Have you been “sucking it up”?

The belly. That’s a loaded subject. For men and women differently. I am going to talk from a woman’s perspective here, but would appreciate guys’ input—please comment from your experience.

My experience with how our society sees my belly has been this. As a young girl, I received one timeless instruction passed down from generation to generation of women: “Pull in your stomach.” Of course, you want your waist line to appear slimmer. Of course, guys will find you more desirable that way. Suck it up.

I don’t know about guys, but every woman my age or older that I’ve talked to about this, has received the same instruction. I’m not sure if it’s still being passed along—I hope younger women chime in to share.

Anyway, women who have been so instructed, and did their best to “be a good girl” and comply, have the following symptoms in common: chronic tension in the abdominal muscles, constipation, shallow breathing, and propensity to anxiety and/or depression.

(I’m not mentioning body image / insecurity issues, because in our society no one escapes those. If you are an exception to this sad rule, please let me know. I want to study you.)
How are these symptoms connected? The lungs sit on top of the diaphragm that moves downward as we inhale. When the abdominal muscles are chronically tense, the diaphragm’s mobility is limited and we can’t fill the lungs to capacity.

When we don’t breathe fully, we do not feel fully. (I heard a yoga teacher say to the class, “Only breathe as deeply as you want to feel.” Excellent instruction.) Shallow breathing is associated with anxiety as well as depression. Both conditions are characterized by a limited access to the full pallet of emotions.

When the diaphragm moves freely, it applies gentle pressure on the colon, promoting regular elimination. When it get stuck, so does what’s inside the colon. Not something you hear from a psychologist everyday.

You know what’s even less talked about? The gut is a very intelligent organ. It has neuropeptide receptors sprinkled all over it. Neuropeptides are “molecules of emotion” (a term coined by Candace B. Pert, Ph.D.). By connecting to their receptors, they regulate emotional states.
When we are constipated, this communication is interrupted. As a result, we are not as intuitive—the “gut feeling” is dulled. Our emotions are affected. We get stuck in an emotional rut.

This “pull in your stomach” deal has been an instrument of oppressing women in the Western cultures for hundreds of years. Recall the fashions of the not so recent past. Corsets were introduced in the 16th century and did not step down from the mainstream stage until WWII.
It took serious muscle power to pack a woman’s body inside one of those. This torture practice created extreme compression of the lungs and internal organs. Women could not breathe. They frequently fainted. It was considered feminine and cute. It earned women the reputation of the weaker sex.

Because they could not breathe, women frequently felt nervous and anxious. This earned us the reputation of hysterics. The word itself is derived from the Greek “hystera,” meaning “womb.” Very thoughtful to pick a sex-specific name for a condition. I saw the 18th century dress exhibit at the Met. I nearly became “hysterical” just looking at these dresses.

We no longer wear corsets. Let’s inhale fully and let out a sigh of relief, ladies. Now begin to notice: Does your breath sometimes get shallow? Do you sometimes hold your breath? Do you find it challenging to inhale deeply, filling your lungs to capacity?

Here is a sweet and easy practice that you can do to liberate your belly from centuries of oppression!

Lie down on your back. Place a small and light object on your navel—a beanie baby would be lovely, or something comparable in size and cuteness. Your task is to give the object a slow, calming ride up and down. Focus your awareness on the sensation of the object on your belly.
When internalized judgments and self-criticisms arise, greet each one with a soft smile. “I know you. You don’t belong to me. I release you.” Breathe it away.

Allow this practice to take you back to the time in your life when you did not yet know that the society frowned upon bellies and that you would be requested to pull yours in and suck it up.
I love you. From my belly to yours.

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