The Promise (Belly Button) Ring

Slouching towards the end of my first semester of college, deadlines nipping at my heels, I decided to get my belly button pierced. It was a decision solidified over the course of a few conversations with my best friend from high school. Until this point, we both had avoided body modifications, even ones as noncommittal as piercings. I had gotten my ears pierced years ago, when I was eight and finally, finally had secured my mother’s consent. I celebrated the rite of passage by nearly kicking the pregnant sales associate at Claire’s in the stomach, propelled by last minute nerves. Since that near-fiasco, I had abstained from further body piercing endeavors.

But, with the exchange of a few feverish emails, charged with the intoxicating awareness that our parents would wholeheartedly disapprove, my friend and I devised a plot to be carried out upon our winter break reunion. The details of the plot were as follows: My friend picked me up to go to dinner – OR SO OUR PARENTS THOUGHT. Instead, deviants that we were, we went to the piercing parlor! To get our belly buttons pierced! And then we went to dinner at a nice Mediterranean restaurant and were home by midnight curfew. I managed to conceal my sordid, body-altering shenanigans from my parents for roughly twelve hours, eventually bursting at the seams to announce my rebellion. I had undergone the needle for the sake of sexy! I could not fathom waiting another six months until summer, when I would inevitably broadcast the news with a bared midriff.

I’ve always possessed an appreciation for the ridiculous, and, as I stood in that oceanfront piercing parlor, awaiting puncture, I knew I must have seemed precisely that. Despite my efforts to appear blasé, to sign the release forms with cool disaffection, the tatted up, variously pierced employees saw right through the charade. Certainly I was nervous about the actual piercing process. It struck me as intimidatingly surgical, with the lean-to enswathed in the slippery paper you only encounter in a doctor’s exam room, the rubber bottles of antiseptic, and the hodgepodge of clamps. Happily, the event was relatively tame (my limbs behaved, I was docile). In what seemed both a minute and an epoch, I was unleashed unto the world, soaring on a rush of adrenaline. I was pierced in a minimally bad-girl way; now everything was going to change.

And that was just it: the parlor sales associates may have sensed my trepidation, but it was entirely secondary to the idealistic enchantment radiating from my every facial pore. I had carefully studied the music video for Aerosmith’s “Cryin.” Alicia Silverstone takes a turn for the badass after she acquires her sexy belly button ring (and after she gets a tattoo, but, again, I suffer from commitment issues). I had no plans to bungee jump from an overpass, and I didn’t have any ex-boyfriends who deserved a good scare and the middle finger. But maybe that was the problem.

Getting my belly button pierced seemed to me like a spot of pain in the pursuit of pleasure. It was a promise to myself to be more sexually bold – to maybe even bare my midriff when I wasn’t sea or poolside. I was going to kiss boys, and then some. I was going to have the sort of interactions with boys that involved them actually seeing my belly button ring. Cheesily antithetical to the promise rings of the Disney Channel teeny boppers, my belly button ring symbolized my intent to get some – and, more importantly, to not be afraid of getting some. Thus far, college had not been the sexual playground I had hoped it would be, primarily because I was too timid to approach guys unless a beer or two had lowered my defenses. And even then, I was, all things considered, quite chaste.

Oftentimes when people get their navels pierced, they justify it to others by saying, “Just knowing I have it makes me feel sexier. No one needs to see it.” I parroted variations of this remark to my friends, and I think, for me, the statement was valid up to a certain point. It was satisfying to see the little barbell that slid through the rim of my navel. Sometimes, when it caught my eye, I would smile like a goon. Yet it was part of a larger project of cultivating my sexual persona, part of the body that I was learning, slowly, to love. Someone seeing it—someone with whom I shared mutual desire—would feel like a triumph.

So I returned for the second semester of my freshman year with this modest adornment. Nothing much changed, really – I certainly did not become the sex goddess of my wildest ambitions. But I did become more sexually bold, empowered by the thought of the little glistening jewel in my stomach. At a time when I struggled to accept my face, with its vaguely Semitic traces, the reminder of my belly button ring shored up my confidence. It wasn’t a means of negotiating self-acceptance. I wanted to love my whole body; I am still trying to love it. But in that fleeting moment, my belly button ring became a sort of weirdly anthropomorphized cheerleader.

