Every year I greet summer with the same mix of excitement and trepidation. I’m thrilled not to have to take five layers with me every time I walk out the front door, but know full well I will consider moving to Antarctica every time I stand on a 100-degree subway platform for the next four months. Along with park sits and deep tans, summer also brings with it cute outfits that swirl up all the insecurities I’ve spent the fall and winter thinking I finally put to rest.
I’ve always had a complicated relationship with my body. I spent high school on and off diets with my mother; I spent my college years emotionally eating and binge drinking through four deeply sad years in small-town Wisconsin. I lost a lot of weight after college and found that while I felt largely the same about myself, the world reacted to me differently, which was equal parts exhilarating and demoralizing. I’ve since gained the weight back, lost it, freaked out about it, met in the middle, promised to do better, the whole drill.
Over the past two years though, I’ve called a truce. I no longer look at my body and feel frustrated or hateful, though I am acutely aware of it most of the time. And not to sound like that friend who wants to sell you health shakes from a pyramid scheme, but focusing on being strong rather than thin has shifted my mindset dramatically. I try to stop and appreciate emotional growth, I check in with myself when I’m in a situation that would have once made me self-critical or hyper-vigilant of how my thighs looked compared to whoever I was standing by, and when I’m feeling good, I try to acknowledge the work I’ve had to do to get there.
I’ve got these stretch marks, up and down the lengths of my upper arms — both arms, front and back. And I hate them — but I didn’t always. When I first got them in 8th grade, I thought they were a cool kind of mystery. My mom didn’t have them, my friends didn’t have them, how cool! I was showing them off in choir practice when a boy in the tenor section (they were all tenors at that point) said, “My auntie has those!!” Knowing nothing of his family tree, I immediately felt that the marks on my arms were no longer unique markers of womanhood, but something I should probably be ashamed of.
Cut to current day: I still buy serums and lotions that promise to banish and lessen stretch marks, even though I know they’re essentially good-smelling snake oil. I’ve got stretch marks on my hips and my knees and my thighs and those feel fine — the product of growth spurts and womanly curves and all the body positive stuff you see on Pinterest. But the stretch marks on my arms feel different. They’re more visible, obviously, but somehow they feel like more of an indictment of my inability to tailor my body to an “acceptable” standard: If I hadn’t fallen off the diet bandwagon with such California-Pizza-Kitchen-fueled abandon in high school; if I’d sought out support to deal with my crippling loneliness in college in the form of counseling instead of two-dollar burger night and two-for-one PBRs, maybe I would be different. Also, because my stretch marks aren’t pregnancy-related — the “forgivable,” even praiseworthy condition they’re often associated with in public discourse — they feel (irrationally, I know) like some sort of moral failing. And then on top of all that, I feel like I’ve failed my feminist beliefs every time I spend so much energy on these tiny white rivulets, when it is 2018 and life is basically a grab bag of bigger things to worry about.
I know most women have stretch marks, and that you can’t really get rid of them or prevent them from happening aside from staying the same size you were when you were 11. I also appreciate that women are speaking more publicly about them, and that there are artists and art projects that celebrate their beauty. I am hoping and trying to channel these women this summer, and talking about it with you, my favorite internet strangers, certainly feels like a good first step. And if all else fails, I plan to remind myself that everyone is too caught up in their own shit 99% of the time to notice me at all, let alone get up in my biceps on their morning commutes or during patio happy hours to assess and judge the details.
When I’ve put in the work — and it is work — to get comfortable with myself, feeling defeated by something so small can make my self-esteem feel like a house of cards. I’ve spent too many years of my life letting my body insecurities get in the way of enjoying the limited perks of the summer season (team fall!). And yet, I know feelings don’t always follow the soundest of logic, so as summer draws nearer, I felt compelled to scream this out into the internet void in case anyone else experiencing summer-induced body panic wants to join me. Let’s talk about the summer body stuff that may be on our minds, what we’re stressing about and what we’re excited about too, so we can get around to the business of enjoying our sweaty, beautiful summer lives.
Collage by Emily Zirimis.