There are few body positive acts more culturally fraught in American society than celebrating big bellies. From magazine articles touting "10 Tips For Rock-Hard Abs" to discussions about which celebrities lost the baby weight fastest, bellies seem to gain in perceived value only as they physically disappear. In this atmosphere, the simple act of loving your belly can seem next to impossible.
Even within the body positive community, we're often primarily exposed to larger versions of the traditionally valued hourglass silhouette, i.e. the body shape with the proportionally smallest stomach. As I've learned to embrace different parts of myself over the years — from my substantial thighs to my ample bust — loving my belly has always been one of the hardest steps for me to take.
Luckily, I've had a lot of inspiration to encourage me from the body positive community. So many plus size bloggers, Instagrammers, activists, and artists have created amazing work that encourages me every day to love my body and belly without shame. These women have taught me many different ways to care for myself and retrain my thinking. From flaunting my VBO to changing the language I use to talk about myself, here are seven ways I've learned to celebrate my belly, no matter what the world might say.
1. Say Goodbye To Sneaky Shapewear
While I never really wore much shapewear outside of formal events, I basically refused to sport any underwear that wasn't super high-waisted and smoothing for a long time. I wanted to minimize any potential lumps, bumps, or rolls, and nothing was more distracting than having my briefs roll down under my stomach in the middle of the day. It felt like a crisis to be able to see the line of my stomach curving under dresses or skirts, and I would rush to the bathroom to readjust all my undergarments until I felt acceptable again.
The idea of wearing bikini or hipster panties seemed absolutely laughable. They'd cut into my rolls! People would be able to see my belly fat! The horror! While I didn't force myself to wear compression garments, I didn't quite realize that my obsession with smoothing skivvies played to the same insecurity. The first time I wore a pair of low-cut hipsters, I was vaguely horrified. There was my stomach, hanging out without any fabric veiling its soft dimensions!
Eventually, though, I realized how much more comfortable I felt when I wasn't constantly obsessing about covering and containing my belly. I am fat. My stomach is large, and soft, and jiggly. Obsessing about my underwear isn't fooling anyone, and it distracts me from the more important business of living my own life. Now I wear whatever underwear makes me feel good, and let my belly do its thing.
2. Breathe Deep
For years, I took shallow, measured breaths, holding my stomach in submission to create a slimmer figure. I hardly even realized I was doing it, until I took a yoga class and my instructor taught me to breathe all the way into my belly. What a difference! I hadn't realized how many subtle ways I was regulating my behavior in order to maintain the illusion of a smaller stomach.
Allowing my belly to take up as much space as it needs — to fully expand my body with each breath — is a small way for me to claim my right to exist comfortably where I am. It feels crazy to me that for years I changed the way I breathed because of body insecurities; breathing is one of the prerequisites to being alive! But even this seemingly fundamental part of life was secondary to my desire to look thinner. Getting my priorities straight has not only changed the way I feel emotionally about myself, but it's shifted the way I feel physically, in my body, for the better.
3. Give Yourself Some Tender Loving Care
In order to love my belly, I've had to learn to treat it just like I might any other part of my body. I used to ignore my stomach, leaving it out of any pampering I bestowed on the rest of me. In my mind, there was absolutely no way I could make my belly look "good," so what was the point? I didn't want anyone to see that part of me anyway. My partner actually helped me a lot in this respect, because he insisted on touching my belly in affectionate ways, and seemed to enjoy all the things that had always made me hate it, from its squishy softness to the way it jiggles when I laugh.
After a while, I started to examine my belly without automatically falling into shame or disgust. I began to make amends, rubbing sweet-smelling oils into the stretch-marked skin on my stomach after showers, even taking belly selfies in the mirror. It made me sad to think of all the time I'd spent loathing this part of my body that did so many amazing things for me. Now, when I feel a burst of insecurity coming on, I try to get out of my head and into my body by taking a little time to care for my belly through massaging it or soothing it with pampering potions. Even though these actions may seem small, they've made a huge difference in how I treat myself.