It was there when I lost my virginity, an event that was, in reality, woefully unsexy. It reminded me of my feminine sexual agency when I was twenty-five and separating from my husband and could not help but feel that I had broken my life into fragments and flung them over my head. When I timidly explored new love, its presence reminded me that I deserved pleasure – and was capable of giving it to another.

Now I am twenty-eight and contemplating allowing the piercing to heal. In a few years, my soon-to-be husband and I want to have children. I’d prefer not have a widening chasm in the middle of my stomach over the course of a pregnancy. I’ve been told time and again how long it takes a navel piercing to fully heal. Still I’m so reluctant to make the move.

I wondered at first if this reluctance stemmed from a sense of missed opportunity. My mental sex checklist does remain fairly incomplete. And it’s true: being more sexually adventurous—outside of a monogamous relationship, that is—could have been liberating, empowering, exciting. Or maybe I would have been largely underwhelmed. Regardless, I don’t think it is regret that keeps me from sliding out that little barbell; it’s the sense of loss I know that I will feel. The satisfaction of minor rebellion has never dissipated; I am if nothing else a chronic good girl. But over the course of our decade together, I have learned other, various ways to feel erotically empowered and desirable. If I am parting ways with my trusty piercing, I am still cultivating my sexual self by other means. The promise to get some lives on! It just adapts to circumstance.

Playlists

The emotional peaks and valleys of this semester have been uncommonly extreme. On the one hand, I have taken another, exciting step towards achieving my goal of writing creative non-fiction for wider audiences. The wonderful people at The Hairpin published an essay that I wrote about 90’s roller rinks, nostalgia, and teenage sexual awakening (You can check it out here: http://thehairpin.com/2014/04/fantasy-on-wheels-my-roller-rink-sexual-awakening). This in and of itself was a tremendous honor, not to mention a thrill; I love The Hairpin and very much believe in their goal of promoting woman-centered writing. Then, at the end of the same week, as I absent-mindedly perused my Twitter feed, I found that The Paris Review had highlighted the piece. Talk about a compliment – I very nearly vomited in appreciation (Is there such a thing as glee-vomiting? One of these days I might make it so – unwillingly, mind you). And in the meantime, people have shared such wonderful memories with me. The gift economy of writing is both so enriching and fulfilling. I want to spend my life swapping stories and ideas with people through every available venue, and I am committed to doing exactly that.

And yet, it has been in other ways a very humbling and frustrating semester. Not everything has gone as I would have hoped–not even close–and I have had to grapple with several disappointments. Such is life. In the midst of one rough patch, I was feeling particularly in need of a little sonic morale boost. So with the help of some friends, I compiled a “graduate student empowerment” playlist. It is available on Spotify, and because I had so much wonderful input from other folks, I feel quite comfortable saying that the playlist kicks ass. Whether or not you are a graduate student, I highly recommend that you give it a listen (you can blame me for all of the Robyn).

A couple of weeks after making this playlist, I read a wonderful essay by Buzzfeed writer Summer Anne Burton, entitled “The Fine Art of Mixtape Seduction” (http://www.buzzfeed.com/summeranne/crush-mixtapes). Mind you, I am no slick fox, so I have never performed my own seductions via mixtape – or via any other means, for that matter. I have always loved a good music mix, though. And in middle school, high school, and college, I made a number of them for my friends. In high school, my mixtapes always included track listings with detailed rationales for each of my selections. The rationale was always a mélange of autobiography, pseudo-philosophical musing, and “isn’t this song just, like, the best?!” Moreover, the process of compiling the mixtape’s content was itself a craft. One could not record the songs willy-nilly; order was crucial. Putting “Both Hands” (with the orchestral accompaniment, of course) after “Bullets With Butterfly Wings” would have been a grave mixtape transgression, as would including too many songs by the same artist. Any music snob worth her salt knows that she must represent her taste as both refined and varied.

