Body Love and Body Kindness, Uncategorized

Belly Fat: A Love Story

I decided to write in this post about belly fat because of something that happened to me this week.

Here’s what happened.

I was in a space the other day that had the potential of being body positive and accepting. But in this space, I heard a woman comment that she had to exercise extra hard and restrict her eating the next couple of months to be ready for the summer. This was right after I had read a statistic suggesting that 75% of women suffer from some kind of disordered eating. (I apologize that I forgot the source in which I read this statistic.)

And then several days in a row, some version of the same thing happened: I overheard women criticizing their bodies or saw advertisements (weight-loss related) about women feeling panicked about the summer and their bodies.

I was struck with a truth that I realized about a decade ago: “Women are terrified of gaining weight. We often feel that the very worst thing that could ever happen to us is to gain weight or fat.”

We are Terrified

Women often feel that if they gain weight, they become unlovable, morally reprehensible, gross, and doomed to a terrible life.

Drawing and Painting by Shelly P. Johnson.

On the flip side, we often think that if we lose weight or are thin, we are magical, lovable, a good girl, beautiful, desirable, worthy of love, able to succeed, worthy of a good life, etc. etc. etc.

And I understand this line of thinking because I used to struggle with these thoughts all the time, and I still sometimes do, although I have largely been able to let go of this kind of conditioning.

Media Conditioning

It is understandable why women think these things. These are the messages we receive all the time from the media, from well-meaning loved ones, from bullies and people who wish to control us, and from that mean little voice in our own head.

Without realizing it, we are conditioned from an early age to believe we must punish, deprive, and shrink ourselves so that we are worthy to be seen and loved. (And I believe men are increasingly facing this pressure, too.)

Drawing by Shelly P. Johnson.

So, this week, after hearing things like this, I thought to myself, “It is like women have lost or have never learned the ability to just let go, accept, and enjoy their bodies right now in the moment.”

And that is why I decided I need to write this post: Belly Fat: A Love Story.

First: A Story about My Belly Fat

First, I am going to tell you a little bit about my belly fat, which feels very vulnerable. But here we go.

I didn’t really start thinking about belly fat or any fat until the fourth grade, the first year my school had a weigh-in in PE class. Growing up, I was a medium weight, muscular girl. But there was another girl in my class, Lily, who was an unusually petite girl. The main thing I remember from that day is that kids found out that Lily weighed 48 pounds.

Note: I don’t correlate weight or size with moral or personal worth. And generally I don’t think it is important to share such information but I have to include a few details like this for this post to make sense.

Everyone thought this was amazing and magical, and Lily became a delicate fairy. I, on the other hand, weighed a good deal more than this. That day, I suddenly felt like I was a giant ogre.

Drawing and Painting by Shelly P. Johnson.

My Worries Begin

This is the first time I remember worrying about fat. Around this same time, some girl told me that my bottom and belly stuck out. I started worrying all the time that I was too big—something I had never worried about before because I had been far too busy drawing, reading Nancy Drew books, watching Brady Bunch, riding bikes, and playing hide-go-seek.

Picture courtesy of Mom.

In fifth grade, my family moved, and I was the new girl in school. Kids were not nice. I was still a medium-ish, muscular girl, but I developed earlier than some of the girls. That is the first time I remember boys in my class calling me fat.

It wouldn’t have mattered if I was fat (because fat is just a descriptive term, not a moral one), but the point here is that I wasn’t (bullying is always about the bullies and not the bullied). But fifth grade boys can be stupid and mean, and unfortunately these boys were.

And, of course, these boys also happened to be the popular, cool boys in class that everyone wanted to “go with” (whatever). I began equating the size of my body with my lovability.

I Equate Size with Lovability

My family moved again in sixth grade, and I was, once again, the new girl in school. There were a lot of good things that happened in sixth grade, but unfortunately, I was also threatened physically twice by some older girls.

Given that I was already really self-conscious about my physical self, my sixth grade brain translated these threats into the following message: “You are being bullied because you are too fat. You need to be small.”

