Belly Shaming to Belly Reclaiming

The ups and downs on my journey to belly love…

Back when I was about 22.  I was on the subway, coming home from an astrology class, sitting next to a fellow student that I didn’t know very well. She was a Leo, I believe, which is my opposite, as an Aquarius. She radiated an over-compensating confidence and she had a knack for passive-aggressive comments.  Conversation didn’t seem to naturally flow between us. I felt some anxiety sitting next to her.

Suddenly she asked me if she could tell me something about myself that she had observed about me. ‘Um, ok?’ I said.

‘Well, I noticed that your sensuality just like, oozes out of you. And you wear these shirts sometimes that show your belly, and well, most women wouldn’t wear that.’

‘Umm, ok… uh, thanks?’ I replied. It wasn’t a compliment. Or was it? I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to feel ashamed or brave. A part of me knew this was likely a passive-aggressive dig at me by a jealous woman, at least 10 years my senior, less secure with herself. I felt a mix of embarrassment, anger and compassion, but just didn’t know what to say after that.

Another time, shortly after that, I was dancing with my community theatre group. I always feel my best when I am dancing, and this was usually a welcoming, casual environment that helped me feel very free in my body and expression. But, one day, my movement bliss was interrupted by an older male actor’s comment:

‘Oh, Serena, you move so gracefully! Shame you have that belly’, which he proceeded to pat ‘lovingly’ like I was some Pillsbury Dough Girl. I looked in the mirror, trying to see what he saw- I could see that it wasn’t a flat washboard or 6 pack. It was natural. Real. But, a shame?

Being in acting training meant I was constantly being picked apart by critics- for the art, of course. I tried not to take the criticism personally, but to use it to improve. How I moved, how I spoke, every blink, breath, habit or emotion I showed was dissected under bright lights.  I was told I would have to fix my teeth if I ever wanted a shot as a major character. My ‘look’ needed work. Well, I realised that I really didn’t care about my ‘look’ enough to go down that road. I left acting and chose instead to put my energies into the path of Yoga, as I knew this was where my spirit would grow best, and would help heal my relationship to my body.

Growing up, I was told all kinds of nasty remarks about my body and bullied. I was called Big Nose, Fat Legs, Triangle Legs, Big-head-little-body, Ugly, Fat, Slut, etc., made fun of by strangers and people I barely knew, peers and adults I respected.

I forgave my bullies. But it’s amazing how well I still remember all those moments and names. Because they made an impact. On my self-esteem and self-perception. I was good at ‘letting them roll off me’ a the time and acting as though I was fine. But I wasn’t, really. They stayed buried in my tissues, awaiting opportune moments to rise up.

At 24 I got married. As we were planning on starting a family, I went off the birth control pill I had been on for several years. This is when my endo symptoms started. Extremely painful menstrual cramps, heavy bleeding, getting increasingly worse over time. I also started bellydancing around this time. It helped me feel better, physically and emotionally. It became the healing antidote for my belly pain and body shame. Any body could do the dance. We were all different shapes and sizes. This was a safe space to reclaim our bellies as beautiful, abundant sources of life. I started to feel ‘whole’ again, like being a woman wasn’t a thing of shame. My belly was a thing of beauty. I was a Goddess.

Then a friend of mine commented at how grossed out she was by Egyptian style bellydancing, especially dancers of larger sizes.  I was surprised at this friend’s fat-phobia, I thought she was much more accepting. My experience of bellydance as a whole was so body positive, and I wondered how many other people saw it the way she did. I realised just how deep in all of us this fat-phobic conditioning flows. But I also realised then just how much self-love and self-worth my bellydance and yoga practice had cultivated within me, and that no matter their opinions, I felt better about myself.

Fast forward to my pregnancy, shortly after. Any self-worth I had grown was now on shaky ground. My changing body, 40 lbs heavier, while beautiful, made my work teaching yoga and dancing difficult. I took out my belly button ring- a symbol of my youth and independence, which I got when I turned 18. Stretch marks loomed.

Giving birth was a life-changing event for me, as it is for every first-time mom. Birth was a freaking miracle! My belly is a bad-ass creatrix of life! Who cares what our belly looks like? Stretch marks, scars, warped tattoos and bellybutton ring holes, dough-y lumps and bumps—all soooo amazing. I was so impressed with what my body could do.

I continued bellydancing and my yoga. My post-birth belly inspired me to get a tattoo. To commemorate the life-giving power of my belly. But it took a while before I felt it was the right time.

It took me a long time to really embrace the new me. Now with more softness, width, and increasingly worse endometriosis symptoms. BUT, with a deepened respect for myself. I was still a Goddess! A Mama Goddess.

I was more shy changing in front of others since giving birth- which surprised me. I guess I felt that still maybe society wasn’t as ok with my mama-belly as much as I was.

One evening after dinner at a lovely restaurant, I was out clothing shopping with my then 2-y- old daughter in a stroller and my husband. The saleswoman who had limited command of English asked me ‘Are you looking for something to cover your belly?’ She thought I was pregnant. Sigh. I wasn’t pregnant. I told her I had just eaten some delicious Indian food and that’s all that was in my bloated belly. She looked a little embarrassed. I felt the familiar confused anger/compassion feeling again.

Belly love is truly a rollercoaster. Moving from shaming to reclaiming is not a linear healing process.

The tattoo I ended up getting was a snake with Egyptian lotus flowers. I had discovered this animal was a spirit helper of mine. It frequently showed up when I needed womb healing, sexual healing, or physical healing of any kind. The snake helped me a lot with my severe endo pain. Both the snake and the lotus were symbolic of my spiritual connection to Ancient Egypt, and the many rebirths through pain I had endured in my womb and belly.

I eventually also got surgery for my endo and re-pierced my belly-button. The scars are barely noticeable. My pain is mostly gone, physically, and emotionally I am more resilient. I still feel shame sometimes, and get really annoyed at how easily I bloat, due to endo. I can never wear jeans and need very stretchy, comfy waistbands. But now in my late thirties, I see more value in my belly’s journey than in her appearance.

I now see my belly as a story-keeper. Everything my belly has been through has left it’s mark. I am ok now with those stories and scars. Rude comments, endo pain, digestive issues, birthing, surgery, piercings and tattoos…all part of her luscious landscape.  Sometimes as I breathe deeply, into her depths I like to let her expand big and round like the Earth, sensuality oozing out on all the land, like a pregnant mother goddess who can swallow all those belly-shamers and fat-phobia whole.

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