In defense of belly button lint and the hole that is nothing
Written for Public Parking in Fall 2021
My boyfriend’s opinions about my body generally swing amorously between ecstatic enjoyment and appropriate indifference, and for that I am grateful. There is one outlier, however. One spot pokes a small hole through his studied feminist temperament to reveal a well-meaning but not necessarily welcome qualm about my physical form: he regularly informs me that my belly button is dirty. The first time this happened, my response was disbelief followed by a defensive boast about my usually superior hygiene. He then showed me his own immaculate navel and told me to look at mine in comparison. Realizing then that I had never really looked around in that part of my body, I fearfully peered down, jutting out my pelvis to get a good view. Contorted and vulnerable, I was thus confronted with a surprisingly dark naval cave, unmistakably specked with stalagmites. Embarrassed, I tried to quickly scoop out a bunch of lint and defiantly wipe it on his shirt (like a grown-up is wont to do). As soon as I reached in, a sharpness pinballed down my lower vertebrae and landed with a painful zing! in my urethra. Then the nausea came.
“I can’t,” I said, defeated. “It feels too weird.”
“Can I try?” He asked.
“Fuck no,” I said, pressing my hands against my stomach to make it clear there would be no more attempts by either of us.
Later that day, in the shower, I was able to pry some of the lint loose while fighting the queasiness and urethritic pangs. I proudly showed him my work the next day.
“Nah, you still got some stuff in there. Let me try.”
“No, you can’t. How are you cleaning yours? Isn’t it the worst feeling in the world?”
“No. It doesn’t feel like anything,” he said, still examining my situation. “I think yours is deeper than mine.”
I surveyed both belly buttons again and indeed, his was less like a cave and more like a cereal bowl—wide, smooth, and accessible.
As a by-product of his fascination with my sullied navel, and my counter fascination with his ability and willingness to regularly clean that area of his body, we began sending each other articles about belly button bacteria. Most of these stemmed from one large 2012 study that focused on the diversity of the stuff in there, although occasionally he would throw one in about the dangers of lint impaction in the hope that I might get scared straight.
The most sensational detail from the 2012 study was that a bacterium previously only ever observed in Japan was found in a belly button whose owner had never traveled there. It seemed magical that a place so intimate—and ultimately so purposeless in our post-birth lives—might have some sort of symbolic autonomy. As cultural critic Elisabeth Bronfen writes in “The Knotted Subject: Hysteria and Its Discontents,” the belly button “serves no purpose and leads nowhere. Functioning neither as an entrance nor an exit, it displays a hole that is nothing.” The Japanese bacterium presents a new vision for the belly button, one that turns “a hole that is nothing” into a hole that, like the most promising holes, offers a transformative payoff when entered.
We began hypothesizing about what sorts of exotic debris possibly live inside my belly button. Perhaps a tiny part of Tanzania or Switzerland lies nestled between remnants from childhood sandbox visits and crumbs from poolside barbeques. Or maybe there are no suburban grains or bun particles, and what’s in my navel bears no connection to me at all. The belly button already signifies the other, in that it is a scar from a severed connection with one’s mother, so it makes sense that this cavity would always be foreign in some elemental way. It could be full of worldly lint that, despite evolving on my person, tells a story about a life I’ve never lived. It could be filled with bits of coral from the Great Barrier Reef, radioactive dirt from Chernobyl, flecks of paint from a crumbling Renaissance masterwork—all sorts of stuff that never interacted with my other senses yet somehow lives in harmony deep in my core.
Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how much you like the idea of a diverse belly button ecosystem) it is much more likely that our belly buttons strictly contain the familiar stuff, making the Japanese bacterium an exciting exception rather than a rule. What is actually in there is, obviously, mostly shirt lint, skin, and hair. However, even with this seemingly boring turn in my research, the imaginative spirit of the Japanese bacterium is not entirely lost. See, if belly button lint is made of things that are exclusively “me”, then it could be considered a synecdoche of my entire being. A self-portrait made of tiny particles, so to speak. It would follow then that a lot of my boyfriend must already be in there, taking up relatively equal real estate as he does in the rest of my life. And what if it wasn’t the lint itself that caught his attention, but rather a misplaced repulsion in recognizing parts of himself in there?
