Fear of the Belly. A Cultural Epidemic.

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A heart on the stomach.

Self-love in a most vulnerable place. The stomach, the belly, the abdomen. The focus of so much angst, worry, pain, fear, anxiety.  Is self-love here even possible?

American culture is obsessed with the idea of a flat, rock-hard stomach. Muscles shining through and definition galore. The absence of fat becoming a status symbol.  Is your six-pack there? If yes then you have arrived. This is the message that is sent. Celebrities shown pulling up their shirts in public, magazines screaming how to get that sexy, defined look and TV ads for the latest and greatest fat burner.

Soft, pliable, round, full, vulnerable. All dirty words.

This message came across to me very early in my youth.  I was a larger child, with a belly that protruded beyond my hip bones. As I grew into adolescence I became aware that this wasn’t ok. I longed to get rid of my paunch and roundness. It showed weakness in me and made me different from everyone else. I obsessed on this area. Starting at my stomach in the mirror, sucking it in many, many times a day and as my eating disorder progressed I was crazed with making sure that it was really getting smaller, that my hip bones were there and sticking out. Tape measures were used to ensure that I really was shrinking. However even as the numbers decreased I felt disheartened that some fat still existed there. I didn’t look like the rippling fitness models.  And if I sat down forget it. Fat rolls spilled over my entire abdomen and all my efforts at perfection dissipated. I was the fat kid again.

Over the years, no matter where I’ve been with my eating disorder and body I’ve never had those abs I wanted. A layer of fat still persisted no matter my size or shape. I slowly numbed out to this area. Refusing to look at it in the mirror and instead feeling it from the inside out, a problem in itself as I dealt with persistent digestive trouble. IBS, heartburn, food intolerances. I can’t help but wonder if these digestive problems were fueled by my toxic fixation on this area. A lack of self-love that manifested from the inside out.

This picture evoked a lot of emotion in me.  Hands placed on the stomach.  Something admittedly I still hate to do.  Feelings of discomfort abound with my exterior there even though I suspect that much still comes from inside. The stomach is the last to heal.

As a society as we control our stomachs we also control our feelings and emotions. Hardening to the outside, keeping everything in. In truth a flattened abdomen denies the very things necessary as humans. A strong core doesn’t’ mean a flat belly. Developed abdominal muscles are actually rounded in appearance and have crucial purposes as they help to align our torso, breath, and keep us erect. We are designed for physiological purposes to hold fat differently here and a small layer of fat is actually healthy.  In women this fat is needed to have strong bones and balanced hormones.

This area also houses the enteric nervous system, a place that is often considered to be the “second brain.” Here lies more nerves cells than in the rest of the peripheral nervous system combined. Would you abuse your “first brain” with constant efforts to shrink and hone? Would you melt it away?

Embrace this space. Love it and allow it room to grow and flourish. The more love that you give your stomach the more it will restore to how we are meant to appear inside and out as humans. Come into the full stillness that resides here and listen to what you hear.

What does this photo evoke in you?

Edit: The photo above was chosen because it began this whole train of thought. I realize that it isn’t realistic in many ways but I thought it was important to include it. I don’t imply that this belly is round or full from the outside, but could feel that way from the inside, akin to my experience that I write on.

Photo: Pinterest

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Hannah Siegle

Hannah Siegle began to do yoga four years ago initially for the physical practice, however she quickly discovered that the yoga began to do her in ways she never anticipated. The mind, body and spiritual connection that yoga cultivates has helped Hannah through the ups and downs of life, both large and small. She regularly blogs at Balancing on Two Feet on topics such as yoga, mindfulness, eating disorder recovery and all those things people don’t like to talk about. She was trained at the RYT 200 through Laurel Hodory and is currently working towards becoming a Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapist. She teaches yoga throughout Central Ohio with GoYoga ,yogaServe, and also works as an Assistant Editor for the elephant journal!

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anonymous Apr 21, 2013 12:29pm

Over the years, I've noticed that within a day or two of doing a few dozen repetitions of breathing exercises with strongly exaggerated exhales, my ABs would get very "tonused up" and start tightening & flattening out really nice. There is "something" that feels good about that. But I also noticed my breathing became restricted, shallower and faster. So I had to decide, many years ago, on whether I wanted the flat versus relaxed ABs? Given that I've spent about 45 years doing stuff to keep my breathing long, slow and relaxed, I chose being able to breath better.

Also, after looking up the terms tone and tonus in Taber's Medical Dictionary (they are the only one's I've found that highlight this distinction), I started realizing there is a VERY big difference between "toning" a muscle versus "tonusing" a muscle. According to Taber's, Tone implies a healthy state; while Tonus refers to the nerve charge to the muscle or organ, keeping them contracted & active. Plus, too much activity in those muscles, by way of the somato-visceral reflexes, would keep the enteric (and other parts of the) nervous system too active too much of the time. So those systems would never fully rest & regenerate, leading, eventually, to general, if slow, degeneration.

