I cannot remember a time when I didn’t have my belly, so I’m going to assume it’s been with me my whole life. I was a pudgy child who grew up into a pudgy pre-teen and then abruptly stopped growing but remained pudgy, even when I gave up chocolate and sweets for Lent and didn’t cheat, even once.
My belly and I have a love-hate relationship. For most of my life, it’s been heavy on the hate.
I learned to hate my belly when I was young. My mother taught me that bellies like mine are supposed to be hated. I learnt this lesson because my mother has a belly too, and for eighteen years of my life I watched her struggle to banish it from her body. It was fad diet after fad diet and Weight Watchers and a sad salad sitting on the sideboard while she served the rest of us our Sunday roast. As I got older, she taught me in harsher terms. “You’re looking very well, Marianne,” she said to me once – I was visiting home after my first few months at university, glowing with the confidence that comes from new experiences – “You’re looking very well, now if only you could get rid of that belly!”
She poked me playfully as she said this, then she saw the tears starting and realised she’d hit a nerve. She hugged me and stroked my hair. She told me she was only joking, but I knew she wasn’t joking. I knew this, because I had a childhood of hearing her sigh and tut when I went to the cupboard for a biscuit or ordered fries at a restaurant. I knew, because she spent my teenage years teaching me all the rules about what short ample women simply should not – CANNOT – wear and how to pick clothes not because I like them, but because they are flattering.
I don’t blame my mother. She is a product of her society. She watched me growing into a perfect replica of her own body type and she panicked because bellies and beauty are incompatible. And everyone wants their daughters to feel beautiful, even more than we want them to feel strong or smart or capable.
I have always had my belly. Even when I was fifteen and practicing karate for several hours at a time, three times a week, and doing an unreasonable amount of sit-ups, my belly remained. I could feel the muscles hardening and tightening underneath, but the layer of fat did not budge. Even when I was twenty and miserable on a low-carb/high-protein diet and my mouth constantly tasted like metal and my shit was small and hard and dark, I lost weight from my arms and hips and breasts, but my belly remained. Even when I was twenty-three and happier than I have ever been, biking eight miles every day and doing Bikram yoga in the evenings, my belly remained like an old friend.
It was around that time I began to realise that maybe my belly was not all that bad. That perhaps a few rolls of fat when I sit down is not literally the most disgusting in the world. That “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels” is bullshit and whoever said it first has clearly never had cake. That maybe being healthy and happy and eating what I like in general moderation is more important than having a thigh gap or protruding hip bones.
In a world that teaches us that our worth is inversely proportional to the number on the scales, the inches on our waist, the calories consumed, I’m still not a perfect model of body positivity. I still sigh at my belly, poke at it in the mornings while I’m getting ready. I still pick clothes that skim out and over and flatten and minimise. I sometimes idly speculate about liposuction, wondering if it would be cheating and wondering if I would care either way. I still stare at girls with flat bellies with poorly-concealed envy, wishing I had the confidence to wear their skinny jeans and cropped shirts.
I still sometimes fall into the fantasy of being thin. I still wonder if I would be more loved if I looked like someone else.
My belly and I have been through a lot together. I’ve clutched it in front of the mirror with tears streaming down my face because I felt so hideous. I’ve stayed in watching movies with my belly because I couldn’t summon the confidence to get dressed up and go to a party. I have lain in the arms of men who have stroked and tickled and kissed my belly, and they did these things eagerly and did not express revulsion. I have gone running in a Chicago summer in just a sports bra, with my belly sitting on the waistband of my shorts, and it was not hideous and it felt good to run without sweaty fabric clinging to my skin.
It was not easy to photograph my belly. It was difficult to relax my muscles, to suppress the impulse to suck it in under my ribs. It was difficult not to pick the most flattering of these non-flattering photos. But here it is. World, belly. Belly, world. Here’s to a future of less poking and sighing. Here’s to a future where this doesn’t feel brave.