In early 1999 an album called …Baby One More Time rocketed to number one, powered in part by a music video of 16-year-old Britney Spears performing in the stereotypical costume of a schoolgirl. She was perfectly outfitted in the iconography of the coquette: pleated skirt, kneesocks, pigtails: but the key signifier that positioned her on that cusp between innocence and knowledge was a feature that, although common to all humanity, usually is given little serious consideration: her exposed navel. There have been bare midriffs before, but there was something different about this particular expression that lofted the lithe teen to a unique position in the pantheon of teen pop stars.
Just as the ad for the Academy Award-winning film American Beauty: the tale of a middle-aged father suddenly obsessed with pubescent sexuality: lingers on the navel, Spears and her handlers knowingly put hers out front, playing the former Mouseketeer against the budding sex kitten, conjuring up a Lolita you can take home to Mom. As Camille Paglia told People magazine in February, "She is a glorified 1950s high school cheerleader with an undertone of perverse 1990s sexuality. Britney is simultaneously wholesome and ripely sensual." And key to that appeal is her belly button.
This is a lot to claim for just one navel, but her fans also testify to the centrality of her belly button in stimulating their enthusiasm. As one male fan posted to the music site dailyradar.com, "It’s all about that belly button." And one rumor (undoubtedly apocryphal) has it that the museum in her hometown of Kentwood, La., as part of their display devoted to Spears, plans to sell a line of adhesive replicas of her belly button. It should not be surprising, however, that this humble, all-too-human feature should suddenly be the object of such scrutiny. A closer look reveals a deep history of the navel as sign and symbol in culture; as one area of disputed terrain on the human body.
Halfway between head and genitalia, not strictly sexual, but, like Spears herself, "not that innocent" either, the belly button is a liminal marker. Not one thing or another, it has no purpose but to indicate humanity, and where humanity treads, sexuality is never far behind. As an indicator of birth, the navel is a reminder of our supposed infantile innocence; its presence makes it clear that we are not gods. A severed link to the mother and a sign of mortality, the navel is the first mark that life leaves upon your body, a scar as unique as your fingerprint.
All mammals have navels, what some call the "former mouth." Animal mothers bite through their babies’ umbilici; unlike humans, they have no access to the clamp and scissors. Human umbilical cords are clamped at birth, though current debates in natural child-birthing circles suggest that this unkindest cut occurs too abruptly and with a violence that makes no sense when you consider that for nine months this pulsing cord has been a lifeline. Within a week the stump withers and falls away, leaving behind the navel. Whether you end up with an "innie" or "outie" depends more on the nature of the muscles in your stomach than on your obstetrician’s knotting prowess.
There are a host of names for belly buttons, from "one-eyed Mabel" to "lint catcher." Legend has it the Italian pasta tortellini was created after a voyeuristic chef caught a glimpse of the love goddess Venus’s navel, and the "belly button" is a piece of lab equipment that gyrates and mixes chemicals. Beyond such whimsical connotations, the navel has had a mythical significance in cultures throughout the world. For the ancient Greeks passion centered on the navel, or omphalos; Omphale was the mythical queen who so powerfully personified femininity that she enslaved even the mighty Hercules. In Hawaiian culture the navel is the primal node of heart, mind, and feelings. In India Brahma is said to have sprung out of the lotus that sprouts in the belly button of the somnolent Vishnu, and Judaism associates fecundity with the navel.
Given its central spot in human physiology, it makes sense that the navel would also leave its mark on geography. In search of the "Navel of the World," poet Charles Olson located the earthly omphalos in Cape Ann, Mass., but other claims to centrality have come from Delphi, Greece; India; Easter Island; Mauna Loa, Hawaii; Bali; Sri Lanka; Washington, D.C.; and Jerusalem.
Scaling our attention from the global back down to the personal, the navel is also a figurative and spiritual focus for inward-looking people. Since it serves no biological purpose after birth, the navel only acts as a gatherer of lint and a magnet for musings. So one who finds his or her spirituality in the center of his own body is dubbed an "omphalogian," and as a focal point of yoga poses, the navel marks the place where breath emerges, as well as the balancing point. Sigmund Freud believed that an unraveling of a dream’s meaning could be located at its navel: the place where the content of the dream connects with its psychic significance. And even Saint Thomas Aquinas recognized this doubled character of the belly button, seeing it as the "bodily metaphor for spiritual things." Navel gazing, then, could be considered the most profound of human activities.
