The other day, I pinched the skin around my navel between my fingers and thumb.
“What are you doing?” my husband asked.
“Channeling my self-loathing into my belly,” I replied.
I was having a bad day. A series of them, if I was to be honest, borne of months of various disappointments and stressors layered and folded in on themselves like frozen soft serve yogurt haphazardly dispensed into a bowl.
So I was taking it out on my body. My stomach, specifically, which I’ve always perceived as soft and squishy in my otherwise blessed-by-genetics thin, white, cis physique. The funny thing is, over the past year or so my cuddly tummy had flattened out, become hard and strong. On its good days (or rather, what I considered its good days), the muscles stood out like a giant “Don’t Fuck With Me” sign. I’d run my fingers over them, twist and turn in the mirror to create the perfect angles before taking photos with my cell phone. Not to send to anyone else, but for my own future reminders of their magnificence.
But insecurities die hard, and their origins are often impossible to discern. Unlike many women, I couldn’t point to an intergenerational fixation. My mother never commented on my appearance, unless my clothes were dirty or otherwise inappropriate. She was adamant her three daughters develop their skills and not rely on a romantic partner. “Men leave,” she would say, which was ironic considering my father is one of the most reliable men on the planet.
My mother lived a very different life before my father, however. The youngest of a large family living in a rust belt, former port town, she dropped out of high school when she became pregnant and married the baby’s father. That man, her first husband, abused and mistreated her until she found the means to take my sisters and leave.
During my teen years, my mother’s rules about heel height, makeup, earrings and contact lenses were illogical and immovable. Yet she never censored the books I read, the films I watched or the music I enjoyed (I was a metalhead, so that’s saying something). In all, she was a strange combination of traditional authoritarian and strident feminist. Mostly, she was determined her daughters not make her mistakes.
The first time I remember expressing disdain for my midsection was a family trip to Acapulco when I was 15. My father took a photo of my mother and I sitting on a large rock on the beach. I wore a hot pink and white striped bikini. At the time, I stood five feet five inches tall, and weighed 110 pounds. And I sucked my stomach in when he took the picture.
Ten years ago, I donated a kidney to my sister, which they removed via my belly button. Pre-surgery, I had the perfect divot of an innie, but I had no clue what it would look like afterward. In preparation, I purchased a monokini (not to be confused with this monokini), which resembled a tankini with a strip of material down the front to obscure my bisected and reconstructed navel. I wore it for the first time approximately four weeks after the procedure.
Conventional wisdom would hold that a raised ridge of discolored flesh across the very body part I’d always disliked would put the kibosh to any baring of it, minus the shower. Yet, I quickly veered in the other direction. By the time I visited my parents at their Florida winter hideaway, I lounged at their neighborhood pool sporting a blush pink two-piece. I’d been struggling with depression, anxiety and rage since the donation, and the decision to display my six-month old, north to south midriff scar was an act of defiance, not acceptance. On the bright side, I wasn’t holding in my stomach.
Over the course of a three years and with the help of a great PTSD psychologist, I reconciled my trauma, and became an advocate for better living donor protections. But as I achieved a new balance, the pubescent insecurity reasserted itself. Fortunately, the bravado I used to protect myself post-donation also served as a launching point; I found myself annoyed rather than shamed by self-criticism.
When I was diagnosed with deteriorating cervical discs two years ago, and needed to start a strength training regimen to stave off more invasive and costly interventions, I used it as an excuse to reel in my wayward abdomen. I bought a set of resistance bands, familiarized myself with youtube videos and developed a low pressure routine. Every other day, optimally, but I promised myself I wouldn’t feel guilt or shame if I missed a day. Or three. Life gets in the way. I would simply pick up where I left off.
Over time working out, even at a minimal level, changed my body necessitating new pants (Was my gut the only thing holding them up?). I will never become an exercise convert or have a profile in a fitness magazine, but my neck and shoulder symptoms have lessened significantly. I’m physically stronger too, which makes me feel more competent as I navigate the world.
My tummy has embarked on her own journey. On my worst days, I still scowl in the mirror as if regarding an offensive parasite. Only now I understand my obliques and rectus abdominis are not the problem; loneliness, injustice and professional stressors are. A lifetime of unrealistic images have simply given me a safe target for all the debris in my life that I can’t immediately resolve.
I’ve learned to counter this self-destructive impulse by listing the wonderful things my core does for me and others. For example, she keeps my organs from spilling out onto the floor and making a horrible mess. She also muffles the deafening growl of my stomach. And she provides a perfect canvas for the tattoo situated low and to the right.
When I laugh so hard and so long that my muscles ache, I’m reminded of how lucky I am to have such fantastic people in my life. My retired racing greyhounds, meanwhile, find it a soothing place to rest their heads. And it’s a pretty nice erogenous zone for my husband to zero in on too.
When I say and do things like I described at the beginning of this essay, husband will sigh and say, “Babe stop it. You’re beautiful.”
And then, I give my belly a little rub. Sometimes more than a little. Because she deserves it.
Christine Wright is a former therapist, rock journalist, and ecommerce business tycoon (darn that economic collapse!). Now, she's a writer, actor and greyhound whisperer who likes power tools, red shoes, and white wine. Soon, you'll be able to learn more at her new website ByChristineWright.com (for now, follow her on twitter @WrightChrisL)