Navel battle

Most bellybutton innies don't realize that outies feel like outcasts.

By Jon Bowen
August 12, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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A month ago I stood at my wife's bedside and watched the doctor deliver our baby daughter into the world. The cord was cut and clamped, and in the sleepless weeks afterward, as we waited anxiously for her little umbilical stub to wither and fall off -- to give way to her newly formed bellybutton -- I had just one abiding prayer: Please, God, let her be an innie.

The navel is the locus, the centerpiece of the human body. It's the communal scar of humanhood, the sole button on your birthday suit. Japanese spiritualist Hogen Fukunaga writes, "The navel is the core of everything about the person." So it logically follows that the unlucky person who ends up with an abnormal version of this most central of body parts is doomed to a life of dubious distinction.


Growing up a stick-man skinny kid, I had an outie bellybutton. Later, when I got a little meat around my middle, my navel caved in on itself and morphed into a more conventional-looking innie. But I still remember the trauma and ridicule, the stares and snickers that I was forced to endure as a child outie. I recall the extreme measures I took, back then, to avoid public exposure -- ducking into an abandoned corner of the locker room to change clothes, sucking in my stomach to create the illusion of an innie, tugging the waistband of my swimsuit above my midsection so nobody could see my damning malformation.

Pondering our newborn's umbilical stub these last few weeks, my entire outiehood flashed before my eyes, and I wondered: Why are most folks blessed with the normal, universally acceptable bellybutton type -- the innie -- while a cursed few get stuck with obtrusive outies? Immediately, I locked in on my first task as a fledgling parent: I would make it my mission to get to the bottom of the innie-outie dichotomy. I would immerse myself in bellybutton literature, plumb the depths of the navel's development, interview the experts, debunk the myths and lay bare the truths, all toward the end goal of ensuring my daughter's rightful place among the world's innies.

Having an outie navel, I soon discovered, is nothing more than a cruel quirk of physiology, a dirty trick played on you by the reckless gods who stand at conception's door dishing out body parts. Dr. Bruce Shephard is an obstetrician in Tampa, Fla., and co-author of "The Complete Guide to Women's Health" (Penguin Press, 1997). Shephard explains that outies are the result, simply, of "individual variations in the anatomy." So the baby's delivery, the cutting, clamping and aftercare of the umbilical cord -- none of that affects the navel's final appearance? "No," Shephard says. "Cord clamping is done several inches away from the navel. [The navel's shape] has nothing to do with anything the physician does or subsequent care from the nurses."


Now, at this point, outie navels should be distinguished from the protrusion caused by umbilical hernias. In your abdomen you have two broad muscle bands that run vertically from the rib cage to the pubic bone. These muscles, the rectus abdominus, are joined by connective tissue that acts as a retaining wall to separate your internal organs from your skin. "If the connective tissue is thin," Shephard says, "there can be a weakness that allows for protrusion." Umbilical hernias usually heal themselves; if not, they can be corrected with abdomnioplasty.

For the outie navel, there's no such textbook explanation -- it's an anatomical wild card. And Shephard admits that having the "other" kind of navel can take a psychic toll. "I'm sure there are people who are affected by it. But there are ways to get around it. We live in an era of navel beautification," he says, alluding to navel-piercing, tattooing, henna art and the various other cosmetic measures you can take to doll up your bellybutton nowadays.

But no matter how you dress it up, outies are doomed to life in the margins. Consider, for example, the etymological connotations -- the outcast, outlaw, outsider. Innies can't appreciate the burden outies endure, particularly as adolescents, when sameness is next to godliness and even the slightest body deviation can make you feel like an ugly duckling. As Mark Twain said in his autobiography, "Children have but little charity for one another's defects."
Dr. Helen Friedman puts it more bluntly: "Young children are very cruel." Friedman, a clinical psychologist in St. Louis, says, "Our body image influences our self-confidence tremendously. Children and adolescents are particularly susceptible to cultural norms."


And when it comes to the human navel, the innie is firmly entrenched as the eternal norm. It's a testament to the scarcity of outies that, while polling friends, colleagues, acquaintances and innocent passersby for this article, I was unable to find even a single outie -- or a single person, anyway, who would confess to owning an outie, barring threat of a strip search. Though I did find a few innies who admitted having a passion for the opposite navel-type.

