Navel Gazing by Emily Cluff

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statues of adam and eve in garden, holding an apple between them, belly buttons showing

I have recently been accused of navel gazing. Not me specifically, but rather humanities majors in general. The jab was meant, of course, to be mildly insulting, to imply that we are self-absorbed, unaware, caught up in our own useless thoughts, but I found myself completely tickled at the image of my tall, dignified rhetoric professor bent over double in his office, trying to thoroughly examine the small indent in his middle, or a roomful of my classmates maneuvering ridiculously in their desks, trying to determine who has the deepest innie or the most absurd outie.

I have never really gazed at my own navel, at least not as far as I can recall. I’ve certainly caught glimpses of it from time to time, but to really gaze is another thing entirely. As not only a humanities major but an essayist, I feel a bit remiss in my duties. Perhaps the more honest accusation would be that I haven’t done enough navel gazing. After all, isn’t it the job of an essayist to gaze, to ponder, to explore even the most trivial of subjects?

Consider this my repentance then.

The first thing I notice is shape. While some have long or wide or slightly distorted buttons, mine is almost a perfect circle. My second observation is that it is without question an innie. It’s not absurdly deep–a friend of mine claims an ability to shove a whole finger in her belly button, while mine doesn’t quite cover up to the first knuckle. The hole is, however, deep enough to hide the small x of skin that resides in its middle–tied together like the knot of a seamstress’s final stitch, binding the thin covering of skin tightly together.

With only the occasional rare exception, all placental mammals share this souvenir of creation and birth. Age, gender, race, and species aside, each of us is tied up and held together by one little button. I’ve always considered it a ubiquitous feature of the human body, though I’m quickly learning that there are many people far more concerned with the differences between buttons than any similarities. In terms of attractiveness, a kind team of researchers has gone to the trouble of finding the ideal belly button (Well, the ideal female belly button; thus far no one has cared enough to create a hierarchy of male navels). These researchers showed pictures of belly buttons to a panel of fifteen men and six women to gauge their attractiveness. One hundred and forty seven belly buttons later, it was definitively determined that horizontal navels are quite simply ugly, and the perfect navel is a vertical or T-shaped umbilicus with superior hooding. I would guess that most of you likely just found out that your navel is sub-par.

Before you start cursing your doctor or nurse or terrified young father for cutting your umbilical cord in the wrong place and dooming you to a lifetime of navel inferiority, you should know that you only have yourself to blame. The very first few cells that eventually formed YOU realized they wouldn’t make it very far on their own, so they pushed out in a kind of crude body stalk, searching for help, for nourishment. This stalk eventually reached the placenta, a willing source of life-giving help, and with its support, those cells could finish growing your body. But in the creation of that first probing stalk, that first primitive cry for help, your navel shape was already determined.

Not to worry though–for those not blessed with a naturally perfect navel, help is available. For the low price of $2,000 (though it can get up to $7,500 if you really want quality), an umbilicoplastician will shove your outie into an innie, tighten your horizontal spread into a vertical chasm, and add a little hooding at the top for optimal attractiveness. Don’t worry, these surgeons perform thousands of surgeries per year for those in search of the ideal umbilicus, and reviewers at rate the procedure as 100% WORTH IT.

I wonder about the ramifications of a major navel change. You see, any number of internet sources are willing to tell me what my button type says about me. Apparently, my belly button defines both my personality and fate, and I’m not sure that I’m willing to mess with that. Writers at The Sun classify mine as a deep and round navel. This is indicative of a modest, even-tempered person with a big heart and a quiet, shy personality who doesn’t tell others about her misfortunes. Even more helpful, I no longer need to worry about how much life I have left. My life expectancy is 81 years. This seems far preferable to an oval belly button, which dooms you to death at 65 (apparently, optimal attractiveness and optimal life span are at odds in the navel realm–consider that before signing up for your umbilicoplasty). Interestingly, agrees with The Sun’s personality assessment, which suggests a certain legitimacy, or at least a coordination between fellow belly button soothsayers. further supports these claims, although they add that owners of the big and deep belly buttons are experts in “man management.” My pathetic dating history suggests otherwise, but who am I to argue with my navel?