I have always turned to music for emotional sustenance, and this semester, with its many ups and downs, has certainly been no exception. Between putting together the Graduate Student Empowerment mix and reading Burton’s fantastic piece, I have also been reminiscing about my music mixing days and the track listings that probably took me as long to compose as any English paper. I thought, for the heck of it, that I might revisit this exercise and put together a “mix” of the first ten songs that came to mind – ones strongly tied to specific memories. Lately my students and I have been thinking a great deal about biographies and memoirs–we just finished Audre Lorde’s Zami–and so we have had many conversations about how we remember and revise our histories, not to mention the associations that provoke or accompany memories. Often the memories that cling most tenaciously or perpetually resurface cannot be arranged into a cohesive narrative. So, what I am saying is that seventeen-year-old Rachel would probably sneer at this playlist. But I will ignore her pretentiousness and sally forth.

1. “Time Ago” by Black Lab: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kI_Y4hgsXYY

When I first heard this song, I was eleven years old, sitting underneath the window in my bedroom with my portable CD player in front of me. Immediately after, I concluded that it was the sexiest song I had ever heard. I had recognized “sexy” as an adjective since I was maybe nine. As an eleven year old awash in a complex web of new feelings, I all of a sudden realized that certain things, certain people, were sexy to me. Still, I could not quite articulate what that meant. I looked primarily to music and movies to cultivate my understanding of the term, and so I learned the following: 1. Having sex outside was sexy. 2. Having sex in a car was also sexy, especially if said car did not belong to you (ah, Titanic, the dreamscapes you inspired). Black Lab wooed me with the lyrics “All by ourselves we made love under the sleeping, moonless night,” because, as you will observe, they refer to bumping uglies in the outdoors (possibly on the hood of a car!), and THAT is sexy. But I was also a sucker for any song that articulated a man’s pained and nostalgic longing for a woman. I wanted to be that woman for somebody and was fearful that I never would be. And so, each time the local DJ fulfilled my wish and played this hyperbolically earnest one hit wonder, I would imagine it as the soundtrack to my first tryst with whoever I fancied that term.

2. “I Would Do Anything For Love” by Meatloaf: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iOikQWAL8qc

One night, during our sophomore year, plagued by too many English papers, midterms, and theatre rehearsals, my friend Kellyn and I–roommates at the time–determined that there was only one way to mitigate our collective stress. We sought out Meatloaf in Kellyn’s iTunes library, turned the volume up as high as our RA would permit, and treated the rest of the floor to our vocal stylings. We stood defiantly, if precariously, on our wobbly desk chairs, hairbrushes clutched in our hands (microphones, you see). Within a few minutes, our neighbor Sarah LeCates rushed in to join us (we shared a hairbrush). While we were both quite friendly with Sarah, we were not close friends. But we shared a fleeting intimacy that night, even if our impromptu karaoke did not significantly change the nature of our friendship. The next year, Sarah left campus to study abroad in Senegal. Before returning to the States, she fell ill and died shortly thereafter. My sadness, while profound, could not be the same as the sorrow felt by those close to her – and, being a warm, vibrant person, she had many dear friends. But I never hear a note of this song without thinking of her.

3. “Jackie’s Strength” by Tori Amos: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C7WET8khBc4 

If I were a Tori Amos song, I would be “Jackie’s Strength” – at least according to the Buzzfeed quizmeisters. Apparently this has something to do with my penchant for the dramatic, so clearly their algorithm failed. Truly, though, I could not help but feel a bit of pleasure with my result. This song became my lullaby in eighth grade, its ethereal chorus engulfing me, forming what felt like a protective shell around my vulnerable, insecurities-riddled body. At school it would often play in my head, materializing into armor just beneath my skin and guarding me against the harsh social climate of my middle school. And it was there when I could not be brave – when I lay on my bed, staring at the ceiling, wishing that I could be anyone or anything but what I was.

