One day at the public pool, at the age of 13, the boy I had a crush on started laughing hysterically:
“OH MY GOD, does your dad beat you with a stick?!”
Flustered, I turned my tomato-red face to see him pointing at my lower back, where a colony of red horizontal stripes had spread from one end of my waist to the other. I never forgot the incident (and the horrible assumption this boy made about the origins of my marks). I looked around the pool: All the girls around me had perfectly milky smooth skin, like newborns. The only woman I spotted with anything close to my stretch marks was a pregnant lady. This was the beginning of my struggle with an obvious, irrevocable imperfection.
I have stretch marks everywhere. I have them across my back, on my thighs, on my butt, on my chest. Just a few days ago, I tried on a pair of shoes and turned around to check out the heels. Thanks to the store’s bright lighting, for the first time ever I noticed I even have stretch marks all along my calves. Up my entire leg, from heel to derriere.
Essentially, the only place I am not permanently marked with my rapid physical growth is on my face. Silver lining?
Aside from that tactful boy in 5th grade, I have had doctors, physiotherapists, friends, romantic interests and total strangers comment on my stretch marks. Most comments are neutral, along the lines of, “You grew really fast, didn’t you?” (judging by all the comments I have ever received on my height, I should legally be a giant), “Did you know you had these huge mark thingies on your back?” (yes sister, but thanks for the reminder anyway), “Woah, were you once really fat?” (not even as a baby, unfortunately) and one time even, “Hmm, your scars are kind of hot” (…awkward silence).
And so the obsession started. I bought creams and oils that were supposed to reduce the appearance of the marks. I looked at the smooth, perfect backs of all other girls, short and tall, and wondered why my skin hadn’t been able to keep up with my growth rate. Then I felt annoyed at being tall in general. I’d look at my mother’s perfect, bronze, smooth-as-a-baby Korean skin and shake my head. Then I looked at my dad’s slightly less-smooth, dry skin, and understand. But understanding wasn’t enough to calm me. My internal dialogue went something like: Why me? Why am I branded like this, for life? I’m never having kids, then I’ll have stretch marks on my stomach, too. These creams don’t work! Oy vey. I’m a human zebra.
Over time, my stretch marks turned from red to white, so they started to blend in more. However, when I got tattoos on my back, I couldn’t help but notice how much I wished my stretch marks weren’t there at all. I wanted a smooth canvas for my body art. But I didn’t have it, so I tried to suppress my feelings.
The summer between my junior and senior year at college, I worked at an Education non-profit in New York City, and deeply admired all of my coworkers. One of the supervisors, in particular – let’s call him Juan – was so cool, funny, charming, and handsome. About midway through the summer, the whole school went to the beach for the day, and I glanced over at Juan’s very beautiful body, only to notice that he, unbelievably, had prominent stretch marks across his shoulders and upper arms. The fair lines were even more noticeable on his darker skin tone.
And amazingly, the first time ever seeing stretch marks as large as mine on another person (and a very attractive person to boot) felt liberating. I actually found his stretch marks attractive. It was incredible to me, but something about them screamed true growth, experience and strength. Ok, maybe it was the combination of his overall persona and the pronounced muscles beneath that made his stretch marks extra attractive, but what I realized was that, if you find a person attractive, something like scars or stretch marks will not make them in the slightest less attractive to you. It may even add to their appeal in some unique way.
I felt liberated. For a while, at least.
I still noticed how few people have scars as pronounced as Juan and I. After that summer day, I never saw anyone with equally prominent marks on their body. A few more years have passed, and I find myself in a state of ambivalence.
People say their imperfections make them beautiful. I have learned to love some of them.
But my stretch marks have reached a place of ambivalence. I neither love, hate, nor accept them. I still feel sad when I see the silky backs and smooth thighs on other girls. I feel I look old, somehow marked, not as youthful and innocent. It’s ridiculous, because I’m 22. But sometimes, on a bad day, I believe I look kind of worn, inevitably scarred for life.
Then I think back to Juan and remember how cool I found his stretch marks. Many guys have muscly arms, but his wore a visible badge of honor.
Unlike Juan’s intentional muscle-building, it’s not like I chose to grow too fast for my skin to keep up, but it still felt like I could make a decent comparison between the meaning of our scars.
I think about how flaws can be part of your ticket to success. Take Giselle Bundchen, the top model of the last decade. She was told she should get plastic surgery on her “big” nose (people be crazy). Aside from being all-around gorgeous and a great model period, her nose is what made her face different, what made it more unique and intriguing. The same goes for Cindy Crawford’s beauty mark, which apparently she was told to remove at the beginning of her modeling career. She didn’t, and it became her undisputed trademark.
However, I don’t believe my stretch marks will ever be considered particularly beautiful, or my defining best feature. But I do believe that I learned, first-hand, that we can be inspired and humbled by our imperfections.
For example, I love tigers, and was inspired to call my marks “tiger stripes”, to the point where they, at times, made me feel more badass. In a Mike Tyson ugly-but-badass kind of way. Ok, maybe not quite like Mike Tyson, but you catch my drift.
I don’t think I will ever love my stretch marks, so I am not urging you to love your flaws. But I am urging you to let them do something really powerful, that I believe may be even more valuable than seeing yourself as unflawed.
Let your imperfections humble you.
I am humbled by the fact that random people will innocently draw attention to something I used to almost cry over. It reminds me that I literally wear my unintentional imperfections on my skin. I am human through and through, and my so-called flaws are plain for everybody to see. I can’t hide them – just like we shouldn’t be able to deceive others by hiding our true character.
Nobody should be forced to love something they don’t, so if you can’t love it, let it humble you. Let it ground you. There are many things I am proud of, but my stretch marks exist as a reminder of the fact that, no matter how hard one tries, absolute perfection is impossible.
Nobody in this world is perfect anyway, at least not by some nonexistent universal standard. It’s all relative, a matter of perspective and personal taste.
In the wise words of Missy Elliott, “Nobody’s perfect, but you’re perfect for me”.
Imperfection is relative. Perfection is relative. And perfection is an imprisoning goal if we apply it to our physical bodies in the absolute sense. But acceptance and humility is a liberating, grounding goal to strive for.
We can achieve a kind of gentle perfection through absolute self-acceptance. Your gentleness towards your own body and mind will set a premise for how you treat others. Be kind to yourself. And be humble.
Love and perfectly real vibes,