Can someone else's image of us shape our own identity?
Even model lookalikes are not immune to body insecurity. Sasha Dillon*, 31, has the kind of spectacular looks that leave men dumbfounded.
A dark-skinned black woman who works for a nonprofit organization in Los Angeles, she has beautiful skin and the body of a Playboy centerfold. But she also has stretch marks.
"They go from my thighs up to my butt," says Dillon. The result of an adolescent growth spurt, the marks look to her like "long, pale tentacles of flesh" that stand out against her brown skin. She's tried tanning, exfoliating, and moisturizing.
"I was the only 13-year-old who kept a vat of cocoa butter with me at all times," she says. When Dillon began dating, she kept up her efforts at camouflage, refusing to walk naked in front of a lover or to have the lights on during sex.
But you can't play hide-and-seek forever. "You don't have to love the part of your body you're ashamed of," Maidenberg says. "You just have to stop being ashamed of it. If you stop hiding it, it becomes a non-issue."
But what if it is an issue?
Barbara Jenkins*, who works in radio promotion in Los Angeles, lost a breast to a mastectomy in 1998. She never expected her boyfriend's pained reaction to the scar and flattened right side of her chest. "He never touched me there again," says Jenkins, now 56. To accommodate his discomfort and hers, she wore a T-shirt when they made love. "He would lift it up on one side," she says. In the end, the relationship didn't last, but Jenkins emerged with a new sense of self.
Last year, when precancerous cells were found in her left breast, Jenkins had another mastectomy. Since then she has had reconstructive surgery on both breasts. Today, she is upfront about her cancer. On a recent date with a new man, "I said, 'I've had breast cancer and I have implants so if that bothers you, let me know.' He said, 'Don't worry—I've had cancer too!'"Beauty Is A State Of Mind: Sex After Mastectomy
According to Maidenberg, there is no reason that a woman should "prepare" a man to see her body. "Why do it? In the long run it only increases anxiety," he says.
Some women conquer their self-consciousness by doing away with the object of their dissatisfaction. Caitlin Randall had her birthmark surgically removed ten years ago. "I was surprised by how easy it was," she says. "But it was painful. There were stitches." For Randall, this wasn't giving in—it was taking charge of her body. "It was an act of coming into my own," she says. "It was liberating."
Stretch marks can't be removed, but Sasha Dillon has cast off the cocoa butter and turned on the lights in her bedroom. She's found security in her marriage of a year and a half to a man who, as she puts it, "doesn't make me feel like I have to back out of a room." But when the couple began to think about starting a family, she blurted out her worst fear about pregnancy: what if her stomach becomes riddled with stretch marks like the ones she has now?
Her husband looked at her quizzically. "Where do you have stretch marks?" he asked.