‘I hate my tummy’.
Well, sometimes I do. Sometimes I look at my tummy and am glad that it’s winter and I don’t have to show it to anyone. Sometimes, on the other hand, I see my tummy in the bathroom mirror and think to myself, “Damn! I look amazing!”
Whether you love your tummy right now, or you hate it, it’s something that so many women think about.
What is a tummy anyway? This may sound like a ridiculous question but there’s a lot going on in there; more so if you’re a woman.
Under your skin, in the space above your pelvic floor and below your diaphragm, are layers of muscle under which you’ll find your digestive and reproductive systems.
What this part of your body looks and feels like, says a lot about your health, diet and lifestyle.
Perhaps we obsess about our tummies so much because they tell us, and others, so much about ourselves; they are right there at the front of our bodies, clearly visible in the mirror or just by looking down.
Six-pack abs, bloating, belly-button doughnuts, wrinkles, loose skin, stretch marks and that mysterious dark line that appears when you’re pregnant. Let’s take a stroll through some of the issues that affect our tummies to see what we can change and what we may just have to learn to love.
What are your abs? Why does anyone want them, and how can you get them?
Your abs are two muscles which are joined together, running from your pubic bone to your rib-cage, enabling you to flex your spine forwards. They are right under your skin and therefore you can see them easily, if there isn’t much fat between them and the skin.
And that is why they are a holy grail of fitness: they indicate a low body fat percentage. They’re also something you can count (they usually appear from the top downwards as a two-pack, a four-pack, a six-pack and occasionally an eight-pack) and if you ask me they look pretty cool.
You need a low body fat percentage to have a six-pack. How low, will depend on your personal physiology.
They will appear if you listen carefully when your trainer explains how to engage your core properly with every single exercise; if you follow her advice to eat right, and if you pay attention when she coaches you on how to handle life’s stresses. You never have to do a single crunch ever again.
You’re bloated, if you look like you could be one of those celebs photographed on the beach with a long lens and with a circle drawn around your belly in one of those gossip magazines with the caption, “Pregnant?” and you’re not pregnant.
Your tummy isn’t happy if it does an impression of a pufferfish.
It could indicate that you have a sensitivity to something. Everyone is ‘gluten intolerant’ nowadays. Or was that last year? However, joking and scepticism aside, some people’s tummies really don’t like grains. So, if you get ‘pasta belly’ after a plate of spaghetti, it might not be the best thing for you to eat.
Ask your trainer for help identifying what triggers your reaction. They can guide you through an elimination diet and help you to use supplements to re-balance your system if you’re going to have to eat something your tummy won’t like.
It isn’t just food sensitivities that can cause bloating. You should be going to the loo and doing a poo every day. If you’re not, tell your trainer; she’ll ask you regularly anyway (excuse the pun, I couldn’t resist) so tell her the truth. If you are having trouble moving your bowels, you could be low on magnesium; you might need to look at your fibre, or protein intake; how much water you’re drinking or investigate one of a number of other possibilities.
Belly button doughnut
If you have a circle of hard fat around your belly button, this indicates stress. You can see quite lean, fit people with this little doughnut perched cheerfully on their stomach.
There it sits, preventing the world from seeing the abs underneath, like some tall person with big hair at the cinema blocking your view. To anyone who sees it, it says, “Hey! This person is stressed!” One of the best things you can do to shift this is to start getting a good night’s quality sleep.
Your trainer can advise you on ‘sleep hygiene’ (ways to make your sleeping environment as conducive to quality sleep as possible). After that she can help you to learn how to manage your stress levels, to embrace it and recognise when it’s doing you good and doing you harm. She can also advise you on what supplements can help you to sleep and alleviate stress and its symptoms.
If you’ve reduced the size of your body significantly, for example by losing fat or giving birth, you may find that your skin hasn’t shrunk in the same way. How much loose skin there is and what, if anything, you choose to do about this will depend on your genes, your age and the amount of change that has taken place.
If you think of your skin as a living organ that replenishes itself, this might help you to see that your skin can change its size and shape – up to a point. Your skin won’t stay the same size if you get smaller. However, it can struggle to reduce as much as you’d like.
If you’re aiming to lose a lot of fat or are having a baby, your trainer will be able to help you understand and prepare for the changes that you can expect to see in practical terms and emotionally. They can help you to eat well for healthy skin and, of course, they can help you to grow the size of your muscles to give your skin something extra to cover.
