It is appropriate that I sing
The song of the feet
The weight of the body
And what the body chooses to bear
Fall on me
I trampled the American wilderness
Forged frontier trail
Out ran the mob in Tulsa
Got caught in Philadelphia
And am still unreparated
I soldiered on in Korea
Jungled through Vietnam sweated out Desert Storm
Caved my way through Afghanistan
Tunneled in the World Trade Center
And on the worst day of my life
Walked behind JFK
Stood embracing Sister Betty
I wiggle my toes
In the sands of time
Trusting the touch that controls my motion
Basking in the warmth of the embrace
Day's end offers with warm salty water
It is appropriate I sing
The praise of the feet
I am a Black woman
5. The Belly
A famous Richard Avedon poster from the early eighties still has the power to shock. It's undeniably cheesy but erotic nonetheless, a long horizontal of the actress Nastassja Kinski stretched out on her side and wearing nothing but a really big snake. The semiotics here aren't exactly subtle, but what transfixes the eye is: Kinski's forward-tilting belly, set off by the python coiling tumescently around her crotch and the curve of her back. Just about every man I know has seen that poster, and they all mention the same thing—that impudent little tummy—with wistful delight.
Chaucer would empathize. In the Middle Ages, no poet could celebrate a woman's beauty without a rapturous reference to "her small round belly." It's there in paintings of the time, pooching out suggestively on ladies high and low, including the Virgin herself. Medieval gowns made the most of it with softly fitted bodices that stroked the body like a lover's hands and ended in a decorative, Y-shaped sash slung low around the hips and pointing discreetly downward to the source of life itself.
Five hundred years later, I look at pictures of models in the latest low-slung, hip-hugging styles, and what catches my eye is the forlorn concavity where a belly used to be, sunk between hip bones sharp enough to wound. This is that holy of holies, a flat stomach. Thanks to the culture's runaway obsession with female thinness, women have simultaneously been thrown a curve and lost one. We wuz robbed: Healthy bellies are beautiful. (Ever see a skinny belly dancer? Who'd want to?) But there's nothing delicate about them. They swell and cramp and make weird noises. They're real and visceral and impossible to control, like life, which they teem with, especially for women. Touch a pregnant woman's belly and feel the power—it's as taut and unyielding as a medicine ball, protective housing for the occupied womb within.
Lately, I've become an unwilling player in the game of cholesterol roulette, and so, like most American women, I obsess about my weight. I want to lose some, my doctor wants me to lose some. But I'll never want to lose what a friend once called my magic belly: emblem of fecundity and needful desire.