The Story of A Belly Roll
This blog post has been weeks in the making. I just needed to find the right words to share it with you.
Of note: A few years ago, I wrote a post about this. At that time, it was inspired by Connie Hozvicka's Belly Love initiative. She also recently revisited this topic in a moving post at DirtyFootprints Studio. How funny it is that we all so easily forget, and yet find such new insight and strength in remembering...again and again and again.
A few weeks ago, I was reading and practicing a guided meditation focusing on breathing. (In this book, in case you are interested.) Part of the instructions were to focus on releasing the stomach (so that the diaphragm could fully expand/flatten on the inhale). Focusing all of my attention and intention on the area, I realized that I was indeed holding in my stomach - even though upon cursory reflection, it seemed relaxed.
When I released that little bit of muscular tension, the flood gates opened.
I felt the fat roll drop. What had previously been held with muscle tension slightly above the waistband now drooped slightly over it. I could feel every surface line. More importantly, I could feel the immediate feelings of guilt, unworthiness, and shame that now drooped over my entire being.
Within and since that meditation, I have made my body - specifically, my stomach and my core - a source of contemplation and practice. What I have discovered is something I feel many women* need to hear.
(*I fully acknowledge that many men struggle with this as well. If the words I use resonate with you, guys, wonderful! I feel that this area tends to be more of an issue for women, however, for many reasons that I will not delve into here.)
Here it is, in its full glory: my tummy. No more inny-belly-button. (Gone after second kiddo.) No more smooth skin. Plenty to hold onto. Now you know what is underneath the loosely draped shirt, even if you see me holding it in. No more hiding it. Feeling grossed out, empowered, saddened, indifferent? Read on....
WHAT THE PUDGY STOMACH MEANT TO ME
I want to cry. It was the first feeling, and one that keeps arising as I release the grip on my stomach again and again.
I used to be a person with a flat stomach. I even had a cute little belly ring. My stomach was an area of self(ish) pride. And then, kids. Pizza. Biology.
Let's get the logical arguments out of the way, because they really don't matter. I know that I've had two kids. I know I am not obese and stressing my inner organs, I know that my stomach and my body is beautiful regardless of the curves it takes, I know that the size or shape of the stomach speaks nothing of the strength of the person that wears it.
I get it. I know it. The thing is, I don't feel it.
What I feel when I release that bit of pudge is shame. A feeling that it could be and somehow should be different. That if I didn't eat so much bread, indulge in the occasional (sometimes more than occasional) beers, if I actually followed through on my cardiovascular exercise routine, that it wouldn't be this way. By crazy logic, then, I have failed. I am failing myself. And it doesn't stop there.
WHAT (I THINK) THE PUDGY STOMACH MEANS TO OTHERS
Getting off the meditation cushion, I decided to take this practice to the streets. Noticing my unconscious habit of pulling in my stomach, I decided to try to release it - out in public. (*gasp*) This of course meant anyone who cared to look could see a round bump (or two - like tiny little innertubes wrapped around my waist) where previously there were none.
Logically, it made absolutely no difference in the person that I was nor who I am to others.
I get it. I know it. The thing is, I didn't feel that.
I felt completely vulnerable.
(Yes, just from that one little bit of muscular release that visibly probably didn't make that much of a difference.)
I felt like the pudgy stomach was a neon sign I was wearing around my middle that was screaming,
"I have no self control. I can't avoid the third dairy-laden iced chai of the day and I chose the carb-heavy Jimmy Johns sandwich today over the salad....as I did yesterday and the day before. I am weak. Yes, you over there in your yoga pants with a flat stomach - you are more disciplined than I. I am weaker than you."
Again and again, I found myself tightening my stomach.
Not my tummy. by Petr Kratochvil [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/file%3ABelly-dancer-costume.jpg
WHY I FELT THE NEED TO RELEASE AT ALL
So what's the big deal? We're supposed to have a strong core, right? And why let it out when it causes so much discomfort?
The trouble is that we cannot simultaneously hold in the stomach and breathe fully.
(Read: "we cannot simultaneously hold it in and live fully.")
There is a very subtle distinction between maintaining one's strength within the core versus "holding it in". (A distinction with which I am still playing.) Physically, there are muscles that need to be engaged to keep the pelvic area in balance, the spine properly aligned, the core from being a floppy mess that the misaligns the the chest, shoulders, and head. However, in order for the breath to fully enter the body, the lungs/ribs need room to expand and the diaphragm needs room to expand/flatten and balloon (on exhale).
