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My stomach is soft and squishy with no ab definition in sight. I have rolls and sometimes really bad bloating (TMI, but true) that makes my favorite leggings fit a little too snug for comfort. I suck my stomach in constantly, even when no one is looking. I, ad nauseum, put rules and restrictions around what type of clothes I can and can't wear depending on how much they hide or accentuate what I lovingly call my "pooch." Crop tops? No, thank you.
Even as a certified life coach who advocates self-love and a positive mindset, I too, like many people, am self-conscious about my stomach and have been for what feels like forever. I'm human. Recently, though, I've been greatly inspired by other women to love on my stomach on a whole other level.
Case in point? Lizzo, the queen of self-love herself, who blows kisses to her stomach and showers it with praise in front of the mirror. Plus the hashtag movement, #StopSuckingItIn, which was started by Rosie Rees, a body-image activist, owner of Yoni Pleasure Palace, and creator of nude yoga (which features hundreds of photos of bellies in all their glory).
According to Rees, who has taught women's nude yoga workshops for seven years, the one body part that most women tend to loathe is their stomachs. "Most women unconsciously suck in their belly all day long in the attempt to have a flat stomach and thus fit into what society deems as 'beautiful' or 'attractive,'" she says. The hashtag, she adds, is about giving women permission to accept and embrace their tummy and rewire their brains to relax their stomachs.
So where do we pick up these body image messages and the constant need to hide and suck in our stomachs? Rees points to external sources such as magazines, media, pop culture, and societal conditioning, as well as our inner circle which can include parents, grandparents, and siblings who may have literally told us to "Stand up tall, put your shoulders back, and suck in your belly."
"When we've been fed this lie from such a young age, we begin to do it subconsciously every day and it's very hard to change the mental script from suck in your belly to relax your belly," Rees says. This can affect our self-esteem and mental health as well.
"It makes us believe that if we release our stomachs we look worse," says Sanam Hafeez, PsyD, an NYC-based neuropsychologist and faculty member at Columbia University. "This action can cause people to become hyper-aware of their appearance and uncomfortable in their own skin. People may form anxiety around the way they look and how they feel people perceive them."
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Furthermore, the habit of sucking in our stomach can also affect our sense of self-worth and ability to show up big in our lives. "Sucking in your belly literally makes you physically smaller," Rees says. "Over thousands of years, women have been primed to be smaller, weaker, and to not take up too much space, whilst simultaneously being appealing, beautiful, quiet, attractive, useful, and fertile. It shut down our expression and our ability to take up space, be heard, and be worthy just as we are—at any weight, shape, size, color, age, or ethnicity."
In other words, the benefits of embracing our bellies just as they are and not sucking it in go beyond just accepting the way we look. It's much bigger than that. "It's about taking up space, embodying your body, and reclaiming what is rightfully ours," Rees says. "When we do this our mental health, body image perception, and overall self-esteem will skyrocket."
The question then becomes how exactly do we cultivate next-level confidence à la Lizzo. Like with most things, it's not an overnight thing. It takes practice and patience. Self-love is a journey, for sure. To help with the process, below, Rees and Hafeez share six tangible practices for accepting, loving, and embracing your stomach."
6 Ways to Accept, Love, and Embrace Your Stomach
1. Practice Awareness
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Awareness, Rees says, is the first step toward embracing your stomach and overcoming the habit of constantly sucking it in. "Simply notice when you begin to suck your belly in," she says. "Perhaps it's in the car on the way to work, sitting on the train, sitting on the couch with your partner, during sex, or when you wear particular outfits."
2. Soften Your Belly
"With that newfound belly awareness, the next step is relaxing the belly. Consciously relax and soften your belly by focusing on your breath and letting your belly expand on your inhale and allow your vaginal muscles to soften on your exhale," Rees says. "The key is in letting go and rewiring your brain from gripping and contracting, to relaxing and softening." She adds that it's important to be patient with yourself as it takes time to cultivate this new practice.
3. Lovingly Touch Your Belly
Just like we respond positively to touch and love, so do our bodies. "When we don't like a certain part of our body, we intentionally neglect, avoid or totally abandon it," Rees says. "However, by massaging your belly every day after a warm shower or bath, you can monumentally change the way you think and feel about your belly."
4. Express Gratitude for Your Body
While you're loving on your belly, Rees and Hafeez also recommend feeling gratitude for all that it does such as digesting food, protecting your organs, allowing you to exercise, and even growing a human being! "Treat your body with kindness and embrace your stomach for all that it is, not all it is not," Hafeez says.
5. Cleanse Your Social Feed
When you see an endless stream of photos on social media of the "ideal" body image, Hafeez says it can be triggering and may make you fall back into the old habit of disliking how you look. To remedy this, she advises combing through the accounts you follow and unfollowing the ones that make you feel lesser-than and then following accounts that promote body positivity.
6. Show It Off Unapologetically
Speaking of social media, there is something very empowering about not just loving on your belly exactly as it is, but also taking it a step further and embracing it on social media by posting a photo of it in all its splendor. "It gives other women permission to do the same and thus overcome negative body image issues and learn to love the body we have in this lifetime," Rees says.