The first time I saw a caesarean tummy was on the deck of a boat in the Aegean Sea. I couldn't take my eyes off it because I had never seen anything like it. It sagged over the top of its owner's bikini bottoms, swathes of loose skin hanging in whorls over electric blue nylon, like the ridges in a fingerprint. The woman was happy to be back at work after the birth of her baby and her husband was at home looking after it. But her tummy. She was young and it looked so very old. I was in the same boat but worlds away: a student with a part-time job in a pre-credit crunch travel call centre that meant occasional trips abroad.
Not long afterwards, I was in the same boat.
My pregnancy was a complete shock. Despite the fact the father wanted nothing to do with it and my wholly unsuitable circumstances, I decided to go ahead.
I had always been plump, but while my thighs and arse ballooned at the mere suggestion of a student night out, my tummy stayed flat, my waist neatly nipped in.
The bump appeared at fourteen weeks. I'd bought some stretch mark cream but, as I resigned myself to the fact of lone pregnancy, I began to consume acres of chocolate and couldn't be bothered with the twice-daily massages the tube recommended.
It was Christmas Day when I first noticed the stretch marks. They were so deep and vivid they looked like they should hurt. They crept up underneath my bump and over the edges of my hips, and they looked like the bloody children's hand prints on the wall in The Blair Witch Project. It was too late for the cream: the stretch marks were there to stay. Books told me that they would fade to silver over time, which made them sound pretty.
I didn't want a vaginal birth. Although I knew that my body was designed to stretch and ping back into shape, I'd heard horror stories and I didn't want to go back out there into the world as a single woman with a patched-up vagina. I wanted a caesarean, a neat scar, some semblance of control. The same book that promised silver warned me that if I had a caesarean, I would be left with an 'apron' of skin hanging over the scar.
I ended up having an emergency caesarean - I got to know the apron pretty quickly, wished I could wipe my hands on it, untie it and chuck it in the laundry, but it went everywhere with me. It looked freakish; my torso looked like an indecisive emoji. I began to carry it around with me, convinced that every man who clapped eyes on it would feel the same way I did that day on the boat. I lived in constant hope it would change, but it never did. If I lost weight, it got more wrinkly; it just meant more air had been let out of the balloon. My breasts were streaked with the stretch marks too and one day, after a lesson on the different kinds of trees in the local park, my son gazed at my boobs in the swimming bath changing rooms and asked me why they hung down like weeping willows.
I was going out with men in their mid twenties and I was afraid to undress in front of them in case they saw my apron and it put them off. I used to plan dates meticulously, wearing a slip that could be kept on in any situations in which the rest of my clothes came off. I would only ever wear a one-piece to the beach, until high waisted bikini bottoms came in and saved my skin (literally).
I used to study other women's torsos and wonder how the hell I could look like them. I even fleetingly investigated the cost of a tummy-tuck. I'd think I had stretch marks because I had a baby but my baby was getting older and I began to realise this was not a temporary after-effect. People talked about being proud of their stretch marks and seeing them as a badge of honour of having had their baby, but those women usually had partners who'd been there all along, who weren't going anywhere. Meeting new people and getting intimate became almost insurmountable. Once I referred to it as 'my weird wrinkly stomach' in front of a man I was seeing and he said, "yeah it is weird and wrinkly, isn't it?"
Now that I am in my thirties, I am finally used to the apron as part of the landscape of my body. My son is 11 and the apron skin isn't going anywhere. It's quite cool, actually: the patterns are almost exactly the same as those in the sand at low-tide. I just wish we saw more bodies like mine, that they weren't hidden away, that I hadn't been as shocked as I was that day when I saw that woman's on the boat. And next time I'm lucky enough to be somewhere hot, I'm getting my silvery stripes out. Just like that woman did. And if you've got an apron, you should too.
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