Last May, Marie Claire ran the following headline: “Butts are in.” Meanwhile, according to September’s issue of Vogue, “We have officially entered the age of big butts.” All this is somewhat ironic, coming from fashion magazines whose pages are hopelessly empty of big behinds.
It’s no surprise that critics have pointed out — and rightfully so — that people like big butts, and they’ve always had success in Black and Latino culture, even if Vogue is apparently the last to know. But it’s true that butts, and by extension, thighs, are enjoying the limelight in today’s media. They’re celebrated pretty much everywhere: by Jennifer Lopez and Iggy Azalea in their last video, Queen Bey, Nicki Minaj in her video “Anaconda”… We almost talk as much today about women’s butts as we do their breasts, the other female attribute that the media wants bigger and bigger, and ever more exposed.
So the perfect woman has to have big boobs, a big butt… but why doesn’t she have a big gut? The stomach remains the big taboo of the female body; it can’t exist, it has to be as flat as possible, with the waistline perfectly defined and no disgraceful flab. This is even more blatant when we look at the fashion world and its models. Slowly, the fashion world is diversifying what we see, with labels that haven’t traditionally catered to other body types including more and more “plus size” models on the runway, like the sublime Denise Bidot (size 12) during the last Fashion Week in New York. Yet, none of the visible plus size models have any stomach. All of them have an hourglass figure with a full chest and thighs, but still a slim waist and flat stomach.
In reality, only 8 percent of women are the happy owners of an “hourglass” figure, according to a study published in 2005 by North Carolina State University, while 46 percent of participants had a “rectangular” figure, without a defined waistline. The unseen belly has really become a source of worry and judgment about beauty. In a study conducted in 2012 on this subject, the Ipsos Institute showed that 41 percent of French respondents surveyed don’t like their stomach, and that within this group, 57 percent find it their biggest body worry. Working in women’s lingerie, particularly in plus sizes, every day women come to me asking specifically for something that can hide their stomach only. You can live with your hips, round behinds are all the rage, full thighs are sexy. But you still have to pack your gut into a reinforced corset and flatten it to make it presentable. Why is it that we’re so concerned about our bellies?
A flat stomach: the sign of a healthy body?
We avoid a big stomach today for reasons of health. Abdominal fat is considered dangerous because of its link to cardiovascular diseases, so having a flat stomach isn’t just a question of aesthetics: it’s a sign that we take care of ourselves and care about our health. Those who show a chubby tummy are quickly accused of letting themselves go, instead of rigorously doing sit-ups or working out on the elliptical to sculpt the middle of their body.
However, our stomach is more than just a (small or large) ball-and-chain. Modern science concurs with traditional medicine on the importance of the paunch. In traditional Chinese medicine, the stomach is source of the Qi (or chi), where our spiritual energy meets our physical body. In Hindu philosophy, the stomach is the seat of the soul. For Buddhists, the laughing Buddha’s big stomach symbolizes fortune and happiness. So our stomach is the source of our life-energy, our well-being, but also of our emotions. Pain in this area often has a psychological dimension, as Mathilde Faivre explains in her essay The Symbolism of the Stomach. Conditions like Irritable Bowel Disorder (IBD) are strongly linked with stress. Recently science has shown that our intestines are the only organ in our body, other than the brain, where neurons are found. Eighty percent of serotonin, the hormone that most affects our mood, is produced in the gut. Thus, the stomach plays a crucial role in our equilibrium and overall health, and not just because of cardiovascular risks.
Excessive sexualization of female sexual attributes
If our stomach is where our spirit and emotions reside, why are we trying to make it disappear at all costs? For women, it’s mostly that it’s eclipsed by the other sexual attributes of the female body — the breasts and the butt — where “the bigger, the better” is happily the rule. But who declared that big breasts are more appealing than small ones? Mainly the “male gaze,” a concept developed by the (feminist) film theorist Laura Mulvey in 1975. She uses the term to refer to how heterosexual men gaze, or look at women in society and in mass media. As Mulvey says, “because most films are made by heterosexual men, they are shot from the perspective of a straight man and force that perspective on the audience.” The example of the male gaze explains why women’s bodies are frequently, even systematically, shown and filmed in a fragmented way: curves, cleavage, legs… In the same vein, it’s because of the male gaze that female characters are regularly eroticized without reason in media and film, or that their bodies are used in ads to sell anything and everything, from cars to yogurt.
When we break apart the female body to focus on breasts and butts, we forget about the stomach, which in turn becomes something forgettable and undesirable. In the West, the stomach isn’t seen as a sexual attribute. It doesn’t have the same erotic dimension as does the chest or the butt. With the constantly eroticized conception of women that rules today, the stomach has to shrink and become tiny enough that it can show off the comparatively dramatic volume of the breasts and the butt. And it’s all for the pleasure of the heterosexual, male spectator/reader.
Rejection of the natural evolution of the female body
It’s well known that when a woman gains weight, it goes directly to the hips and thighs and that in men, it all goes to the gut. The fault lies with male (testosterone) and female (estrogen and progesterone) hormones that distribute fat in different ways across our bodies. However, during a woman’s life, hormone levels change, and the figure does, too. During pregnancy, the stomach grows round and perfectly embodies the symbol of the mother who nurtures her offspring. Even postpartum, it’s quite common for a woman to retain somewhat of a stomach for several months, or even longer. Unlike celebrity news coverage, which shows young women displaying flat stomachs mere weeks after giving birth, American photographer Jade Beall published a book of photos entitled The Bodies of Mothers. In these photos we see mothers of all ages and body type proudly carry the stomachs that society refuses to accept, even after pregnancy. Sometimes their skin bears the trace of stretch marks or C-sections, and this reminds us, a woman’s stomach is also a history.
Likewise, once in her forties, a woman’s hormone levels begin to fall rapidly. Naturally this brings about a change in figure: fat develops more easily around the abdomen, as it does in men. It’s a process that’s perfectly natural and biologically inevitable, and yet it generates a complex: we move away from the so-called “feminine” figure, the famous hourglass shape deemed ideal. But why should we really care?
Our stomach is so many things: a universal symbol, an organ working for our health, a source of delicious delight… but it’s also the witness of a life, our life, and of the events that have marked it along the way (pregnancy, childbirth, menopause). If we’re to believe the doctors, we need to take care, rub it regularly, tame it and make peace with it to make peace with our whole body. It remains noticeably absent from the Fashion and Beauty pages and the red carpet, but maybe it’s time to stop caring so much about what we’re told. A well-rounded stomach can be pretty, erotic, feminine — and if it’s ours, all the more reason to learn to love it!