Wednesday, October 19, 2011
LOVE YOUR BELLY!
My belly is perfect.
I will never have a six-pack, but I don’t long for one, either. Instead, I have what I call a “chick pack”, a belly that is rounded and soft.
I adore my belly. In fact, I’m pretty damn vain about it…but it wasn’t always this way.
My entire midsection was something I really disliked. I absolutely hated it. I was seriously repulsed by my stomach, and thought others would be too.
Belly dancing changed my life.
It’s been two decades since I started dancing, and I still firmly believe it was the best thing that ever happened to me.
Like millions of women and young girls, I had huge issues with negative body image and low self-esteem. Growing up in the 1970’s, I never felt as though I was pretty. I wasn’t tall and lithe; I wasn’t blonde and blue eyed, therefore, I wasn't pretty. Magazines rarely featured models who were any color but white, and the concept of using plus sized models in major publications was a few decades off in the future. I had always known that I was intelligent, but somehow being intellectual never had the same cache’ as being pretty. Yes, I was smart… but I wasn’t smart enough to realize that the media had actually been outsmarting me!
The unattainable standards of female beauty that were-and still are- constantly presented in nearly all forms of popular media had the same effect on me as did on millions of other women and girls: it made us insecure, and it also made us feel as though we were somehow lacking, because we could never measure up to that impossible standard.
For most women- including me- the thing we coveted more than anything was a flat stomach. I wanted a concave stomach badly. I wanted it more than anything, but no matter how hard I worked out or dieted, because of my build, this was never going to happen.
As a teenager, in order to achieve my farfetched dream of being thin, I tried starving myself...and when that didn’t work, I turned to speed. I got high, oh, I got really high...but I never go skinny; my body knew exactly what it was supposed to look like. Instead, I had the appearance of being an unhealthy, extremely hyperactive teenage milkmaid. So I started forcing myself to purge after I ate. Puking after meals became a secret habit, it was an addiction. Back then, Bulimia hadn't even been identified as an eating disorder… I actually thought I invented it myself! It was genius- I could eat whatever I wanted, and then just throw it up. Maybe I would never be skinny, but at least I could maintain my weight… and when I found out about Anorexia, I thought: Finally, a real solution!
But it turned out I couldn’t handle that kind of insane Anorexic self-control. Because of my low self-image and twisted logic, I thought I was somehow lacking by not being able to stop myself from eating; I even felt that by making myself vomit after every meal, I was “taking the easy way out”. If only I had the self- discipline to be Anorexic, I told myself, everything would be fine…. Yeah, right!
So how does this all fit in with belly dancing?
Well, there’s a reason that belly dancing has stuck around for thousands of years. Belly dancing, or Oriental dancing, as it’s correctly called, can be compared to another practice that has also been around for centuries: yoga. Through diligent application, either mode of physical activity will change your mind and emotional spirit as well as your body.
The main difference between belly dancing and yoga is that belly dancing is also an artistic form of self- expression, something that is extremely important for women, who, for centuries, have usually had their voices ignored or silenced. And then there's the fact that it's also a lot of damn fun!
Once I began belly dancing, I started to look at my body in a completely different way. Suddenly, I could do all these cool things...and do them to really amazing music! My hips and my stomach jiggled and shook while I was dancing... but that was the point! After a few months, I was no longer ashamed of my round belly; I grew to like it, and then grew to love it. I no longer hid my stomach or tried to disguise it, but started flaunting it.
To put it simply, my belly became the center of my universe. Pretty soon I was absolutely convinced that my belly needed to be the center of everyone else’s universe, too! It got to the point that I didn’t even own one top that hadn’t been cut off to bare my midriff.
Through belly dance, I had also unintentionally changed my relationship to food. I was no longer concerned with having a concave stomach, and wasn’t yo-yo dieting, starving myself, insanely high on speed or purging. The equation was simple: if I felt too full, I couldn’t dance. Period. Food was no longer “good” or “bad”; it was merely fuel for dancing… And dancing was way more important to me than having a flat belly! Along with my eating habits, my body changed; but even before it did, I had already begun to feel alright with it.