I began to spiral. What if, in subconsciously understanding that parts of him linger in my belly button, he experienced some sort of reach for autonomy? Could it be that his desire to remove the lint from my belly button was an attempt to differentiate my role in his life from that of his mother? Through this psychoanalytic and, albeit far-reaching lens, his sensing a part of himself in my navel may have transported him to a place of attachment and dependency that stands in opposition to our current partnership, which makes ample allowance for independence. It follows then that his desire to remove the lint was conceivably not only a pursuit of cleanliness, but a pursuit of self-determination.
To return to Bronfen, “The navel is a critical category for cultural analysis, namely, the enmeshment between connection, incision, bondage, and negation, that is, the bond constructed over naught.” The navel—in its ideal, post-detachment state—Bronfen suggests, is absence. It is a charged place that should remain empty, and so its fullness suggests an incomplete separation and lack of autonomy. Although culturally the belly button has always had a certain amount of sex appeal (see: early 2000’s fashion and beyond), biologically the belly button singularly references our time in the womb. This in-betweenness is exemplified most notably by the Ancient Greek Omphalos (that is, “naval”) stone, a mound-shaped relic that is said to simultaneously aid in future telling and past-seeing. On an adult body, the belly button is as liminal as it gets, passively connoting both sex (future) and infancy (past) simulteanously.
There is something so primordial—so connected with the core of our beings—about the belly button, that trying to clean it not only produces physical discomfort but also emotional unease. The belly button is made of highly sensitive tissues that are connected to the spinal cord, which explains my visceral reaction, but the emotional sensation is primarily what prevents me from spending too much time in there. I always start to feel lightheaded and slightly violated, like I am somehow both trespassing and being trespassed upon. This feeling of transgression is neatly summarized by Bronfen when they write that the belly button’s “indeterminacy is the cause of its obscenity. You cannot penetrate it fully; it is knotted off and remains largely inaccessible.” As much as I try to clean the area, there always seem to be parts that I am unable to reach.
Its location in the center of our bodies echoes its centrality to our very existence, exemplified by the fact that cosmogonic myths connecting navel imagery to the life-sustaining forces of Gaia, Pachamama, Mother Earth, and so on are ubiquitous across cultures . Theologian Samuel Terrien writes that “beliefs in the cosmic navel not only point to the spatial relationship of heaven, earth and abyss, but also use the biological function of the umbilical cord as a mythopoetic expression, both temporal and spatial, of the spot where the foundation of the earth began.” In this way, the navel is a physical remnant of the parts of you that existed before you were born. Things like ancestry, generational trauma, and the experience of being in the womb all get knotted off when the cord is cut. To prod the area is to prod your own cosmology. If I go too deep, what if I am unable to return?
The belly button, as the original source of (in)dependence, has become an apt symbol for my boyfriend’s and my evolving commitment to each other. In some ways, it has forced us to probe the formative parts of ourselves related to connection and severing, desire and personal history. After one aborted cleaning attempt in front of him, I started thinking about what might happen if I were to ever actually clean it all out. What if I could overcome the nausea and icky feelings, pry open every fold and crevice, and scrub it spotless? Would either of us feel any sort of real satisfaction?
At this point, my dirty belly button has become a long-standing joke between us, a gentle tool in his arsenal for when my head gets too big. But what if, like my belly button, its purpose is in fact deeper than that? If I cleaned it completely, perhaps the resulting emptiness would be too real, too all-consuming for him. Could it be that the desire to one day reach the end of my belly button lint, rather than the act itself, is what keeps him around? In Lacanian terms, maybe my dirty belly button is the lack that induces his desire and my inability to clean it prevents the extinguishing of that desire. Would a squeaky clean belly button bring him to a state of catastrophic relationship jouissance? Maybe we have already achieved an equilibrium: my belly button’s Thanos perfectly balanced by his Eros, bound together in their necessary chase.
I told him this, happy to finally have something to, at least metaphorically, wipe on his shirt. He said I’m overthinking it, that he just wants me to remain healthy, and he is certain I could clean it fully if I worked at it more consistently. Filled with the renewed energy and confidence of someone who just learned that her flaw is in actuality a strength—and therefore does not have to do any more work fixing it—I said, “No, unfortunately, that’s not a risk I’m willing to take.”