A coquettish Maria de Medeiros, playing the moll in Pulp Fiction, lounges in bed, practically purring with a self-assured, lazy sensuality. Sleepily, she fantasises about having a potbelly, how she would accentuate it with small tees and how very sexy one is (but only, and she is vehement – and here I must respectfully disagree – on women). She praises the potbelly, while conceding its unfair reputation: “I don’t give a damn what men find attractive. It’s unfortunate what we find pleasing to the touch and pleasing to the eye is seldom the same.”
Who knows when the rounded belly began to be regarded as anything less glorious than the other womanly curves. The classical poets adored it; the sculptors chiseled its softness in stone. Among the customary markers of beauty were the three folds of the stomach – which inspired lines in religious and erotic literature. The paragon waist was tiny in comparison to the generousness of the breasts and hips, but the tummy itself ample of its own accord. The Lalita Sahasranamam, for example, extols not only the contours of such a stomach (Sthana bhara dalan madhya patta bhandha valithraya – “she who has three stripes in her belly which appear to have been created to protect her tiny waist from her heavy breasts”), but even the down that grows upon it (Lakshya roma latha dharatha samunneya madhayama – “she who is suspected to have a waist because of the creeper-like hairs rising from there”).
There are beautiful names, too, for this hair of the stomach, which runs from pubis to navel, and sometimes from navel to solar plexus: take the Sanskrit romaraji, and the Latin linea nigra.
How intriguing that such loveliness is ascribed in language for things which, in the pursuit of perceived hygiene or fitness, so many shun.
Only some women have the linea nigra naturally – but almost all women develop it during pregnancy, when the protuberant belly is celebrated most of all. Baby bumps contain miracles: among all the numinous places in the body, the abdomen announces most evidently of all that there is no meaningful distinction between science and mystery.
And as a reminder of this, we have that lovely vestigial mark: the navel.
The navel is our original point of connection to anyone else. Within the lovely convex bellies of our mothers, the umbilical conduit does its work, nourishing, expelling and making us whole. Our belly-buttons are almost our first mouths, allowing us to communicate and feed.
And like mouths, later on, how kissable they become. Prudence Glynn, who researched eroticism and fashion, wrote that the waist is the first place that a man would touch on a woman when seeking to insinuate “more than a formal courtesy”. If the waist is a suggestion, the navel is sheer invitation. Widely regarded as one of the standard erogenous zones, and said to originate from the same common tissue as the genitalia, its exposure is considered taboo in many cultures – sometimes surprisingly so. The belly-button was considered so provocative for most of the 20th century in America that there was an actual law banning its display on cinema. There is a scene in Some Like It Hot in which Marilyn Monroe wears a dress that leaves very little to the imagination – despite this, a small piece of cloth was used to cover her navel specifically. In other films, costume designers glued decorative stones into or onto the navels of actors and dancers – perhaps the first spark of the later trend for the bejeweled belly-button.
Here in India, the partially (as when wearing a sari) or completely (as when wearing certain regional ghagra cholis) bared midriff has rarely caused ruffles, provided it is displayed in traditional attire. The female navel, however, has had its moments of both subtlety and scandal. In that odd way in which Indian cinema is a vehicle of both exploitation and expression, navel-kissing was permissive on celluloid at a time when lip-kissing was not (censorship laws later changed). One thing’s for sure: the navel is seen as sexual in ways in which the tummy, the obliques and even the waist quite aren’t.
It’s also spiritual. In Amerindian shamanism, below the navel is where energetic cords that bind us to other people, particularly lovers, emerge. In yoga and other systems of mind-body harmony, it is a particularly powerful point. To “navel-gaze” is to ponder, perhaps philosophically – not for nothing did St. Thomas Aquinas call the navel “the bodily metaphor for spiritual things”.
The stomach, on the whole, is is also regarded as the site of intuition – “I have a gut feeling”, we say – or profound emotion – “When he said that, I burned from the bottom of my belly”.
The stomach is also happily practical, of course. A full breath, one that will replenish the entire system, reaches all the way down to the stomach and puffs it up. When it comes to food, taste resides in the mouth, but hunger – desire – is felt in the belly. An aching belly, groaning and beset by pangs. Eating keeps us alive – not the act itself, as pleasurable as it is, but the process of nourishing, work that takes places deep within the body and out of sight.
And how lovely is the thing in sight. Earlier, we considered how traditionally, folds of flesh, “lines”, on the stomach were markers of beauty. Equally eloquent are all the other lines and marks that also occur here. There are, for instance, the stretch marks of growth and weight loss, and the scars of Caesarean sections and appendix operations and botched piercings.Like the palms or the face, the belly is also a canvas of skin, on which stories from our lives present themselves – stories of feast and famine, stories of self-denial and self-sacrifice, stories of birthing and wrenching, stories of coveting and covering-up. Of pain and pleasure, truth and beauty, creation and craving and a hundred other things that go far beyond the objectified view.