Then there are the staring strangers and friends full of (unwarranted) advice. Among these are the tummy-patters and belly enthusiasts, who range from sweetly interested to remarkably forward. When I Skyped with my cousin Nihal to tell him our news, he shook his head impatiently at my descriptions of our first ultrasound and baby’s raspberry-sized form. “Just show me the belly!” he thumped his fist, all Jerry Maguire.
Who doesn’t love a belly, as long as it’s not their own? When I was a teen, full of complexes and reticent to wear anything stomach revealing, I used to go swimming with my friend Amy. Amy was lovely, bubbly, and chubby, and, like many Americans, completely comfortable in a bikini. I marveled at the ease with which she carried her half-nude self. And because Amy was entirely uncomplexed about her body, the soft swell of tummy hanging over bikini bottom seemed totally normal. It was far from crude or embarrassing or whatever else I imagined my own body would be if exposed to the world in a two-piece.
I never wore a bikini and still haven’t. Despite Nora Ephron’s injunction (“Oh, how I regret not having worn a bikini for the entire year I was twenty-six. If anyone young is reading this, go, right this minute, put on a bikini, and don’t take it off until you’re thirty-four.”), I haven’t been able to convince myself that relative youth trumps a genetic paunch. Tummies, I’ve been raised to believe, are to be minimized in every dress except the flattering magic of the belly-baring sari. On the beaches of Copacabana and Waikiki, I glance enviously at the toned and overweight alike, everyone with the self-confidence to let it all hang out.
The paparazzi’s obsession with celebrity baby bumps suggests that there is something universally appealing about the belly. Until I was expecting, I couldn’t help gawping at the pregnant women I passed. They seemed otherworldly, alien even, with their distended forms and visible not-so-secrets. They also seemed singularly liberated from the suck-in-your-tummy social convention. I didn’t stop to think about the little faces, hands, and feet inside the belly—or, as another one of my cousins puts it, inside “bellyland.” I just saw women unburdened, at home in their transforming bodies, in a way I had yet to fully appreciate but found fascinating.
When I was pregnant, I was finally able to enjoy the privileges of the unapologetically expanding. For the first time, I stood on the scale hoping for higher numbers. I embraced the generous design of maternity clothes, designed to highlight that which is normally concealed. I waited impatiently to cross from the realm of “possibly-gained-weight” to “most-certainly-pregnant.” I taught in fitting, bump-baring tops, wanting to communicate to my impressionable, eighteen-year-old students an air of unabashed ownership of my maternal form.
Now, just weeks after having delivered our baby, it is hard not to feel pressure to contain my unruly middle. Vitamin E-oil for stretch marks, an aunt suggests. Ayurvedic medicines, says another. Oil massage. Hot water compress. My well-meaning grandmother has wanted to know my plan for belly reduction ever since we came home from the hospital. She is convinced that the custom of 40 days bed rest plus tummy tying is the key to recovering your pre-pregnancy form. “You have to tie your stomach,” she eyes my gut distastefully, ignoring my indignant counter that exercise is always preferable to inactivity.
“Well, that’s what we do in India,” she responds confidently, as if India is the land of the bikini-ready.
Now, the shirts I enjoyed wearing when they accentuated my eight-month-pregnant belly just make me look out of shape. But I have a heightened fondness for my tummy now, my distorted belly button and its acquired folds. It is capable, determined, resilient, miraculous. It is a sign of life, not laziness. I have experienced the counterintuitive liberation of pregnancy, and I am determined not to succumb to the imperatives of rote weight-consciousness.
Meanwhile, we are following the doctor’s orders: Every day, we are to maneuver Mrinalini, our not-yet-two-month-old daughter, onto her stomach for “tummy time,” during which she is to practice lifting her head and strengthening her neck, working toward turning over. Tummy time is a corrective for sleeping supine, which has been the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendation for infants since 1992. Back sleeping, in its turn, was championed in the early 1990s as a way to reduce SIDS.
Mrinalini enjoys tummy time. We put her on her belly, and she wriggles around like a little turtle. Her soft, perfect tummy anchors her body as legs and arms flail, then focus, on the tasks of moving forward and side to side.
Slowly, our baby is learning to be at home in her body. She is building up a repertoire of familiar sensations, and her little milk-belly is the center of her world. When it is empty, she cries. When it is full, she smiles. She has yet to discover her hands and feet, but she knows the rumblings of digestion. Soon, she will learn to turn over. I pray she will walk and run and swim. We will teach her to embrace everything her body can do, and we will dress her in a baby bikini.
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a doctoral candidate in Rhetoric at UC Berkeley.