The truth is that you can’t be sure how your skin will react to a change in your size and shape. Whether you’re having a baby or losing 30kg of body fat, these are achievements to be proud of and things I hope you wouldn’t want to reverse.
There is more than one reason why you might have these.
Just like we can’t be sure how our skin will react when we reduce our size, we can’t be sure how it will react when it increases. Stretch marks appear when we grow bigger at a rate faster than our skin can keep up with. Stretch marks can vary in size and colour; appearing as thin, wide, light or dark lines.
They can fade with time, so if you don’t like yours, don’t despair. Your trainer will be able to guide you about what foods are good for healthy skin and there are some good application products on the market, available to help.
If you’re pregnant, omega 3, vitamins and healthy fats in your diet can help in a preventative way by easing the stress on your skin as your tummy expands. If you’re fat, and got that way quickly, the marks have probably already happened. Still, taking care of your skin can help prevent further damage.
The good news is that, if you’re small and are planning on hypertrophy training, this takes time and your skin should be able to grow in size without the appearance of stretch marks, although I’m not promising you’ll never get any.
This sort of thing is natural and normal and more people probably have stretch marks than would be prepared to share.
I had some on my legs (which have since faded as I realised just now when I tried to find them to photograph for you). Hilariously, I got my stretch marks from stretch-work as a teenager during a growth spurt.
I never did things like moisturise my body at that age and I don’t think my diet was anywhere close to being ‘on point’. I decided not to care about them and, as you can see, I hadn’t even noticed they’d gone.
Wrinkles can appear when our skin begins to lose its elasticity. Natural ageing, sun damage and exposure to environmental factors and things like smoking can produce wrinkles, as can stretching and pulling on the skin.
Lying still, next to a humidifier, in a dark room isn’t a smart option for a lifestyle. We need to be active, get out in the fresh air, exposed to the elements. Central heating is nice and cosy, and if you live somewhere hot then hooray for air-conditioning!
But what can you do about wrinkles on your tummy? Prevent them where possible. Wear sunscreen, moisturise, and ask your trainer for advice on how to eat for your skin. Follow their guidance. As mentioned before, if your skin is already stretched and won’t stretch back, developing bigger muscles can pull your skin tighter.
Dark line running up your tummy
Remember those abs we talked about earlier? Well, those two muscles are joined together by the linea alba (which means white line). During pregnancy, the change in hormones that happens when you’re pregnant can darken this connective tissue. When this happens, it’s called the linea nigra (which means black line).
It’s always been there and everybody has this same connective tissue. It’s just that it’s easier to see when its dark. This is perfectly normal and natural and there’s nothing you can do about it. It often fades away after pregnancy, but not always completely.
So what if it remains there forever? Traditionally, female beauty has been about achieving a balance of apparent virginity and readiness to conceive. The linea nigra obviously shows a lack of virginity, but it certainly demonstrates fertility. Plus, do you care if there is a sign on your body that you have been pregnant? Having had a baby is something to be proud of, so if you have a linea nigra, I suggest you wear it with pride.
There’s no conspiracy.
Let’s be honest, a lot of the things we’re talking about here are all about looking young, fit and strong. Like it or not, there’s a natural element behind all this….
It can be difficult if you’re a woman – being expected to appear sexually available yet virginal at the same time. Comedian Sara Pascoe refers to it in her book Animal like this: “Look like a porn star but have cellophane-wrapped, unused genitals.”
You can blame the patriarchy all you like, but if there wasn’t an echo of desire for paternity-certainty and genes for survival running down through our thousands of years of history, we wouldn’t be the humans we are and we wouldn’t find what we find attractive so attractive.
It’s true that the standard image of a beautiful tummy has its base in science. A slim, strong-looking waist indicates health and fitness; and tight, unblemished skin indicates youth – all factors of attraction in mating and survival.
It isn’t some conspiracy of the advertising world devised to make you hate yourself, and it is within your grasp if you want it. You might like your stretch marks and you might be able to accept your wrinkles and loose skin.
If you have these legacies of life then I hope you embrace them or get them treated; just don’t hate yourself for it. Where you can be healthy, fit and strong, then make the effort. Make it for yourself, for your now and for your future.