To say most people had a smooth, pain-free adolescence would be an outright lie. Our teenage years were marked by the development of many insecurities, including the most feared of them all – the horrid, permanently scarring stretch marks. There’s no shortage of how many ‘remedies’ we’ve been offered, and even tried out, to get rid of all the purple, pink and shades of white strewn across our bodies: bio oil, Mederma, coconut oil, dermatological treatments, scar-fading ointments and so many more.
Stretch marks are a common indicator of growth that appear on people of all shapes, ages and sizes. But we’ve become so accustomed to an unrealistic beauty standard that we are instantly shaken up at even the thought of such an abnormality on our own bodies, let alone all the unsolicited advice and negativity we get from others. You’re so young, how can you have stretch marks? You’re a boy, when did you get these? Don’t wear sleeveless shirts, all your stretch marks will show.
The journey towards becoming comfortable in your skin and growing into your own person is longwinded and not always linear. Especially in a country where every second person you encounter feels emboldened to express their views on your body, it’s hard to find emotional clarity and space to find yourself. For many young Indians post-puberty, stretch marks were the last – or first – frontier in the journey to confronting body image and self-esteem issues.
We invited both men and women – wherever they may be in their journey of self-acceptance – to participate in a photography series that celebrates and documents the unique beauty of individuals, and the stretch marks that tell their stories.
Of the seven wonderful people we spoke to, most noticed their stretch marks between the ages of 10 and 14, and many had issues with their weight growing up – gaining it or losing it too fast. Many were first made aware of what stretch marks were by their parents, and often those lessons came from a place of intergenerational social conditioning. The journey since has been full of insight and introspective understanding, different for each person, but collectively framing stretch marks as just one aspect of finding a healthy relationship with their bodies.
“The more I wanted my stretch marks to disappear, the more firmly they claimed their space on my skin. I wanted my stretch marks to go away more than anyone had ever wanted anything. But the pseudoscience of creams and remedies failed me. I cried. I thought that no man would ever find me attractive.”
A freelance videographer who recently moved back to Mumbai from Florida, Ruchika recently started Sanskaari Sass, an online media initiative and store that organically and creatively spreads awareness about feminism and feminist movements around the country.
When she had her first boyfriend a few years later, her stretch marks became even more emotionally visible. “I’ve only ever been with one man and he never brought it up to be polite or hurt my feelings but he obviously noticed them. I knew he did. We kind of decided not to talk about it altogether and I actually thought that was a healthy option,” she said. “Intimacy was hard. Is still hard at 26. I never felt good enough about my body in front of a man. I still take time to shed my fears before I am able to shed my clothes.”
Ruchika tells us she had been swimming since she was 4 years old and loved the beach. But as she got older and the marks got more prominent – if only in her mind – it changed her everyday passions in subtle ways. “I started swimming a little less. A lot less. And replaced my normal high cut swimsuit with one that had shorts at the bottom. I lived in Florida for nearly 5 years during college. I never wore a bikini. I plucked up the courage to buy a couple. More like, felt pressurised to buy some when I went swimsuit shopping with my friends. But either wore them with shorts, or never wore them at all. And even when I wore shorts, I made it a point to never lift my legs too high so that my stretch marks wouldn’t be revealed.”
She tells us that she felt “fortunate” that her stretch marks weren’t in glaringly obvious places and could be covered up in daily attire. But when she was younger, she was surrounded by classmates and peers who often made jokes about people’s bodies. Even Parineeti Chopra and Malaika Arora weren’t spared by these 16-year-old boys who felt they could pass cruel judgment on the stretch marks they saw on-screen.
“I feel like the body positivity movement has definitely progressed from when I was 16,” she reflects. “I definitely feel that there is no representation even now in the media, but we’re moving in the right direction. “I don’t think stretch marks should be glamourised as ‘battle scars.’ I don’t think it needs to be treated like a badge of honour for me to show off to people. I just want people to be indifferent to them and I want myself to be indifferent to them. I want them to be normalised. They are really inconsequential if you think about it.”
“Bold,” “provocative,” “inspiring” – all these are words you’d immediately think of when you think of Roshni Kumar and her work. Beyond the incredible photographer she is, Roshni is essentially just a relatable woman who radiates confidence and speaks her mind. But like many self-made women today, her journey with body positivity wasn’t always easy.
She discovered her stretch marks when she was very young, and kept it a secret from everyone because of how scared and embarrassed she was. As a chubbier child, she was bullied and made to feel very conscious of her body. “I realised I really need to stop giving a fuck, and stop living such a cautious life where I constantly cared about what people think, trying to get the validation I’m actually never going to get from anyone else. I started consciously trying to be okay with myself. I finally reached a place where I’ve embraced them, I love my stretch marks now, and if someone had taught me these concepts of self love back then I probably would have loved them back then as well.”
As a photographer who takes on several body-positivity projects herself, I asked her how she navigates a space where her models might expect perfection of themselves. She tells me simply that her photos are all about highlighting imperfections – showing things exactly as beautiful and natural as they are, and she encourages everyone she works with to think like that.
And the same applies when it comes to intimacy. “There’s always this thing where women are supposed to look perfect naked, but guys can look however the fuck they want. Once I stopped caring about how I looked, it extended to my partners as well - if they have a problem with anything, they can very well fuck off. There’s no way I’m trying to please you. I’m happy with myself and that’s what matters.”
For this photo shoot, we posted a call-out inviting both men and women to share their stories. But unsurprisingly, the majority of our responses were from women and Nirvair was one of few men who responded to us.
Nirvair, a concept designer for Yash Raj Films, says he discovered his stretch marks at age 14, when his mom told him what they were. “I realised you couldn’t really do anything about it. Or maybe I was just too lazy,” he laughs.