4. “I Will” by The Beatles: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rx_APcTyIUg

At the reception following my first wedding, two of my ex-husband’s relatives sang this song, accompanied by another one of his relatives on guitar. It was a beautiful tribute to what I thought at the time would be a long marriage. For a couple of years following our divorce, I could not listen to this song without pangs of guilt and an acute sense of shame. Hell, sometimes I would listen to it as a form of self-punishment. Now the song conjures a fraught mix of associations: Paul, my ex-husband, the family of which I was once a part, my second wedding, steadily approaching on June 7. I can accept the joy with the pain now – and that is all I can do. I do not expect that this is an association that will ever weaken.

5. “Shake it Out” by Florence + the Machine: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WbN0nX61rIs

Oh Florence, you Pre-Raphaelite goddess. You do you, always.

No word play will make my connection to this song less hokey, but the associations are significant to me. I listened to this song as I walked from Paul’s house on my way to the bus stop one morning (and then many mornings, afternoons, and evenings after that). We had been dating for several months, but I was still licking my wounds from the previous, hellish year, when I both married and separated. Unsurprisingly I was particularly affected by the lyrics, “…it’s hard to dance with the devil on your back, so shake him off.”  I wish I could say that Florence’s wisdom healed me on the spot. Of course it didn’t, though it did make it into many a Facebook status message. Yet it reminded me that I had a right to be in love with Paul and to embrace all of the accompanying feelings. I am pretty sure that I sent him a stupidly cheesy text message before the song ended.

6. “Jumper” by Third Eye Blind: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lObgLdtXYpU

“Rachel, I wanna listen to the song where he goes ‘Yiyiyiyiyow,'” said my youngest sister, then in pre-school, many, many times.

I readily obliged, for reasons she did not know.

7. “The Freshman” by The Verve Pipe: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1umEXpGHc0E

I spent over four years desperately in love with a guy who did not love me. He and his friends, all freshly-minted high school graduates, had formed a band years ago and were spending the summer before college playing coffee house gigs. Those gigs were the place to be that summer, and I, a rising junior who did not yet have her license, frantically sought out a ride to each one. When my job as a grocery market cashier prevented attendance, I felt deeply bereft. My crush’s band would often cover this song – and well, I might add. Perhaps it was the explicit connection to high school, the song’s hyper-solemnity, or some combination of the two, I don’t know. But this song, more than all of the others on their set list, reminded me that my crush, the frontman, was moving on to the greener pastures of collegiate life. And no matter what Wet Seal halter top I wore to his shows, he would not return my affection the way I wanted him to.

8. “Dancing On My Own” by Robyn: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CcNo07Xp8aQ

Throwing punches alone in my apartment, attempting to channel everything I imagine Robyn to be, I would dance until I broke a sweat. Desolate and guilty, this song fortified the backbone that enabled me to leave my marriage.

9. “Stand Inside Your Love” by Smashing Pumpkins: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2nm4xv3firw

A Pumpkins devotee since age ten, I could not wait to share every last one of their songs with Paul. Predictably enough, we began with “Tonight, Tonight” (I probably join the population of a small country when I say that this is one of my favorite songs). After the preliminaries, I thought I would woo my beau with one of their more traditional love songs. Barely thirty seconds in, Paul nervously caught my attention–I was, of course, in raptures–and said, “Umm, could we maybe turn this off?” Believe it or not, not everybody enjoys Billy Corgan’s voice (I know, right?). In fact, some find it downright intolerable. Much to my horror, I learned that night that Paul is one of these people. I briefly reconsidered our relationship, but thought that one offense, however grave, was not sufficient reason to call it off.

10. “Portions for Foxes” by Rilo Kiley: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qtNV3pOqcjI

Writing this blog post has made me aware of my apparent affinity for red-headed ladies who sing. And each time I hear this song–or any that they played at their show, really–I can only dwell on the exquisiteness of Jenny Lewis and just how badly I want to braid her silky hair.

