The tyranny of the flat tummy

Yesterday, when Brian and I finished up our run, we decided to stop by the pool afterward for a quick cool-down dip.  (One of the pleasures of living in Florida!)  I took off my sweaty tank top and my shoes, and Brian asked me when I was going to start running without a shirt on.

That’s something I’ve been talking about for a couple of years now, ever since I ran a 12K race in a sports bra and shorts.  It was a muggy, gross day, but the lack of clothing made it tolerable, and when I crossed the finish line at the St. Petersburg Pier, I was delighted to have finished in a little over an hour, and with only minimal walking, too.

Until I saw my race photos.

As if it wasn’t bad enough that I was flushed scarlet and my hair was plastered to my head, my belly was overhanging the top band of my shorts.  All the pride I felt  from knowing I had run from the Intracoastal Waterway to the Gulf of Mexico vaporized, and in its place I felt shame and embarrassment.  I had run along one of the busiest roads in Pinellas County, with thousands of other people, looking like that?

Since then, I have never run without a shirt on.

After that day, whenever I go to races or competitions, I look with envy at the women who bare chiseled abs as nonchalantly as the rest of us show our hands.  I think about my own little roll and feel embarrassed because it exists, which is then followed by anger at myself for even caring about something as superficial as a bit of flab on my tummy, and frustration because I know that I’m totally buying into bullshit beauty standards when I feel this way.

And then I roll down a spiral of shame and self-hate until I realize it’s just easier to put a damn shirt on and not think about it.

I’m not alone in caring, though.  Walk past any supermarket check-out aisle with its stacks of Self and Shape and Oxygen and Women’s Health, and more often than not the cover will contain some headline in 36-point font promising flat abs in just five minutes a day.  Never mind that the exercises are always the same permutations of crunches and Pilates moves and twists.  The desire for a flat tummy is so powerful, so overwhelming, that it has enabled generations of women’s fitness magazine editors to recycle the same content for years and thus perform their jobs with as little effort as possible.

But the thing that makes me kind of crazy about the ab obsession is that flat abs are almost entirely cosmetic.  There is absolutely nothing functional about flat abs.  You don’t run faster with flat abs. You can’t lift more weight. You don’t shoot a basketball with greater accuracy.  You can’t ride a bike faster.  You can’t swim farther.  You just have a flat stomach.

Sure, a strong core is very useful for many, many reasons, but don’t mistake core strength for flatness.  It is entirely possible to have a strong core while still not having a flat stomach.  (I’m proof of this!) It is possible to be fit and not have a flat stomach.  Shit, it is possible to compete at a high level and not have a flat stomach.  I once watched a girl kick ass in the national collegiate championships in the 5000 meter race, and her stomach looked exactly like mine.  It was super awesome to see someone who did not fit that whippet-thin distance-runner stereotype own a race like that.

The reason why a flat tummy is seen as so desirable has nothing to do with strength or fitness, and is all about conveying to the world that you have discipline.  Because this is the dirty little secret that none of these “Flat Abs in Five Minutes!” features tell their readers – abs are made in the kitchen, not the gym.  So not only do you have to engage in a consistent exercise routine, but you’ve also got to eat clean and be super-disciplined about it.

I love to drink beer and I love to eat cheese.  And when I lay the trade-off out like that – cold beer when I get home from work vs. washboard abs, soft Brie on crackers vs. a cut core – my enthusiasm not only wanes.  It completely vanishes.

Certainly I don’t mean to denigrate those who choose to pursue the path of chiseled-ab-hood.  I cannot deny that a well-muscled core looks excellent, the same way ropy arms and tree-trunk thighs look excellent.  If a person chooses to spend the time necessary and make the required changes to their diet in order to pursue this goal, by all means, more power to them.

But it’s worth keeping in mind that the pursuit of flat abs is not the same as working toward greater health or better fitness.  (And in fact, it’s possible for a person to have flat abs and NOT be in shape.  I don’t want to name names but I’ve seen photos of famous women with thighs like toothpicks who have flat stomachs, and I doubt they got those stomachs through a rigorous regimen of hanging leg raises and medicine ball twists.  I’m just sayin’.) A flat tummy is all about the looks – nothing more, nothing less.

Postscript: I was going to end the blog post there, but I was thinking about how I can have all these opinions about flat tummies, yet still be so invested in them that it affects my self-image the way it does.  Why is this?

I mean, I’ve read my third-wave feminist theory, right?  I’ve immersed myself in media theory.  I bring a critical eye to magazines and celebrity news and fitness culture.  I should be innoculated against this stuff, right?

And yet.

I’m not.

Is this an example of just how powerful and how pervasive media images are?  That someone who knows with every synapse in her brain that thing A is true yet can’t help but feel deep in her gut that thing B is really how it is?  Like, think about how we all know that Photoshop is used to extensively retouch photos in magazines.  I can’t speak for anyone else, but yet when I see a woman in a magazine whose skin positively radiates, I feel worse about my own skin and I hate on myself a little more.  This, even though I know all about the power of Photoshop.

I guess this is why I can’t get on board with people who diminish the power of media culture, and its jaded little sister advertising, as if a few encouraging words from parents and loved ones are all that is necessary to stave off the tidal wave of glossy idiocy flung at us from all sides.

And that’s how it works – the industry generates a demand by making us feel ugly and like crap, then tells us we can fix ourselves if we buy this magazine and follow this routine, or invest in this DVD set, or use this special firming cream.  It’s been doing it for decades – check out this round-up from Slate if you don’t believe me –  and it keeps doing it because it WORKS.  They’ve brought writers and artists and psychologists into their fold, and all of these people have used their considerable talents to hit us right in the proverbial soft, white underbelly.

The end result is that you have a woman like me, who would rather eat her own sweaty gym socks than run without a shirt on.

2 responses to “The tyranny of the flat tummy

  1. Pingback: Of six-pack abs and real girl bellies « Fit and Feminist·

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