notices or cares about and 2) doesn’t have much of a solution. “Someone who thinks their partner sees their stretch marks and thinks they’re disgusting…that just isn’t real or logical,” says Phillips. “You have to be more
compassionate toward yourself. It’s good advice for all of us.”
Look. Do I love having these deep creases on my inner thighs? No. No one likes to be confronted with the reality that they aren’t perfect or that they’re getting older. But amazingly and counterintuitively, I find comfort in places like Instagram (if you stick to very specific corners). That’s where I found Cinta Tort Cartró. She paints vivid, rainbow-colored lines onto her stretch marks. That’s also where I discovered artist Sara Shakeel, who turns regular stretch marks into veins of glitter. ASOS recently ran swimsuit ads featuring unretouched models with cute (yes, cute!) little white stripes on their butts. Fitness superstar Kayla Itsines has posted pictures of her stretch marks, too.
“”You have to be more compassionate toward yourself.”
Stretch marks tell the story of a life. Growing breasts, becoming a woman. (In my case, getting dumped before prom, gaining 10 pounds.) Our bodies stretch and grow and tighten and change. And our stretch marks are the map that shows us where we’ve been. They tell the story of a life lived — a joyful, painful, hopefully long life. Stretch marks are part of being human. And there’s something incredibly beautiful about that.
Check out these women who are celebrating their stretch marks:
- Plus-Size Model Lucija Lugomer Got Real About Her Stretch Marks on Instagram
- Curve Model Denise Bidot Proudly Shows Her Cellulite in New Target Swim Campaign
- Teyana Taylor Gets Real About Stretch Marks
Now, watch these centenarians explain what makes them feel most beautiful: