Walking down the dusty hill from the highest point of Croatia’s Rat Peninsula, the tour guide asked if I was pregnant. I assumed there was a language barrier, even though my chaperone had written multiple guidebooks in English and had spent the morning pointing them out in storefronts. “Sorry?” I said, even though he would soon be the one repeating that word.
He tried again: “You are expecting?”
I don’t know how many times I replied with the word “no” — somewhere between five and 15. Almost immediately, sweating under the September sun, my guide overflowed with apology. Then he made things worse. “I would never normally say something like that,” he said.
Oh, OK, I thought. So you were sure, sure?
No matter what my belly actually looked like — and it has changed significantly over the years — I have always seen it as a pasty white Bundt cake, protruding and sloping where others lie flat. I’ve imagined that wherever I go, eyes are drawn toward a bulbous capital C of flesh and that friends whisper about my belly after we go to the ocean.
As a result, I’ve clutched towels above my bikini bottoms and bought dresses that hit the ribs before unfurling into tents. I have perfected the art of sucking in when a phone camera is lifted up. As an anorexic teen, I used to circle my belly with black Sharpie dashes in imitation of a TV makeover host, imagining the marker would soon be traced with a surgeon’s knife.
In Croatia, someone had explicitly confirmed my fears. But I largely had those fears because of how warped the world is when it comes to women’s stomachs. My belly is not remarkable. It did not deserve to be remarked upon. If an alien put all of humanity in a line and was tasked with picking out our species’ most unusual abdomens, it is the perfectly flat ones that would be anomalous.
Our society hates and fears bellies. It is the part of the body that cameras seek out in news reports about public health, the first thing a child emphasizes when drawing a stick figure of a fat person. I often think of the reaction when the fitness brand Gymshark posted an Instagram picture of a model with a “soft” (the model’s word) stomach. Customers responded to her body with horror, littering the comment section with their disgust.
Despite the great strides made by the body positivity movement in recent years, round tummies are still taboo. Last year, the plus-size model Kayla Zulik-Russo revealed that agencies expect her to have a “flat stomach,” a sentiment that has been shared by her peers. In 2019, a self-described “curvy model,” Abby Russell, complained about brands seeking “a palatable version of a plus-size body — an hourglass shape with a slim, toned stomach.”
Although I store fat in my abdomen, I am not plus size, and many might find it laughable that I believe my belly to be somehow significant enough to write an article about. I understand.
I’ve scoffed when a slim supermodel has posted a picture claiming to have a food baby and rolled my eyes when an influencer has “bravely” pinched at nonexistent belly rolls. Yet, as someone who has recovered from an eating disorder, I think it’s important to question how perspectives become so warped. I feel as though we are collectively suffering from belly dysmorphia; we are blind to the reality of what most abdomens actually look like.
When I was growing up, in the aughts, the only time I saw an ordinary stomach in the media was when it was circled on the front of a women’s gossip magazine. I witnessed the tiniest bump on Jessica Simpson’s abdomen be derided. Today, we’re still less likely to see softer bellies on TV or in magazines, and an entirely new generation has embraced low-rise jeans. Celebrities hawk blackberry-flavored anti-bloat gummies and charge $30 for a month’s supply. My phone serves me spam pop-up ads in which stomachs that slope like mine are colored red as if they’ve just been slapped.
We are a long way from understanding bellies and seeing them accurately represented around us. How many of us have looked at a Renaissance painting and marveled that rounder stomachs were once considered beautiful? How many generations have scratched their heads at Maria de Medeiros’s speech in “Pulp Fiction,” wondering why her character believes that, “on a woman, a pot belly is very sexy”?
What would it take for society to accept the belly, not necessarily as something beautiful but merely as something that is?
If we woke up tomorrow and everyone agreed with this sentiment, little would appear to change. And yet it would mean an instant end to the wars raging in so many women’s minds.
Maybe it sounds frivolous to imagine such a reality; I don’t think it is. What might I otherwise have done with the money I’ve spent on control underwear and the time I’ve spent pinching and pulling in front of the mirror? What would you wear if you only wore what you wanted? How would you hold yourself? What would you be like in the sea?
A friend tells me that she frequently thinks about a 2020 Instagram video of the singer Cardi B sucking her belly in before breathing out — whenever it pops into her head, she reaches for a cookie. On TikTok, the hashtag “apronbelly” has 80 million views; here people show off abdomens that droop and swing and squish, normalizing what is normal. Those videos are radical, those women are radicals, and they fill me with hope.
We can’t all be radical, but we should look at ourselves with the perspective lacking in the mainstream representation of bellies.
What do strangers think when they look at me and my belly? Some might think, “I’m glad I don’t look like her”; another handful might think, “I wish I did.” But I imagine a vast majority simply think, “That is what she looks like.” To me, that is an endlessly comforting idea.