Women are absolutely beautiful the way that they are and they don't have to be airbrushed to be beautiful. I feel like we're coming into a time where women are starting to accept that they're beautiful, flaws and all. We're so much more alike than we think. —Alex Elle
NEW YORK — Karly Vedan was 9 when she first noticed stretch marks popping on her legs.
"I grew pretty tall really fast," she said. "They looked really creepy, like something scratched my knees."
Well, fast forward more than a decade and her lines have lots of company. Before giving birth a year ago to an adorable son, at 35 weeks into her pregnancy, lines had taken over her tummy.
"At first I was just kind of scared," said the 21-year-old Canadian student in Edmonton, Alberta. "It looked so weird, like I had a bunch of spider veins all over my stomach.... I asked my doctor about it and they said those are just stretch marks, don't worry about it."
She heeded that advice and was overjoyed a few months back when she stumbled on an Instagram campaign urging other women to do the same.
The effort that has resonated with Vedan and hundreds of other women was started about seven months ago by moms Alex Elle, a writer, and Erika Layne Salazar, a photographer. Aptly dubbed Love Your Lines, they put up an Instagram account of that name and spread the word for one and all to email them photos of their stretch marks and how they feel about them, especially in relation to today's idealized standards of skinny, unmarred perfection.
Swamped with images, they're still going strong, giving birth to the popular hashtag LoveYourLines used by posters showing off their own marks on Instagram, Tumblr and elsewhere across social media.
Setting the effort apart from other woman power and esteem-boosting campaigns is the fact that Elle and Salazar transform each image into high-art black and white as a way to avoid distraction from the marks themselves and the stories behind them.
"For me, Love Your Lines was a way to make women feel safe about their bodies," said Elle, in Rockville, Maryland. "We wanted a platform where women could be themselves. Initially it was just going to be a fine art photography collection where I would be interviewing the women and Erika would be taking the photos. Then it just kind of went crazy."
With the promise of anonymity to all who want it, women from around the world are pouring out their seemingly sincerest joys, anxieties and despair over their marks, loose postpartum bellies and battle wounds from valiant fights against cancer.
Some, like Vedan, have allowed themselves to be identified by the posting of their traceable Instagram handles. Others, like a recent nameless submission, have spoken of suicide.
"No man will love me or choose me when there are so many beautiful & lovely women out there," wrote one who submitted a close up of her belly and identified herself as a childless 24-year-old. "I will never be at peace with my lines. My body issues consume me at every waking moment."
Nearly 300 people, at the urging of Elle and Salazar in an accompanying comment, have offered her comments of love and encouragement.
"Women are absolutely beautiful the way that they are and they don't have to be airbrushed to be beautiful," Elle said in a recent phone interview with Salazar. "I feel like we're coming into a time where women are starting to accept that they're beautiful, flaws and all. We're so much more alike than we think."
Some of the participants are pictured with their little ones. Others show off the splendor of their pregnant bellies. Most of the photos are in extreme close-up.
"Mother of 2 at the age of 28 and each day I become more in touch with my new body," said a poster celebrating her lines and saggy tummy skin. "Even though it took me years to accept them, I can now say I wear them with pride."
Salazar, who lives near Elle in Silver Spring, Maryland, considers support an important part of the project.
"We're all opening the door for each other," she said.
But it's also more personal for her. Salazar's 4-year-old daughter required open heart surgery at birth. "She has a huge scar down her chest. I never want her to think twice about whether she's beautiful or not."
Arianne Klarisse is an aspiring 17-year-old model in London. She submitted a photo of the stretch marks she has on her bum. She said by phone that her lines began at puberty and she also has them on the backs of her legs, on her hips and on her thighs.
"I've tried a lot of creams, moisturizers, oils," she said. "There's nothing I can do. I just have to live with it."
Rachel Hollis, a mother of three boys in Los Angeles, had not heard of Love Your Lines when she posted a photo of herself on Instagram rocking a bikini on vacation in Cancun, Mexico — stomach pooch and all.
"I have stretch marks and I wear a bikini," she wrote in part under the March photo on her feed, @msrachelhollis. "I have a belly that's permanently flabby from carrying three giant babies and I wear a bikini. My belly button is saggy ... (which is something I didn't even know was possible before!!) and I wear a bikini. I wear a bikini because I'm proud of this body and every mark on it."
Her on-the-beach declaration earned her viral status across her social streams, and an outpouring from people of all shapes motivated to share their lined, marked bodies and stories, too.
In an interview, the 32-year-old Hollis said it had been a decade since she had worn a bikini before taking off with her hubby without the kids, ages 8, 6 and 2. She really liked her orange bathing suit top that day and asked him to snap a picture.
"It's crazy. Almost immediately women started posting their own photos in the comment section," said Hollis, who runs a lifestyle blog called Thechicsite.com. "Women just lifting up their shirts and posting their stretch marks. It wasn't just women and it wasn't just moms. It was men who had lost weight. It was veterans who had lost limbs. People who had scars from burns or chemotherapy."
She's even more proud now of her body knowing she has inspired others.
"They took the torch and they ran with it and I'm so humbled," Hollis said. "It's awesome that it was my photo but it makes me think that it's something people want to see: the reality instead of constantly looking at perfection."
Follow Leanne Italie on Twitter at http://twitter.com/litalie