Samantha Terry now has long reddish stretch marks covering her entire midsection after giving birth to her children. They run from her bottom to her belly button. They go up and down her hips, and along her waist. “It looks like I got scratched by a tiger,” the 30-year-old told HuffPost.
Some days, she’s not bothered by them — a very small price to pay for the two children she adores more than anything. Other times, she feels “gross” and embarrassed. And when she’s tried to bring it up to a few older women she knows, she has been immediately shut down, reminded of how lucky she is to be a mother, and how every woman who gives birth goes through it.
“It would just be nice to be able to talk about it a little bit more,” said Terry. “It makes you feel guilty for complaining.”
The body goes through a great deal of change during pregnancy. Some estimates suggest that as high as 80% of women will experience changes in their skin during pregnancy. 90% of expectant women get stretch marks. Up to 50% of womenMelasma is the appearance of blue-gray or brown patches on one’s face, cheeks, arms, and neck. More than 50% develop acne — and there are more skin issues that arise, like varicose veins, hair loss, eczema flareups, and on and on.
These changes can be temporary or long-lasting. Terry’s mom can experience emotional pain from any of these. And too often, people who have been pregnant don’t feel like there is anything that can be done to help them or anyone they can talk to openly about what they’re feeling.
An Area Of Pregnancy And Postpartum That Just Isn’t Being Studied
Over the past decade, doctors have begun to understand the impact that certain skin conditions can have on people — not just physically, but emotionally. Studies have linked severe acne to suicidal ideationFor example, there has been a push to create a better integrated system of care for dermatologists as well as mental health professionals to help understand the effects of hormones and stress on skin. the toll skin issues can take.
But for those who’ve given birth, the connection between skin and mental health is still often overlooked. Frank Wang, a clinical dermatologist with Michigan Medicine and one of the few researchers specifically studying stretch marks, told HuffPost that “there’s very little information about the emotional and psychological impact of stretch marks.”
He is accompanied by his team recently released findings from a small survey of 100 newly postpartum women that found one-third of those who developed stretch marks had “a lot” or “moderate” embarrassment about them. This embarrassment made it difficult for them to wear certain clothing, participate in social activities and affected their self-esteem.
Of course, many women aren’t particularly concerned by skin changes during pregnancy; some cherish them. Wang thinks it’s important that researchers and practitioners who work with pregnant patients find ways to support women who feel insecure. They should also address the emotional and practical issues they have.
“With everything in medicine, it’s always very individual. On the one hand, we’re living in this great age where we’re taught to embrace the things we have … and that’s positive in so many ways. But I do think there are individuals who are very distressed by their skin conditions,” he said. “A skin disorder is not necessarily life-threatening, but it can really impact the way people feel about themselves and their quality of life.”
What we can do to support people after pregnancy
For Theresa, 31, stretch marks weren’t a significant source of stress during pregnancy or after, though she did have them. The severe cysts that formed under her breasts during pregnancy made things worse. Those cysts burst — quite painfully — while she was breastfeeding her daughter and are now permanent scars.
Theresa requested to be identified by her first name as she was referring to something that was very sensitive. It was not the best conversation that she ever had with anyone close to her. A family member noticed her cysts while she was nursing her baby in the NICU and asked if they were making her breastmilk unsafe.
“It really messed with me mentally and emotionally,” Theresa said of the whole experience, adding that her scars are still a source of insecurity, particularly during sex.
One challenge in better addressing these issues is that for some of the conditions that come up during pregnancy and after, there just isn’t much doctors can do to help. Wang is working to better understand what causes stretch marks and how to address them, but there aren’t really many evidence-based ways to prevent or treat them right now, he said — and many are expensive. Similar holds for issues like melasmaPregnancy acne treatment many commonly used medications are unsafe.
There are many ways that women can be supported emotionally.
“What ends up happening is even when a woman does come forward and say, ‘This is really bothering me, I feel insecure,’ they’re told, ‘Oh, but you have a happy, healthy baby.’ What that basically says is, ‘What you’re saying and feeling doesn’t matter. You should be focusing on these other things over here,’” Paige Bellenbaum, founding director of The Motherhood CenterHuffPost interviewed a mental health clinic located in New York City. Women are told those issues are “unimportant” or “peripheral,” even though everywhere they look, they’re being told the opposite, she added.
Indeed, postpartum women are inundated with constant mixed messages about how they “should” look and feel. They see aspirational images of moms who immediately “bounced back,” along with marketing campaigns exploiting the body-positivity movement by urging them to embrace their bodily changes with serene and pure positivity. All the while, they’re told in ways explicit and not that they should focus on how grateful they are to be moms.
Instead, women should simply be given the space they need to talk about what they’re struggling with, Bellenbaum said.
“A different way to respond to somebody bringing attention to the way they’re experiencing their body during pregnancy or after is by making space for it and being curious,” Bellenbaum said. “Like, ‘tell me more about what that’s like’ … instead of telling somebody that they shouldn’t be feeling that way.”