I googled “belly shame” recently, and what popped up? A verse from Philippians and stories about pork bellies. No one has coined the term “belly shame” yet? How can this be, given that nearly every American female has it? Maybe we’re so ashamed of our bellies, we can’t even say the words out loud?
Just ask women how they feel about their bellies, and most will wrinkle their nose in discomfort. They won’t even respond with words, and if they do, they’re derogatory. We hate our bellies, to a pathological degree. Why? Because belly shame is drilled into us from childhood.
I was talking with a friend about bellies yesterday, and she told me about going to summer camp as a child. She was sitting in a two-piece bathing suit and another girl pointed to her and said, “Ewww — you have rolls.”
“It was the first time I felt ashamed of my body. Before that, I didn’t know anything was wrong with me.”
She added another salient point: The girl who ridiculed her had already gotten the message that a normal, fleshy belly is disgusting.
My own belly shame began while reading a teen magazine. Sandwiched between a feature on Donny Osmond and a how-to piece on macrame was an article about weight, which declared: “An inch of pinch equals flab.” I pinched. I was flabby times three! I was horrified! I was suddenly physically unacceptable!
I was 12.
And so it begins.
By the time girls become teens, if we succumb to Big Beauty, we’ve accepted that however we’re shaped, it’s wrong. And there’s a product to fix that!
Except it doesn’t.
And we buy it by the caseload anyway.
Ladies, how many times have you seen magazine headlines that scream, “Ban That Belly Fat”? You know why there are so many? Because they sell. It’s not really about bellies. It’s about bucks, and how many belly shaming rakes in.
More recently, round bottoms and ample thighs have become mainstream sexy, and I thank you, my sexy sisters of color, for raising awareness that beauty comes in a variety of shapes, colors and sizes. Sadly, no one of any color has been able to do the same for bellies. Ghetto booty, yes. Ghetto belly, oh hell no.
I wonder if the source of belly hatred is evolutionary: Maybe our cavemen ancestors avoided thick-waisted females because they were likely already pregnant and therefore poor choices for mates. A tiny waist means fertile ground. A thick waist — maybe not. Maybe men are genetically predisposed to avoid thick-waisted women. Something to think about. Kinda makes sense. Those cavemen who got a rise for round-bellied women didn’t spread their seed any further. They went the way of the pterodactyl.
As for belly fat itself, true too much isn’t healthy. But I’m not talking about a 57-inch apple-shaped person on a path to heart disease. When I say “belly shame,” I mean average, garden variety, normal American females with average, garden variety, normal American bellies.
Women stupidly — yes stupidly! — compare their normal bellies to the perfectly taut, flat abdomens of the professional anorexics on the fashion magazine covers and believe that unless their bellies look like that, they’re fat. You know what? Most of those models don’t have perfect bellies either. They’re the creation of someone sitting at a computer, transforming women into his/her own idea of female perfection.
In other words, those women — those bellies — don’t actually exist, except in a “Plato’s Table” fashion.
Hmmm. “Plato’s Belly.”
Hint: It doesn’t exist.
Belly shame is painful enough on its own, but it’s exaggerated even more after we have babies. Except for a rare, lucky few, our bellies are never the same after we give birth. They’re plumper. They sag. The muscles are stretched and no matter how many crunches we do, our abs never look the same as before. Some of us have caesarian scars. Most of us have stretch marks — and, a thousand crunches a day won’t change that.
Most women look at their stretch marks and feel despair. The notion of wearing a bikini is abandoned, and we suddenly prefer sex with the lights out. We see flaws rather than the symbols of how our bellies got that way: by carrying and birthing the babies we love more than our next breath.
An interesting movement exploded onto social media via Instagram recently: “Love Your Lines.” It’s helping women to not only accept, but be proud of their stretch marks. Women are starting to push back against the “stretch marks = ugly” meme. If we can learn to “love our lines,” could we also learn to love our bellies?
Mother’s Day is next Sunday. How about taking the day to do some self-mothering and reject our belly shame? Begin by replacing your negative thoughts and feelings with positive ones. First, stand in front of the mirror and just look at your bare belly. (I bet you’re squirm already. How sad is that?) Cradle your belly, like the famous Gaia statue created by Oberon Zell, and for every negative thought you have, say to yourself — out loud, so your brain hears it —“Beautiful belly.” Rinse and repeat.
If your belly shows the saggy, striped signs of having carried children, here’s another mantra: “I love my kids.” Recall your love for your children, really feel it in your heart, and transfer it to the visible signs of having carried them. Channel that pure, sweet love right onto your belly. Your scars. Your stretch marks. Feel the love there. Trust me, that infusion of self-love will feel infinitely more wonderful than your lifetime of belly shame.
We women still have some work to do. We’ve reclaimed our sexuality via birth control. We’ve made strides in equal rights, voting, education, employment and finances. We’ve cleared these external hurdles, but still stumble over the internal ones — the ones that erode our self-esteem.
Let’s use Mother’s Day as an opportunity to reclaim our self-esteem, beginning with our bellies. Reject Big Beauty. Reclaim your beautiful belly. It’s fine just the way it is. Don’t be the one who tells you otherwise.