Some time ago, my daughter asked me what it meant “to be in one’s birthday suit.” I explained that this term essentially meant being naked, wearing what one is born with — nothing. Since then, we’ve occasionally joked and laughed that it would be silly to have a cute dress as a birthday suit because everyone is born completely naked.
I grew up in a family that wrapped nakedness with shame. My parents were secretive about nudity, and to this day, I’ve never seen my mom without clothes. Perhaps because of this upbringing, or maybe due to other reasons, I’ve always been modest about my body.
But…I’ve also been so proud of my body, particularly my breasts and — I know this sounds silly — but my belly button. I believed my pre-cancer body was beautiful. I wasn’t vain about it or flaunted it, yet I knew my breasts and belly button were just perfect. I loved my birthday suit.
But….then came the shitfest known as cancer.
I had three lumpectomies on my right breast: the initial lumpectomy, a second one to excise the dirty margins — not to mention damage caused by radiation — and a final lumpectomy five years later when I had a medical scare of possible recurrence in that same breast. (Luckily it turned out to be scar tissue.) My breast was horribly deformed, and my body image went down the toilet.
The prophylactic bilateral mastectomy came next, and I had to adjust to breasts, each with a different cup size, and that looked nothing like the breasts I was born to have. The tattooed nipples were irksome to me, as they weren’t the lovely nipples I once had. Body image issues ran amuck. You can read more about them here and here.
But….just as important, my belly button was recreated as a distorted hole. I know it sounds silly to fuss over this part of the human anatomy, as a belly button is seemingly unimportant, but I am sometimes grief-stricken about it and wince each time I see the fake, plastic-surgeon-created belly button. Now, don’t get me wrong; I don’t give it much thought most days. But the belly button and huge hip-to-hip scar underneath it are daily reminders of cancer.
My lack of belly button self-esteem was revisited two weeks ago, when I signed my daughter up for ballet. And, just as luck would have it, the director of the dance studio told us that we were in for a surprise because we were just in time to watch a rehearsal performance in an adjacent dance studio. So thinking it would be great fun, we agreed to watch these dancers rehearse their number.
But….did I tell you that the dance performance we watched was belly dancing? No shit.
My daughter and I loved it and got caught up in the rhythm of the music and the sounds of the ornate bells and jingles on the hips of all the dancers, who varied in age and body types. All these women swaying to and fro seemed to be confident in their bodies. And in case you’re wondering, I did indeed assess their belly buttons. The verdict: I had belly envy.
I don’t mean to belly ache about this, but the emotional pain is real. Over 10 years ago, my body had been altered to the point where I had no longer recognized myself.
Unlike my parents, I teach Ari that our bodies are nothing to be ashamed of. And, over the years, I’ve grown to be mostly at peace with my re-created torso.
But ….just this week, Ari saw me step out of the shower and dry myself.
“Mom, you are not in your birthday suit.”
“Of course I am!” I said.
“No, you’re not,” she said matter of factly. “Your body isn’t the one you were born with.”
“You’re right,” I said, trying to hide my agony. “I’m not exactly in my birthday suit.”
Believe it or not, I’m thinking of taking belly dancing. It really looked like fun and not too tough. I like the sound of the music, as well as the jingles on everyone’s hips. I think it might be therapeutic because through belly dancing, I could gain confidence in my body.
And maybe it won’t matter that underneath the jingles and scarfs that I’m not in my birthday suit.
Do you have body-image issues since surgery? How has your experience been?
Do you think I should take belly dancing? Have you belly danced?