Not all theologians were as open to the navel’s enlightening potential. Through the centuries there has been much debate over whether Adam and Eve, alleged by some to be the world’s first couple, possessed belly buttons. As a result of such overwrought navel warfare, both Raphael and Michelangelo provoked accusations of heresy by depicting Adam’s nodosity in their paintings. In the mid-19th century British zoologist Philip Henry Gosse labored over Omphalos: An Attempt to Untie the Geological Knot (1857). Within his hefty tome Gosse took the controversial stance that Adam did indeed possess a belly button, noting that though "at first sight ridiculous…truth is truth." Defending God against the accusation that only a trickster god would adorn the first man with a navel that had no purpose, Gosse suggested that the almighty did not intend to deceive Adam into believing that he had a past as an infant but only felt it would be awkward for him not to have one. Similarly, Gosse believed that the freshly created trees in Eden would have possessed rings marking years that they had never grown. Gosse’s book failed to persuade everyone with his theory of God’s navel plan, and instead, artists depicting the post-creation moment in Eden enlarged the genital-covering fig leaf to include the belly rather than take the theologically risky stance of depicting an umbilical link between first man and woman and their deity. And as recently as 1944 Congress debated whether a military booklet depicting the initial twosome with bared navels was a danger to the minds of the common soldier.
Navel concerns didn’t end with World War II. Over 40 and feeling fine, Barbie, the doll, only recently was allowed a belly button (but not a piercing, yet). And 35 years ago another earthly, Edenic navel, belonging to another Barbara, was kept hidden away. On I Dream of Jeannie, NBC’s censors refused to let the blond genie’s belly button show, insisting that actress Barbara Eden cover her navel with the raised waist of her harem pants.
Such banning seems to arise from the odd eroticism evoked by that hollow space. A study of navels out of the University of Missouri categorized hundreds of them by shape and attractiveness and, as did a recent Allure magazine article, determined unequivocally that the "innie" is aesthetically superior. The navel has excited artists from James Joyce to Dimitri Hadzi, whose sculpture "Omphalos" resides in the center of Harvard Square, and Horace Walpole felt compelled to discuss navels in his Anecdotes of Painting (1792). Artists are not alone in thinking navels are worth contemplation. Americans tend to think of navels as a girlish thing, but during Japan’s wild 1980s, many businessmen fell under the influence of spiritualist-cum-fraud Hogen Funkunga, who proclaimed that the "navel is the core of everything about the person." Following this philosophy, many Japanese businessmen paid to have their belly buttons surgically reshaped into more pleasing, less assertive, innie configurations.
The signatory knot that ties up nothing and goes nowhere holds more erotic charms for some than the conventional attractions. Neither procreative nor nutritive, perhaps it is the navel’s lack of obvious purpose, combined with its audacious, almost arrogant, spot right there in the middle of things, that sucks its admirers in. Belly button aficionados the world over categorize, analyze, and collect images of their sacred objects and the true belly believer could recognize Cindy, Cameron, or Kate as easily by their navels as by their faces. Spears’s forebear and role model, Madonna, insists that hers is the "most perfect" and that while poking her finger in it she feels "a nerve in the center" of her body "shoot up" her spine.
In fact, for some the navel may be a little all-too-human, representing a resting point not only on the journey to the netherworld below the belt but also to the sort of hellish depravity that can land one in eternal damnation. When Nicholas Cage slurps tequila from Elizabeth Shue’s brimming belly cup, you know that Leaving Las Vegas will end badly for the transgressor. Imitating Shue and Cage’s navel maneuvers could land you with a prison record: as a bartender in Milwaukee, Wis., recently discovered when she let customers sample her wares from her omphalian shot glass. Though not technically sexual, the erotic terrain of the navel shifts after puberty, and what is a cute little button on a child becomes, on a teenager, a heated boundary between baby and babe.
Of course, while the adults worry over the lines of midriff demarcation, navel piercing is on the rise, and the malls are rife with bejeweled navels. In her 1991 book Let There Be Clothes, fashion historian Lynn Schnurenberger notes that bare bellies say "look, but don’t touch." Spears wasn’t even born in 1965 when Annette Funicello had to wear a high-waisted bikini in How to Stuff a Wild Bikini. Apparently at the time Walt Disney insisted that his former Mouseketeer keep her stomach covered. Is it a sign of progress or decay that today another former Mouseketeer’s navel is launching countless poster sales and igniting a whole new round of meditation on the belly button?
Endnote: This article first ran on Britannica.com’s site when the venerable company was making an attempt to (in the words of one journalist) "make itself more attractive to the young and trendy generation." When the article appeared more than 17 million people attempted to log on to the site over the last month locking up the site’s web servers and causing trouble that lasted an entire month. I assume the traffic was prompted more by the accompanying shot of Britney than by my semiotic analysis. Eventually the uproar itself became news and I was quoted all over the world. In Portugal I was an expert on the "umbiago."In short order, Britannica halted its pop cult foray and everyone on staff that I had dealt with disappeared and the article itself became a dead link (no doubt because they were afraid to touch Britney’s belly button even virtually).