Personal Essay by Mary Martin Wiens
Throughout my twenties and thirties, I was able to gain and lose pounds with the best of them. But, I was always proud that the front part of my belly stayed flat and muscled…a nod to the thousands of sit ups I did as a gymnast when I was a girl. But, having babies, particularly the twins, changed my flat belly forever. Like someone who has lost a hundred pounds, the skin does not go back again. My stomach hangs low. I can gather my belly in my hands, moving and shaping it like the sweetbread dough I make with my mother at Christmas. And then there are the stretch marks covering the whole front of my midsection. They are a hundred rivulets of red rain streaming down a window, pooling at the sill of my C-section scar in half-inch wide scars that look, to me, like burns.
When I blow dry my hair after a shower, I look at my body in the mirror, and the familiar internal conversation begins. First there is the still present feeling of surprise. That’s me? Then comes the uncontrollable feeling of disgust constricting my throat. But on its heels the thought: wait a minute, these scars are sacred, they represent one of the most significant stories within my story, something I don’t want to forget, and there, right there is evidence of my own rebirth into something more. But I hardly take a breath before my hands are moving to my stomach to stretch it out flat and make it look like a long-gone me. If I could just change this one part…
About 6 months ago, a moment of pure grace happened to me in the middle of one of these internal push-pulls. I was drying my hair and my 3-year-old son, Ben, walked into the bathroom. He played with the lipsticks in the drawer, he asked about my eye make-up remover, and then he looked at me appraisingly and said, “Your belly is funny.” It all began to rise in me: the initial feelings of body shame so deeply programmed in me by my culture, the thoughts I want to feel about the sacredness of my body, and a memory of playing in the leaves with Steve and the boys last fall. We were tickling and rolling in the leaves and one of the boys tickles me and says, “Daddy’s belly is hard and yours is squishy.” “Yes,” I said, “That is right.” But, I had thought: I don’t think I want to play tickle again.
This time, my 3-year-old son is standing in front of me, saying, “Your belly is funny,” and the magic happens. I stood in a place where all the times of my life were present—past, future, and this boy standing in front of me now. Images and sensations of those I love flashed through my mind. I experienced the warmth of Steve’s broad back against mine in bed and the pleasure of recognizing his gait 200 hundred yards before his face comes into focus. I saw the scar under my father’s eye where the horse kicked him. I saw the reading glasses perched on my sister’s distinct elegant English nose as she holds her pen in her long straight fingers making bold careful shapes. And, I saw my own mother putting on make-up after a shower with a towel wrapped around her head while I played with herlipsticks. The curve of her hips, the dough of her soft belly and the silken freckles and cream tone of her skin is beautiful beyond measure. And I understood something.
We journey from a seed in our mother’s womb until we are planted in the grave with ever-changing bodies. Time scratches out its passage across my looks and the looks of all those I love. All our lives, our bodies manifest evidence of an existence marked by gains and losses. We gain and lose pounds, muscle, bruises, teeth, and hair. We lose elasticity and gain wrinkles. We gain scars. Our bodies process and carry our experiences, not without complaint, but with an unfailing perseverance that is worthy of both gratitude and honor. And one of the very great privileges of this life is to cherish the bodies of those I love through all their gains and losses for as long as I get to have them. We do not get to have those we love forever. In that final losing, every turn of the head and expression of the face becomes poignantly precious. So, may I have eyes to see them now.
My sister, who hates finding hair in her sink, in her food, on her body to an almost phobic degree told me a story from the time she walked her dear friend through the months of a fast moving terminal cancer. When the time came for her friend to get her last haircut, my sister was there. She stood close, touching her friend’s shoulders and head, catching strands of falling hair in her hands, letting it lay all over her clothes. Goodbye beautiful hair that I have loved on the head of my dear friend. I will not miss this moment.
So, in the moment when Ben stood in front of me and the magic happened, I spoke not what I should, not what I wished to believe, but what I deeply felt for once to be true. “Is my belly kind of squishy? Kind of soft?” I ask. “Yes!” he says. “Do you see these red roads on my belly? Are you curious about those?” I ask. “Yes!” he says. “Do you want to know what those feel like?” I ask. “Yes!” he says. Then I take his little finger and trace it along one of my stretch marks and ask, “Do you know what these are?” “No.” he says. “These are the lines of a story. Do you know what the story is about?” “What?” he asks. “These lines tell the story of Isaac and Ben and Elijah. They tell about how you grew inside me and how I stretched to make room for you because I was so glad you would be my boy. Aren’t they beautiful?” “Yes!” he answered.
The healing in this story is not that I have wholly accepted my body or that I will never again attempt to change it. It is that now when rejection rises in me against my body—how it looks, how it feels—I have a fuller answer. I can call up the sounds, smells, movements, scars, wrinkles, and dimples of my dear ones and look at myself through the lens of that incomparable beauty. This gives me access to a programming deeper than my culture that reminds me that my being here in this world in a body matters. The touch of my hand on a shoulder, my hug, the soothing sound of my voice, and the warmth in my eyes are irreplaceable to those who carry me in their hearts. Our physical presence here matters, no matter its shape.
And so, sweet Ben, my desire for you goes far beyond that which I have caught myself striving for in the looking glass. Here it is: May you have the great gift of intimately knowing and loving the body of another through all the changes of life and having your body known and loved from head to toe, in return. And someday, when you stand in front of the mirror with your chosen one, and she is trying to lift her breasts back into place…or you are looking in the mirror and trying to flatten your own belly into a younger shape…remember what I am teaching you now. It is the stories and the cherishing that make us beautiful. May you catch each falling moment in your hands and kiss it as it goes.