Your guess is as good as mine as to how these songs would sound played in succession. I’m curious to see for myself. And because I decided to write about the first ten songs/memories that occurred to me, it is interesting now to think of the bands and songs that did not make it onto the playlist. For instance, the absence of Radiohead, Arcade Fire, and The National feels conspicuous. Surely I have memories that I associate with them, and I know the image-conscious bones in my body tingled as I realized that those bands would not make the (albeit self-imposed) cut. But this was an experiment rather than an attempt to establish myself as the keenest of music aficionados. Seventeen-year-old Rachel will just have to eat that.

Body Parts

It is a hideously dreary weekend, and I am thinking about my body.

I love bodies. I love the myriad of ways they register the world, their exquisite vulnerabilities. I love the beauty created by bodies. I love to think about these things.

And, for the most part, I love to be aware of my own body. Perhaps I should turn that sentence around: I love to be aware of most parts of my body.

A few weeks ago, I visited my student health center for a check-up. First things first, blood pressure and weight. As I stepped onto the scale, I celebrated the small convenience of being able to keep on my shoes (this almost never happens). Then, I waited as the nurse pushed the metal arrows to the right and left. She kept pushing to the right. Further to the right always means fatter.

As I waited for the nurse practitioner to call me into an examination room, I fretted over the number the first nurse had recorded. I don’t own a scale, and I don’t remember whether this year’s number is larger than the one from last year. I am vaguely aware that, whatever the number, I would not be satisfied.

Finally I am summoned, and I head to one of the dingy, dinky little rooms to meet with the nurse practitioner. I ask her about my weight, and she squints at the computer. “Oh,” she says. “Mmm.”

Shit.

She turns to me with a look of pity that would seem more suitable if she were about to issue a cancer diagnosis. According to the hallowed and revered BMI index, I have edged into the “overweight zone.” “It’s not that you have a weight PROBLEM,” she assures me. “You’re just overweight.”

I sit with this information for a moment and am silent. The nurse wants to be helpful. “Would you like to make an appointment with a nutrition counselor?” she asks, eagerly handing me brochures. I feign appreciation and stuff the brochures in my bag. I go home. I curl up in bed, cry, and feel like a wad of wet dough. Later that night, I realize that I am actually fortunate because I am twenty-eight, and this is the first time–to my knowledge–that I have ever been identified by someone as “overweight.”

I don’t care what percentage of people would agree with that nurse practitioner – or rather, with the BMI chart upon which she based her own assessment. I only know that I hate how we make each other feel about our bodies – how we inhibit each other’s ability to love our flesh. And I’m sick of women being made to feel as if we take up too much space. We diminish ourselves in the name of Health. Really, we are only performing expectations that are utter impossibilities.

This week a friend drew my attention to the “No Makeup Selfie” campaign that has been making the rounds on social media. She participated and asked me to do the same. I had just changed my Facebook profile picture to one of the only close ups of my face that I do not hate. The friend who took the picture is a professional photographer, and I sure as hell am wearing makeup. I have begun to pride myself on my creativity in the cosmetic arts and tell myself that I am finding new ways to “enhance” my facial features. This is probably mostly bullshit.

I support my friend for participating in the campaign and tell her she looks beautiful because she does and she is. But for a few days, I refrain, cowardly. One evening I take a photo of myself without makeup, but think that posting it publicly would make me nauseous. The next morning I try again. Without looking too hard at the picture, I post it to Facebook.

I hate that photo of me so much that I can hardly bear the sight of it. I endure it only to respond to the comments of wonderful friends who say supportive, kind things. But I’m still glad that I took the photo, and that it is there. I think it is good for me to sit with the discomfort of having broadcasted an image of myself unadorned. Still, I don’t know that I could do it again.

Today I am feeling the heaviness that comes of a weekend spent eating appetizers at a conference (free food means not paying for groceries, after all). I will go to the gym tomorrow morning and tell myself that the most important reason for doing so is to “feel good.” Really, I want to be in shape when my family sees me in my wedding dress in June. I don’t want my body to take up too much space when I walk down the aisle. I’m doing this for all of the wrong reasons, but I keep hoping that will change.

I keep hoping that the next time I have the energy to write about my feminist politics, that the energy will derive from a better ability to separate myself from gendered social expectations. Today is not one of those days, but it will come. I am determined for it to come.