Want to know a secret just between you, me and the entire interwebz? I've never had a baby. I've never been pregnant. But I have stretch marks.
I looked at myself in the mirror one day and thought 'huh. I was sure my appendectomy scar never used to be on my thigh' and then looked a little bit closer and saw that my scar hadn't migrated after all. I had a stretch mark. It was sort of like a small ghostly caterpillar, and when I looked again I saw that actually my skin was now host to a whole family of ghost caterpillars. What on earth? And the more time passes, the more there are.
I always thought stretch marks were what happened when you had a baby. In fact, every time I hear 'stretch marks' it's someone talking about them as badges of honour, a sign of the exchange that women have made for generations, the one that goes: Dear Universe, I would like to trade this perfect youthful body for a baby, please. And it's not just the stretch marks either, is it? It's drooping breasts and weight gain and a hundred other thing and the usual narrative goes this is the price I have paid to become a mother and look at this picture of my adorable child on my iPhone! See? It was all totally worth it.
So how am I, never-pregnant Claudia, supposed to think about how my body is changing, now that I'm in my thirties? I have stretch marks too and I can't tell anybody they were worth it because they got me nothing. They don't remind me of nine months of protecting a child. If they remind me of anything at all, it's that I don't exercise enough, or maybe they remind me of the six months during 2008 when I was really stressed at work and ate way too many oreos. And they remind me that I'm getting older. But none of that is anything to do with maternity, the one acceptable reason for getting round and eventually soft. And so I feel ashamed of the way my body is changing, of the way my body is ageing. Society doesn't have a body-change narrative for just getting old. It's all about bearing children. So if most women bear their stretch marks as battle scars, mine feel like something I got from stupidly riding my horse into a tree. Something to hide.
And then there's body shape. I have heard a lot of people talk about the way their metabolisms have slowed down after they have children and I haven't been there so I'm in no position to argue. But I can't help wondering how many changes women talk about are hormones and how many would have happened anyway, but I don't feel like I'm even allowed to raise the question. Would an endrocrinologist know the answer? I'm so far from being an endocrinologist that I don't even know if he would be the guy who would know those things. Here's what I do know: I've never had a baby, but now that I'm in my thirties my body is slowing down too. It's heading towards a sluggish metabolism and a thickening middle and a control bra but I don't feel like I'm allowed to be this way. I didn't make the trade. I didn't make the baby so I should still have the body. Right? I should still be lean and lithe and unstretched. But I'm not. Really, really not.
Maybe I'm the only one who feels this pressure.
Sometimes I feel like society misses something important when we talk about the way women's bodies change throughout our lives. As a woman who has never had a baby, I guess I'm saying that sometimes I feel like my body is not allowed to get old. Physically, I'm 'pre-baby'. But that doesn't mean I'm twenty. I'm not disputing that pregnancy accelerates physical changes, slams many of them together into nine efficient, terrible months. But in the end, I think they happen to us all. Having an unused uterus does not get me out of ageing. And I look around me at the women I know and I see that there is no difference in body shape between the older women who have borne children and those who have not. I know thin women in both camps and fat women too. I could not tell by looking who has been pregnant and who has not. People say that feeding a baby destroys the shape of a woman's breasts but it seems that so does turning fifty. Or forty. Or, okay, if i'm honest, thirty is already seeming like a good start.
I don't know what my body would be like if I'd had a baby. But society doesn't really know what women's bodies would be like if they didnt' have babies. My guess is much the same. Maybe it doesn't happen as quickly, but baby or no baby I think everything droops in the end.
But this isn't the way the story usually goes. I don't get to be proud of my stretch marks. They aren't a badge of honour. I didn't earn them through making new life. The only thing I did to earn them was manage to cling tightly to this planet while it hurtled round the sun some thirty-odd times, and probably eat too much cake. The only life they signify is my own. That should be enough, but when groups of women gather and talk it never feels like it is.
But this is the reality: I'm getting older, and my skin is getting thinner, and I've got stretch marks.
And that's just the way it is.