When were rounded abdomens taken off the list of sexy body parts? Like, when exactly was it decided that those beautiful housers of children, ovaries and delicious food had to go against their innate curvy nature, and instead be flat, hard or even concave? When I look at Renaissance paintings, I see myself reflected, but for the past few centuries, not so much. From corsets, to Dior’s New Look, waist trainers, Nancy Ganz and Skims, women have been trying to conceal and constrict their tummies for far too long.
Growing up in the 1990s and 2000s, thin was in, at times in a dangerous way. Thankfully, many brands and magazines have turned a corner, and diversity is now a welcome selling point, due to a big shake up from body positivity influencers and fat acceptance activists. But there is still a long way to go. Some signs are pointing to a return of a thinner body aesthetic, and while curves are more visible in advertisements, a lot of the models are curvy in a specific way, with bigger bums and breasts but small waists, or as body image advocate and author Stephanie Yeboah calls it, “acceptably fat”.
I acknowledge that I have the privilege of a smaller body type, and I don’t want to take away from the real work of fat liberation activists and create a platform around a few stomach rolls. But it is worth questioning why society’s beauty standards are so impossible – and ever-changing – that only a small minority can fit them.
The average New Zealand woman’s dress size is said to be 16, and yet it can be hard to find clothing to fit size 14 or larger in many fashion brands. Kudos to local labels like Liam, which has made the move to include sizes up to 24.
I remember the first time I realised my stomach protruded more than other kids, when we were sitting in a row on the edge of the pool. I cried telling my mum when I came home from swimming lessons. Horrified, she said my stomach wasn't big and that I was beautiful, but I didn’t quite believe her. It’s an inherited trait – my grandmother called her stomach her bread basket. Which is quite a nice way of reframing the tummy as a holder of all things that are good.
The only time my stomach is flat is when I’m sick. After I had a terrible parasite and had to spend hours on the toilet after every meal for months, some people told me I looked great. “Wasn’t I lucky?”, they said when I explained I couldn’t keep food inside. Um, no? I feel like I’m dying, but thanks, I guess… Toxic diet culture if ever I heard it.
When I was pregnant, I loved my growing belly. It was the only time I felt I was allowed to be proud of my stomach. Pregnant people are encouraged to wear tight dresses and take photos that highlight their round stomachs in a way that non pregnant people never are. Why is it only when we are growing a life inside of us that we are allowed to have curves? Then straight after baby we’re supposed to have a flat stomach again, get our bodies back, share those before and afters. God forbid you still look a few months pregnant for the next year or more like I have.
I’m often bloated, on top of my already round stomach, so have grown accustomed to being asked if I’m pregnant when I’m not. One time on a work trip I was asked how far along I was and had to explain that I was cradling my tummy due to bloating pain rather than motherly love. Another time someone told my husband and I out of the blue how happy we must be. It took a while to figure out that he was referring to the fact he thought we were expecting.
I used to laugh it off, but I got more stroppy with the last person who asked, because I had actually just had a baby. Can I please have a break while I’m still holding a baby, and can we please stop asking people if they are pregnant?
It’s not only your stomach that changes after a baby – your chin, breasts, hips, they’re all bigger and none of your clothes fit. Since the pregnancy and c-section, my stomach is larger and softer. And sometimes I do pull at it in the mirror and wish it wasn’t there.
I’ve always been pretty good at self acceptance, even if there are of course things I don’t always love about my body. I’ve designed clothing to embrace and promote curves, written about body positivity and body neutrality, I follow - and adore - bopo influencers, I’m anti diet culture and can’t stand a scale. So I was surprised the negative body image got me so bad after birth.
Even I wasn’t immune to the feelings many mums have – finding it hard to adjust to your new body, not feeling like yourself, not fitting anything. Breasts that aren’t yours if you’re breastfeeding and clothing that isn’t your style if it needs to be breastfeeding-friendly.
It probably doesn’t help that your hair is falling out and never clean, you’re surviving on sugary snacks and you barely have time for showers, exercise or sleep, let alone to shop for a new wardrobe to fit your new body.
I’m trying to practise acceptance, and learning to love my puku. Because it is a visual representation of the fact that I had a baby or ate a delicious meal. That I’m finally free of the parasite and after-effects. That I’m healthy and human.
When I’m anxious about something I inadvertently stop breathing and hold my tummy in. The cure is deep belly breathing – which makes my belly relax and extend. I choose being relaxed and happy, while breathing and nourishing my body, over holding stress inside.
I’ve learnt to try sitting down in high-waisted jeans before buying them, rather than having to unbutton them at my desk. Because I’m not going to hold in my stomach all day, neither will I wear compression undies or spend hours doing ab crunches when I could walk along the beach.
Because even if stomachs have been deemed untrendy for centuries, bodies are not a trend, and we shouldn’t have to fit into changing beauty ideals dictated by celebrities, influencers, magazines, stylists and designers.
So I’m going to keep wearing the bikini or tight dress. I’m going to embrace my puku and not worry about how it looks in photos. I’m going to hold it lovingly, breathe deeply and treat it, and myself, kindly. And I hope we can all do the same, for centuries to come.