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Stop the Stomach Wars: Making Peace With Your Tummy

Posted Nov 17 2008 9:20pm

My friend L and I have been best friends since elementary school. We thought we were two halves of the same person and campaigned relentlessly to our parents to never, ever separate us. After all, a multitude of friendship bracelets, twin My Child dolls, and even an actual padlock hooking us together couldn't be wrong!

As we grew up though, life and husbands took us to opposite ends of the country and we became Christmas card and the occasional e-mail buddies. Recently we have rebonded: over - get this - skin. See, in addition to sharing a love of running (L ran her first marathon this fall!), we also birthed three children and have the marks to prove it.

Back in our My Child (like Cabbage Patch dolls but creepier) days, we often fantasized about having twins and raising them next door to each other. But our fantasies were noticeably void of several truths: sex (this was pre-Jamie Lynn after all), the work/home balance (We were planning on joining the circus. Apparently all those babies were cared for by clowns. Not a bad gig, now that I think about it.) and of course, the toll on our bodies.

Stress incontinence, stretch marks, wayward nips and the ubiquitous "mummy tummy" were not part of the dream. 15 years later, I'd call them more of a nightmare.

There are a few lucky ladies who escape pregnancy and breastfeeding blemish free but for most of us, being a mother definitely affects the way we workout. I have one Gym Buddy who has a "two air jack maximum" in TurboKick before having to leave class to use the bathroom despite always going before class starts. A Gym Buddy from Seattle refers to her post-nursing chest as "rocks in socks" and, despite being an A cup, has to pour them into two sports bras to keep them from heading for the border. For me, I have stretch marks from knee to clavicle. So much so that my oldest son christened me The Tiger Lady when he was three. It doesn't matter how good my abs are, the world will never see them in the light of day. Although you are welcome to admire my kneecaps as much as your little heart desires.

But it is the mummy tummy - or twin skin (a slight misnomer as I've only ever had very large singletons) - that has brought L and I together again. Last week she sent me an e-mail that is probably the number one question women ask me. (You really don't want to know the number one question men ask me. Of course after this post, they'll probably ask it a lot less.) L writes:
"I feel like no matter how many crunches I do or what technique I use my belly just doesnt look that great. I have lost all my weight and even more so I dont think thats it. Under the loose, wrinkly skin I can feel the muscles and definition but it doesnt show at all. have you found a way around that? (not involving a scapel or paper cutter). Its discouraging to work so hard but to not see any results. My belly is flat, but not really sexy. Just flat and saggy. Any thoughts?"
Paper cutter aside (horrible mental image - thanks a lot L!), the short answer: welcome to motherhood. Your stomach is simply one of many sacrificies you will make for your kids.

The slightly longer answer: Many (male) trainers have told me that the secret to this problem is to lose body fat. They all swear that the twin skin will tighten up on its own and that those sexy ab muscles will show once that pesky fat is gone. I have two problems with that answer: a) women need fat to live and b) it just isn't true.

I hope I'm not going to regret this, but in the interest of helping women everywhere feel better about themselves I'm going to give you a guided tour of my abs.

First things first - I generally avoid the use of any number on this site as they can be very triggering for people with eating disorders and I have a significant number of readers that either have been or are disordered. So if this kind of thing bothers you, please stop reading here. (I know, that's like a red sign pointing at the text below but you know what you need, so please take gentle care of yourself.)

My body fat percentage is 13.8% (I had my body fat tested hydrostatically - in the dunk tank - so this number is very accurate.) This is very low for a woman (average is 30%, most women aim for 20-25%). Doctors usually say that women need at least 10% just to survive and about 14% to menstruate. A popular workout guru whom I contacted through their website assured me that anything below 18% would give me "flat abs" and that below 16% I'd have visible ab definition all the way down.

As you can see, that just isn't true. Now, don't get me wrong - I'm NOT complaining. My stomach looks flat in fitted clothing, I can wear a (one piece) suit with only minor embarrassment and I do have some visible ab musculature. However, there is obviously a lot of damage. A is pointing at some visible scars from random surgeries I've had (no expendable organs left here!). B and G show that my top two abs are visible (they would have been more prominent if I'd taken the pic in better lighting after my morning workout but I'm lazy so this is post beans-for-dinner.) C shows stretchmark central. And D shows the line where I normally ride my pants thereby avoiding the, ahem, overhang you see in the picture. In addition to the excess skin on the sides, you can also see the loose skin in the little hood over my belly button.

This is the money shot. Just because I love you all so much and wanted to be completely honest, I did not suck it in (see F). For those of you that are into numbers, I "pinch" at 3mms on my stomach with the calipers. I have no extra fat to lose (on my stomach anyhow, thighs are a whole other story.) All of that you see is loose skin. Plain and simple, this is my stomach after having 4 kids.

All of the beautiful sculpted abs you see on post-partum Trista Rehn, Angie Harmon and the like? Genetics and photoshop. Airbrushed tans and surgery. They are lucky and they are enhanced. Ladies, for most of us this goal of perfectly flat abs is not only unrealistic but downright crazy making. A little below the belly bulge is normal. Gents (any of you that are still reading and haven't run from the room in horror yet), please manage your expectations. Your opinion means a lot to us. These are the tummies that carried your babies. Just love them.

Women, I truly hope that this helps you feel better about yourself. We have gestated and birthed babies. We have cuddled lovers. We have cradled the very old and nursed the very young. We are beautiful the way we are.

Now I'm going to make a request for the comments today (and this goes for both genders!): please no comparisons. Not to me and not to anyone else. Just tell me what you love about your body. Tell me what your partner loves about your body. Tell me what your kids love about your body. Tell me how you manage your expectations in a world that force-feeds us Jessica Alba 3 months post-partum in a bikini (and photoshops Mischa Barton so badly that they even removed the poor girl's navel). Tell me how you chase the negative thoughts out of your head. Please tell me, so that I didn't just post pics of my pasty, scarred torso on the Internet for nothing!!

For more pictures of pregnant and post-partum bodies, be sure to check out The Shape of a Mother.

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