I think toddlers have an eye for something different, something outside of a pattern. Our little girl has always noticed things that stand out. If there’s a piece of anything – fuzz, dirt, food – on the ground, she finds it. She explores the knobs on cabinets, the runs in the carpet, the divots on the edges of the baseboards. I think this ability to quickly distinguish aberrations in an established design is what makes her belly-button (and nipples) curious and easy to find.
But now she’s exploring the patterns of her own body. She’ll run her hands through her hair now, occasionally grabbing a curl and pulling. She’s been exploring her mouth with her fingers for a while, but now she seems to notice that it’s her own mouth. Sometimes she’ll stick a finger in my mouth to feel my teeth, then touch her own. And then there’s the finger in the nose. It’s not in order to pull anything out, it’s merely exploratory: what does it feel like up there? And when you consider that there are two sensations to focus on – the feeling of her finger in a warm sticky place, and the feeling of one nostril suddenly filled with a strange-smelling appendage – I have rediscovered an appreciation for fingers in the nose.
It’s strange to watch a new human being discover the peculiarities of living in a body. I mostly take it for granted, unless my body does something obnoxious. I’ve written previously about the toll wreaked on my body this past winter after our little girl brought home and shared every single germ she met. I’ve never been sicker than I was between this past November and March. This reminded me of the frailty and vulnerability of living in a body, and I hated it. How many times did I think, “Man, this body sucks,” while rubbing my nose raw with tissue or running to the toilet for the fourth time in an hour. So it’s a new perspective for me to try appreciating my body not for its susceptibility to germs and illness, but for how it is fearfully and wonderfully made.
Our little girl is at the developmental stage where she is beginning to realize that she is separate from her environment. She’s no longer breast-feeding, and half of her meals involve her feeding herself. She is constantly dropping things – food, particularly – and noticing that her mother or I will pick up whatever she has tried to “destroy” and put it back on the table. Playing with these limits of her own power and autonomy in the world helps her to begin developing a sense of ego-differentiation. Concurrent to this, it would appear, is the recognition that she – however her budding ego-self can even conceptualize of such a thing – is housed within a body. Her own body, not someone else’s. Her own body, with her own hair, her own belly-button, her own hands and feet.
When is the last time you discovered something about your body that you loved? At my age, it seems new bodily discoveries are accompanied by dismay. Oh wow, my hairline is receding. Yikes, I’m getting soft and plump around the edges. Damn, it hurts when I do this. I’m not even that old, but it’s become my habit to be annoyed, disappointed, or upset with whatever my body does. And I think I’m a relatively healthy person! But this is how I’ve learned to view my body: as less than perfect, burdensome, and ultimately somehow unattractive to the rest of society.
America hates bodies. With the exception of maybe a few perfectly unattainable exceptions, we learn to hate the human form. We start with our own, and then from there we hate others’ bodies in the hope that we might feel less hatred towards our own. When I was a teenager, I hated my acne, I hated my awkward and gangly frame. Now I hate my thinning hair and my inability to hit my ideal BMI. I’m trying to reconcile myself to my body, but whatever love I’ve found is purely conditional, based on my tenuous achievements with diet, exercise, and attempts to clothe myself in flattering fashions. I’ll do everything in my power to try inoculating my sweet child from these body-hatred attitudes, but I’m as infected with them as anyone.
But right now, my little girl loves her body! It’s amazing! The noises it can make! The things it can grab! She can move herself all over the house with it! And you would not believe how it delights other people! If she makes a certain face, everyone around her oohs and ahhs! When she claps her hands, people smile and dance! Her body makes other people happy, and it makes her happy! And guess what: her body is her. She looks at her belly-button and I can almost see her thinking: this is me. She pulls on her hair and thinks, this is me. She wiggles her toes, she smacks her chest, she blows kisses, all the time saying, this is me! My God, it makes my heart explode to see her enjoy herself, to love herself, to discover herself. It makes me full of joy and not a little bit of jealousy. I want to love my own body like that again.
Her body makes her happy. I try to remember that, to go back to a time when my hands were new and exciting tools with endless possibilities, when my being in a body was a thrilling proposition and not a prison of other people’s pointless expectations. But you know what? My body makes her happy, too. She loves to cuddle the warmth of my chest. She giggles at the prickliness of my beard when I kiss her. I hold her close to my body and sing her to sleep, she smiles at the deep and gentle vibrations, like she’s falling asleep on a train. She smiles and then I smile and then she laughs and I laugh and we get into this feedback loop of giddiness. If it weren’t for my body, I wouldn’t be able to hold her, to kiss her, to tickle her, to her hear giggle, to rock her to sleep, to chase after her, to gaze on her beautiful face, to wipe bananas off her cheeks, to smell the sweet scent of her hair, to feel her soft cheek against mine. My love for her is not conceptual, it is visceral: I feel it in my gut, in my chest, in my arms, in the tears that fill my eyes at the very thought of how beautiful she is. I have a rocky, tumultuous relationship with my body, but I’m feeling closer to it these days because I need it in order to love my little girl.
I haven’t stared at my belly-button in a while. But maybe today I will for a bit. Just for a few moments, to help ground me and remind me that this is me. This body that is me is good; not just for me, but for the people I love.