Me and My Belly: A Lifelong Relationship
By Matthew Petti
As I write this, the tape has my midsection measuring out at an eye-popping 43 inches. I wear size 38 pants (itself embarrassing), which means a full five of those inches run unrestrained and wild over the lip of Belt Loop Dam until arrested mid-free-fall by the seemingly arbitrary fact that they belong to the rest of my body. But those inches do belong: they’re part of my husbandness and fatherhood; part of my love for baseball, psychoanalysis, and Russian literature; part of my facility with numbers and my unfortunate habit of joking about matters too serious to joke about; part of the fact that I’m a left-leaning professor. When I teach a class, attend a meeting, spend time with my wife, play with my daughter, or hang out with my friends, my belly wants in on the action. Or rather, it’s just there, getting in the way of the action; it has its own version of hanging out.
Luckily or unluckily, I’m no stranger to hating the body my genetics have saddled me with. In grade school, an all-out-of-proportion backside earned me the nickname Raindrop; I tried my best always to face forward. In junior high, the fine, dark fuzz that prematurely appeared on my upper lip seemed to scream, “Pubic hair down below!” I thought my preadolescent moustache was an advertisement that I’d discovered masturbation. Once I was old enough to shave, this problem was erased with such ease and finality that I was surprised 20 years later on the psychoanalytic couch when moments of irrational shame traced themselves back to this time.
If only I could have shaved off that portion of my body where the gluteus was at its maximus just as easily! As a teenager who wanted a girlfriend before knowing what to do with one, I’d buckle a belt around my derriere, pull my pants over it, and study myself from every angle in a large mirror. If the one-inch swath of indentation weren’t so obvious, I’d have gone to school dances that way.
Instead, I crash-dieted and played basketball until sweat ran in rivers down my back. All my weigh-ins during that time were superstitious events: I’d weigh myself only after showering and drying myself thoroughly and before drinking any water, trying to give myself the best possible chance on the scale. But it worked. I have a picture of myself at 15, scowling on the beach during a family vacation on the Jersey shore. Besides nearly being able to carry off the look of an inner-city tough, I actually had abs—abs so sharply delineated you could count them. The only remaining evidence of those admirable abs are in that photograph, which my daughter refuses to believe is really a picture of a once-skinny me.
I should mention that I’m short—5’4” short. This was bad enough in grade school, when I was the third-shortest kid in my class. But then I became aware that I wanted girls to like me, and that girls dug tall guys. I stretched myself on a pull-up bar over my bedroom door religiously over a period of months, but there was no changing height. For a long time, I cursed the fact that I didn’t have the confidence all tall men possess as a birthright. More recently, I’ve come to think that perhaps it’s a good thing I’m short: if God had made me tall enough to be dangerous in basketball, I’d have been insufferably arrogant.
Somewhere in there, before the crash diet and not long after I started shaving, I began to develop a layer of chest fat that too closely resembled a girl’s breasts for my comfort. Underneath my nipples were little hard nodes I’d never noticed before. And wasn’t it always clear that I’d inherited my mother’s (round and hippy) rather than my father’s (lean, almost frail) body type? We were learning about hormones in health class, and I started to worry that there was something going on hormonally that would end with me being the bearded lady in a circus somewhere. It’s one of the few times I can remember having a heart-to-heart with my father. We were spending a week in Wildwood, New Jersey, and while the rest of the family was in the kitchen, I pulled my father outside to examine me. With my hand, I placed his forefinger on my right nipple and pushed down.
“Nothing to worry about,” he said with an air of manly expertise. “Everyone has those.”
My father’s words were enough then to quell fears of impending gender bending. But no one could’ve convinced me that a short, hippy teenager with man-boobs had any chance to score a girlfriend. Still, after body- and gender-image difficulties that might today be diagnosable, I emerged from high school genuinely skinny, and a new start in college had me transforming from Raindrop Girl to Regular Guy. After college, I worked out religiously, ran four New York City marathons, and was as fit as anyone I knew. The fellow marathoner I was seeing once confessed she felt “intimidated” by the shape I was in. If she could see me now, she might instead be intimidated by the formidable prospect of trying to put her arms all the way around me. What happened?