The idea that for a woman to be beautiful and healthy she must have a flat stomach has infiltrated mainstream society. Not only is this far from the truth – women are beautiful regardless of stomach size – but it is also a rarity to have a perfectly flat stomach.
“This belief is setting women up for failure because a woman’s stomach isn’t meant to be flat,” Ashley Wood, RN, BSN, contributor at Demystifying Your Health, told Grateful, part of the USA TODAY Network.
Over and over again, I see friends and strangers killing themselves to suck any bit of bulge from their stomach, feeling inadequate any time they see a stomach roll. For years, I felt the same way, terrified to put on a bathing suit, feeling exposed and ugly, desperate to fit the standards society had told me I needed to meet.
It feels like every day I see another article that perpetuates this narrative, promising a certain food or exercise move will finally allow me to achieve this mystical flat stomach. It suggests that any problems in life would be solved if I could simply accomplish that goal. Well, I can’t, and that’s actually OK. In fact, it’s great! Letting go of a goal you can’t achieve and allowing yourself to focus on those you can gives you back control of your life.
This may be hard to believe after what feels like a lifetime of hearing that a flat stomach is gold. So, as with any myth, the best way to tackle it is with facts. Here’s why some women are not biologically built for a flat stomach.
WOMEN HAVE EXTRA PADDING TO PROTECT VITAL ORGANS
There is a very big reason why some women cannot achieve a flat stomach, and it is called reproductive organs.
“The design of a woman’s anatomy is different than men,” Wood says. “In addition to having room for digestive organs, like your stomach, liver and intestines, it has to have space for your reproductive organs and needs extra padding to protect all of these vital organs. This process of naturally storing fat cells in the stomach area begins during adolescence and young adulthood in preparation for childbearing later in life.”
Yes, right when we enter adolescence and start being told exactly what our body should look like is when it starts to take on a mind of its own.
Men and women also lose fat in different ways.
“When men lose weight, they tend to lose their visceral fat, which is the layer of fat behind their abdominal muscles, while women typically lose subcutaneous fat, which is the layer of fat just below the skin,” said Caleb Backe, a certified personal trainer and health expert for Maple Holistics. “Both your visceral and subcutaneous fat contribute to your achieving a flat stomach, which is why some women find it harder to do so than others. Furthermore, factors like hormone regulation play a role in storing visceral fat, which is why many women are not biologically built for a flat stomach.”
TRUST HOW YOUR BODY IS BUILT
Just like it protects your organs, each thing your body does is for a reason. As you fight what your body does, it puts you at odds with what it needs, sometimes to the point of danger.
Ariel Johnston, a registered dietitian who specializes in treating eating disorders, cautions clients that they'll likely see fat accumulate around their stomachs.
“When weight restoring through increased nutrition, the weight is distributed unevenly and goes to the stomach first," she said. "This is amazing because it is the body’s way of telling us that it needs the extra fat layer there to protect itself. The mechanism behind this isn’t fully understood, but after adequate time and nourishment, the fat is redistributed throughout the body.”
Yes, your stomach will go up and down, looking different at certain times than others. “It is normal for the stomach to expand after a big meal to accommodate for the food nourishing your body. This isn’t necessarily bloating; just your body doing it’s work to break down food in the stomach,” Johnston says.
Having a flat stomach is not the key to being healthy or happy. There are some days in which I see my stomach poke out in my shirt or still cringe at first look when I’m in my undergarments, but life is simply too short to go after something unattainable while hating myself.
“I tell my clients that a slightly rounded tummy or some rolls is normal and that their worth is so much more than what they look like in a swimsuit,” Johnston says.
Instead of diets and habits that promise women something they don’t need to and can’t achieve, let’s start celebrating women for who they are.
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This article originally appeared on Grateful: The biological reasons some women can't have a flat stomach