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Challenge Quest

All my life, I have hated my belly. I got it from my mother. She got hers from her mother, Meme, who counseled us to stand up straight and suck them in. The Worley women have passed the poochy tummy down the generations like a Jell-O mold. The thick, rubbery kind you would find at a yard sale, late in the selling day.

I don’t like the word "belly" either. Or "belly" phrases. Like beer belly, jelly belly or pot belly. I do like pot-bellied pigs, however. I make that exception because they’re so ugly, they’re cute.

My least favorite belly phrase: belly dancing. I hear it, and I see a host of middle-aged stomachs—shuddering, pale and cottage-cheesian. So I sign up for a belly dancing class. (Hint: Don’t ever write a personal challenge column.)

Before I go, I phone Jenny Craig. Not the diet industry mogul. Another Jenny Craig. A body image expert who lives in Southwest Florida and tries to be a role model for women. One year, at the beginning of swimsuit season, she found herself in a dressing room where women were trying on suits. They were moaning about their hips, their thighs, their butts, their arms, as their young daughters looked on. Craig grabbed a bikini from the rack, put it on, stepped in front of the mirror and said, "Oh, my God. I look fabulous!"

I ask Craig if she can make me love my belly, quickly, between now and tomorrow’s class. "I can certainly try," she says. "What’s your favorite thing that you’ve ever done?"

The question surprises me, and it takes me a while to answer. Finally, I remember jumping on a trampoline when I was 11.

"Were you worried about your belly?" she asks.
"Of course not," she says. "You can’t have fun and think about your belly."
What really matters about us is our passion and our gifts, she says. Obsessing about our bellies, our thighs, our anything, just gets in the way. "If you’re not figuring out what’s beautiful about why you’re here in the world, we’ve got problems," she says.

Words to live by. They inspire me, but I still don’t want to belly dance. I drive to Études de Ballet in north Naples and sit in the parking lot for several minutes, feeling shy. No doubt, most of the women in the class will be beautiful and graceful and flowing and rhythmic.

A Cadillac Escalade pulls up, and a woman gets out. There’s her belly—substantial and bare for all to see. She wears a crushed-velvet halter top and a multicolored skirt with coins that jingle like faint sleigh bells as she walks.

In the dance studio, there are a dozen of us, waiting for class to start. We’re a motley assortment of womanhood. Fat, thin, tall and short. There is an elderly woman in a girlish jumper. Next to her are four 20-somethings, sleek and obviously close friends. They wear fashionable workout pants and body-skimming tanks. Other than them, few of us in the room would be considered beautiful by most standards.

Like the Escalade woman, everyone is wearing a coin scarf around her hips. These are turquoise, rose and vermillion, and they glitter with a hundred discs that swing in perfect rows and catch the light. I want one.

To the jingling woman next to me, I blurt out that I’m here because I can’t stand my belly. "Forget about it," she says and laughs. "When I dance, I look like one of those cartoon hippos in Fantasia. But you know what my boyfriend says when I say that?"
"He tells me, ‘Those hippos are pretty cute.’" Now there’s a good man.

The teacher, Sherry Coffey, takes her place at the front of the room. Her belly is not flat. Like mine, it protrudes. But she flaunts hers with a light-gray halter and a low-slung, gauzy skirt.

Sitar music comes through the studio speakers. And drums. It’s music for cobras rising from baskets to sway for turbaned snake charmers living in dusty lands. We stretch, and then Coffey leads us through a series of exercises that isolate parts of the body. We move our rib cages to the left, to the front, to the right, and then back. We practice these four positions and then smooth them into continuous circles. It feels good and sensual. As long as I don’t look in the mirror at the gawky girl who is me.

All of us are in pretty much the same boat. No one is particularly accomplished, except for the teacher. But we’re having fun.

Next, we move only our hips—side to side and then in slow rotation, and then we snap them suddenly to the right. I feel the ache from a cycling accident I had at 26. And the coccyx I shattered at 17 when I slid down a steep gully and slammed into a tree stump.

"Shimmy, shimmy, snap," Coffey says. When we snap, every coin on every scarf swings and sparkles and then comes to rest. It’s bewitching.

I decide to take these classes until I feel I have earned one of those beautiful scarves. I could buy one tonight, actually. They’re for sale in a plastic bin. But this is only my first class. I would feel silly.

Coffey teaches us a short routine, and then we add finger cymbals, chinging out a rhythm of threes and sevens while we shimmy and undulate. Then it’s over. I’m glad I went. Jenny Craig had predicted that I would be.

"Think of all the women who don’t do things because they’re self-conscious about their bodies," she says. "How much are they missing?"

There is this idea of beauty that most of us carry around. We use it as a lens, and we think it’s real. But then there is beauty itself, which is much bigger and doesn’t adhere to a standard. It shows up when we aren’t looking for it. In other words, you are at your most beautiful when you aren’t trying to be beautiful.

Back in my car, I head for home. As I round the clover leaf and merge onto I-75, I counsel myself grandly: To hell with flat bellies. Stop sucking yours in, and breathe deeply instead. Try to remain permanently passionate. Celebrate. And then celebrate some more. Get caught up in living so much it makes you ache. And, for God’s sake, woman, buy yourself a velvet halter top and a scarf festooned with coins.

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