I remember when I was nine, my cousin Katie advised me, “You should suck in your belly.” We were swimming in a pool in Florida where she lived. That was the first time it ever occurred to me that having a belly was not desirable. I’m not sure how much I took her comment to heart in the coming years, but obviously it made an impression.
My belly is growing bigger. It started growing at the very beginning of my pregnancy; I put on ten pounds, then fifteen within the first few months. I was eating a lot to stave off my nausea. I looked like I was much further along than I was, especially when compared to my friend whose due date was a week earlier, and who was hardly showing at all. I could barely fit into most of my pants by month three. “Oh, honey, are you worried about that?” another friend cooed. I tried to explain. It wasn’t that I was so vain that I was worried about putting on weight during pregnancy. But in this early stage, when I hadn’t even told most people I was pregnant, and when it would not be obvious to anyone, it was hard to not see my growing belly as what I’d been trained to see it for years: Fat. Unsightly. A sign that I wasn’t getting enough exercise and would never be as sexy as I used to be.
For years, I’ve been trained to suck in my belly. Not all the time, but mostly in key moments like posing for a picture or meeting an attractive guy. It’s hard for me to conjure concrete memories of such moments because the reflex is so ingrained in me that I do it without even thinking. Suck it in. Stand up straight. You look better that way.
One day, not long ago, I was walking around the house when I realized that I was unconsciously tightening my stomach muscles—even when no one was looking. I don’t think I ever would’ve noticed just how ingrained this reaction has become, if I wasn’t pregnant. For suddenly, this instinct felt incredibly unnatural, in complete opposition to what my body wants and needs—to expand without restraint.
Bellies are sensitive regions. Not only are women taught to be self-conscious about their bellies and that thin and toned is beautiful, but bellies are also where our qi is centered, our energy, our life force.
Belly consciousness runs through my thread of memory. I remember the violated feeling I had the few times that men who were virtual strangers dared to casually touch my belly. I remember being in a drugstore in Hong Kong once in my early twenties, dressed in a loose shirt and hippy skirt (my baggy clothes phase), and a store clerk asked me if I was pregnant. “No,” I answered. She looked horrified. “It’s… fat?” she stammered. I remember being eleven years old waiting in line to go on a roller coaster ride and the attendant asking the woman in front of me if she was pregnant, and her indignant outraged response. I remember in Pulp Fiction the scene where John Travolta commented about how he loved his lover’s pot belly, and how strange that seemed—and intriguing. You mean, some men might actually like a big belly? That was news to me and the media.
When I was in my early twenties and going through a period of intense solitude, loneliness, and spiritual searching, I used to lie in bed at night and rest my hands on my belly. I’d breathe in and out, feeling it fully expand and collapse, feeling the energy concentrated in my body, my hands and stomach slowly growing warmer. Soothing and centering, this ritual kept me connected to my sensuality and earthiness during a time when hardly anyone was touching me but myself.
Now, of course, things are different. I am married, and I am pregnant, and when I touch my belly I have an evolving awareness that there is something growing inside—within weeks from the size of a bean, to a peanut, to a lime, to an avocado… and so it continues. It still feels somewhat unreal, but I know it will only grow more real, especially the more I begin to feel the baby move (so far, I’ve felt a few flutters which I think is the baby, but I’m not positive). When we had an ultrasound several weeks ago, the technician showed us how a slight jab at the belly could make the baby flip around. And I know that older they grow, the more they can hear our voices. I’ve read of babies who suddenly grow calm when they hear the voice of their mother or father singing a particular song they’d sing to the baby when it was in utero. I’ve joked to my husband that our baby will be soothed by the sound of our cat’s loud purring since he sometimes snuggles up against my belly under the covers at night when my husband is away.
The first time I invited my husband to lean down and say something to the baby, he grew hesitant and shy, and finally was cajoled into it with a funny grin on his face. It was even less real to him, the growing existence of our child, but I could tell that this hesitant initial greeting was already helping it to seem more real. And last week, when I was in tears and needing his soothing touch, I asked him to rub my belly. Without having to say anything, we both now know that he is now not only touching me, but our child as well.
Now, my belly has become big enough that it can’t pretend it’s not pregnant—and it doesn’t want to. More and more, my belly wants to expand with my breath, and bask in its hardening fullness. I am still drawn to colors and folds that disguise my belly rather than accentuate it—call it years of conditioning-- but secretly I am looking forward to the day when clothing choice won’t make a difference—when I must walk around big, round, and unabashedly pregnant.
Each day it’s sinking in how with every breath I take, every thing I eat, every emotion I feel, and every moment I remember to put a soothing loving hand on my belly, I am already influencing the life of my baby. Lying in my bed with my palms against my rounded flesh, breathing in and breathing out, I am reminded of this old ritual I first learned to embrace when I was alone. Once again, I am learning how to honor my belly, how to embrace this sacred vessel that holds together the tender beauty of our contradictions, this meeting ground between our vulnerability and power.