Ode to My Abdomen

tallIn high school, I was always the tall girl. I didn’t want to be the tall girl. I hated being the tall girl. I wanted to be the short, bouncy cheerleader. When you’re the tall girl, people call you names. Names like “Jolly Green Giant”, “Amazon”, and “Sasquatch”. To make matters worse, I had unfortunately inherited some wacky recessive gene (I’ve been known to refer to it as a mutation) that no one else in my family seemed to have. It caused the embarrassing condition known as wide hips. Yay me. Being tall and having wide hips as a teenage girl is hard. And boys think you’re strange. They either make fun of the fact that you’re taller and wider than they are, or they just simply avoid eye contact as you pass them in the hall from Spanish to U.S. History. Even your girlfriends get weird about it. They make comments about how they need to find you a tall guy so they can finally set you up on that date. (Side Note: This is indeed how my lanky husband and I met. Shocking, I know.) And so began my life-long journey with messy body-image issues. The comments that were made about my height, even in jest, set me up to believe, and subsequently confirmed, that I was seriously flawed. As a result, I couldn’t actually see the real beauty in how I had been created.

Fast forward a few years. (Ok, lots of years.)

It was one of those days. The kind of day when you wake up and, catching a glimpse of yourself in the mirror, you can tell that you might not recover from the just-crawled-out-from-under-a-rock look – even after the make-up goes on. There are bags, dark ones, under your eyes and the bed-head that can sometimes pass as the tousled-sex-kitten look, instead resembles mall hair circa 1987. Glamour Shots on crack. You know what I’m saying. It was on this day that I found myself literally transfixed by my appearance. And it wasn’t because I looked good, ya’ll.

I just stared at myself in the mirror. It’s wasn’t my frizzy hair or the tired that showed up on my face that bothered me most about my appearance. It was the skin. That skin. THE skin.

Several years previous to this moment, I had transitioned from a tall Amazonian teenager to pregnant mama on the nest. It had been almost exactly eighteen years prior to this day when I’d lain on a bed in a dark hospital room, in the middle of the night, an ultrasound wand sliding over my stomach. The pregnancy test had been positive, but something was not right. So I left my ten-month-old with my mother and headed to the emergency room with the hubs. The doctors said my ailments could mean a bunch of different things. They were leaning towards a “blighted ovum.” Right, so now I’m just pregnant with billowy cells masquerading as a baby…? I’m sent to radiology.

My husband and I sit quietly in the dark room. The sonographer comes in and starts the ultrasound. So, the woman says into the night, do you have any other kids? Yes, I say. A ten-month-old. Oh, she says. Then twins will be fun.

Excuse me? Cue Beethoven’s 5th.

And so began the hijacking of my body as I knew it. I already had problems with the one I had. This was going to be awesome.

Don’t get me wrong. Pregnancy is miraculous. If you stop and think about the reality of one person growing another human being, it’s almost an unfathomable notion. Growing two babies at once is even more mind boggling. I’m in awe at the process and humbled by the outcome. However, just as sure as I had been an awkward teenager, I was not one of those cute pregnant women. Once I entered my second trimester, it got real. Fast. One day I was barely showing, and the next I was up to my ears in paneled jeans and leggings. Then, I literally began to outgrow maternity sizes. I kid you not. I had to shop in stores that offered very extended sizes in order to cover my burgeoning belly.

I had already been pregnant once and experienced a few small changes in my body, but I was completely unprepared for what two children inhabiting my womb would do to change my abdomen forever. Ok, ok, I know this sounds a bit dramatic. I assure you, it is. I’m talking about belly skin that has been stretched so taut that it has been deformed. That’s right. No amount of cocoa butter that I slathered, sometimes twice, thrice, even four, times a day prevented the spread of each red, angry line upward, sideways, longways. Gone was the buttery soft, smooth skin of my youth. (Seriously, I was grieving the loss of the one good thing that I had going for me.) Instead what I saw in the mirror was a mushy mess of skin and stretch marks.

