I loved my belly when I was pregnant. It was the only time in my life when I did.
I held it, I stroked it. I took comfort by putting my hands on it. I wore T-shirts that clung to it, outlined it in all its baby-filled glory. I never cared what angle I was seen at, I never sucked in my gut. I reveled in it.
Now it's a different story.
These days, my belly is a repository of shame. It doesn't tell the story of the miracle of human reproduction, or the story of love and sweaty, passionate sex. Instead it speaks of late-night snacking, sneaky spoonfuls of peanut butter, covert cookie boxes and too many french fries. It speaks of days not spent exercising, nights not spent sleeping well and bowls heaped with pasta instead of salad.
It speaks of laziness. It speaks of gluttony. It speaks of the me I'd rather not be, instead of the me plus one (and then another) that made me magnificent.
When my husband puts his arms around me from behind, and his hand touches my stomach, I forget the pleasure of his embrace and think only of my flaws and faults. It just takes over, becomes the thought that engulfs all others.
It happens when I try on new clothes, and when I go to the beach. It happens at the playground when I pick up my daughter, and see the other moms in their tennis dresses or their business suits or even their shorts and T-shirts, looking like the moms you see in TV shows.
It happens at job interviews, where I wonder if they think my inability to stay trim means I have a shoddy work ethic or an inability to complete a task. It happens when I see my family, so proud of me for that time a few years back when I lost 40 pounds and vowed never to gain it back. I gained it back and then some.
I feel the judgment of the whole world when I think of my belly.
But I am a smart woman. I know, intellectually, that this is not reality. I know that my family loves me and understands that I struggle. I know that my husband loves me and wants me, wants to touch me and hold me, and see me, all of me, if only I'd let him. I know that my job interviewers care about the things I say, my kids care about the things I do and the other moms, if they notice at all, couldn't care less because they're thinking about themselves and their own kids, not the shape of my body.
So why can't I shake it? Why can't I put my hands on my belly and feel gratitude for the life and the body I have? It's given me children; it's given me pleasure in infinite varieties, from long walks and yoga headstands to delicious foods and indulgent sex. There is nothing I can't do with it right now, except fit into a size with a single-digit number on it or look flat in a dress, and why is that taking precedent over everything else?
It's not TV. It's not magazine covers. It's not the clothes in the store that don't quite fit me right or the constant parade of stupid selfies posted all over Facebook telling me to love my body and that the best way to prove it is to post a photograph of it for strangers to see. It's me. It's all in my head.
I see plenty of women with food bellies like mine, living happy lives. They're wearing colorful clothes, they're running around with their kids and they're not worrying about what I think of them, or looking at me with judgment or sympathy. What's their secret? I want to know.
I put my hands on my belly and remember what it was like when there was a child in there, and I how I loved it. I caress it, remembering how magical I felt then, how powerful, how womanly. And I wonder how I can get myself to feel that way again.