One of the many things that distinguished Nanny from all the other grandmothers in the world was her belly. Nanny's arms and legs were really skinny but she had this belly. It wasn't large but it was soft and a little rounded. And every once in awhile, she'd flash it at us. Yup. Nanny was nothing if not mischievous. And, at some point in her hard-working adult life, she had herniated her belly button. I never knew how. Pushing furniture around? Gardening? Working in the little grocery she wasn't too fond of? I don't know. But what had once been small and whorled was now blown out like a smoothed over jelly donut. That big. I don't think it hurt her. A perfect oval in the middle of her belly. All she'd had to do was show it to my sister and me and our three rolicking boy cousins once. That was it. We were hooked.
We'd plead with her to let us see it. Over and again. She'd be laughing and protesting the whole time. Calling us crazy kids. Telling us no, no, no. As she peeled up an edge of one of her countless mock turtlenecks (sleeveless if it was summer) and quickly tugged it back down again as if she'd changed her mind and was going to walk away. After immediate squeals from us, she'd look smile at us from under her salt and pepper forelock of grey curl and relent when we least expected it. Up, she'd yank her acrylic top in barely a flash of pale stomach in a corner of her red-carpeted livingroom. It always was a little shocking to get to see a part of Nanny that looked so...vulnerable. But she'd quickly turn the moment light and make that jelly donut belly button growl at us the closer we peered at it as if this mutation of hers was somehow a menace to our youthful physical perfection. We'd scream obligingly every time, then fall into giggles-at least my sister and I did- I think the boys might have just stood there and stared. Nanny would gather us in her arms, squeeze us and give out glamourously-red-lipstick kisses. It was never scary. It was just our Nanny's belly. And we loved it.
I can't lay claim to a belly button quite like Nanny's but I do have a round soft belly all my own. Like many of the women in my family, I've got long skinny legs and lots of middle. That’s me! Between my breasts and my belly, I couldn’t find my waist if my life depended on it. Haven't seen it since about 5th grade. And my sweet daughter seems to have inherited my build. Her legs just go on and on. And she can rub that beatific bulb of a belly of hers for good luck. It positively blooms when she’s in her bathing suit. A perfect half moon of warmth. It waxes and wanes depending on how fast she’s growing. Just like mine did. Right now, it's a slight crescent. In between growth spurts it fills in again. But, so far... fingers crossed... at almost 9 years old, Lucy is perfectly content with her body. In our size-zero-worshipping society, where girls start dieting in elementary school, I count that as a victory.
I love her body. I love her confidence. So different from mine at her age. She walks like she’s imitating a child on a city street playing at being cool, acting tough in order to keep up with her two older brothers. Actually, with Lucy it's not so much an act. This kid would have kept even Nanny on her toes. She plays basketball at the hoop on the side of our uneven driveway like she means it, rides her bike down our hill at frightening speeds and shoots herself in powerful bursts through the water of our backyard swimming pool. She owns every inch of that body. Other times, she’s just grooving to her own beat. She's all arms and legs shooting out in four entirely different directions. Head going. Feet churning. Oooh, ooh, hoo! she sings at the top of her lungs. I want to cry when I see her like that. To get to watch my daughter grow strong and uninhibited is a greedy joy unmatched by anything else I've yet to experience. Always feel that free! Love that body you‘re traveling around in! I just want to imprint that decree onto her little brain. Ignore everything else you hear.
Because lord knows, she will hear a lot.
When Henry and I first got married, he’d roll over and slide his hand around my warm belly and I’d…suck that belly in! Every time! So often did my stomach recoil at his touch that it became a reflex. And, poor girl, back then, I didn‘t even know that I barely had anything to suck in. It didn't matter. I wasn't concave. And this person is my partner. My best friend. It's me and him against the world. But this is how I know I’ve gotten better, softer with myself. Because, now, 3 kids and 17 years later, I have enough sense to simply move closer to that warm embrace.