I was, and still am, so very grateful and blessed that I carried my babies all the way to past term. All sixteen pounds of them. I am proud of that. My precious babies didn’t have to spend days, weeks, months in a NICU. My body was a powerhouse during that pregnancy. However, for years, I’ve been very ashamed of my body in the aftermath. It’s not just the stretch marks. It’s this unbelievable fact, or as I like to call it, “trickery”, that my skin seemed to have no problem stretching, overnight, into oblivion. But then, like a deflated balloon, the excess skin from the gestation remained like that of a saggy, baggy elephant’s – on my body. Forever. prego bellyThis photo is a picture of me when I was just six months pregnant with my twins. Believe me, the nine month photo is too graphic. If I post that, those of you still looking forward to children might cower in fear at the very thought of pregnancy. So, I’ll leave my abdomen size at that point to your imagination. However, to give you some type of mental visual, my belly at the end of the pregnancy was described by some as “unearthly”. Enough said.

When it comes to my belly skin, I’ve tried to accept reality.

But I admit, I’ve lamented over what happened to my abdomen in those nine months. And I’ve cried. Since I’ve been pregnant, my abdomen has dictated so many things about my life – from the way I dress to how I feel in my core about who I am. It has sucked. And really, it makes no sense. I am not in charge of the cruddy gene that didn’t put enough elasticity into my dermal layers (or made my hips too wide, or my legs too long). I didn’t plan on having ginormous twins. I only gained a little over forty pounds during that pregnancy. It’s not excess weight. It’s skin that can never be “lost”. It won’t ever go away, except by the skilled talents and swift hands of a plastic surgeon. But I have better things to spend twenty grand on. And so, on my abdomen the skin has stayed.

Why does this matter? Aren’t body image issues really just first-world-problems? Yes and no. When it comes down to it, there are obviously much more important things on which to place one’s focus.

Civil wars. Religious conflicts. Genocide. Poverty. Starving children. Global warming. Human rights. Failing schools. Broken governments. The list goes on.

These issues are of utmost importance and they demand our immediate attention. However, I believe that there is a certain something within us that keeps us from addressing these bigger issues. This something actually festers within the depths of who we are, telling us we are not good enough. It whispers loudly to our core that we are too flawed – too damaged to make a difference. The voice that speaks these lies to us is shame.

Carrying around shame related to self-image is so costly that it actually impairs our ability to shift our attention from ourselves in order to mobilize and effectively address the more weighty, significant issues at hand. The circumstances that matter most. Shame keeps us self-focused, rendering us ineffective and stagnant. In the presence of shame, we don’t move forward. We freeze. We regress. We don’t see beyond our wrinkles, flabby thighs, stretch marks, wide hips, frizzy hair, cankles, acne, thinning hair, saddlebags, cellulite, or ugly feet. Guilty as charged.

When it comes to my belly, I’ve vacillated between pride and shame. I mean, come on. I carried two babies at once! I’m a rock star! But then,the pride I’ve felt has been short-lived as the shame attached to my appearance always, inevitably, surfaced. Shame has almost always won. The shame I’ve carried has undoubtedly held me back from doing a great many things. Listening to the voice of shame has caused me to miss opportunities and events. It has kept me from joy and happiness. I have allowed it to be so.

Reality? My self-image is distorted. I look at my problem areas with a magnifying glass. What I see as a catastrophic flaw is really only a blip on the radar. It’s my hang-up. And I have a choice. I can either let shame speak my truth, or I can listen to reason and internalize a more healthy perspective. That day (the crazy hair day), something happened. I looked back at the mirror and saw a different reflection. Ray Bradbury once said that “We are cups, constantly and quietly being filled. The trick is knowing how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out.” If we allow shame to invade our inner space, then we don’t have the capacity to cultivate, or carry, the truly beautiful things that make us who we are. In that moment, I started to let go of the shame that had me wrapped around its finger. My twin-skin would no longer be a catalyst for driving the splinter of shame further into my core. I began to feel free. In my gut. In my heart. In my soul. The shame that once captivated me began to lose its grip on me. It became like a tumor that has been removed from its host. Lifeless. Powerless.

Shame has GOT to go. Right now. And it’s hard. Shame is a powerful force, but truth is stronger. What I’m doing here, what we’re doing here, is kicking down walls. Deconstructing lies. Replacing shame with certainty. In Psalm 139:13-14, God says that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made”. God’s word is certain. I have this scripture in a frame on my wall next to the mirror in my closet. When shame tries to destroy my thoughts and distort what I know, I recite the verse. I think about how much thought God put into creating me. Wonderfully woven, intricately knit.

What’s driving your shame? Dig it up. Ditch it. Hasta la vista. I mean, hasta la never. It’s gotta go. After we begin to take down the barriers of shame, brick by brick, and the dust settles, we can rebuild. We can heal. We can act. We can change. The world.

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