So here we are.
The end of 2020.
I can’t say I have ever wished for a year to end quite as much as this one, even though I know that it will be business as usual come January 1st and nothing will have really changed.
I guess it is the hope that we are all clinging on to. 2021 has to be a better year because it can’t really get much worse than it is right now. That being said, I’ve heard that rock bottom sometimes has a basement, so I don’t want to spend any more time tempting fate.
A time for reflection
I guess it is natural for all of us to reflect on the last few months as we speed towards the 31st of December. At the beginning of this year, I decided that 2020 was going to be the year I saw things more clearly. I thought I was being cute. 20:20 vision, get it?
I spent a lot of January and February telling people that this year was going to be a big one. It was the year I would turn 40. The year I would learn to look into the mirror and no longer hate everything that I saw.
I had spent a considerable amount of time in therapy in the latter part of the previous decade, and I decided that this was the year I was going to slay all of my demons once and for all and move on to the next chapter in my life.
And then March came along. And it was like everything else froze. I didn’t have time to work on my body image issues and my mental health. I didn’t have time to do much of anything except work. Annual leave got cancelled. My birthday came and went with very little fanfare. Then there was home schooling (I still shudder at that word).
Halfway through the year, I decided to weigh myself. Which put the fear of god in me and started me on a journey to lose a significant amount of weight. Plus the idea to start a blog. And a YouTube Channel. And a podcast.
I am nothing if not predictable.
True to form, come September I was ready to crash and burn. Which I did. But like a phoenix from the ashes, I rose again.
And now here we are.
A time to get real
Okay, that was some overly dramatic prose towards the end. Suffice it to say, 2020 did not go the way that I had hoped it would. Did anybody’s?
But with two more days to go, I have decided it is high time I got back on track. So for the rest of this post, I am going to talk about the one thing that I struggle with the most. My belly.
She represents everything that I loathe about myself. I spend my life trying to cover her up. To change her. And when that fails, to disguise her. In a way, she represents me. And she has spent the last 4 decades in the shadows.
When you are constantly trying to hide something from the world, it starts to overtake your life. I spend far too much time focussing on my belly than I ought to. So I have decided to do something drastic before it is too late. She is going to take front and centre stage. I’m going to shove her into the light, once and for all.
Five things I love about my belly.
1. My belly carried three human beings
Nine months each, 27 months in total, she stretched to accommodate them. And she never really returned to normal afterwards. I was 25 when I got pregnant with my first. I was working in elderly care medicine, and I would do stints of 7 shifts in a row followed by a couple of days off.
The nights were the worst because I didn’t have any senior doctors on call with me. It was just me and a junior, clerking in patients and trying to keep them alive until the morning when the post take ward round started.
The sickness was the worst first time around. The only way I could get through it was by eating little and often. And it’s not like junior doctors get time to sit around and prepare a meal. Don’t be ridiculous. We ate what we could, when we could. And I ate ginger snaps and bananas because they helped a bit with the nausea.
I gained so much weight in my first pregnancy. I gained even more in my second. And that wasn’t all. My middle child weighed over 9lbs. His head circumference was on the 99th percentile. I had two emergency caesarean sections and suffered with SPD during all three of my pregnancies. My abdominal muscles separated to such a degree that I could put my first through the centre of them and was told I would probably never return to normal again.
And yet my belly took it all without complaint. She did it for my kids. She didn’t complain when the doctors ripped her open in a rush to deliver my firstborn because the cord was wrapped around his neck and his heart rate had slowed to dangerous levels. Didn’t complain when I went against my doctor’s advice and pushed a heavy pram up a hill a week after my third c-section so that I could visit my dying mother in hospital.
She didn’t even complain when the stitches ruptured as a result of that endeavour but I refused to do anything about it. Because I couldn’t face the idea of missing one day with my mother, and I knew that my family would insist on me taking it easy if they found out. So I took a couple of co-codamol, put a clean dressing on it and carried on.
