Daniella Clarke's jeans are the lowest of the low. She designs them so they dip so far south of the pubic bone that to wear them requires not just a Brazilian, but an entire South American -- plus killer abs worthy of the girl from Ipanema. Even as we reach the peak of swimsuit season, it's hard to find a bikini on the racks that reveals more torso. The fashion industry credits her company, Frankie B., with launching the low-rise trend. In Los Angeles, where both Daniella and I live, these lip-huggers are as much a must-have as a driver's license. So when I got a glimpse of the designer accepting an award at an L.A. fashion show last year, I stared at her flawless belly with a mixture of awe and hate.
Awe because I'm a beauty writer and fashion geek, so seeing Daniella's abs for the first time was akin to a geologist's initial sighting of the Grand Canyon. This was the alpha abdomen -- one that has made such an impact on fashion that it should be cast in plaster and displayed in the Smithsonian. Hate because it is at the root of the bikinization of jeans, and their cousin the trendy trouser. This permanent plummet of the waistband reignited a personal war I thought I had won. The one between my gut and me.
If Daniella's stomach is royalty, mine is trailer trash. Where hers inspires the unholstering of belly-piercing guns, mine prompts the unsheathing of liposuction rods. My gut and I have skirmished since I first saw pictures of myself in a bathing suit at age 9. The globular curve at the center of my skinny body, book-ended by a lime green two-piece, shocked me. I immediately viewed it as something separate from myself. I had to get rid of it, so I engaged it in regular grappling matches -- literally. At night, before I went to sleep, I pressed down on it, hoping to flatten it like a ball of Play-Doh. But my gut was no kid's toy, and it always sprang back.
As I grew older, other people noticed my gut too. When I was 12, a friend poked me in the stomach and said, "Poppin' Fresh!" At 14, a department store clerk labeled it my "problem area." I went to my mother for comfort, and she said, "Be happy. It means your reproductive organs are well protected." But I didn't care about having a permanently inflated air bag shielding my uterus. I just wanted to get rid of a stomach so freakish that strangers felt comfortable pointing it out. So I attacked it with exercise. I dieted. But my gut held its ground.
My repeated failure to conquer it made me begin to imagine it in a form other than the one I saw in the mirror. In my mind, it became like all the corpulent and corrupt soldier-king types who hang on too long -- Henry VIII, Noriega. I pictured it sitting in a water-stained recliner in a bombed-out palace, refusing to leave. My chicken pox scar gave it a dangerous aura. A semiautomatic was strapped across its expanse. Beside it, mini liquor bottles lay empty, a warning that if approached, my gut could not be expected to use good judgment.
My senior year in high school, I changed tactics and decided that instead of fighting my gut directly, I would lay siege. Using field guides like Glamour and Elle, I choked off its power to dominate my silhouette. I surrounded it with "figure enhancing" clothes like flat-front pants, side zippers, and long jackets. Not only did these tricks work, but they also had a side benefit: I became known among friends for my sense of style. I basked in compliments about my good taste, forgetting that it wasn't an effortless chic I had perfected, but an ability to lock away a part of my body I didn't like.
By going to work in the beauty industry, I helped other people do the same thing. Yes, the hand that fed me also asked me to starve, but I just ignored it and bought more empire-waist tops.
Then, in 1999, Daniella and her jeans arrived. I thought low-waists would be a short-term fad. After all, the only people who looked good in them were ultra-slender celebrities. But a year later, the low-rise was on the rise. So I went to a Los Angeles department store, selected a pair of dark blue boot-cuts and took them into the dressing room. When I hoisted them up, I thought I hadn't pulled hard enough. They remained so far below my navel that my entire belly was exposed. I tugged some more, but the waistband didn't budge. My gut spilled over the top, like soft-serve vanilla ice cream. I whipped off the jeans immediately and left them crumpled on the floor. As I walked out of the store, I told myself the trend couldn't last. Soon, jeans that covered my bump would be back in fashion.
But the low-rise that Daniella created as a tribute to the backstage wear of 1970s groupies was soon embraced by everyone: middle-aged moms and their teen daughters; rich hippies and richer hip-hoppers; sorority sisters and Goth chicks; women as volleyball tall as Gabrielle Reese or as gymnast tiny as Mary Lou Retton. I watched in horror as the jeans dominated the racks in stores where I had once felt welcome. One by one, my friends adopted them. Then shirts shrank so much they earned the nickname "baby tees" and shriveled even more to "preemie" sizes. Everyone's belly was on display. To maintain my reputation as a stylish dresser, I felt I had to lose my gut.
With Daniella and her jeans as inspiration, I conquered my belly with a massive starvation campaign on a scale I had never before attempted: an 800-calorie-a-day diet. For two months, I subsisted on dehydrated soup, instant hot cereal, diet sodas, and frozen fruit bars. At one point, I missed the sensation of chewing food so much that I cried, and then brightened when I realized the tears might help shed some water weight. People said, "You look great!" and I think they meant it, even though I resembled a flayed figure from a page in "Gray's Anatomy." But through all the compliments, I knew the truth. Even though it seemed that I had vanquished my gut, the victory couldn't last.
I staved it off for about a year, during which time I wore low-rise jeans just like everyone and her mother. But sure enough, my gut returned: rested, ready but untanned. As soon as I saw it again, I was angry. I forced it into the low-rises, yanking at my shirt hems so they would be long enough to cover it. When I removed the jeans at night, the button and zipper left a red imprint, as if my gut had been branded at a ranch whose symbol was a wavy lowercase "I." Eventually I replaced my starvation-size jeans with larger ones.
That didn't mean I couldn't feel the casual denims pressing against my flesh as I sat in the audience at the fashion show. Staring up at Daniella's nubile form, I wondered how many calories she was burning by holding her large golden trophy. Then she turned to exit the stage, and the lights glinted off her obliques. And along with the awe and hate her abdomen inspired, I had another feeling: exhaustion. The sight of Daniella, in the flesh, made it clear. My war with my gut was a quagmire. In the long run, I could never win. It was simple genetics. Daniella would always look 12 years old. I would always look three months pregnant.
Then Daniella was gone, replaced on the runway by models whose bodies echoed hers. As I watched them, I wished I had a friend with me, someone I could commiserate with about how women are supposed to look, and how impossible that standard is to achieve. And an image formed in my head of my gut and me as pals. It was a hyper-colored MTV-video-style fantasy: the two of us running through a lollipop forest, white chocolate doves flying through the air, cherry blossoms falling from the sky. In this vision, my gut was not a despot, but a Friar Tuck. Together we would fight the too rich and too thin! Or maybe just protect my reproductive organs, as my mother had suggested years ago.
But when the lights went on and I stood up to leave the show, I did what I always do -- sucked my gut in hard.