“You wish you had a pretty tummy like me!” My grandmother sassed in her thick Jamaican accent as she lifted her worn t-shirt and patted her stomach: round, smooth, and undeniably a bit chubby. I was just 13 at the time and my grandma was trying to make me laugh, yet she meant every word.
In their youth, my mother and grandmother looked as I do now: 5'7", 124 lbs. But like clockwork, in their late 20s they each developed their “pretty tummy” — a disproportionately large, yet soft fat deposit around the midsection, which often elicited the dreaded question: “Are you pregnant?”
This fate, which seems to be an inevitable one for the women in my family, might have something to do with genetics. But as I’ve grown older, I’ve found that the “pretty tummy” can also be attributed to more than the ticking of our biological clocks. The women in my family's life stories give the phenomenon a much deeper meaning. Like the graying of hair, the “pretty tummy” can be covered up; but given where we've come from, it is a sign of maturity and progress, traits the women in my family regard with pride.
Born in the rural parish of Westmoreland, Jamaica, my grandmother and her many siblings grew up in conditions that most Americans (myself included) would balk at. My grandmother learned to take care of herself without running water, electricity, or any type of excess at a young age. In her early adolescence, she was adopted by an aunt who lived in the Kingston neighborhood of Harbour View. My grandmother went to school until the eighth grade, then eventually began studying to become a cosmetologist. Though life in the city was not easy, it was much better than where she had come from: The move from rural to urban brought Grandma from below the global poverty line into Jamaica’s vibrant lower-middle class. This transition meant that, for the first time in her life, Grandma had the guarantee of three square meals a day. Just getting by felt like living in the lap of luxury. She eventually moved out of her aunt’s house and started a family of her own. As her “pretty tummy” grew, she raised three children by herself and always kept the household in order.
My mother attended the University of the West Indies as a first-generation college student, where she earned both bachelor's and master's degrees in chemistry. While in school, she met my father at a volleyball game. The son of two high-ranking political officials, my father had a childhood very different from my mother’s. Dad grew up with a chef, a maid, and an intimate connection to the upper echelons of Jamaican high society. After completing college and marrying my mother, he wanted to immigrate to America not only to pursue a career in the dot-com bubble, but also because staying in Jamaica just felt too easy.
Immigrating meant so much more than that to my mom, though: She came here for me. Though I could have gotten a good education in Jamaica, amenities like ballet lessons and public libraries are few and far between on the island. Moving from Jamaica to America took my mother from the world of fresh seafood and tropical fruit to the land of burgers, fries, and super-size. When her life changed, her diet did, too. As her “pretty tummy” grew, she taught me how to read and made me the woman I am today.
“You’re too skinny,” my mother says when I skip breakfast in favor of a KIND Bar.
“You’re too skinny,” my mother says when I fit into an XS shirt at Urban Outfitters.
“You’re too skinny,” my mother says when she spots my collarbones peeking out above my chest.
“You’re too skinny,” my mother says at least once a day.
And maybe she’s right. I know that I should probably eat a cheeseburger every once in a while and try to gain a few pounds. But, for the time being, my mother and I have both accepted that this is my natural body shape. As the years roll by, I might lose this slender physique and develop my pretty tummy. Yet, I can’t help but think that maybe my body and I have reached an impasse.
My grandmother worked hard so that her family could have fish and plantains. My mother left her home behind so that I could have pizza and cupcakes. Now I am attending an incredible university, pulling all-nighters in a vain attempt to achieve straight As, and obsessively updating my LinkedIn profile. What will all of this mean for my children? Kale chips and avocado toast? Maybe the “pretty tummy” will end with me.
With initial prosperity comes the ability to eat. With true stability comes the privilege of eating healthily. Facing food insecurity is a misfortune that was buried in my family’s history decades ago, and now, as a comfortable member of the American upper-middle class, the only question I regularly ask about food is, “Does this have gluten in it?” While my grandmother could seldom afford bread, I spend $5 on a pint of dairy-free Ben and Jerry’s without thinking twice. Furthermore, lately, my mother’s “pretty tummy” has been disappearing. With the extra time she has on her hands as an empty-nester, she has thrown her energy into Jazzercize (the often satirized group fitness dance class) and has begun to lose weight. On top of this, my millennial health obsession has rubbed off on her. A woman who grew up eating spaghetti made with ketchup now enjoys chia seeds and frequents Trader Joe’s.
For all intents and purposes, my family has “made it.” But as I look to the future, I cannot forget where we came from. It’s important to remember the “pretty tummy” for the same reason that it’s important not to laugh when my grandmother asks me how to spell “occasion.” It’s important for the same reason that it’s unkind to point out to my mother that Sarah and Sierra — indistinguishable in her Jamaican accent — are actually pronounced differently. It is important because the “pretty tummy” once symbolized progress, hope, and social mobility. It was a sign that we escaped poverty and a reminder that there is always room for improvement. Though I doubt that I will develop a pretty tummy, if that day comes, I hope that I will have earned it.
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