The year is 1995. I’m not quite 11 yet I’m thumbing through an issue of Seventeen magazine and looking at all of the latest clothing trends while No Doubt plays on my boom box. Usually reading Seventeen makes me feel mature and sophisticated, but this time it fills me with dread. As I flip past each page there’s one look I notice over and over: bare bellies. There’s Kate Moss squished between models for a CK One ad, a feature on hip-hugger jeans, and a photo shoot of or the latest crop top looks sparked by the mega success of Clueless. The overarching message is clear: to be an attractive woman you must have a flat stomach that you can show off. It’s never said explicitly, it’s just an unspoken expectation.
At 10 I have already put on some weight as my body is gearing up for puberty, and I am horrified. There is absolutely no way I can show off my tummy confidently. I have a little ripple of fat that sits just above my belly button (a “spare tire” if you will), and although I’m just an average growing girl, I feel as though my body is huge and therefore unacceptable.
By my early teens, the pervasiveness of the message only intensifies. Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera become as well known for their gyrating hips and slinky outfits as they are for their incredible voices. Even when I look to the feminist riot grrls of the ’90s, I am confronted with women who use their stomachs to make a subversive statement, with “bitch” and “slut” scrawled across their torsos in red lipstick. Whether I’m pop or punk, mainstreamer or outsider, I’m supposed to look a certain way. Every ounce of media I consume in music videos, on television, and in magazines continues sending the memo that a flat belly equals desirability. Meanwhile, my body continues to bewilder me.
At 15 I suddenly put on 30 pounds (thanks, PCOS), and now in addition to my flabby belly I have deep purple stretch marks reaching from my pelvis to my stomach, like a neon warning sign reminding me that no one should ever see my bare torso. In gym class I watch several of my classmates splash around the pool in bikinis while I stick to a nondescript one-piece. I am hyper-vigilant about my body movements, making sure to never stretch or raise my arms in a way that might lift my top and leave some of my stomach exposed.
While my self-consciousness about my body wasn’t outwardly apparent (I hid behind a bubbly persona and my school’s strict dress code), my feeling of inadequacy still reared its ugly head throughout my life. By 16 I had joined Weight Watchers and spent far too much of my free time doing ab crunches and hula-hooping (a “belly-busting” workout straight from the pages of Seventeen) before finally begging my mom for a gym membership.
When I became sexually active, I still tried to hide my stomach, casually covering it with my hands or pulling away whenever a partner’s touch got too close (what would they think of all that pudge?). Although I wasn’t the type of girl who would insist on only having sex in the dark or making her partner turn around while getting undressed, I still felt deeply undesirable; the curves that were supposed to make me sexy were nullified by the presence of my ever-expanding belly. I had a predilection for tall lanky guys with floppy hair, and as a bonafide fat woman I was baffled by their interest in me. It wasn’t until I started sleeping with other fat people that I slowly started to understand that my body wasn’t as repulsive as I thought.
The first time I truly appreciated a soft belly was at age 32 when I started sleeping with my friend Jimmy. With a stocky build and an ample amount of body hair, Jimmy is what the queer community would call a bear (he identifies as pansexual). Every time we got together, I took time to revel in his belly, stroking the hair that covered it and grabbing his generous flesh. Even after we stopped hooking up, I couldn’t resist giving his belly a squeeze whenever we hung out.
Then there was Beth, with her dimpled flesh and velvety skin that made me feel like I was caressing a cloud in human form. And now there is my Lexi. Sweet, sensuous Lexi. Like me, she struggled with her body image for years but didn’t make peace with it until she was at her highest weight. As Lexi explained to me, “My belly is stretch-marked, cut, scarred, and flabby, and I am not in love with it but have certainly learned to love and accept and enjoy it.” I adore every inch of Lexi but I cherish her belly. I usually make a beeline for her stomach, kissing a path all over while caressing her beautifully imperfect soft skin that has housed and nourished two babies. It was only recently that I realized if I loved her belly so much, maybe it wasn’t such a stretch that my own could be loved in the same way. Like most women I know, it’s been far easier for me to admire certain physical traits in others than in myself. But I’m trying.
Not so long ago I asked my partners, Lexi and Eric, if they found me attractive because of my tummy or in spite of it, and their answers surprised me. “It’s just like an arm or a leg,” Lexi said. “To me it’s not about a particular body part, it’s your entire package.” Eric agreed. And that’s when it struck me. I’m not just my stomach. It’s a part of me and it’s important, but there’s a whole person attached to it. My confidence may be shaky and to this day the opening scenes of Clueless give me flashbacks to those feelings of inadequacy but in learning to love my soft belly I am learning to love myself.
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