Of six-pack abs and real girl bellies

Last week, I came across what might be the best thing I’ve seen on the internet in a while – and considering how many hilarious cat videos and animated .gifs are out there, that’s saying something – when I stumbled upon the xoJane Real Girl Belly Project.

The Real Girl Belly Project is basically a collection of photographs of bellies sent in my xoJane readers.   Almost all of them are taken in bathroom and bedroom mirrors with cell phone cameras, shirts hiked up, bras and underwear visible.  There are scars and red marks and piercings and tattoos and stretch marks and hair and all kinds of belly buttons. It’s beautiful and hypnotic to see so many bellies, a body part that is so often reviled by women, proudly on display.  It made me tremendously happy.

I looked at all of the beautiful bellies and I felt sad.  I felt sad for this really cool body part that does all of these incredible important things, like hold growing babies and digest food and provide soft places for loved ones’ heads to rest, and how it still manages to be the source of so much hatred and revulsion.

I also felt sad because I realized just how rarely I saw bellies that deviated from the flat, near-washboard abs that grace the midsection of nearly every model, actress, singer or otherwise young, visible woman.  A belly that does stray from the flat-as-a-board standard often becomes the source of speculation as to whether the woman is pregnant, or if she just ate a really big lunch.

It wasn’t always like this.  I have memories of seeing girls on TV and magazines in clothes that showed midriffs with the slightest bit of pudge and softness.  I know I didn’t hallucinate this.  Remember Madonna in “Like a Virgin”?  Remember that little belly of hers (and also how sexy it was)?  But at some point in my lifetime, the beauty standard had shifted, and soon the only bellies worth showing – worth being seen - became ones that look like they belong to an elite athlete.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I find a pair of defined abs just as impressive as anyone.  I see them and I instantly think about how disciplined that person must be, and discipline is a quality that I find very appealing and admirable.  A person has to work very hard and stick to a very clean diet to maintain that appearance, and I respect that.  (You know how all of those magazine covers promise flat abs in six minutes or whatever?  It’s all total bullshit.  Flat abs are a way of life.)

But at the same time, six-pack abs are almost entirely aesthetic.  They don’t signify that the person who has them can necessarily run fast or deadlift 200 pounds or complete an Ironman triathlon or spike a volleyball or dance with such grace that an audience is left covered in goosebumps.  They merely indicate that the person has a pair of six-pack abs.

It’s so sad that the standard of beauty for bellies has become one that is not only extremely difficult for most people to achieve, but is also one of the most useless.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot ever since the first time I wrote about tummies and bellies, and I’ve thought about it even more since flipping through that photo gallery.  I thought about my own belly and how my perspective has changed since I wrote about it.

Let me tell you a bit about my belly.  It’s not big but it’s not flat.  It’s actually pretty round, what I might call a baby pot belly.  When I wear certain dresses with high waists, I look a bit like a fertility statue.  I have some definition along my obliques, but that’s about it.  No one is ever going to look at me and say I’m a hard body, nor would they say I’m fat.  My belly is perfectly average in many ways.

Here are some other things about my belly.  I can run pretty fast with this belly.  I can also run for very long times.  I can do planks and push-ups with the help of it.  I can do shoulder stands and warrior poses in yoga.   If I wanted to, I could do a lot of sit-ups with this belly, but I find sit-ups tremendously boring and so I don’t do this very often.

I also do a lot of important biological work with my belly, like digesting food and deep breathing.  Sometimes it makes noises and sometimes it hurts.  When I get stressed out, I feel it in my stomach first.  Best of all, I hope that some day soon my belly will help a baby grow.

My belly is the body part that causes me the most insecurities.  But after I wrote my post, I made the decision to quit obsessing over what people might think about my stomach when they see it, and since then I’ve started running with just my sports bra on when I feel like it.  I’ve been doing this on hot days, even though I’m pretty sure things jiggle when I run.  I ran while wearing tri shorts and a sports bra the other day, and I know my stomach was hanging slightly over the waistband.  I’m not exactly next in line to grace the cover of Runner’s World.

I won’t pretend like I didn’t care at all, but I will say that whenever I did catch myself caring, I made a deliberate choice not to. I thought about other things, like how pretty it was outside or how nice the sun felt or how much my quads were burning.  I thought about the fact that I’m a good runner who is in very good physical shape, and how a bit of flab around my midsection doesn’t detract from that at all.

