My daughter leads with her belly. I’ve spent the past thirty years sucking mine in. She’s just about at that age this process will begin. I want to find the crossroads, the very spot at which she turns from being at ease in her body to trying to shrink it. And I want to derail that train before she gets on.
As a toddler, she used to lay her head on my belly. She would knead it and plump it up, making a nest-like pillow to cradle her head. My belly was not a source of shame or ridicule. To her, it was something pure. It was once her home. It brought her comfort. For me, it brought me a feeling of disgust.
It makes me wonder, why am I ashamed of my stomach? What meaning and value have we placed specifically on that part of women that it’s become so embroiled with inner conflict?
I consider other animals’ relationships with their stomachs. Dogs show their stomachs to demonstrate submission and trust. Cats—well, if you’re lucky enough to touch a cat’s stomach, you’ve earned the ultimate privilege.
I am kind of enamored with the primordial pouch. You know, that squishy blubbery thing that sways when the cat walks, that small plush pouch that you can’t help but gently poke. When the cat lays on its side, or back, the flab just hangs with no shame, no reservation. Perhaps animals do have shame; it’s debatable. But what’s not debatable, is instinct.
I used to assume that the cat’s plush waddle sac just meant they were overweight. Now I understand that it serves a purpose: to protect the cat’s internal organs (among other theories). When a cat fights another cat, it often “bunny kicks” with its claws out, targeting the vital organs. It goes for the most vulnerable area.
This reminds me of an unusual experience I had while employed as a Psychiatric Technician at a state mental hospital. I was in the unfortunate position (rather, the patient was in an unfortunate position) to be physically restraining a woman who had assaulted someone. While escorting her away from the ward, she managed to get her arm loose from my hold. But rather than swing at my head, she did something with her hand that was entirely unexpected, and peculiar: she grabbed a handful of my belly and shook it. That’s right, she squeezed my doughy stomach like it was a stress ball, and then jiggled it hard enough to hurt. “You’re fat!” The patient said while she did this.
My male colleagues averted their eyes, while mine darted at the patient. I seethed. “Don’t touch me” I growled. Something animal in me was awakened. Just as a wolf bares her teeth, my words unfurled from the soft core of my being like a snarl.
I had let my guard down. Not only had she assaulted me in my most physically vulnerable place, she did something much, much more clever and damaging: she shook me where my shame lives.
Later, when a nurse offered to look at my stomach for marks or bruises, my colleagues remarked how odd the incident was. I half-joked that I’d prefer to be hit anywhere else in the body than have the fat of my stomach shaken. I felt violated. I never realized how intimate a space my stomach was until someone touched it without my consent. And the marks she left were more mental, as she likely intended. I felt vulnerable and uncomfortable in my own skin. My impulse was to find a place to hide.
The real shame is that my daughter will most likely soon stop letting her belly hang out.
This is how she feels most comfortable and relaxed. From the side, her belly is disproportionately large, like a baby Santa Claus. Her jolly, carefree spirit lives in that belly. One day, she may feel uncomfortable when her belly sticks out. She may suck in her joy.
Like the patient who grabbed my stomach, other women are just as culpable of policing bodies as men are. We are all responsible for reinforcing patriarchal, misogynistic norms. And most of us, like me, have internalized sexism. “Girls use social aggression,” I told my partner recently, explaining why there is so much drama, judgment, and cliques. We go for the proverbial jugular. Or, in this case, the belly. Which is, basically, the emotional equivalent of the jugular for women.
How can I raise my child to love her body when I bemoan my own? How do I stop cultures from poisoning the pure innocence with which she takes up space in this world?
I do not remember the days when stomachs meant comfort. When the smell of my mother’s skin and her squishy midsection was safety and security. But I do remember the sound of my mother sighing as she stood on a scale. I remember the weight of her breath filling the room, the heaviness of her shame filling the void that grew more and more vast between us. When did this divide happen?
When did bellies change from pleasure to pain?
It’s a complicated time for women’s bodies. The pendulum seems to swing wildly between valuing thinness on one hand and embracing bigger bodies on the other. “Body positivity” is becoming mainstream, from Victoria’s Secret’s “plus-size” lingerie models to Lizzo’s latest reality show in which women with bigger bodies compete to be her backup dancers. At the same time, Instagram and TikTok are saturated with influencers who have smaller than average (and more toned) bodies.
Society tells women, “Love your curves”, as big brands pilfer these affirmations to market their products, placing profit above all else. Thin, or curvy, corporations don’t genuinely give a crap about women’s bodies or wellbeing; these slogans are not signs of a cultural shift in values, but an exploitative industry that profits off the subjugation of women’s bodies, regardless of size.
Weight Watchers, or WW, needs to up their game to stay afloat, as diet culture does seem to be dying among the gen Z-ers. The enlightened nutritionists will snub their noses at talk of calories. They’ll tell you it’s called “lifestyle change”, not a diet. The “D” word is so uncool, so our mother’s generation.
Diets are unhealthy, we’re now told. And yet, we are simultaneously inundated with news that Americans are dying from food-related conditions like diabetes and heart disease. A CDC study found that in 2020, more Americans were on diets than the previous decade.
Are people closet dieting? Are they dieting behind closed doors just like they occasionally hide to indulge in a pint of Ben and Jerry’s? Once we fat-shamed, and now we diet-shame.
It’s not surprising that women are getting mixed messages. Our bodies have always been at the mercy and whims of public opinion, and legislation. The bottom line is that our bodies, and what we choose to do with them (diet, no diet, join the cult of CrossFit, or sit on the couch with cross-stitch…) is no one’s business.
I remember my inner self recoiling when my young daughter patted my stomach or squished my rolls.
Every part of me wanted to push her hand away. Instead, I sat with my discomfort, my unease, and suppressed my instinct to bury myself beneath blankets. I let her explore my suppleness, let her seek refuge in my loose skin.
Showing her my belly was not a resignation, but a resolution. By doing this, I gifted her something: a safe place to rest, and a story. The story was one about women’s resistance. It was a story about how vulnerability can be our strength. It was a story I wanted to pass down to her, about women’s bodies—especially bellies, how they are both our weakest points and our sources of power. We can suck them in, or we can preen our primordial pouches, let them loose to sway confidently, knowing they serve a purpose.
I hope my daughter breathes easily into that space in which her laughter originates; I hope she always leads with her belly.
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