What I hear so often that gets me in an instant tizzy is advice to women that there's nothing they can do to prevent pregnancy stretch marks.
Question: if you’re genetically prone to oily, acne-prone skin, do you leave your blemishes alone, shrug your shoulders and sigh after you declare that there’s nothing that can be done to prevent them from erupting all over your face because acne runs in your family?
I didn’t think so.
So why is it that so many women do just that when it comes to stretch marks and pregnancy?
I’ve read a number of articles, blog posts and tweets over the years, some of them from mothers to newly pregnant women, that all seem to say the same thing: your individual likelihood of developing stretch marks during pregnancy is genetic, so there’s no point in applying stretch mark prevention lotions or belly creams to try to fight it. Just accept that stretch marks are a “natural” consequence of pregnancy and stop feeling so unattractive with these dark, deep purple stripes all over your belly and butt.
The first truth about stretch marks and pregnancy and that heredity excuse:
Insofar as modern science understands the risk of stretch marks, the current conventional wisdom is that the skin you inherited is the largest determinant of whether or not you’ll get stretch marks in pregnancy.
In other words, if your mother, grandmother, aunts and sisters all saw stretch marks from pregnancy, you’re more likely to get them, too.
It's important to note that I said the largest determinant. Genetics may not be the only determinant and most dermatologists agree. (Yes, even the American Academy of Dermatologists notes on their website that stretch marks can be improved with moisturizers.)
The second truth about stretch marks and pregnancy and that heredity excuse:
Neither of my grandmothers, nor my mother, got stretch marks. I did.
My experience isn't unusual. Talk to enough mothers and you'll see how quickly the "stretch-marks-run-in-the-family" causal association falls apart.
So what I want to know is this: Why is this one area of women’s skin care so off-limits to self-improvement?
- We women are born with breasts of a certain size, but does that stop us from buying padded bras, minimizers, or longing for cleavage enchancement of some other kind?
- Our hair color is determined by genetics, but according to the cosmetics industry, more than half of all women color their hair.
- Our eyesight is genetic, but does that mean you’d walk around without glasses or contacts or Lazik corrective surgery?
- We’re born with body hair but we shave or remove it in the name of beauty and confidence.
Women all over the blogosphere and on forums seem eager to imply that stretch marks lotions are “potions” and “snake oil,” declaring these products as inventions aimed at parting you from your money with false claims. No matter where I see a question posted by a newly pregnant woman about how to prevent stretch marks, there always seem to be at least 3 out of 5 responses by other mothers that say, “Don’t believe people who tell you there’s anything you can do about stretch marks. You can’t. It’s all hereditary.”
What makes these mothers so sure that another mother can't do anything to prevent stretch marks in pregnancy just because she couldn't?
Obstetricians, midwives and family doctors all seem to fuel this hostility by repeating the same message, as if there were a well-funded National Stretch Mark Alliance, paying off pregnancy health professionals to get them to say the thing over and over to pregnant women: “There’s nothing you can do, just accept getting stretch marks. It’s part of what you pay to become a mother.”
I just don't understand why there is such a systematic, ingrained perpetuation of this idea that because we may have a genetic predisposition to stretch marks in pregnancy that the best advice to give women is to do nothing.
I suppose one could argue that since stretch marks in pregnancy don’t cause harm to the baby, we shouldn't really care. My counterargument: they cause harm to the mother’s body and we should care, because that mom is going to care!
One could also argue that it's best to continue telling women to ignore stretch mark prevention during pregnancy because the available products aren’t as effective as, say, eyeglasses to correct poor vision or hair dye to change your hair color.
My counter argument to this is that there’s probably a bit of self-fulfilling prophecy about that. If you tell women nothing helps, then they use fewer stretch mark prevention products than they should and use them less frequently, and use whatever they hear about, like, say cocoa butter (which has been shown to be ineffective while Vitamin E-based oils HAVE been shown to be effective), so then they get stretch marks in pregnancy, then doctors and health care providers and the mothers themselves say, “see, nothing works.”
Another counter argument to that second suggestion is that I doubt there have been as many studies, or as many funded messaging campaigns, about the effectiveness of stretch marks prevention products as there are for, say, dental floss. Just because is described as "not shown to be effective in a clinical study" doesn't mean it isn't effective. It could simply mean that it hasn't been studied sufficiently in clinical studies.
My brief stint as a Women's Studies major has me put forth the following hypothesis: it’s a holdover of an old hostility to pregnancy, leftover from the days when we believed menstruation was “dirty” and the cleansing of evil from women’s bodies. Stretch marks, like the pain of childbirth that some Christian churches believe to be women’s punishment for Eve’s original sin, are what women deserve. For simply becoming female. Or maybe, even for crossing from one archetypal feminine role—"sexually available"—to another—"maternal."
And as women ourselves, with all our complicated feelings about our bodies, our sexuality and our self-image, we accept this form of punishment. If I get stretch marks in pregnancy, I must deserve it…for being sexual and for being female.
Insert the rote message you've already heard by now: "stretch marks are just the price you pay to have a baby." Subtext: you deserve to get them.
There may also be some jealousy going on, some woman-against-woman competitiveness that seems to permeate so much of what we say to each other about beauty. Women who get stretch marks mostly seem to be the ones telling other women there’s nothing they can do about it. Could it possible be that they’re angry at how they look and subconsciously want to see other women suffer the same thing, so that there aren’t other mothers who look better—more sexually appealing—than they do?
Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against women who like to follow a path of natural beauty and who truly, even deep down, see their pregnancy stretch marks as a badge of honor or sign of love. If, deep down, you truly feel warm-hearted, inspired, and at one with the universe and your child and your partner at the sight of the stretch marks on your body, then more power to you.
If, however, you’re like most women, I think no matter how much you try to ignore, justify or excuse how those stretch marks look, they bother you. They worry you. They make you feel self-conscious. And you wish you didn’t have them.
From Twitter: @ekwetzel When I see maternity photos of women with gorgeous big bellies & no stretch marks, a part of me is jealous. My belly is mother-marked a lot.
I started thinking about this issue a lot last year and wrote a guest blog post called “Preventing Pregnancy Stretch Marks” at A Daddy Blog about it. (Check it out to see my story of my Alien Nation rear end. Yes, my buttocks resembled the scalps of the creatures above.) The main point I make in that post is that if you do nothing about preventing pregnancy stretch marks, and then you get them, you’re not going to comforted by the knowledge that you did nothing to try to prevent them.
Inside you’ll probably be kicking yourself, wishing you could go back and exfoliate, moisturize, lubricate, oil, cream, lotion and wrap yourself silly for the entirety of your pregnancy. While on the outside, you’ll be telling all the other pregnant women you meet that there’s nothing they can do about stretch marks, so they shouldn’t even bother.
Whatever you do, though, don’t repeat that phrase in front of me. It really gets me worked up.
Thanks for reading and sharing,