My reasons for not caring are fairly simple.  I had seen other women over the summer, women at races and at triathlons, who bared their not-so-flat bellies and they didn’t seem gross or unattractive.  In fact, most of them looked pretty great. And if they looked okay, then who or what is to say that I wouldn’t look okay, too?

I often hear women voice this double standard, that somehow it’s okay for other women to show less-than-magazine-worth bodies but it’s not okay to do so themselves.   But why hold ourselves to a higher standard?  If something is beautiful on another woman, why would it not be so for us?  And if it is not beautiful on us, why would it be on another woman?

Why are so many of us capable of viewing everyone around us through a more liberated lens of beauty, while still holding ourselves to those same brutalizing standards we so decry?

When I succumb to my harsher end of the double standard, what am I silently saying to other women?   If I think my body is too gross to be seen, then what am I quietly transmitting to other women, especially women who are not as slender as I am?  They aren’t seeing the double standard playing out in my head; they are seeing yet another person who is re-affirming all of the crappy, hateful messages they’ve been getting about their bodies since before they can even remember.

And maybe secretly I hope that some woman sees me with my belly out, just as I saw other women with their bellies out, and maybe she’ll feel a little less inhibited about her own body just like I felt less inhibited, like she doesn’t have to adhere to impossible standards of perfection to be worth seeing.

Writing about these issues has helped me clarify them in my mind, to the point where I realize I am no longer interested in thinking about my body in words and phrases I would never use to describe another person.  I’m much more interested in the cool and lovely things about my body, about the muscle definition in my back and quads, about the push-ups I can do, about the miles I can run and the speed with which I can ride my bike.

Maybe it’s an easier perspective shift for me to make than most, as someone who is still conventionally attractive – tall, blonde, white, slender, able-bodied.  I actually don’t doubt that this is the case.   But just because it might be easier for me does not mean it’s not a worthwhile goal for all of us.

We don’t have to walk around with our shirts off and our bellies out on display for the whole world to see.  That doesn’t work for a lot of us, and that’s okay.  But we can also stop standing in front of the mirror and grabbing our bellies with disgust, or refusing to wear a swimsuit when we go to the beach, or sucking in our stomachs every time we see ourselves in a mirror, or even just telling ourselves that our bodies are gross.

Our culture is deeply invested in making sure we hate our bodies, and it’s up to us to fight back.  We don’t have to be in love with our bodies, but at the very least, let’s not hate them.  They are the only bodies we’ve got, and they deserve our respect.

Here are a couple of other perspectives on bodies and bellies that I found really interesting:

And of course, I always want to hear your perspective as well.

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21 responses to “Of six-pack abs and real girl bellies

  1. I think one of the ways we can overcome body image concerns is just to be mindful of them. You know? Like you describe when you’re out running in just a sports bra.

    Personally something I’ve learned over many years is that it’s helpful if you stop yourself and remind yourself why your negative self thoughts are at the very least not healthy and at worse ridiculous figments of your own insecurity (in my case).

    • Mindfulness really is key to so much. It’s not easy but it’s possibly the most effective tool we can have in our arsenal when it comes to dealing with crappy habits like negative self-talk.

  2. Do I wish my stomach were flatter? Yes, but I don’t hate it. Does it (or my cellulite, for that matter) stop me from wearing bikinis? Hell no! But modesty was never one of my strong points anyway.

    I really wish there was an easier solution for people, particularly women, to be happy with their bodies. Self-loathing seems to be contagious in our society, and I don’t want to have anything to do with that anymore.

    • Well, you do live in Miami. Miami is like allergic to modesty. I’m a fairly modest lady but if I spend more than two days in Miami, suddenly I’m walking around in a bikini top and booty shorts and feeling overdressed. :)

      I’m totally with you on the contagious nature of self-loathing. When I see women engage in self-loathing as a means of bonding with one another, I want to die. We don’t have to sit around going, damn girl, I am so awesome, but maybe we could instead talk about something other than what our bodies look like?

