It hit me the other day like a medicine ball right in the stomach. We were packing for a vacation to the coast, and my six-year-old daughter (soon to be sixteen) was trying on a new swimsuit I had purchased for her. It didn’t fit right, but I could tell she liked the black one-piece with neon-colored peace signs all over it. (A budding artist, she draws them everywhere.) She pranced into the living room to show her dad. He shook his head no, and that was that. She didn’t make much of a fuss, which lead me to believe that she hadn’t really like the thing after all. Later my husband told me that our daughter’s stomach was sticking out, much like a beach ball. “Of course it is,” I retorted, feeling a bit defensive. “She’s six.” I explained to him that she didn’t need to be bothered with holding in her stomach at her age. I was right. He agreed.
But his comment got me thinking about when I began to be conscious of my own belly. It must have been the summer of 1981 (actually, it may have been earlier). One of my sister’s best friends had come home from her freshman year at the University of Texas at Austin, and while we were swimming at the beach one day, she told my good friend and me that we should always hold in our stomachs. Always. Even when we were sleeping. “How could we do that?” we wondered. But we did. We admired that older girl (we were in junior high)—and how she looked. So we practiced. We reminded one another. We asked each other. We thought about it all the time. And, finally, it became automatic, like chewing with your mouth closed.
Back then, young girls weren’t watching Hannah Montana every day. Sure, we picked up an occasional Tiger Beat, but that was about it. We weren’t so conscious about the way we looked. Not that my daughter is, but I’ve seen her primping in front of the mirror and just yesterday she turned one of her sundresses backward so that it would be strapless. After a few twirls, she asked me if I thought that kind of dress would get her a date to the prom when she was older. I explained to her that dresses weren’t the reason why girls got asked to the prom. Sure we like to look nice, but it’s what’s on the inside that makes a person beautiful. She smiled and said she knew that.
As my daughter gets older and becomes more aware of herself—the way she acts and how she looks—it is becoming increasingly difficult to always say and do the right thing, to send a positive message. All through high school and college and for a decade or more afterward, I had had the good fortune to not have to worry about my belly. I’d been holding my stomach in for so many years that I’m convinced those muscles just knew what to do. I didn’t even think about it. I remember helping my college roommate get dressed for a Christmas formal and telling her to suck in her gut so I could zip her up. “I am,” was her discouraged response. But I couldn’t see any movement. Did she not know how? Wasn’t she trying? Now I understand her frustration. Fast-forward a few years and two children. Gravity is not my friend. Nor are low waistline jeans. Those stomach muscles got lax. There was a period right after childbirth when I didn’t really care how I looked. I was too exhausted to count calories and just didn’t have the energy to worry about it. But I’ve finally gotten to the point now that I’m tired of feeling and looking like, well, you know.
I’m obsessed with my muffin top. I pick up every magazine in the check-out line that has something to