So all those people who think they're exercising for "toning up" their muscles are more likely "tonusing up" their muscles, gradually increasing the tension & stress in their bodies rather than creating a healthy state. NOT a good thing.

I also realized that real "core stability" is more about fluidity and relaxed, lengthened muscles, rather than tightly contracted, rigidity in muscles. And pot belly and love-handles are actually CAUSED by over-contacted and shortened AB muscles (think No More Sit Ups & Crunches). Then there's the increased pressure on the spinal vertebrae & discs, and shortening of the psoas muscles, from any AB flexion exercises. And when I realized that great posture had next to nothing, or nothing at all, to do with "strong back muscles," but was more about keeping the ABs, gluteals and hamstrings relaxed, lengthened & balanced … even more reason to lay off the quest for flat ABs.

Except for superficial aesthetics, this flat, tight AB thing is just a complete looser all the way around. … Maybe I'd feel different if I were going to be a cover boy for some yoga or fitness magazine, but I doubt that's high on the probability list.

anonymous Apr 15, 2012 8:06pm

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anonymous Dec 28, 2011 4:24am

[…] Fear of the Belly. A Cultural Epidemic. […]

anonymous Dec 21, 2011 12:54am

[…] These brave women and men who have sent me their photos are so much more as well. My heart has been touched as they open up to me, a complete stranger. […]

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[…] Fear of the Belly. A Cultural Epidemic. […]

anonymous Dec 17, 2011 1:53pm

Hannah, great article! Drawing on my experience with an eating disorder and with Kripalu Yoga, I've discovered practical and pleasurable ways we can cultivate our belly-centered power to promote creation — and feel full and strong from the inside out.

I invite you to visit my website at loveyourbelly(dot)com and check out The Woman's Belly Book: Finding Your True Center for More Energy, Confidence, and Pleasure!

    anonymous Dec 17, 2011 2:21pm

    Thank Lisa! I just checkout your site…it is great! This all kinda showed up after I wrote the above article. It has set lots of ideas brewing in my mind!

anonymous Dec 15, 2011 5:46pm

[…] The post I wrote a couple days ago, “Fear of the Belly. A Cultural Epidemic” generated quite a bit of buzz regarding the photo I chose to post with it. […]

anonymous Dec 15, 2011 10:07am

[…] a bit of buzz regarding the photo I chose to post with it, especially in my repost of it on the elephant journal. Why would a discussion about the realness of the belly include a picture that has defined hip bones […]

anonymous Dec 14, 2011 4:28pm

Thank you so much for this post, Hannah! Having struggled with the same issue as a girl, I so appreciated this article. Much love to you (and your belly)!

anonymous Dec 14, 2011 3:02pm

For a perspective on the belly as the spiritual center, I highly recommend Hara: The Vital Center of Man (despite the sexist language in the title–this was written pre-feminist revolution).

anonymous Dec 14, 2011 2:21pm

Ah, the yummy belly! I spent years, half my life at least, sucking my belly in so tight I could barely breath believing this was part of correct posture and how I was supposed to look to be attractive and successful. I would never wish the self abuse and depression I fought through to get to where I am today, but I am so happy I learned to appreciate my body and my mind and my way of thinking that I now hold as healthy and normal. Thank you for this article.

anonymous Dec 14, 2011 10:17am

[…] with being a pudge have returned. I read this fantastic article by fellow yogi Hannah Siegle on our cultural fear of bellies: Soft, pliable, round, full, vulnerable. All dirty […]

anonymous Dec 14, 2011 9:04am

This is something I can relate to completely, as someone who has dealt with body issues my entire life. I think you hit the nail on the head with the emotional aspect that is connected directly to the physical aspect of not quite measuring up. Well done Hannah! And you are beautiful, I can tell by the way you write.

    anonymous Dec 14, 2011 9:54am

    You are so sweet! Thanks Becca!

Kate Bartolotta Dec 14, 2011 6:41am

"This area also houses the enteric nervous system, a place that is often considered to be the “second brain.” Here lies more nerves cells than in the rest of the peripheral nervous system combined. Would you abuse your “first brain” with constant efforts to shrink and hone? Would you melt it away?"

I love this Hannah! I love the whole thing, actually, and thought the picture was perfect.

When I look at that picture, I realize that the already gorgeous model probably ate only protein for 4 days before the shoot, and probably drank no water for 12 hours before the shoot…and then they airbrushed her some more anyway. And she probably looked at the photo and zeroed in on whatever she perceives to be flaws. I think skinny bellies are great, and round bellies are great, and everything in between. It bothers me a little when people make reference to "real women" when they mean "curvy women." All women are real women…airbrushed photos…not so real.

