Mirror In The Bathroom

My Belly, My Self

A lifelong obsession with my abdomen began in 7th grade

When I become pregnant in 1985, I revel in the new found freedom of no longer having to suck my stomach in toward my spine. Each added pouf of roundness is a sign that my pregnancy is progressing normally. I need this reassurance after having miscarried the year before.

I now eat and drink fluids for the first time in two decades without worrying about how they might add unwanted girth to my midsection. No matter what I eat during these months, my abdomen is firm and ripe. Even in a bathing suit, I no longer worry about having a flat belly. Liberated at last from the confines of female peer pressure, I stand taller and rounder.

My inspiration for feeling confident is a naked pregnant woman in the locker room of the Olympic-size pool located on Mountain Home Air Force Base where I swim laps. While searching for an available locker, I see her. Her back is long and gracefully muscled like a ballet dancer. From the side, I see the sensuous curve of her abdomen, which reminds me of those older paintings exalting the fecundity of the female form. She smiles, and I decide to relish these months and enjoy my expanding silhouette.

As I swim my laps that day, I recall years of torture and self-doubt that I suppose began in 7th grade since I can't remember caring before then.

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By fall that year, I had graduated into young womanhood. I now had breasts, I had grown taller than my male classmates and I had begun a lifelong obsession with my abdomen.

All the girls I knew referred to this area as their "stomachs." The area in question extends from slightly above the waist and travels down to the pubic bone and from one carved hipbone to the other. Why we called this our stomach and not our abdomen or pelvic area is beyond me. Perhaps, those words sounded too clinical. When we ate, this area seemed to protrude, so maybe we made a subliminal connection to digestion.

I remember my English class going on a field trip in 7th grade. After donning our swimming attire, I heard Linda Griffith tell Sue Silverstein, "I bet when she lies down on her beach towel in her red bathing suit, her stomach goes inward and her hip bones stick up."

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I realized then that they were jealous since they were both overweight, yet their sneering attitude made me feel ashamed, not proud, as though I was guilty for having what they wanted. Yet, I was still not satisfied with my thinness.

For several years, I struggled with monthly bloating, which overtook my body and transformed me into a misshapen blob through my middle. I struggled to hide this area with strategically placed clothing to minimize my perceived girth. I even considered wearing a panty girdle like my grandmother did, but even for a teenager trying to fit in, that seemed like a torture not worth the effort.

By college, the attention to my middle was further exacerbated when Twiggy became the role model for fashionable young women. Now, flesh that made us look alive and healthy was seen as unattractive. Bones were the new vogue, and breasts and bellies were taboo. All those months of drinking liquid Metrical to try and lose weight were totally useless since we would then often go to the dining hall and eat several pieces of lard-laden pie. However, we still strove to have the flattest bellies possible by lying with our feet anchored under wooden dorm room doors doing sit-ups ad nauseum.

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We were just working our hip flexors not our abs, but who knew? I laugh to see pictures of myself where I look like a long string bean. My uncle called me "6:00" for years for being built straight up and down. But, even then I only saw my abdomen.

During my second pregnancy, I took an aerobics class one day taught by a young man whose classes were very dancelike. At one point, we turned sideways to the mirrors. The look of sheer joy on his face when he saw my "baby bump" still makes me smile. His Hispanic culture venerated pregnancy, so rather than seeing my roundness as a flaw, he honored me with a beaming smile and congratulations.

Nowadays, a lack of estrogen wreaks havoc with my midsection. I still wear the same size in clothes, but whenever I glimpse myself in the mirror, I immediately suck in anything that will move. This, I believe, is called conditioning. Like a facial scar, I think everyone can see the pouch that I can't seem to lose. My hip bones still jut out, but saggy skin now droops where I used to be flat.

I don't like this situation. I mention this sagginess to my gynecologist. She says, "I don't expect to look the same as I do now when I get older."

Who's she kidding? We all want to look the same. Hell, I even want to look better.