Internet sites hoping to attract readers aren’t the first to place stock in the appearance of the belly button. The ancient Chinese believed that your navel could predict good fortune if it was concave, or ill-luck if it was protruding. The depth of the navel corresponded with the number of children a woman would bear throughout her life, and the shape of her navel while pregnant could predict the sex of her baby. Ancient Japanese parents dreaded their child being born with a downward-facing navel, as that was a sure sign of a weakling child who would bring the parents much woe. There is still today a whole branch of divination known as omphalomancy. Practitioners believe that in this first, lasting reminder of birth, your entire fate can be read.

The navel has particular importance in Chinese acupuncture. It is referred to as the Spirit Gate–the place where we received life from our mother. They say it is here that our energy centers, and at this energy center life is given, it is sustained, and it may be taken away.

Whether you believe in acupuncture or not, the belly button truly is a center of life. A group of researchers at the Belly Button Biodiversity project have been doing some navel gazing of their own, and they’ve declared the belly button to host a terrible, yawning richness of life. The average button hosts 50 or more species of bacteria. That little hole in your middle is a veritable zoo of life forms. A chemist named Christina Agapakis was fascinated by the diverse microbial landscape–so fascinated, in fact, that she collected the bacteria from several belly buttons and made it into a white, porous cheese. This cheese was displayed at an exhibit in Dublin, and visitors reported that the smell of the cheese did indeed reflect the natural odors of the human body. Each belly button hosts this rich biodiversity. If we were to make a different cheese from each belly button, though, I doubt we’d have two cheeses the same. There is no predicting what bacteria your belly button will hold because, across buttons, thousands of species have been found. Each navel has a unique bacterial landscape, and factors such as age, ethnicity, innie vs. outie, and even frequency of washing seem to have little if anything to do with it. The lifeforms we host are as unique as the lives we lead.

I find it interesting that the navel–the epicenter and host of life–is also the body’s first scar. No one comes out of the womb a blank canvas; we all bear the scar of birth and life. Throughout history, people have debated whether or not Adam and Eve bore this scar. If they weren’t born, they shouldn’t have it, right? Some say that their lack of navel would have been a testament to God’s creative powers and to give them a navel would have been highly deceptive on God’s part, as it would suggest a mortal origin that did not exist. Others say that God wanted Adam and Eve to have the appearance of maturity and to model the form that all humans would bear, so He must have given them a navel to suggest a history that they didn’t possess but that all of their posterity would. Theologians have debated the point for centuries. Books have been written on the subject, religious leaders have argued, and in one strange turn of events, members of Congress fought their own brief battle over a 1944 public affairs booklet to be issued to American servicemen. One of the illustrations included tiny black dots on the abdomens of Adam and Eve. A North Carolina congressman and his committee were not impressed with this brash insult to fundamentalists, and they made their displeasure known. (Of course, some critics have suggested that the congressman’s belief that the pamphlet’s illustrator was a Communist may have fueled his desire to contest the pamphlet). As far as paintings go, artists have danced around the debate, some painting our first parents with smooth navels, some boldly adding a dot on their middles, and others painting leaves high enough to cover their midriffs so that they wouldn’t have to take a stance on such a divisive issue.

I suppose there is no reason Adam and Eve should have had navels, but I wonder if they did anyway. Maybe they needed it for other reasons–to be an anatomical landmark, a bacterial home, a source of energy. Maybe they had them, not as a reminder of their early connection to a non-existent mother, but as a reminder of their connection to God. Perhaps to teach them that without some desperate pleas for help and a willing dependence on someone bigger than us, none of us really make it beyond a few measly cells. Or, who knows, maybe with all that time in the garden of Eden, they just needed something to gaze at.

Meet the Contributor

Emily CluffEmily Cluff is a law student at Brigham Young University who writes to keep herself sane. While she hopes her legal studies will prepare her to effectuate change in the world, she finds that writing allows her to first understand the world around her in all of its marvelous nuance. She is thrilled to appear in Hippocampus Magazine, and other works of hers can be found in The Restored Gospel and Applied Christianity and Criterion.

STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Jim Forest

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