As a baby I loved my belly. I know this because there is photographic evidence of my little Buddha belly in all its glory hanging out of either a) a swimsuit or b) a late ‘80’s style crop top, and in these photos I always had a big, cheesy smile on my face.
I actually remember when this changed for me. I was 11 and starting to hit puberty. A family member I loved and trusted said they noticed I was “starting to get a little bit of a roll.” To cap off this shameful moment, I was literally eating a giant bowl of ice cream when it was said to me. Another trusted male family member would touch my stomach when I was in a swimsuit and tell me my tummy was “cute.” So yeah, my relationship with my belly was complicated. The message my 11-year-old brain heard was “the way my stomach looks is important.” Message received. I wanted so badly to be loved. I must need a flat stomach to be loved, right?
As a grown woman I call bullshit on that, but I wouldn’t blame any child for not being able to. In fact, according to the National Body Image Center, 42% of girls in grades 1 - 3 want to lose weight. Let that sink in because it’s pretty fucking awful. These are girls that are between 6 and 9 and they are already consumed with thoughts about their bodies! The Center also found that 81% of 10 year old girls are genuinely afraid of being fat. “Fat” in our culture is synonymous with “bad.” (This is a whole separate blog post, but “fat'“ is a term that I hope will eventually be used as a neutral descriptor because in no way does fat = bad). This is so, so sad. Don’t we want the little girls in our lives and little girls everywhere to strive for more than thin and pretty? To aim higher?
Fast forward to almost present day, and the murky waters of my disordered eating days are a distant memory. My relationship with food is solid, and my relationship with movement is in a place I never in a million years thought it would be - I engage only in movement that feels loving and energizing to my body. Sometimes I take weeks off at a time because I know I need the rest, I don’t feel like it, or I’m too busy spending time with loved ones, and I truly don’t sweat it. And yet, I don’t “love” my belly. About a year ago, I started asking myself why I was so stuck on this one physical attribute.
Our stomachs have been co-opted by diet culture. We are bombarded with images on a daily basis of super flat, toned tummies. Some of them have massive 6-packs that are highly unachievable for the majority of women. Sure, some women are genetically inclined to build muscle quickly in their stomachs (this is a very small percentage). If that’s you, great! It is not my intention to call out women who achieve 6-packs with little effort. However, that is not the case for most of us. Women carry a bunch of organs vital to both life and fertility in our stomach area that men do not have. It’s ridiculous for us to be expected to strive for an almost concave belly with all of those organs in there! We are naturally inclined to have more fat there, too, to protect those organs or any life we may carry. I had an ayurvedic practitioner once who called it a ‘sacred bowl.’ And it is just that. If you really think about it, it’s a space where life can grow if we have that option or choice.
The stomach area is also a very vulnerable place because many of our vital organs are stored there. In nature, it’s where animals attack each other if threatened, hunting, etc. You know what else? It’s where the beauty and fitness industry has chosen to attack and shame women. Ironically there are a lot of men behind the $60 billion dollar beauty industry. Collectively, men who attack women are threatened by our power, i.e. our strength and ability to create life. So it makes perfect sense they’d “attack” our belly area in order to make it a huge focus of our lives. If we are super busy focusing on tight abs, we don’t have the time or space to go out into the world and be the badass women we are. Badassery can be threatening. (Side note: there are many, many wonderful men in this world who love a wide variety of belly shapes and sizes).
My journey to belly acceptance started with this knowledge. I understand it can be very easy to go through the motions of life and strive for a flat belly because that’s what most people are doing. But once I asked myself “who decided this was the preferred aesthetic?” there was no turning back. Once you pull back the curtain and see the sham that the wellness and fitness industry are, you can’t unsee it. I’ve spent a lot of my life without this knowledge, driven by a need to be loved and accepted, and striving for a flat, toned stomach. I refuse to sacrifice any more of my life, joy, or values in order to please other people. My wonderful coach, Simi Botic, had me start showing my belly some love. I’d rub coconut oil on her and simply tell her “you are enough.” She also provided me with some mind blowing insight: you can certainly prefer a magazine type aesthetic, the flat, toned tummy. After all, it’s in our face ALL THE TIME. Why wouldn’t you? At the same time, you can accept your tummy and whole body exactly how she is because you know how much it costs you to achieve the unachievable look. Once I stopped thinking about my tummy in a negative way and started appreciating and accepting her, the door opened up to loving her. More important to me than having the “perfect” stomach: making pancakes with my boyfriend on a Sunday morning, setting a good example for the impressionable young women in my life, nurturing my mind and soul, having a healthy menstrual cycle…this list could go on and on.
I wonder what doors would open for you if you begin your own journey to body acceptance? Has anyone else had a shameful experience with a certain body part? If so, I’d love for you to share in the comments below.