She’s tough, my belly. And for a time, she provided a home to the three most precious things in my life. The oven to my three buns.
2. She is a pillow for my husband to lie on
My husband is 6 foot 2 but somehow he feels bigger. I think it is because of his inner strength. He is taller than most, but he is so constant and safe and resilient that he feels like a giant. Now most of you have probably guessed that I am no pushover. I don’t need a man to take care of me – I can do that perfectly fine on my own, thank you very much.
But when we lie in bed at night, he places his arms around me and envelopes me with a sense of peace and calm. I don’t care if it makes me sound weak – sometimes I feel like I need that man like I need the air around me to breathe.
But there are days when my husband needs to be comforted instead of being the one who does the comforting. And it’s on those days that my belly comes in to her own. Because she provides a soft warm pillow for him to lie on.
Remember “Brimful of Asha” by Cornershop? God, that song has so many fond memories for me. There’s a line in that song that goes “everybody needs a bosom for a pillow”. I once sang that song with a friend of mine on Karaoke Night at a gay bar we used to drive 30 minutes to get to. There were actions and everything.
Anyway, everybody may need a bosom for a pillow but in my experience, a belly is just as good. You know, the irony is that I may think that my belly is disgusting, but my husband thinks it is sexy. We’ve been together for twenty years, and I’ve never once seen him gaze longingly at another woman.
I know the cynics won’t believe me (and that’s OK because I am one of you), but that man only has eyes for me. And let’s just say that if nothing else, it provides him something to hang on to in the throws of passion and leave it at that, shall we?
3. My belly is healthy
I shall begin this one by stating that waist size is directly related to one’s risk of several illnesses including diabetes and heart disease. Of that, there is little doubt. The two are linked.
It is NOT the cause of those illnesses though, or at least there is no proof that it is. And whilst some may argue that it is just semantics, I argue that it is important to make that distinction. But I have already made that argument in a previous blog post, so I won’t bother repeating myself.
In spite of this risk, my belly remains in good health. It works just fine. No diabetes here. My bowels are regular. My gastrointestinal and urinary tracts are both in good order. I never had any fertility problems, for which I am eternally grateful because I know so many people who have struggled with this.
I’m not trying to boast. I’m just reminding myself that up until this point, my belly hasn’t once let me down. I have been in reasonably good health for my whole life. And yet I have wasted all this time terrified that my belly is going to be the death of me. Quite literally.
And maybe it will. Maybe I will go on to develop diabetes next year, have my first heart attack by the age of 50 and end up in heart failure before my youngest graduates university. That’s a risk I have to accept as an obese woman.
But the point is, so far it hasn’t. So far my body has been working just fine. My mind, on the other hand, is kind of a mess. And the two are so connected, it is hard to separate one from the other. I spent over a year in therapy and I cannot recall a single session when my weight didn’t come up.
At the age of 69, my mother was the picture of good health. She was not obese, she ate a very healthy diet and she exercised regularly. That cancer ravaged her body and she was dead within a few short months. It was so unexpected. One minute she was mourning the end of her favourite salsa class, and the next minute she needed my help to take her to the toilet.
If I get to live as long as my mother, then I am over halfway through my life. She took extraordinary good care of her body and she ended up dying young anyway. Now I am not trying to argue that anything can happen so why bother taking care of yourself. I am not that obtuse. I know that prevention if better than cure, and I know that I need to lose weight in order to reduce my risk of a number of serious illnesses.
But not at the expense of my mental health. I’ve tried that for too long, and have to come to the conclusion that there has to be a better way. In an ideal world, I lose weight and maintain a positive mental attitude. That’s what I am striving for, and I am determined to keep trying.
But until that day comes, I am just going to take a moment to thank my belly for staying healthy for all these years. I am going to be grateful for what I have rather than living in fear that I am going to lose it.
4. My belly made me strong
Speaking of my mother, she was never a big fan of my belly. She started trying to cover it up long before I did. I was talking to a good friend of mine the other day, who has always been one of my biggest supporters, trying to explain to her that I have never been able to see myself as anything other than a fat person. And this has had a tremendous impact on the person that I have become.
