Apparently around 30% of children of African descent are born with an umbilical hernia. I was one of that 30%. I was born with a large umbilical hernia that made my stomach protrude around the belly button. I remember my younger sister and cousin also had umbilical hernia’s (although not as large as mine) and it was never something that was pointed out to me as abnormal. When I was 5 my family moved to England. I started school in small suburban elementary school where I was the only black student. I had also recently immigrated so did not speak English well. As this dark skinned, African child with limited communication skills, I stuck out like a sore thumb. I didn’t fit in. Children accept what they know and the children did not know what to make of me. My peers at that school noticed the hernia. It bulged through my clothes and they would point at it and comment on it. And then when I took my clothes off in the changing rooms for physical education, my peers would laugh. They would point at my stomach and say how strange it was. It wasn’t like theirs. It was different. It was weird. It was ugly. I took their words and I carried it with me. I carried it with me for years. And I grew to hate the hernia. I began to hate all the things that made me different. I wanted to be like them because to me, that is what it would take to be accepted.
I had surgery on the hernia when I was 6 years old. The surgery was 100% motivated by the bullying. My mum tells me it had become so bad that I refused to change in front of anyone, including herself. She didn’t want me to be affected by the bullying so she thought if the hernia was fixed my mental health would not suffer. To be honest, to this day I don’t know what they did during the surgery. But I remember it was painful. I remember the pain every time the dressing was changed. I remember having the stitches pulled out with no medication because my parents did not want me to be put under general anesthetic for a second time. I remember my stomach healing and being left with no belly button, a scar in it’s place, and a hernia above my belly button. And I remember hating it. It was all for nothing. I was still ugly. Even more now in fact, because I had new scars to add to the old flaws.
“I think you have body dysmorphia” my friend told me during a conversation. “You’re ripped but you don’t see it. All you see is your stomach.” Maybe I do have body dysmorphia, I told her. I have spent 33 years looking at that hernia. I have spent over 25 years hating that hernia and my eyes and mind are so in tune with it, if it is visible in a picture, it is the only thing I see. The funny thing is, I’ve made posts and received so many comments about how others barely notice it, it makes me consider how much time I’ve obsessed over it and how I’ve let it define my whole existence.
Why don’t you get surgery on the hernia?
It’s a question I’ve been asked time and time again. It is asymptomatic meaning it has never caused me any pain or discomfort. It has never compromised my ability to do anything. My only issue with it has always been how it looks. And my hating how it looks is something I was taught. If I can learn to hate my body, then perhaps I can learn to love it too.
A few years ago I spoke to a role model of mine about entering a bikini competition. She basically told me that if I wanted to I should go in with the understating that I would never win because my belly would never be as beautiful as the other competitors. I once had a discussion with a woman about surgery for diastasis recti. When she had exhausted all her reasons for me getting surgery she commented that her belly looked better after 4 months of surgery than mine looked after 4 years of rehab. I feel like it’s been a repetitive message in my life that I am less because of the hernia, whether I was hearing it from others or telling it to myself. But now I choose not to believe it anymore. I am enough despite my flaws. There will always be something. I grew up idolizing Marilyn Monroe. Even if I could make the hernia not apparent, it would not make me a blonde haired, blued eyed, light skinned bombshell. There will always be people that don’t like me because I am black. There will always be people that think the hernia is ugly, There will always be things that make me standout. There will always be things you are insecure about and fixing one thing may just highlight another. Fixing the hernia didn’t make me confident. I’m not sure it would’ve made a difference even if it worked because I was different. I would’ve still been different. I had to learn to stop fighting “different”. You can never move forward when you are in a constant state of warfare. I’ve been at war with my body for a long time and it is time I laid down my weapons.
I hated the hernia because the voices around me taught me to hate the hernia. Their immaturity taught them only to accept what they understood, to only embrace what they knew, to love what they were conditioned to love. And many adults still live in that immaturity. Beauty is perception and we have been conditioned into this ideal of beauty that most people will never achieve. Capitalism is built on our insecurities. If you feel you are lacking something you will spend money to get it. If you always believe you are ugly you will spend money to chase beauty. A secure and confident person does make a good customer.
My stubbornness comes from experiencing what it means to hate my body. It hasn’t worked for me. So at this point in my life, I want to try to learn what it means to love it. Hating it has led to so much unhappiness. I am thankful for the diastasis recti because it changed my focus. Having my body fall apart was the first time I focused on what it did rather than what it looked like. When my body worked I took it for granted and hated it because it didn’t look like what I thought it should look like. But when it stopped working, when my back hurt and my bladder leaked and my abs bulged, I missed that herniated body that supported me. That body that did what it was supposed to. As my body started to heal I gained a new appreciation for it. This body has supported me even when I have not supported it. It has adapted with this hernia, it has carried three full term pregnancies, it has weakened and it has recovered.
I look at images on social media of so many postpartum bodies. Unless you are ripped and defined with no excess skin, no excess fat, no cellulite and no visible scars there is so much shame around it. We have been conditioned to believe beauty looks one way. We are imprisoned in a cycle of not feeling worthy and we keep searching for that thing to make us whole. I choose to break the cycle in my life. I choose to see beauty beyond my flaws, and I choose to love my body as it is not as I think it should be. From this place I am empowered.
What experience has also taught me that you will never feel like you are enough until you start believing you already are. Hating your body is not an issue of aesthetics it is a battle of mental health. Exercise is powerful not because it changes your body but because it changes your mindset. Focusing on what you perceive to be your weakness will always make you feel weak. Learning your strengths makes you feel powerful. And finding your power is the only way to break the bondage you are in.
Side note: 90% of umbilical hernias from childhood will close by the time the child is 3 but in the case of larger hernias it can take up to 11 years. I had my surgery when I was 6 years old. I often wonder if, had it been left alone, it would’ve healed on its own. I believe the surgery changed the way my body healed.