As the diaphragm expands/flattens on the inhale, it pushes down and gently massages the organs lower in the core (stomach, intestines, liver, etc.). If we are using our muscles to oppose this force - i.e. drawing in the belly to achieve the desired flatness -, the diaphragm cannot fully extend and the breath cannot fully enter the body. The breaths become shallow, resulting in a whole host of physiological (and psychological) problems.
On a metaphysical (psychological, spiritual, whatever you want to call it) level, holding in our core means we hold in the very essence of our self. In many disciplines, the core is the area of our roots, our family, our creativity, the very essence of "self" from which all else arises. We keep this in an illusory safe cocoon by holding it in. Not only do we not let ourselves get in touch with it, but we keep this from others in efforts to remove any sense of being vulnerable.
SO WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?
I've often asked the question on this site that I often ask of myself, "how do I want to experience my life?" The question arises from this practice, then,: once I become aware that I am holding it in, and once I know that I must choose a strong core+full breath or a slightly-bit-more-physically-fit appearance, ... who do I want to be? Who do I want to be when I am alone, and who do I want to portray to others?
For most of us, when we are alone, the answer is obvious. Unbutton the pants and let it droop, baby.
But who do I want to be when I am with others? What of myself do I want to acknowledge and show to others?
This is where my practice took a turn.
Because I realized: I would rather have someone see me (and to know myself) as a full, vulnerable, mistake-making, deeply-breathing, peaceful being than to be or portray someone who has it all together.
I'll admit: That answer would have been exactly the opposite if you'd asked me even as recently as a year ago.
I know that there is power in being the person who has it all together. There are scientific studies out there that "prove" that "more attractive" people are more often trusted, related to, and often get more than those who are perceived as less attractive. Fair or not, that is how it is.
And yes, it has been nice being 5'8", flashing a smile or two, and being offered a drink. It has been nice that seeming more fit (in part because I'm just tall and genetically lucky) leads people to believe that I am more fit, and often by step-by-step logic, to assume that I "have it all together".
There is power in appearance.
But as I released that stomach, as I felt my breath and the tears and the vulnerability, I realized I no longer am attached to that power.
I no longer feel that I need to be in control of what others think of me. (Not that I ever was, but it was a nice illusion to live in for awhile.)
If anything, I would rather be in this world one who has found the strong core and soft belly.
I want to be one that admires the gorgeous woman wearing the bikini both because of her attractiveness and her self-discipline (or good genetics), but not feel that it in anyway challenges or lessens my own efforts and successes in health.
I want to be the one with the rolls under my t-shirt. Not because I desire the rolls, not because I'm taking a stand and standing up for the fat!, not because I feel I'm somehow owed it because I've born two children from this body. Simply because, right now, I am the one with the rolls under my t-shirt. It might change, it might not. But I want to be with who I am, not who I feel I should be nor desire to be.
(I feel myself tightening thinking about doing this in public, thinking about watching someone's face as they glance at my middle, thinking about the judgmental thoughts that might be crossing their minds. I know this isn't an easy practice. But I know it is a necessary and worthwhile practice.)
I want my power in the world to not come through force, nor through some wilely manipulation of sexual desire. I want my power to come through radiance. I want to be so peacefully present that those who are not so peaceful are drawn to the presence. Those who feel stressed and pulled and tumbled and tired realize that there is another way possible.
By letting that belly hang, I'm letting you see it all. I'm revealing myself, my practice, my lack of self-discipline, my inability to stay as fit as my body could be. I'm revealing a self who is learning ease of breath, fullness of being, vulnerability, and release of shame. A self who is strong enough to show weakness.
I'm revealing the person I want to be in this world and, quite honestly, the person I want you to be in this world.
So if you see me in person, and you notice I'm holding it in - anything: my stomach, my words, my tears, a giggle - please remind me to release it. I will offer you the same reminder.
Instead of trying to strengthen what we are holding onto, let's try strengthening our softness.
Let's finding that which we need to stay strong - a strong deep core, a voice that speaks even when it shakes, paint that finds the page even when all else falls apart, tears that find the pillow, a hand that opens to let another hold it, a drop into stillness instead of rushing to shut it out with noise. Then, let's let the rest flow with the wisdom of being. Letting it go, letting it be.
I'll show you my vulnerabilities, you show me yours, and we'll laugh and cry together at the fact that we ever thought we were alone in this suffering.
We'll share an iced chai and go back to doing and being and disagreeing and crying and struggling and breathing .... with our bellies, our minds, and our hearts just a bit softer.