Why We Need To See More Real Bellies

by Hilary Phelan

All day long, we are presented with photos of humans in the mainstream media, but very rarely are we presented with "average" humans and their "normal" bodies. That there are problems with the way the mass media presents femininity and womanhood is no secret. But that being said, there are several sites and blogs in existence at the moment where you can see and share photos of parts of your body in an effort to raise awareness of how bodies actually look. And when you consider that statistics say that 80 percent of women have stretch marks, but that these little "imperfections" never make their way to our televisions or Netflix streams, it becomes clear that more realistic imagery is needed.

Studies have shown that the images we are exposed to on a daily basis influence our perception of the world. If we never see real bodies, then, how can we ever accept them as normal? So today I'm having a look at a few sites that create a safe and much needed space for real images of real people.

One campaign that I particularly like is All Bodies Are Good Bodies . The blog title alone makes a very powerful statement by pointing out that body acceptance and size inclusivity are not only about loving your curves. They are about loving your body — no matter what it looks like. As expressed on the site:

"ALL bodies are good bodies. I don't care if you're overweight or underweight, if you have an eating disorder, if you're disabled, if you're transgender, if you're in the hospital on your death bed. Your body is a good body because it's yours. Whether it's healthy or not, whether people appreciate it or not, you deserve to love yourself no matter what. There is never a shortage of people telling us what's wrong with our bodies! There is no healthy body without a healthy mind and you can't wait until your body is exactly the way you want it to be to start loving it, it's all about now. So if you're looking for me to say this person's body is wrong because of xyz, you've come to the wrong place. This is a body hate free zone!"


Back in 2011, xoJane's Emily McCombs decided she had had enough of the belly shaming, so she went on the hunt for a bikini and posted a photo of her tummy on the site, writing:

"All this talk of 'bikini body' this and 'swimsuit season' that has started to get under my (loose) skin lately. Have I not a body? And can it fit not in a bikini? Yea verily, I say! I'm a human girl, not some creature of the bikini-less underworld."

The reaction she got was overwhelmingly positive, and so she decided to invite her readers to submit their belly photos and make an entire tummy gallery. Emily created a slideshow of 75 flat, flabby, hairy, pregnant, scarred, pierced and tattooed bellies — giving the belly owners a place to talk about their "imperfect" bodies and to announce to the world how proud they were of them. The popularity of this project went through the roof, and Emily received so many more inspirational photos and stories that she published the Real Girl Belly Project Part II. This time, the stories included people who loved their bellies for even more unique reasons. Like the fact that our tummies hold our medicines. Or house organs that we can donate to save a loved one. And the photos themselves also saved a life: A few months later, we read a story from someone suffering with Bulimia who came across the project. It inspired her to seek help in order to fight the illness and get healthy. I am sure that she is not alone, and we need more projects like this to show that our bodies are real bodies.


Not to be confused with xoJane's movement, The Belly Project blog is the collective genius of Dr. Karen Rayne (a sex educator) and Christy Tashjian (a midwife). Between the two of them, they basically know a ton about female body image, and have seen everything there is to see when it comes to bellies. They highlight an aspect of tummy appreciation that I never really thought about that much: That our bellies are an important part of our sexuality and reproductive lives. I mean, of course I know about the birds and the bees and I have been through a pregnancy so I know how it feels to be in awe of my stomach's capacity to grow a real, live human being. But in a non-pregnant state, I have to admit that my belly doesn't get much respect. It's just a mushy, functionless area that supposedly needs to be hidden. The Belly Project aims to focus our attention on our bellies and give them the kudos they deserve.


This site focuses on the post-pregnancy body and aims to rescue it from its secret hiding place. The creator of the site writes that she was inspired to start the project upon accidentally seeing a new mom's belly in a restaurant as she picked up her baby.

"It occurred to me that a post-pregnancy body is one of this society’s greatest secrets; all we see of the female body is that which is airbrushed and perfect, and if we look any different, we hide it from the light of day in fear of being seen. That makes me want to cry."

The only post-pregnancy bodies we ever see in the media are the ones of people who have live-in personal trainers or have very skilled Photoshop technicians in their network. Hollywood stars proudly show off their post-pregnancy bodies if there is nothing visibly post-pregnant about them: No saggy bits, no stretch marks — just perfectly toned, smooth torsos.


When I first considered writing this article, I felt a bit like a hypocrite. I was writing about how great it is that these projects exist, whilst at the same time thinking, "There is NO WAY I would put my belly photo on there." Researching the whole belly movement a bit further, however, I began to realize that I was one of the people that these sites aim to help.

For me, the sheer dread about baring my midriff has nothing to do with size. I think these plus-size bikini photos are some of the most beautiful I have seen in a long time. Looking at the images, I wonder if the day will ever come when I would dare to wear a bikini. And then the little voice in my head says, "But she looks fabulous and you don't." My current swimwear covers more than the average one-piece, but it is also very beautiful: Retro with cherries, and I'm cool with that. As you can see from the model's photo of the same swimsuit, I don't have a problem with showing cleavage. It is only anything between the ribs and knees that I still feel the need to keep under wraps.


In my heart of hearts, I know that the problem is in my head — and not resting on my hips! But the illogical and untrue societal brainwashing that I grew up with — the brainwashing that still tells me that it is not appropriate to be proud of your body or that it is vain to say that you love your body — still comes into play in my day-to-day life. I am not alone in this struggle, and that is why it is so important that blogs like the above exist. They help us to re-program our thoughts on how we view ourselves, and to stop beating ourselves up about things that no one else even notices. Thankfully, there are also some big players in the fashion industry starting to prioritize positive body image and encourage us to love ourselves, too.

The more I read up on these movements, the more articles and sites I find that encourage me to love my body. For example, have you ever wondered what your relationship with your mirror is like? The "We. Women" Photo Project places women in front of the mirror — and the resulting photographs are striking, and make us contemplate how real body dysmorphia truly is.

So I'm going to give the last word to Marie Southard Ospina, who is doing great work in the area of promoting positive body image and body acceptance:

"We are not our bodies, despite the fact that this is what we are taught to believe. Our bodies are a part of us, and we should be able to represent the self through the body. But the physical is not the everything. We have to learn to take our bodies back: to take them away from the self-deprecating and self-loathing that come as a result of listening to notions of beauty established on a TV screen or in a magazine. We have to live for the self, and be unafraid of letting that self shine through."

Images: Top Vintage; xoJane; The Shape of a Mother; The Belly Project; Marie Southard Ospina