The Greeks and Romans recognised pregnancy could have some serious effects on the female body. Here, I will leave aside serious issues such as uterine prolapse, haemorrhoids and fistulas, and will concentrate on the – arguably – more frivolous question of stretch-marks. I write ‘arguably frivolous’ because, although I appreciate a healthy baby and a healthy mother are the most important outcomes of childbearing, stretch-marks can considerably lower self-esteem. Many a mum will never want to wear a bikini after having babies. And, despite what some people say, there is relatively little one can do against them. Much depends one one’s skin type. Since you ask, I fall in the category of women who were neither lucky nor unlucky. I do have some big stretch-marks, but they are located on my lower abdomen; they do not cover my entire belly. I did listen to people who told me to apply creams religiously during pregnancy, but clearly that was not enough.
In a well-known passage of the Amores, the poet Ovid (first century AD) alludes to stretch-marks in his denunciation of frivolous women who abort for ‘cosmetic’ reasons:
The woman who first took aim at her helpless fetus
should have died by her own javelin.
Can it be possible that, simply to avoid a few stretch-marks,
you’d make your womb a bloody battleground?
Ovid, Amores 2.14 [Translation: Diane Arnson Svarlien]
Of course, Ovid is being particularly unfair here. Women did not abort ‘simply’ to avoid stretch-marks, especially when abortive methods were not always successful and could have serious side-effects.
The physician Soranus (first-second century AD), on the other hand, is non judgemental when he writes:
If the mass of the belly hangs down because of its weight, one must lift it by means of linen bandages/belts [there follow instructions on how to bandage]. One must also anoint the belly with a cerate made from oil of unripe olives and myrtle. For if the skin is toned up it does not break, but remains unwrinkled. [Soranus, Gynaecology 1.56]
Interestingly, this simple remedy might be one of the most effective against stretch-marks. ‘Oil of unripe olives’ (or freshly-pressed oil) is today considered the best olive oil by connoisseurs, and would certainly soften the skin; and myrtle oil is good for the skin (modern myrtle essential oil it is also considered one of the safe essential oils to use in pregnancy -see note on essential oils below).
Pliny the Elder, for his part, recommends to use after the birth sea salt from Cyrpus and nigella. These two ingredients might have had an exfolient effect, thus helping the marks to fade (Natural History 31.84). Finally, Aetius (sixth century CE, Medical Collection 16.135) gives us a series of recipes against wrinkles and black spots on the belly. Some he attributed to Rufus, a physician active in the first-century CE; others to a certain Aspasia. Aspasia was the name of a very famous courtesan of antiquity, who had been the mistress of the Athenian general Pericles (fifth century BCE). It is of course possible that a real lady named Aspasia had created remedies against stretch-marks and other wrinkles, but it is most likely that the name was used as a pseudonym in order to give some extra ‘cachet’ to these concoctions. One of Aspasia’s remedies claims ‘to remove all black spots and wrinkles’. The ‘lady’ should be employed by a modern cosmetic company!
This week, I have tried out Soranus’ and Pliny’s treatments in combination. I have crushed together some coarse sea salt (1 tablespoon) and some nigella (1 teaspoon) and used this preparation as an exfollient. I then used some olive oil with a few drops of myrtle essential oil as an emollient. I feel this treatment is too rough for ultra-sensitive skin during pregnancy. However, after the birth, exfoliation followed by an oil massage, in the long term, can help reduce the appearance of stretch-marks.
In time for Mothering Sunday, I offer you my Blooming Gorgeous Mummy Butter. It is the butter I wish I had found during pregnancy, and the one I now enjoy applying, in the knowledge that it only contains some very carefully selected ingredients. The scent, which is reminiscent of an orchard on a spring day, is not overpowering (please read the note on using essential oils in pregnancy, though!). The butter is relatively non-greasy and quickly absorbed. I certainly do not claim it will prevent stretch-marks or make them disappear as if by magic, but I have selected oils and butters known for helping the skin to remain supple. Also, a butter does come in its own as a way to relieve itchy skin during pregnancy. Some creams on sale seem to make that problem even worse. It is only during my second pregnancy that I discovered shea-butter, which really helped – it figures as one of the main ingredients in my butter. In addition to offering relief against itchiness, applying a butter can help in accepting a changing body. Whether you have stretch-marks or not, whether you lose all your weight six weeks post-partum, your body will never be the same after birth.
My butter is relatively expensive to make, but you can considerably lower the costs by buying in bulk; sharing the costs with expectant girl-friends; and having a fun evening preparing the butter all together. You can also substitute some of the ingredients.
You will need:
– 20 g shea butter
– 20 g cocoa butter
– 10 g beeswax (if you are vegan, you will need to use a vegetable wax)
– 40 ml (2 tablespoons and 2 teaspoons) apricot kernel oil
– 5 ml (1 teaspoon) borage oil
– 5 ml (1 teaspoon) rosehip oil
– 5 ml (1 teaspoon) evening primerose oil.
– 1.5 ml (1/4 teaspoon) vitamin E oil
– 5 drops mandarin essential oil [see note on essential oils]
– 5 drops neroli oil [see note on essential oils]
– 5 drops lavender oil [see note on essential oils]
Note: you can substitute all the oils for a cheaper one (olive oil; sweet almond; apricot kernel only).
1. Melt the shea butter, cocoa butter and beeswax in a double boiler.
2. When the ingredients have melted, remove from the heat and add the apricot kernel oil
3. Using a handheld mixer, whip the mixture for approximately 1 minute. It will become cloudier.
4. Let the preparation stand for a couple of minutes
5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 a few times (4-5 times)
6. Add all the other oils (which are more fragile and would be damaged by the heat) and give a final blitz to the preparation
7. Pour into a sterilised container
8. Leave to cool down then put the lid on
Note on essential oils: Not all essential oils are safe to use in pregnancy. Always ask for advice when using essential oils. Lavender should be avoided in early pregnancy. Mandarin and neroli are amongst the safest oils to use in pregnancy, but all due care should be taken.