He goes on talk about his childhood, when he was overweight, and the ensuing body image issues he faced. “Often other kids would see my marks and go ‘you have stretch marks! Pregnant women have stretch marks! You’re a pregnant woman! Even my dad made a comment once. But now I don’t really care. There have been times where I hated my body but I’m becoming less and less conscious,” he recalls. “I think sexuality is also involved. The more sex you have the more comfortable you get with your body – and anyone can have great sex no matter what body type you have,” he says frankly.
At his job, Nirvair frequently works alongside entire teams of people whose jobs are to touch-up models and actors on screen, including eliminating stretch marks. “It’s upsetting. Part of me is like, fuck it, this is how they make their living. But for people watching Bollywood, they always have this idea of perfection. You’re amping up this standard of beauty and increasing the feeling of inferiority. It’s not.. right.”
He hopes to be comfortable enough to someday walk around naked everywhere, but for now, he loves to dance and his attitude towards health and fitness has also improved. “The journey should always lead to less inhibition. I’m just enjoying my body, doing more and more with it uninhibited.”
“I think what bothers me most about my stretch marks is that it’s real, visceral, you can touch it. It’s not in my head. It’s a physical representation of how my body has changed again and again and again and again. What bothers me is that I don’t have control over my body.”
A former marketing professional-turned-traveller, Diva has a candid demeanour and positive personality. She tells us that while she is totally confident and comfortable in her own skin, she has never liked her stretch marks and isn’t really content with how her body looks. Having struggled with weight all her life, eventually her priorities shifted to leading a healthier and fitter lifestyle more than anything else.
“There’s obviously an element of vanity involved, and I don’t ever know if I’ll look at myself un-vainly in the mirror, but I value my achievements after doing yoga for two months or building up my triceps. My body language and confidence changes the healthier I feel. The stretch marks are just… there.”
For Kavya, a recent graduate of Christ University and now an editorial intern with Homegrown, her journey with stretch marks and body image changed as she moved around the world. Like many others she discovered her stretch marks around the age of 10. She lived in the United States at the time and then in Mauritius – both places where people tended to wear more skin-baring clothes – and where she had the added struggle of confronting race.
“I sort of started internalising whiteness, and to me the stretch marks on white women’s bodies seemed somehow much less worse than mine. I felt like as a brown kid, my body was much more grotesque than a white kid’s. My overall insecurities sort of magnified here,” she says. “I remember thinking that I didn’t want to be a skinny, pretty kid or anything, I just wanted to be a “regular” fat kid. I guess what I meant was I wanted my fatness to not stand out as much as I thought it did, through stretch marks and what not. It was safe to say I hated my body overall.”
When she realised that her stretch marks weren’t temporary and wouldn’t go away, it hit hard. “I once remember looking at them and I just wanted to gouge them out of my body, just scrape them away. I was a very dramatic kid, nothing’s changed. I think this was a necessary period though, because after that I started embracing my body more, wore stuff I liked and didn’t think of my weight as a central marker of my identity. I think because of that my attitude towards my stretch marks softened.”
She talks about her support system – her boyfriend and her friends – whose positivity, sometimes even indifference to appearance, and sincere introspection on toxicity towards each others’ bodies truly uplifted her and helped her come to terms with it.
Also an editorial intern at Homegrown, Praghya’s stretch marks appeared when she started playing football and as a result lost a lot of weight. Precisely because of that, she saw them as a mark of success. “I don’t know why people wanted me to get rid of them. My mom would tell me to put things on them or try to remove it. But it’s not a big deal for me and I think everyone has some form of physical flaws.”
Having lived in a girls’ hostel for all of her school life, Praghya grew up in a conservative environment where there was a strict dress code and conversations around body positivity are only just beginning there now. I asked her what the move to living independently in a city like Mumbai was and whether she’s more comfortable in expressing herself now. “In school I was told off constantly for wearing certain clothes and I always felt like I was being looked at. That kind of attention makes you a little crazy. I think people say what they want and stare anyway. In Mumbai you come across these kind of environments where women are slut shamed for wearing different kinds of clothes. I unlearned a lot of things and eventually just realised that concerns around weight are never-ending.”
“I feel like we make a really big deal for nothing,” she continues. “My mom is still exasperated that I have stretch marks but for me I’d just like to get back to the stamina levels I once had and be healthy. I don’t care about the stretch marks.”
“You kind of feel so ashamed that you have stretch marks, even though my dermatologist scientifically explained to me that they came just because I got tall too fast,” says Anushka, a Mumbai native who runs a specialised branding, packaging and UX design studio, Thought Over Design.
“Especially when I started wearing bathing suits, I felt really conscious. I felt like they looked disgusting and ugly. I remember when I went to Goa for the first time with friends in the 10th grade, I slapped a lot of the beige colored Vaseline that looks like it can cover your marks up with a little bit of concealer because I was so embarrassed by it.”
Anushka was diagnosed with PCOS at a young age and has always had issues with her skin as a result. A former model and a diver who loves swimming, her skin was often tanned. She tells us how she has always received comments about her dark skin; especially from modeling agencies that would make her feel very conscious of her body and appearance, like she was never good enough. But she has made peace with her scars and has grown to love her colour. After she travelled around the world, her understandings of self-love and body image transformed drastically.
“I realised that people elsewhere actually don’t give a shit. When you grow up here you have people telling you that you can’t wear a bathing suit. But I realised these notions don’t exist outside. You can wear whatever and own it. I think that really helped me. You are what you are, man! Seeing people sunbathing topless when you are worrying over whether you should or shouldn’t wear something that shows your stretch marks... it’s kind of funny.”
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