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4. Consider A Tattoo
I've long been fascinated by tattoos; I even wrote a M.A. thesis about them! But I always put off getting one myself because I felt like my body wasn't in the "right" kind of shape to showcase that kind of ornamentation. I'm currently planning my first tattoo; as you might guess, it's going on my belly as a way to reclaim this part of my body, and as a giant "fuck you" to everyone who ever told me I needed to shrink in order to make others more comfortable.
If you've always wanted to get inked with something beautiful or meaningful, but like me, have put it off for an imaginary future when you think you'll feel more worthy, remember that life is far too short to wait for permission to be yourself. If there's a part of your body that you struggle with, consider decorating it with imagery that you love, as a reminder of your power to define yourself on your own terms.
5. Show Off That VBO
Quite a few plus size fashionistas and activists have written about the radical potential of embracing and flaunting the visible belly outline, and I can say from experience that learning to rock my VBO has been essential to my belly love journey. More than anything, accepting this aspect of my body that I'm supposed to hide with "flattering" silhouettes and slimming shapewear has helped me untangle the shame I associated with my belly in the past.
Taking something that is supposed to be avoided at any cost and highlighting it with tight dresses, crop tops, and slinky skirts reminds me that there is nothing inherently shameful or embarrassing about having a big belly. It's just another fact about my body, like my brown hair and fair skin. I have nothing to hide.
6. Change Your Language
As part of my journey towards belly positivity, I've had to carefully reassess the way I talk about my body, both out loud and in my head. My own critical self-talk has been an extremely toxic habit in my personal life; looking in the mirror at my belly and mentally berating myself for being "flabby" or "disgusting" was at one time almost second nature to me. I hardly even realized I was doing it.
It wasn't until I began purposefully trying to replace these negative attitudes with more positive ones that I became aware of how constant and demeaning my inner monologue had become. I try to pay attention now to the way I describe my body. This hasn't been limited to the words I choose; the tone and intention behind my language is equally if not more important. Calling myself fat can be either a pointed judgment, or a neutral, even positive statement of simple facts.
When I catch myself in an internal spiral of self-criticism, I try to redirect my mental energy in a better direction. "I look huge" becomes "I take up the space I need." "My belly is disgusting and unlovable" turns to "my belly is soft, strong, and great for cuddling." Although this is a lifelong process that never really ends, it's well worth it to strive to be your body's own best friend and advocate, instead of its worst critic.
7. Embrace The Jiggle
Aside from the shape and size of my belly, I used to be ashamed of how mobile and jiggly it was. When I watched workout videos, the bellies of the trainers I envied were not only smooth and svelte, but they didn't move at all. There was something so alluring to me about the rigidity of hard abs; the way they refused to bow to gravity or movement, reduced to a wall of implacable muscle. I wanted to feel that way — immune to nature and the common flaws of humanity; a lean, immovable force.
Of course, my belly is far from this hard-bodied ideal. Literally every part of me is soft and yielding. When I walk, my fat ripples and eddies, and my thighs continue moving after the rest of me has stopped. I don't fight this anymore. Movement is natural. No matter how hard I might go at weight lifting, cardio, and diets, gravity will eventually have its way with my body, as it does with everyone's. I don't have to be hard. My worthiness doesn't come from striving. For me, embracing my body's natural jiggle has meant embracing ease, giving up the myths of effort and perfection, and coming to grips with my own messy humanity.
Although learning to love and celebrate your belly can seem like a risky decision in our body-shaming culture, it's a deeply worthwhile pursuit that will radically change your relationship with your body. Once I began the process of accepting my belly, that part of myself I had always deemed most shameful, I gained so much more freedom to love myself without holding back.
Images: Mariah Carrillo (1); Kris Atomic/Unsplash (1)