  3. Oh, also, you might find this interesting. I work at a porn company as a copywriter/editor, and one of our niches is BBW stuff. The guys who give us feedback about that loooove curvy, soft bellies. There’s somethin’ for everyone, yanno?

  4. My belly is my point of obsession, too, but I’m working hard to combat that. When I was a little girl I wanted to be a belly dancer BECAUSE I though little rounded bellies were so alluring. And I wish I could pinpoint when that changed.

    Thanks for the shout-out, lady.

    • Belly dancers are awesome. I so admire their grace and their levels of physical control. Your little-girl self had good taste.

      I also am curious to know how and when that changed. I know I’ve seen the change in my own life. I almost want to say that Britney Spears was like the fulcrum, because when she came out in the late 1990s everyone made a big deal about how she did 2,000 crunches a day so she could have those abs. Before that I could never recall hearing much of anything about anyone’s abs. And belly shirts were a big thing, too!

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  6. “Why are so many of us capable of viewing everyone around us through a more liberated lens of beauty, while still holding ourselves to those same brutalizing standards we so decry?”

    Thank you for this whole thing, but especially for this part…I so struggle with my belly, but something I try to remember is what my husband told me: “Your belly has brought us two beautiful children here on earth and two in heaven. I *love* that belly.”

    • I haven’t! I’ll have to look when I get home. I agree that this is something really cool about the internet, the way it diffuses the power of media so it isn’t concentrated in the hands of a few people but instead allows us to share our own stories with limited filtering. I’m actually working on a post about this, and I’ll have to include the Normal Breast Gallery in that. Thank you!

  7. A while ago, I wrote about my abs, particularly in light of the realizations of:

    1) How many core-focused workouts I either own or have bookmarked (which is pretty neutral in itself).

    2) How many focus on creating a conventionally attractive abdominal appearance as opposed to having a primary emphasis on function (which is a little concerning to me).

    3) How many have titles with terms like “shred,” “blast,” and “attack” in them — terms of tearing down instead of building up.

    And I’ve started to balance that against the realization that — relatively speaking — there’s not all that much of my belly that I could lose without sacrificing some functional strength. Like, the way my body is put together, I can’t have both, so I have to choose.

    • Your post is very insightful! You are right, the language used to describe most programs that target abs have violent, combative connotations, which betrays the fact that many people view their abs as an enemy and not an asset.

      I have come across programs that are more about function – and like you mentioned in your post, target the entire core section and not just the front wall of muscle – and I like using those because I feel like I’m actually doing something to help my body work better and not just expending a lot of energy in trying to conform to this super-restrictive standard of beauty.

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  10. Are there workouts that would strengthen that area without changing the appearance?

    I recently took a fitness assessment test in my weight training class and I scored terrific. I’m incredibly fit except in the ‘how many sit-ups can you do in one minute’ test. I only could do 17 and the man who was scoring me said I scored ‘Poorly’ in that section.

    Then I went home and added 6 exercises to my workout routine. A few days later it dawned on me, I like my stomach. Its flat but definitely not washboarded. Why was I getting so crazy about this? Why was I adding ab exercises now? If it really was so important, wouldn’t they already be in my workout?

    When I started weight training, it wasn’t to look a certain way or to appeal to others. I wanted to make my body physically stronger. If I can figure out some ab routine that would strengthen my ‘core’ without looking like Jillian Michaels, I may do it– but if not, its because I like my stomach and my love handles and whatever other pejorative slang our culture wants to throw out there about womens bodies.

    • My understanding of the whole abs thing is that it’s not the actual muscle as much as it is the body fat on top of the muscle. So you can have a really strong core but no flat abs or six-pack because you have a higher body-fat percentage. I have a pretty strong core but no real visible abs because I am not lean enough. I suppose if I really wanted to I could have them, but it requires too much sacrifice that I’m not willing to make. I like beer too much, you know? :)

  11. When Tyra Banks first started modeling, she had a gorgeous round tummy. Back then I was young and naturally skinny, with a flat tummy and protruding hip bones, and believe it or not I was a bit jealous of her lovely tummy! Sad to say, she appeared to have lost a great deal of weight in the next Victoria’s Secret catalog–she’d turned herself into a clone of the other models; ah well. (Today I have a little belly, as my middle-aged bod is surprisingly curvy. I kind of like it.)

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