Jane Kelly, a 32-year-old innie in Washington, had a childhood fascination with outies. In summer, Kelly would go swimming in the backyard pool of her neighbor, Christine. "She had an outie," Kelly says. "All of us girls wore these little bikinis, and every time we went swimming I would ask Christine if I could push her bellybutton in -- I was fascinated by her outie. I recall being disappointed on the days when she wore a one-piece bathing suit."


Andrew Adams, a 34-year-old innie and vice president of a Web development firm, admits that women with outies have a certain fringe-group appeal. He's never dated an outie, but he knows what he'll do if he ever runs into one. "I'd like to gnaw on it," he says. "It's kind of like a third nipple sticking out there."

That's the outie's destiny -- to subsist as a fetish object, a swimming pool freak. In the faddish fluctuation of popularity among body types, as various physiques fall in and out of fashion through the years -- from Rubenesque to Ally McBealesque -- the bellybutton is a constant: Innies are always in, outies are always out. On a Web site dedicated to the Top 25 Celebrity Bellybuttons you will not find a single outie among all the many innies celebrated there, from Drew Barrymore to Ivanka Trump.

And the popularity of innies isn't uniquely American -- it spans the globe. In 1995 the Wall Street Journal reported that the number of bellybutton reconstructions in Japan had gone up 375 percent in one year. A Tokyo hospital president was quoted in the article as saying, "People want navels that aren't assertive." The perfect navel, concluded the reporter, is "vertical, very narrow, and absolutely symmetrical." An innie, in other words.


As the weeks passed, as I dug deeper and deeper into the innie-outie issue, watching my daughter's umbilical stump shrivel and begin to work itself loose, I grew more and more anxious to see what would emerge -- a blessing or a curse. I found I wasn't alone in my concern. One new parent discussing the issue on BabyCenter frets, "I had a complete outie until my parents finally had it surgically fixed when I was 14. It was so embarrassing for me to enter the teenage years with an outie. I was always teased about it. It still is a very embarrassing issue for me. I would hate for my son to go through the same thing."

Behold, a solution for the ill-fated outie: corrective surgery. Dr. James Wells is a spokesperson for the American Society of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeons and a senior founding member of Plasticos in Long Beach, Calif. Though he has performed reconstructive surgery in many cases to replace navels lost due to trauma -- belly burns and abdominal wounds -- he doesn't get many requests for cosmetic navel surgery. "My experience -- and even in talking to my colleagues -- is that it's a very uncommon request."

Though Wells doesn't do much cosmetic navel work, he acknowledges that it can be done. And he agrees that having a body deviation like a protruding navel can affect your self-esteem to the point that you might, after a while, consider getting the damn thing rebuilt. "Everyone has an image of who they are," he says, "and they have aspects that make them insecure about who they are. If you feel negative about a particular body image, it tends to affect your overall sense of self-confidence."


Wells points specifically to what he believes is one major source of the problem: our culture's over-glorification of supermodels' air-brushed, picture-perfect bodies. "Look at the cover of women's magazines," he says. "Any month, you'll find one or two that are clearly showing an image where the body is the focus. What kind of message are we giving the public -- that a certain body image is more acceptable than another body image?"

Touchi, Dr. Wells. As a responsible and right-thinking parent, I would be wrong to make my daughter's navel a major issue -- I should teach her to believe that all bellybuttons are created equal. She should accept her body, respectfully, unconditionally, no matter what weird shapes it may eventually take.

As it turns out, though, I'll almost certainly never have to counsel her through the ups and downs of outie life. A week has now gone by since her umbilical stump fell off, and, as I stand changing her diaper in the wee morning hours, a cursory exam of the unit in question shows -- much to my relief -- a flawless innie in the making. Another lucky kid joins the fold of normality.

Still, thousands of outies are out there, feeling conspicuous, sticking out in the crowd. A few weeks earlier, when I was polling some women on the innie-outie question, one of them couldn't understand why anyone would write a story on this topic. "I mean," she said, "who cares about bellybuttons?" She was an innie, of course. An outie would never ask that question.

Jon Bowen

Jon Bowen is a frequent contributor to Salon.


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