I have a biggish belly. Even bigger now since the baby. Big enough that I need two hands to count the times people have congratulated me on a pregnancy that involved no baby, just fat.
It’s been this way since puberty. I was chunky in middle school; back when girls were foxes and dogs, Shambo, another hippie kid, would tell me, “Don’t bark, Florie.” In high school we went away on sabbatical, and I came back tanned, blonder, and skinny. Suddenly everyone wanted to be my friend or date me, which felt weird, because internally I was the same person. Nevertheless, with that lovely young body, that belly persisted. Other girls picked up that I was sensitive about it and called me “Pilsboury Dough Girl.” I remember being sure to spend most of my time in my bikini lying down, because then it looked flat. Geez, what a waste! All that time with that beautiful, able body, leaking my life force obsessing about this perceived imperfection.
Things got a little better in college. I had a lover who loved my body and trained me to stop sucking in my stomach when we made love. It helped to see a range of normal naked bodies by living with women friends, skinny dipping, and backpacking around naked on the Lost Coast. Nevertheless, when I hadn’t lost any of the pregnancy weight ten months after my son was born I took Adderall to lose the weight. I was still breastfeeding at the time and I’m pretty sure my son has ADHD. Did the Adderall cause the ADHD? Probably not, but I’ll never know for sure. That’s how hung up I was on losing my pregnant belly fat.
The Day it all Changed
One day, driving through SF, my partner pointed out the sexiness of a woman’s muscular abs on a billboard on the back of a bus. I instantly felt hot, mad, and shut down. I felt frumpy, pudgy and wanted to hurt him. I think I did punch him in the arm. Hard. Luckily he is a counselor, dedicated to personal growth and amazing at being a safe and insightful listener. I told him what was going on and rather than say, “No sweetie, your belly really is sexier to me than that model’s” he shared that he didn’t totally love my tummy, and sometimes he tried not to focus on it when he looked at me. (Thank you “Radical Honesty,” the book we were reading at the time). Ok. Breathe. Miraculously we were on our way to a two-day intensive workshop on love and shame.
As part of the workshop we did naked counseling: a room full of 120 naked people sitting on towels in Fort Mason Center with sheets over the windows and the heat lamps turned up to keep us warm. In groups of four we went into the center and stripped down in a quick co-created ritual then returned to the circle of everyone holding hands facing outward so as not to see the undressing or anyone until we were all naked. The room was electric with nervous excitement; people were jumping up and down and singing silly songs. Finally, everyone naked, we all turned around and were instruced to mill about and check each other out. Wow. 120 normal naked bodies. Fascinating. Interestingly, the hottest people with clothes on were not the hottest people with clothes off.
Even more interesting were the issues people counseled on: herpes, having a foreskin, sexuality, being “oversexual,” “undersexual,” reclaiming sexuality after rape or molest. The woman considered by many as the most beautiful indeed had a “perfect” body. When she asked to counsel in front of the group we all wondered what it could be she needed counseling on. It turns out it was a birthmark on her forehead no one had noticed and we still had trouble seeing even when she pointed it out. It gave her great suffering. This might seem wild to you (it did to me), but don’t you have your own ridiculous thing?
Still smarting from the bus billboard incident, I requested to counsel in front of the group. The counselor was one of those goddess types: you know, women who are not conventionally beautiful–either they’re not skinny, or half their head is shaved, or they wear fedoras and have hairy legs–but they are sexy, and they rock those curves/bushy eyebrows/sleeve tattoos. They are powerful, and even intimidating, and I’ve always wanted to be one of them, or friends with them, but felt undeserving, like I wasn’t allowed to because I just took my free ride on the conventionally-beautfiful-enough boat.
I stood up in front of the group. I probably wouldn’t have if there was the option to do it “next time,” but with naked counseling, would there really be a next time? I asked this earth goddess how she loved her “big” body and she said she made a choice to.
It can’t be that easy and in some ways it’s not. You have to notice when you’re not loving your body and then stop. Over and over. But eventually the comparing and self-degrading goes away. It’s like a boundary you assert to a persistent unwelcome old friend: “Hello, automatic-old-familiar-shamey thought, you’re no longer welcome. I have chosen to love my body. Goodbye.” To me it felt like adoption. I choose to adopt and love my belly unconditionally that day. I said yes to this part of me that cultural conditioning has encouraged me not to love.
The work is ongoing but it gets easier. I still catch myself being mean and then remember my promise to love my belly. It really feels like a switch I can toggle. I start having the old thoughts and remember and stop. Flip the switch to love.
Yesterday, on the beach in Hawaii, I notice all the programming: I look at every body and evaluate it. Do I approve or not approve? Where does my body fit in to the hierarchy? I feel envious of the young hot bodies, both wanting and not wanting the attention they are getting. I see bigger bodies in bikinis and notice the cultural message I’ve been programmed to transmit: “Don’t you know you’re not suppose to expose your body like that if it doesn’t meet the criteria?”
Back to yoga. Power Vinyasa yoga is 90+ degrees. It’s hot! It feels good to be shirtless, rocking just a sports bra. But then there’s that unspoken rule that you’re only suppose to do that if you have a flat tummy. Fuck it. Let the world see my chubby belly rolls. The more normal bodies we are all exposed to–to counter act all the media bodies we see– the better the world will be. So here you go world.