My self-esteem is not exactly soaring as I walk into the dance studio, seven weeks after the birth of my second son. This is my first postnatal exercise class, not counting yoga. (And who would count postnatal yoga, with its applause for just showing up, its endless child's poses?) But my poor self-image keeps coming back to my midsection, and so I've decided to try belly dancing. The best way to overcome your fear is to expose yourself to it, right?
It's not as if my tummy was rock-hard before kids. It was never even flat. When I got pregnant the second time, I expected--even looked forward to--the unpredictable expansion of my belly, but I wasn't prepared for the stretch marks. I had gained 60 pounds during my first pregnancy and had vowed to be more diligent this go-around. My weight gain was on track, but by my third trimester, despite my religious application of skin cream, my torso had morphed into the world's most disgusting smiley face. Big, dark nipple eyes, a protruding belly button nose, and the pièce de résistance: a swath of angry, red stretch marks, spreading from hip to hip like a joker's smile. After my son Haskel was born, my belly shrunk by three quarters almost immediately, but that only made the marks look angrier. Stepping out of the shower, I would quickly wrap myself in a towel and turn away, horrified by what had become of a midriff I had never been the least bit vain about in the first place.
And so I registered for belly-dancing class, determined to confront my shapeless postpartum midsection once and for all in some kind of Middle Eastern dance-off. The teacher, thin--so thin--and exotic, introduces herself. She is Patricia, and won't we please help ourselves to a hip scarf and a veil? We do ab exercises to warm up, and I hope no one notices that I can't even manage a full sit-up.
The jewel-toned scarves are trimmed with metal charms that are meant to make twinkly music when you dance. But when I shake my hips, I am reminded only of a cowbell--something designed to warn people to get out of my way. My belly sticks way far out over the scarf.
And we begin. The most basic, yet most complex, belly-dance move is the camel. It is the act of undulating, moving your chest in and out and letting your belly follow so that your whole body does the wave.
I notice in the mirror that, despite my best efforts, you can't actually see my abdomen doing anything. My muscles are so disengaged from each other, and there is so much fat over them, that my stomach hasn't learned to move along with me yet. It's as if there are two of me: the one undulating beneath, and the one standing still outside.
Poor Patricia never stops smiling at me, but I see confusion in her eyes as she patiently repeats her instructions, perhaps wondering if I can hear her over the music. I want to tell her that the stuff that covers my belly is left over from a recent birth; it is new and it is certainly not a part of me.
Patricia's smile becomes glassier as I see her decide that I just don't get it. I want badly to exaggerate my movement, to show her I'm trying, but I can't. It would take too much energy. And I'm exhausted. Exhausted from pretending life is normal with a newborn and a busy preschooler. From lack of sleep, of course. And exhausted from the sheer amount of energy it has taken to fuel this hatred for my new body.
As I'm devising a graceful early exit, Patricia says to us, "I want you all to find yourselves beautiful." I look in the mirror and see that tears have sprung to my eyes. It wasn't that I couldn't find myself beautiful. I couldn't even find myself! It had been so long since I looked up from my nursing baby, from changing diapers, from putting away toys, and looked myself in the eyes. There I was. I was still me. I had forgotten there were still parts that remain unchanged--my sparkly eyes, my dimpled cheeks, my regal collarbone. And so I did it. I found myself. And then I found myself beautiful.
All of a sudden, it didn't matter if Patricia or my classmates saw that I was undulating. I knew that I was, and that's all that mattered.
At home I showered. Afterward, I reached for my trusty stretch-mark cream, but I paused as it dawned on me: Stretch marks are not only at your skin's surface. They come from within. Just like strength, just like fortitude. Just like beauty. And just like my sweet infant son.
Every day of my pregnancy I had rubbed my belly with that cream, as if my stomach were an exotic genie's lamp with the power to grant me a ridiculous wish: that one day I'd look as if I'd never been pregnant. The only problem is, I had been pregnant. Pregnancy changed me. Shouldn't it, though? And shouldn't it leave a mark upon me physically?
A single belly-dancing class may not have altered my body, but it reshaped my attitude. It taught me that, like the stretch marks, like the undulation, like my baby himself, change would come from deep within me. It was time to acquaint myself with my new tummy. And so I watched what my belly looked like as I sat down, as I bent over, as I leaned back. I got to know it slowly, like you get to know your baby. I stared and stared. First with hesitation, but finally, much later, with awe.
Originally published in the March 2011 issue of American Baby magazine.