I could tell that my friend was really sad to hear that. She didn’t try to force-feed me platitudes or reassure me that no one else saw me that way. She just told me that she hoped one day I would be able to see myself as more than “just a fat person”.
I’ve been thinking about that a lot recently. You see, my belly is the fattest thing about me. I’ve actually got quite slim legs and arms. My hips are essentially the same size as my waist, and I don’t have that much cellulite on my bottom. I gain all my weight around my middle (which is literally the worst place to gain weight for health reasons, but that is hardly my fault).
So when I look in the mirror, I see humpty dumpty. One big fat egg with 4 spindly limbs and a head on top. And whilst I know that I am my harshest critic, I’m pretty sure a lot of people see me that way too. At least, that is their first impression.
Some of you have taken the time to look within and see that I am so much more than what I look like on the outside. Some of you may even tell me that you think I am beautiful, and aren’t at all put off by my belly. But a lot of people make snap judgments about me based on my size and body shape, and that is just something that I have learned to accept.
Beauty bias and fat bias are real. I experienced it growing up. People didn’t chose me to be on their sports team or partner up with them in class. People didn’t want to dance with me at the school disco or kiss me at midnight on new years eve. Now you could argue that none of this had anything to do with the way I looked, and I would have no way of proving you wrong.
But maybe that’s not the point. I grew up believing that my belly was the reason that people rejected me. And whilst it hurt, it also made me stronger.
Rejection is the reason I am where I am today. It’s the reason I forced myself to succeed in other areas of my life and developed a thick skin. It’s the reason I can stand in front of a room full of strangers and speak with confidence and without fear of judgement. I forced myself to.
In many ways, my belly is my greatest weakness. But you could also argue that it is one of my greatest strengths. I don’t know if I would be the person that I am today, or if I would have accomplished half of what I have accomplished, if I didn’t look the way that I do. If I was born with a symmetrical face and didn’t gain weight around my middle without really trying, would I still be me?
5. My belly is beautiful
OK, that one was a bald-faced lie and you know it.
I don’t think my belly is beautiful. I doubt many of you think it is either.
But beauty is subjective. They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but most of us are so brainwashed into believing that there is only one way to be beautiful, that nothing could be furthest from the truth. Beauty is in the eye of the billion dollar beauty industry. It’s in the faces of the people who are forced upon us from birth.
We don’t get to decide who is beautiful – others have decide it for us.
Only that’s not strictly true, is it? Last time I checked, we still have our own free will. We can chose to reject society’s definition of beauty and come up with our own. Mine might not be the belly that gets plastered on the cover of magazines or gets a million likes on Instagram. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t beautiful.
That sounds good in theory, but the reaslist in me knows that things aren’t going to change overnight. I don’t believe my belly is any more beautiful today than I did yesterday. But today I did something that I have never done before.
I took a picture of it. I took several in fact. And I spent some time staring at those photographs. To begin with I felt nothing but revulsion. But I persevered and eventually I came to a place of quiet acceptance. I don’t think I am ever going to be one of those body positive types that tells the world that I am perfect just the way that I am.
I’m not perfect. None of us are.
But maybe, just maybe, I might get to a place where I begin to see some beauty in my reflection. Maybe one day, I will be able to tell myself that I am beautiful even though there are things that I would like to change about myself. And maybe one day, I will start to believe it.
It starts with the photographs. It starts with this blog post, I think. And since I am not the kind of person who does things by half, I have decided that I am not going to keep those images to myself. Instead, I am going to share them with the world. No more covering up my secret shame.
So here it is in all its glory. Ladies and Gentleman, I present to you… my belly.
Happy new year everyone. I would love nothing more than for people to start sharing this blog post and/or to comment in the box below. I never shy away from confrontation so feel free to be as candid as you like. Here’s hoping 2021 will bring with it some hope and light at the end of the tunnel.