When I looked at my body in the full-length mirror after a shower as a teenager the one thing I always hated was my stomach. Once puberty hit, I got curves, like every other girl. And I felt betrayed. My stomach was not flat or defined or angular which I imagined was necessary for beauty.
Then, I wasn't self-critical about where I'd picked these perceptions. I didn't analyze the constant stream of skinny media I consumed. Instead, I only knew my stomach as my greatest flaw.
I went to a small high school. Twenty-two kids in my graduating class. Not quite preppy, not quite hippie either, but somewhere in the middle. We did a lot of art. We read Dante and Dostoyevsky. We went to San Francisco to study architecture for a weekend and hiked the Lost Coast together. But because the class was so small all of my classmates were my friends, even when they weren't. Competition was fierce.
The summer before ninth grade a tall red-headed girl, who had been in my eighth grade class and played the meanest game of basketball ever, became anorexic.
Five foot ten by the age of fourteen, she'd always been lanky, but tough too. In the fall we heard she was hospitalized weighing 69 pounds. She never came back to our school, and though she lived, I only saw her twice again, once the year after we all graduated and once later in passing on the street. Both times she looked gaunt and hungry without the fire she'd once had when she was still a kid, shooting hoops, pushing the boys out of the way.
But because of the smallness of our high school world, that girl's anorexia hit the girls in my class like a tidal wave. Everyone got skinny. Everyone had boney hips. Curves were shunned at a time when curves were just developing.
And though I never became fully entrenched in the deep scaring groove that anorexia can become, I did obsess about my weight. I didn't eat enough.
But I was also lucky, because I've never been drawn to the superficial. Always, I've been pulled to ideas, to what's deep, to things that matter beyond appearance. So though I wavered there on the brink of an obsession with skinniness, I never fully gave in to its calling. Always distracted at the last minute by somebody's story, by teaching kids, or by body boarding.
But many girls in my class were less lucky. Content to suck on one lolly pop all day long, they were gorgeous and gaunt and pissed off.
I graduated and spent a year in Europe with a boy I'd met in Germany. He taught me to rock climb, and for the first time in my life I realized that my body was really good for something other than being looked at. Since then, I've always fallen back on this. I've started to see my body as a tool---as a part of the mechanism that makes it possible for me to mountain bike, to ski, to run, to swim, to climb. And I acquired a decent set of legs. Some muscles where they aught to be. Some strength.
But I still maintained an uneasy relationship with my stomach. Less lean, less tough, less firm than the rest of me, it portrayed my proverbial soft side. It made me feel vulnerable, if not a little self-loathing.
Then, two April's ago, I hung out with my mom who was living in Boulder, Colorado. I flew out over the tall jagged Rocky Mountains to see her, and we sat in her tiny studio apartment, going through her horrible wardrobe of clothing, and talking first time about her body image.
It hit me then. More than anything else, it was my mother;s self-depreciating, shy, prudish perception of herself that defined the language of my own negative image. Always dressed in a turtleneck, even in summer, she hates her collar bones, her stomach, her thighs. And she is obsessed with the small roll of flesh that curves over the waist of her size eight jeans.
A month after our visit, I found out I was pregnant, and for the first time in my life I put my hand on the curve of my stomach and felt wonder.
Wonder that this body, this stomach could contain life. And this feeling continued to grow as the orb of my belly did. I watched my skin grow taught. Watched the inevitable stretch marks appear, despite coco butter and crossed fingers. Watched my belly button pop out.
And then my son was born and I was left with the sagging curve of womb that had been his world. But something of the reverie I'd felt towards my stomach remained. I made a pact with myself to no longer rile against a part of me that could do such a miraculous thing.
Since then I've done a lot of running. More than I've ever done, because I have the time, the space, the energy to do it. And my stomach, like my entire body has grown strong as a result. But something else has changed along the way, that has more to do with my perception than with actual flesh.
It has to do with gratitude for my body, just as it is. For the pure loveliness of a stomach that has given birth, for the wonderment hips. Yet posting this picture for Self Portrait Tuesdayâ€™s September theme of body parts still seemed risky. An open acknowledgement of my softest side. But I was compelled to post anyway, because as I read what so many other lovely women write, I know that this story is terribly universal.
We've all been here, it seems. This internal battling with the beauty and the softness of curves that make us who we are. And I'm ready to start a different story.