It started happening around the time I had my babies. I had them all three close together and, very quickly, Henry and I were surrounded by all these orbs of baby and toddler bellies. Buddha bellies we called them. We doted on them…. loved them and kissed them and gave juicy raspberry kisses all over those delicious tummies. Round bellies meant we were feeding them right. We were actually figuring out how to take care of these marvelous creatures! Meanwhile, my belly was stretching and deflating three times in a matter of 3 and a half years. And my rotundness meant my belly was working right too. I was growing the baby inside me right. I felt filled up with the power of my own body. Three times over. Look what I can do. Watch me! People walked right by me in the street, unimpressed, while I felt like shouting: I'm a freakin' miracle over here! Hey! Don't mind me...just growing a human being!! I remember going to a public meeting in the small city we lived in when I was pregnant with Finn. It was about McDonald's wanting to move into our rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of Somerville, Massachusetts. Representatives for McDonald's were there looking smug. I remember wielding that bulging belly of mine like a weapon. You want to put what where? I stood up and showed them my belly. Did they realize who they were dealing with? I was going to be a mother now. This was serious. I had a whole new identity I was trying on and a whole new investment in the world. That was powerful. And I felt so beautiful when I was pregnant. A lot of the time anyway. Stretch marks aside. Huge and beautiful. Imagine that.
Those early years with 3 children under four, we were home-bound in so many ways. Nursing, feeding, napping. It was a cozy time. And me, as Mama, I was a big, soft cushion. (This was also a claustrophobic and insanity-inducing time that made me want to scream when anyone else even tried to touch me by the end of the day but that’s a story for a different day.) My belly was the safe place for Finn, Sam and Lucy to bury a head into when the light was too bright or the noise too loud or when the world just seemed a little too much. I was someone to push against when they tried to stand. Someone to fall into when that didn’t work out as planned. I was the warm place to nurse. I loved it when they would sigh after they'd settled in to drink for awhile as if to say, “Yup, that’s the stuff.” My lap was the softest place to drink a bottle...their bright, round eyes intently locked on mine. And when they were colicky, as two of mine were, nothing soothed them more than walking around- a hard, tense, tiny baby-belly pressed against my big, soft, warm mama-belly- doing the circuit of our small kitchen to living room and back again. How can you not love a belly your children so clearly love? Like Nanny's, my belly didn't have to be perfect for my children to love it.
And now, Lucy is still young enough that she rushes off the bus and down the driveway towards me every day after school. The boys used to do this too: break into a run as soon as their feet stretched down to touch asphalt from that tall school bus step. Backpacks whacking their sides to the rhythm of their gallops. Now it's mostly just Lucy who performs this ritual. The boys have usually already come home on the middle school bus and are inside doing homework. So it's just her but, man, she goes at it full blast. She tears at me, red hair whipping behind her. She flings her whole body against me and presses her face right into my belly and stands still and silent while I stroke her hair. “Sweet pea,” I always say. Eventually, Lucy’s reassured face will emerge and our eyes will lock, “How was your day?” And as she answers, her strong little arms will squeeze tight the waist that she somehow always manages to find. She knows where she comes from. And so do I.
Wednesday, October 21st is Love Your Body Day. It's aimed at doing for all little girls and mamas and daughters and Nannys what I'm trying to do for Lucy. Help us know that we are more than what the media tells us our separate parts are worth. Remind us that our beauty lies in our strength, our softness, our diversity and our intelligence ...both as we wax and as we wane. What will you, dear Internet, do to celebrate Love Your Body Day for yourself or the women in your life? They have amazing ideas at http://loveyourbody.nowfoundation.org/ Please come back and share what you do to celebrate your shape. Me? I'll be reminiscing about Nanny's fantasical belly button, rubbing my little bodhisattva Lucy's tummy and snuggling with Henry. I most definitely will not be wearing a belt.
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