One of my bullies also told me I had a smart mouth and would get the *&^% kicked out of me if I wasn’t careful.

The Shrinking Endeavors Begin

And thus commenced my zealous endeavors to shrink myself—mainly my body but also my spirit. I felt more in control and safe this way. And my perception of myself became really distorted. At this time, I was still medium size—on the small size of medium, actually. But I often saw my body as huge and ogre-like.

Drawing and Painting by Shelly P. Johnson.

Not the Only One

I bet many of you have a similar story. Perhaps you also have suffered bullying instances like this, and that is one reason I want to write about these instances from my life.  Bullying behavior can lead people, especially with perfectionist tendencies, to develop distorted body behaviors and thoughts.

And all the TV shows and movies I watched seemed to confirm the messages bullies in my life communicated. The heroine, the good girl, on TV shows was almost always thin and petite. On the other hand, the seductresses were always voluptuous. And everyone else was mainly ancillary or a laughing stock.

Dreaming to Be the Heroine

I really, really wanted to be a good girl. I really wanted to be the heroine. Thus, my shrinking endeavors continued.

I am lucky that I never developed an eating disorder. However, I did become over-focused, and sometimes obsessed, with eating the right food and exercising consistently. Luckily this was balanced by the fact that I actually loved eating good food (my mom is an amazing cook), and I loved how exercising made me feel. I started aerobic dance class at this time and thought it was amazing.

Drawing and Painting by Shelly P. Johnson.

It Got Worse as I Got Older

But the older I got, the more I used my pursuit of thinness to try to control the world and prove that I was worthy. This led me to cut out foods from my diet. I stopped eating all fast food and cut way down on processed food. Next, I became a vegetarian. Then I became a vegan. (And by the way, it is very possible to be a healthy vegetarian or vegan—I just wasn’t a very mentally healthy one.)

And one year, I cut out all animal products, as well as fat, caffeine, and sugar. I became increasingly fixated on clean and healthy eating, to the extent that it began to interfere with my life. And by the way—this is not a commentary on any one else’s food choices. This is a commentary on food choices that I personally made from fear and a misguided understanding about how to be a good friend to myself.

My health obsession was definitely interfering with my life. I mean, certainly I had less belly fat, but I was tired and anxious. I felt out of control, and I felt terrified of gaining weight. To make matters worse, I constantly felt self-conscious and insecure. I started to hate exercise, and I didn’t want to do it anymore.

Something had to change.

And it did.

I Gained Weight, and My Life Didn’t End

I finally decided that I couldn’t live my life preoccupied with food and terrified of gaining weight anymore. At that point, I decided there had to be a better way. About this time, I discovered Intuitive Eating, an eating philosophy which encourages people, among other things, to…

  • Pay attention to their hunger and fullness signals.

  • Make peace with their body wisdom.

  • Give themselves unconditional permission to eat.

  • Find non-food ways to deal with painful emotions (although emotional eating sometimes is certainly normal and expected).

  • Engage in playful and joyful movement because it feels good, not to lose weight.

Adventures in Intuitive Eating

I began trying to incorporate these rules into my life, and to be honest, I did gain weight. And I also lost weight and stayed the same. I repeated this process several times. Because all of this is a pretty normal thing for our body to do.

Drawing and Painting by Shelly P. Johnson.

I found myself enjoying food more. Enjoying my body more. Feeling less self-conscious. And feeling beautiful and free. Deciding that I wasn’t willing to shrink myself for other people.

I vividly remember thinking one day, “I gained weight, and the world didn’t fall apart. People love me. I’m happy. My life is good.” In retrospect, it seems obvious to realize I could gain weight and my life wouldn’t come crashing down, but at the time, it seemed like a profound revelation.

I’m Still Working on All of This

It has been over a decade since I made the decision to stop trying to shrink myself. Please know that my life is not perfect. Just like anyone, I still struggle sometimes to feel good about myself.