No matter what sort of belly you have- poochy or taut, creamy skinned or etched with stretch marks, belly dancing looks beautiful on everyone. Diversity in shape, size, height, weight and age is not just accepted in the belly dance community, it’s applauded. Though the general public has a stereotyped image of a belly dancer - exotic make up and elaborate costumes adorned with shimmering fringe and jingling coins- to the dancers themselves, the costumes and shiny accoutrements are not the main point, they’re more like the icing on a cake.
In truth, what attracts women to belly dancing is the supreme body confidence and inner beauty of the dancer, which pours out through her performance, whether the dancing is done onstage or off. Women witnessing a belly dance performance-or taking a class- consistently identify with, aspire to and cheer on this type of relaxed, positive body awareness. Belly dancing has always been done by-and for-women.
The process of learning to belly dance, and discovering the power of mastering intricate forms of physical prowess gives women a huge boost of self-esteem. Learning to isolate muscles you probably cannot even name, not to mention layering five different types of movements-while playing finger cymbals- instills a sense of self-belief that goes far beyond mere poise.
And then there’s the utter joy of suddenly being given permission “play”. Dressing up in colorful, flowing clothing and dancing with floaty, sheer veils makes most adult women get all giggly and unself-conscious, just like little girls pretending to be princesses… and the ensuing effect is one of pure freedom, usually resulting in things like body issues getting tossed aside in favor of elation. By celebrating femaleness in general, belly dancing encourages women to temporarily forget about their insecurities by trying on a pleasurable and blissfully affirmative feminine archetype.
In the past few years, it seems the media has been sort of testing out a healthy trend towards acknowledging the fact that “real” women actually DO come in all shapes and sizes. Progress has been slow, but this new way of looking at women’s bodies-and what is attractive- seems to be finally gaining more acceptance.
Finally, women with curves such as Kim Kardashian, Kate Winslet, Jennifer Lopez, and Mad Men star Christina Hendricks are being acknowledged as icons. Though the drunken shenanigans and trashy clothes of the cast of Jersey Shore may not everyone’s cup of tea, there is still no denying the fact that the women on the show are real…and still considered hot! And with the sudden fascination for cougars, women who are mature (as in older than twenty five!) like Sharon Stone, Kim Cattrall, Helen Mirren and Demi Moore are finally being thought of as desirable.
Nonetheless, there is still a pervasive acceptance of the fashion/ advertising world's out-of-reach, impossible to achieve standards of beauty, which, as in the past, still makes many average women suffer from inferiority complexes.
In the global belly dance community, you merely have to be in motion to be gorgeous.
Belly dance is an unashamedly female life force; and the ensuing emotional and spiritual effects it have on the dancers themselves are incredible.The sisterly bonding in a classroom situation - or backstage at a show - is beyond therapeutic. While teaching this type of dance, I have watched students transform in front of my eyes, going from hunch-shouldered, awkward and shy to standing tall and becoming flamboyant, fearlessly feminine, confident and proud.
Physically, of course, there are also many benefits. The dance itself an extremely aerobic, weight bearing activity, but one that is gentle, as opposed to being punishing to the body. Belly dancing promotes strength, stamina and flexibility. It builds rounded, feminine muscles as it staves off osteoporosis. The isolations and combinations engage challenging physical co-ordination as well as healthy brain activity.
Women who are involved with belly dancing are extraordinary. Throughout this vibrant community, you will meet incredible motivated, adventurous women whom you might not normally bump into in the course of your every day life. Vital and curious, fearless or just ready for a change, the women who are involved in belly dancing are alive.
Belly dancers are young and old; they are mothers, daughters, grandmothers, sisters, wives and crazy eccentric aunties.
If you are reading this, you are probably already belly dancer, and I am preaching to the choir.
But if you are not a belly dancer, you could be…because YOUR belly is perfect, too!
* This post is part of The National Organization Of Women’s “ 2011 Love your Body Day Blog Carnival”
Photo: The Royal Belly by Andre Elbing