I am a reasonable person. I try to spend my thinking life concerned with the greater good. I try to tune out the “white noise.”
Yet, I have come to accept the presence of a particular hiccup in my thinking life. It’s always in there, even if I am not actively aware of it. I have body confidence, life confidence, career confidence. I have a good marriage, a strong base of friends and a pretty active and satisfying life. But I have found that conscious or unconscious, I have spent—or let’s say wasted—a lot of time in my life being concerned about the so-called gift of my genetics. It’s not a self-hatred thing at all. More like a preoccupation, a self-awareness.
It’s my belly.
You see, my belly sticks out. First thing in the morning I am pretty svelte but by 10AM on any given day, my body shape begins to take on a teletubbiness, a second trimester-esque fullness. It recently occurred to me that I have spent nearly a lifetime unconsciously sucking in my belly, which is in equal proportion to my bubble butt. When I was a child, this body type was lovingly called “a sway-back.” My backside is definitive and was epic in my 20’s. Unfortunately, it preceded the fan-inducing, belfie star-producing admiration of present times. My posterior made J-Lo look like an also-ran. But, unfortunately, it was just relegated to “bubble butt” when I was a kid. And as part and parcel of my pride of the backside, my belly angles out in the front part of the “S” curve, and has done as long as I can remember.
My belly is star of the show in the before-sound home movies from my childhood years, the early 70’s. Feed the projector and here’s the scene. It’s my parents’ duplex living room, my handlebar mustached dad in his armchair reading, smiling and waving at the camera. Pan to my sister, slim and lanky and about 10 years old, who is wearing a floor-length ruffled renaissance-style nightgown. She glances at the camera, waves and looks away. Then I get the shot. Music is playing, I am 8 years old and dancing around the living room in short shorts and a t-shirt, my long, straight hair swinging wildly. I am a pretty regular kid of the 70’s, hairstyle and clothes, and I look like a happy kid. But the thing I notice, the scene-stealer, is my belly. Round and firm, a live troll-doll, my belly is a force unto itself.
Unlike many people, I can remember the exact moment I became self-aware. One fateful day, when I was in third grade, I was lined up for recess outside the classroom, when a boy bumped me hard enough from behind to make me turn around. Like a perpetual instant replay, this exchange is tattooed on my memory, and became my permanent judgment. It was the moment when this now-anonymous boy looked in my face and said “You have a bubble butt and a big, fat belly.”
He probably had a crush on me, or the comment was probably a stream-of-consciousness, benign remark from an 8-year old boy. But this comment in some form shaped my self-vision for the rest of my life. I have hazy memories of that day, coming home from school and looking in the mirror at what suddenly seemed a gruesome deformity. I did have a bubble butt, and the side-view shape of my body was not the letter “I” like my sister and other girls, but was a definite letter “S.” I was hideously contorted. My butt had previously been distinguished by me as merely a soft, cushy part of my body whose sole purpose was sitting and holding up pants. Now it was “a thing.” My belly; Lord, that belly! No matter how I stood it was just parked out in front, ready to greet the world. I could not then or ever after un-see this round, sticky-out belly, which seemed to poke out in direct proportion to the vast arc of my tender, round, 8-year old ass.
On that day in 1976, my belly and I stopped being friends.
So began a lifetime of sit-ups and sucking in that has had little or no effect on the shape of my belly. Today I am in my 40’s, and this belly is still largely uncooperative. This wondrous belly helped produce two extraordinary, amazing children. I would not change the extra space that that vast stretching event added to my belly, but it remains a nuisance. This belly has ruined many a dinner party with its fullness. Instantly inflated, round as a basketball, I can’t help but wonder what it is made of, truly.
I could lose a few pounds, sure. But life is not a beauty contest, it’s a survival of the fittest, and I am fit enough to survive it. But as far as being fit, or rather, “fitting,” goes, this belly is temperamental. One day this belly chooses to lay low – usually this is the day I am out shopping for new jeans – the next day it makes a grand re-appearance as if to taunt the world (and my new jeans) with its helium-like distention.
I eat healthy, I exercise. I avoid carbs and sugar and gluten and fat and alcohol and food if possible, and you name it. If it’s edible, I have researched it, found its sugar and fat-free equivalent, and have lived on the verge of self-imposed starvation more years than I care to recall. I avoid beans. Yet, it occurred to me one night recently, after a dinner party, that I have spent the majority of my life’s waking hours sucking in. This insanity has to stop.
One evening after a lovely social engagement, I stood in my bathroom in just bra and undies, getting ready for bed. And then a moment, not unlike that of an unwitting 8-year old came, and self-awareness refocused my eyes. I noticed, despite being alone in the bathroom at 11PM, that I was still sucking in. I took a deep breath. And with palpable hesitation and a tangible fear that my kids or husband might walk in unannounced and find me there in all my hideous roundness, I let it out.
I did it, I let it out. I stopped sucking in. I stood there in my mirror just looking at my real body shape. It was liberating, and even though a bit comical in mere proportions, I took it in. I posed this way and that way. Was it really so terrible, this “S” shape of mine? What if I stopped sucking in forever? What if I just let the world look at it, look at the giant air-bag swell of belly that is me? In the mirror, putting my hands on my belly, I looked pregnant. I threw my shoulders back and stood there, fighting the habituated compulsion to suck in. God, what a relief! My posture was actually better. So this is what normal people feel like; so relaxed. The rest of me looked normal, and even my bubble butt appeared reasonably proportioned next to this balloon on my front-side.
And as I stood there, my belly and I reunited, at last. I smiled. What on earth had I been trying to hide all these years? Or hide behind? There are bodies of all shapes and sizes, and this is the era of baring all, of being confident in your God-given assets. But could I really take this belly out in public? Could I really just put it out there, dress it up, poke it out for the entire superficial world to see?
I could. And I did.
I stopped wearing a belt. I moved those suffocating jeans that required a day of near starvation to keep my belly from bulging over to the back of my closet. I even stood on the beach in my tankini, in full belly relaxed mode. And you know what happened? Nothing. Despite my expectation, no 8-year old boy, or man, woman or child, came up to me to tell me my belly was poking out. No one came running down the beach pointing and screaming “BELLY! BELLY! Look at that BELLY!” No one laughed, no one snickered. In fact, I don’t even think anyone noticed. Anyone except me, that is. I noticed that I wasn’t sucking in. And it felt amazing.
The moral of the story? Well, I’m not one to tell other people how to live, but if I could do it all over again, if I could go back to that moment of lost innocence in the third grade, if I could tell my young self to be proud, be strong, be happy with who you are? What would I do?
I’d kick that punk 8-year old boy in the nuts.