Written by Anna Hoesly
Anna is a community organizer and pastor at Storyline community, where we are currently doing a book club about the currency of women's bodies, and leaning into a series in November about what it looks like to operate out of abundance rather than scarcity, in the nooks and crannies of our lives!
This is the story of how, today, I found myself at a birthday party for my belly.
A little background you should know: My 5 year old son legitimately has a relationship with my belly. He kisses her. He talks to her. He plays with her. He makes sure she is not feeling left out. When we are snuggling in the morning before we face the world, he sometimes looks like he just remembered something very important, and gives my belly a good morning kiss.
He commonly refers to my belly as his best friend.
I have to remind him that we don’t lift mommy’s shirt in public, and that he needs to ask mommy’s permission to touch my belly. Because best friends deserve consent too. And also because being seen talking to your mom’s belly is probably not the best way to make human friends.
This morning, he declared that it was Belly’s birthday.
I did not know this.
I thought he would forget about this declaration, because, well, it’s a weird thing to say that can’t possibly be grounded in anything more than a fleeting misfire of neurons. But when I picked him up from school, he ran to me with sad eyes and said “I’m SO sorry I missed Belly’s birthday”.
He asked if he could make it up to Belly by throwing her a birthday party.
His eyes were so big and so earnest that I heard myself say yes. AND THAT is how I found myself walking into a birthday party with a crop top on at 4 pm on a Monday.
There was a play dough cake.
And dolls who also brought their bellies; all of whom were hiding under blankets initially, because it was a surprise party, as all good belly birthday parties are.
My 7 year old daughter was in attendance as well and, by the way, did not for one second question this whole endeavor. When my son told her it was belly’s birthday and belly needed a party, she just nodded her head like “Of course, yes, we will do that for belly, that makes perfect sense, what would we like for appetizers”.
This is all very ironic, because while my son has a relationship with my belly, I , historically, do not. In fact, of all the parts of my body, it is the part of myself I have most disenfranchised from my existence.
Belly and I have always had an on-again, off-again relationship, but after I birthed two babies via emergency C-section, I think we officially broke up. I didn’t mean to do it. It just happened. I didn’t know how to understand my belly after she was done with her very important job. I spent months in awe of what she was capable of. I held her, caressed her, gazed at her, beheld her. I fell in love with my belly as she quietly, surely, provided for all the needs of my babies, held safely inside.
But afterward, she looked like an empty vessel, vaguely mimicking the shape of the important thing she used to hold. My belly button was not the proud center of attention it once was... by which I mean, it literally LOST. ITS. ABILITY. to be in the center of my stomach. Which I didn’t even know was a thing. And a scar showed the portal through which those very important magical parcels of life were miraculously, almost inconceivably, delivered to into my arms. My son once told me what Belly reminds him of; in the same manner you would tell someone that their eyes are like infinite pools of water and their smile is like the radiant morning sun. He said ever so fondly- with a sigh of adoration- "your belly is just like Flarp".
I had flashbacks of the belly I used to have, and how I understood it growing up- though I preferred the term “tummy” thankyouverymuch, because I understood tummies as feminine and flat, and bellies as things people refer to in metaphors including beer and bowls full of jelly. I was always monitoring its size, its shape, its tautness or lack thereof.
Not noticing so much the way one kajillion gut wrenchers in soccer conditioning week could make me a badass with a core of strength that centered my whole body into powerful movements across the field... but noticing how it transformed me ever-fleetingly into the mythical kind of girl who could wear a bikini top with confidence.
When I looked at my body I did not see what it could do, I saw a social currency that would determine my status and desirability.
I didn’t mean to see it this way. It wasn’t on my vision board of goals for my life, it was just the auto-focus I seemed to inherit from the world.
I learned early on that our wider culture often scales and ranks the currency of women’s bodies, with a lens of scarcity. Only a small pool can be the MOST beautiful, the MOST desirable, and that small pool becomes the standard by which others are measured. Hot or not. I remember learning this in 5th grade when one of the boys in my class referred to Vanna White as a “dog”, in contrast to someone else who was “hot”. I remember this being shocking to my little ten year old ears. Because Vanna White was quite literally the most beautiful person I could imagine. If Vanna White was a dog, then what was I? That scarcity mindset propels women to compare themselves with each other constantly, competing for a piece of the beauty pie, while slowly learning to discount the beauty that is right in front of us. And frankly, it makes our understanding of beauty so small, and so boring.
As I grew older, I started to become aware of this auto-focus and work to dispel it for myself. I didn’t start by changing the way I saw my own body, I started by changing the way I saw other women. I chose to reject the scarcity mindset and intentionally look for the unique beauty of all women in their manifold shapes and expressions. Sounds a bit like the kind of aspirational quote that is written on a poster floating across a sunset, in a doctor’s office. But as it turns out, its true. I came to see the forms of other women as unique works of art, embodying the full and radiant life emanating out of their soul. And over time, it began to change the way I saw myself.
And yet here I was, post-baby, suddenly transported back to my old way of seeing. My belly had exceeded my wildest expectations for what a human body part is capable of, and yet all I could see were the remnants of the super power I no longer needed- and a betrayal of the currency I thought I no longer believed in.
So in the end, I mostly managed my confusing remnant with the ever-so-timely trend of high-waisted pants, hid her in moments of intimacy, and chose to forget about her. I could not make sense of her so I dismissed her from my consciousness, avoiding eye contact and human touch.
And then along came my son, the one person in the world who seemed to admire her. At first I swatted away his touch because it challenged her shield of untouchability.
But over time, I began to receive it and allow her to be seen.
His love for her started to reconnect me to her.
My image of her began to shift from being a useless collection of flesh to being a part of me; a part that was soft and loved and lovely.
The “currency” she provided me, began to feel like a silly game that I no longer wanted to play.
What seemed real and true is that she is mine.
She is a part of the whole that is me.
The body that connects me to others through the portal of touch.
That provides a soft place to lay a little head.
That forms one-of-a-kind curves and edges that my own hands can hold and touch and wonder at.
That holds all the parts that work together to feed and nourish me.
That carries traces of who I’ve been-
from the muscle memory of those one-kajillion gut-wrenchers
and my one (magnificent) break-dancing move,
to the sensory spark of my husband’s touch.
from the space she carved out to hold the life inside me,
to the pain she survived and brought me through.
I don’t know how she will continue to change in shape and function over time.
But she will continue to carry the traces of who I am to become- a vessel for the moments I have in front of me.
Like that one friend who, day after day, year after year, always shows up for you, to bear witness to the moments that make you.
So, as it turns out, it actually feels quite appropriate to throw Belly a party.
Yeah. Bring on the weird presents and play dough favors.
This gal deserves to be celebrated.