I was at war with my belly for a very long time. Even with my barely 90 lbs concave belly, I still felt like it wasn't ok. Yoga helped a lot. And therapy, body work, etc. But when I was pregnant, and could feel my baby moving in my "belly" was when I started to make peace with it. I think my belly and I have sort of a truce going now. I have my moments where I wish it was tighter, more ripped, whatever… but I love the way my body looks, feels, moves, what it can do. I trust my gut;)

Thanks for writing this!

anonymous Dec 14, 2011 6:22am

The belly… the epicenter of my soul… I LOVE MY BELLY … it talks to me and tells me about necessity… I've learned to listen and smile. Thanks for sharing some beautiful soul-stirring words to remind the belly to be soft and in love!

Lauren Hanna Dec 14, 2011 5:13am

This photo is completely feminine and beautiful to me! All bellies are beautiful. Belly buttons are probably God's best creation to date.

I struggled for years with the fat rolls that would accumulate when sitting — Funny you included that here. I remember the unfortunate googling of "how to lose weight" i undertook while in middle school and high school – stumbling upon websites that advocated for eating disorders. Especially unfortunate since I never weighed more than 120 in high school at 5"9 — I had no right to be trying to lose weight! Such an issue in our culture; we instead need to advocate for health & well-being. Thank you for sharing this! More people need to know that they are not alone 🙂

your fellow elephant,

anonymous Dec 14, 2011 12:43am

Just posted to "Featured Today" on the Elephant Yoga homepage. Like Elephant Yoga on Facebook.

anonymous Dec 14, 2011 12:12am

Hannah, I love this blog and I love your courage and honesty. I am so thankful you are here and also a part of the ele yoga team! You are so beautiful and strong.

When I look at that belly photo I automatically compare it to my own – it's perfect and mine will never look or be that way, but I feel I'm a place right now where that's really okay and that feels good. And, not to mention, perhaps there's a whole lot of DNA contributing to that belly up there – it just wasn't in my genes. 🙂

Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

Tanya Lee Markul, Yoga Editor
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Just posted to "Featured Today" on the Elephant Yoga homepage. Like Elephant Yoga on Facebook.

    anonymous Dec 14, 2011 5:41am

    Tanya, I chose that picture because of it actually inspired this whole thought train. I'm going to include a disclaimer about that and an edit!

anonymous Dec 13, 2011 10:45pm

Agree with Valerie and Debra! The picture you presented here is what society thinks is perfect. You contradict yourself here!
I think we should strive for healthy and toned bodies. Noone wants to have flabby, stretched out bellies. And all the physical and mental anguish is the price you pay for beauty!

    anonymous Dec 14, 2011 5:40am

    Hi Viola. See above for my reply!

    anonymous Dec 14, 2011 7:36am

    Good gravy, people…it's an "I Heart My Belly" mudra in the photo. see the message, not the image.

    (I'm from Ohio, we like gravy…and biscuits 🙂

anonymous Dec 13, 2011 10:22pm

I totally agree with Debra. The picture doesn’t jive with the tone of the article. I wish you would have chosen a picture that realistically shows what a stomach that causes women such torture actually looks like.

I love the article’s honesty, but that picture evokes a feeling of anger. It’s not real for the majority of women dealing with body issues.

    anonymous Dec 14, 2011 5:40am

    Valerie, I chose the picture because the picture inspired the whole thought train. It of course is probably photoshopped and the like. I'm going to include an edit to the article.

anonymous Dec 13, 2011 9:39pm

Good on you, Hannah! The solar plexus, our most potent and heated center…It makes sense that having unconditional love for this place means we then must OWN our infinite force. God forbid we align with our greatest power…Love~~~
Your post reminds us all of that choice…and if we choose to align we start by acknowledging unsavory truths within us…

anonymous Dec 13, 2011 9:34pm

Great message, but sheesh… the picture you show is the world's most perfect belly. How about some actual soft, pliable, found, full bellies!

    anonymous Dec 14, 2011 5:38am

    Debra, yes it is. It was more about what this photo evoked in me than the actual photo.,

anonymous Dec 13, 2011 10:22am

Great message Hannah!!! I was a runner in my younger days also worked out w/weights, my coach had me "belly breathe" to prevent side stitches, and even though I was VERY lean, I never had 6-pack abs–no matter how many 12 mile runs, laps in the pool, crunches, or how much I fasted (and binged).

Today, I no longer run, but do yoga, qigong, and meditate. so I'm still breathing deeply into 'Dantian' (dan t'ian, dan tien or tan t'ien), especially when I feel myself becoming unbalanced, I focus my breathing there. so I, too, accept my older, rounded belly w/a wee bit o'fat (which changes depending on what I eat and my exercise level 🙂 as a healthy one.

There are also more belly dancers today who are (rightly) showing their curves as a sign of a healthy core.

    anonymous Dec 13, 2011 6:10pm

    I'm glad you enjoyed it! It is time we accepted the human body as it is! So very few of us really are able to have that six pack!