Fear of the Belly. A Cultural Epidemic.

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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dslyoga 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.

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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!