Whenever I touch my stomach, I think of a girl I once knew named Elizabeth. We crossed paths briefly, a few years ago, and I have two memories of her: the first, that I always found her a little obnoxious because she constantly felt the need to bring up her mother, the plastic surgeon; and the second, when she remarked that women often place their hands on their stomachs when they’re “trying to be sexy.” She then proceeded to demonstrate, in her paisley spandex dress, and made me feel uncomfortable.
Of all the parts that make up my body, the relationship I have with my stomach is the most contentious. For years, it was simply my tummy- the place where food went, where my belly button resided, the neutral DMZ where hypothetical rounds of “Are you nervous?” could always safely begin. My stomach, even when my swimsuits stopped concealing it, went unsexualized for a long time.
Until, of course, one day it became a “midriff,” junior high contraband, something popular people pierced, somewhere shirts purchased in the still-novel Junior’s section were never quite long enough to cover. My stomach became sexual way before I thought of it as such—and by then, I’d learned to hate it. Without meaning to, I stored away these small tidbits—vertical stripes are good, horizontal stripes are bad; 25 situps before getting out of bed in the morning is the way to go; belts cinched at the waist, instead of the hips, are more “flattering”—and accepted them as gospel, without putting them through any sort of filter. Seemingly overnight, the space between my chest and my waist stopped being defined by the organs inside, but by the degrees to which it caved in or out.
At the request of the magazines I devoured and the infomercials I never meant to watch, we began to fight. It grumbles at me a few times a day; I suck it in when cameras or new people make an appearance. I’ve been known to do crunches until I’m winded, spin my torso while waiting for the microwave to ding, and gaze longingly at photographs of women whose abs are more toned than mine. I’ve never edged quite into dangerous territory, but there have been darker moments where I’ve definitely understood the motivation.
A very influential woman in my life, who I consider both a teacher and a friend, once remarked that “real people don’t have flat stomachs!” I clung to that for a while, and though I’ve recently backed off so as to avoid skinny shaming, it does still exist as a modified mantra in the back of my mind. Photos are airbrushed; athletes work several hours daily to maintain their physiques; fat deposits in different places and in different ways for different people. Bodies are just built differently.
My tummy is not flat, or particularly large; it just exists, doing its thing. Even so, it does play into my perception of myself. Maybe it’s because somewhere, my primitive brain connects my stomach with its procreative potential. Maybe it’s because Mr. Hearst has successfully brainwashed me. Maybe it’s because I truly enjoy wearing a crop top into my hometown burger joint on a Sunday afternoon and eliciting disapproving glares from the more conservative patrons. Maybe it’s a combination of things.
But for whatever reason, when I place my hands on my stomach—whether I’m patting juba, being sassy, or just because I can—I feel incredibly sexy. I hope Elizabeth, and women everywhere, can do the same.