But in the last decade, I have learned to accept and love my body just as it is and to consistently find ways to be a good friend to myself and support myself. As I have done this, here are some of the cool things that happened, even though I have more belly fat than I used to. I now . . .

  • Have more confidence.

  • Dance more and with greater joy.

  • Stick up for myself and call out bullies because while I respect the dignity of all people, bullying behavior sucks.

  • Have better relationships with both men and women.

  • Feel more consistently comfortable, beautiful and awesome in my skin.

  • Started drawing and painting again.

  • Went back to grad school and earned my PhD in philosophy, a dream I had since seventh grade.

  • Stopped consuming media that makes me feel bad about myself.

  • Became more compassionate and encouraging.

  • Became a long-distance walker.

  • Took up hoop dancing.

  • Love exercising again.

  • Can have candy, ice cream, potato chips, cheese, fried chicken, French fries, and pretty much any food in my house and not worry about it because I can eat it when I want, and it’s not that big of a deal.

Health at Every Size

Shortly after this time, I also began learning about the Health at Every Size Community (HAES). HAES is a movement promoted by an increasing number of doctors, nutritionists, and lay people who are beginning to realize that an emphasis on dieting behaviors can be destructive.

They argue that health is not actually about how much you weigh or what size you are. Rather, health is about good practices you develop like eating mindfully, moving joyfully, and cultivating good mental health.

Drawing and Painting by Shelly P. Johnson.

A person can have very little fat on his or her body but live a self-destructive lifestyle. On the other hand, a person can also have more fat but live a life filled with nourishing behavior that cultivates holistic health and joy.

Movements like Intuitive Eating and HAES reinforce what I have learned about my own self and I see other women (and men) learning, too: Health doesn’t come from being at war with myself. It comes from becoming my own best friend and acting accordingly.

Drawing and Painting by Shelly P. Johnson.

Thanks, Belly Fat

Of course, there are still days when I fixate on whether I have too much fat on my stomach or other parts of my body. I am like pretty much everyone else in the world and have days where I feel gross and insecure.

But most of the time, I don’t worry about gaining or losing belly fat because, again, it’s pretty normal to do both of these things. I also realize that my worth, meaning, purpose, and beauty is not tied to what my stomach looks like.

And that is why I love the belly fat I’ve gained, lost, and kept over the years: It taught me that a good life comes from learning to love and accept yourself and be a good friend to yourself—not being a certain weight or size.

Drawing and Painting by Shelly P. Johnson.

How This Applies to You

Writing this feels pretty vulnerable. But I have been helped so much by women who have struggled like I have and who share their story. So, I figured that writing about my story might help someone, too.

I know you may be reading this right now and terrified of gaining weight or wearing a swimsuit this summer  or whatever.

You may feel like you are out of control and that your life is falling apart. I wanted to tell you that I see you, and I love you, and I am sorry for the painful feelings you have right now.

You are Worthy Right Now

The purpose of this post is not to tell you to gain weight or lose weight or to tell you that you must follow Intuitive Eating or HAES philosophy. You do what seems right to you. The purpose of this post is tell you that you are worthy and lovable right now and that your body loves you, even though you don’t feel like it sometimes.

With summer approaching, there is a lot of pressure to get a beach body. Again, you do what seems right to you with your body. But I want to tell you that you don’t have to lose weight or get a bikini body or get rid of love handles or cellulite to have a beautiful summer or life.

The quality of our life really has very little to do with our body size or weight. It has everything to do with the way we learn to show kindness, compassion, and respect to ourselves and others.

Drawing and Painting by Shelly P. Johnson.


If you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing it on social media.

If you enjoyed “Belly Fat: A Love Story”, you might also like these posts:

Five Things You Can Do When You Feel Ugly and Gross and Your Confidence Falls Into a Deep Dark Well

What To Do When You Hate Your Body

Why Your Body is Beautiful Right Now, No Matter What

Life is Not a Beauty Contest

Ten Things You Can Do When You Feel Bad About Your Body

Whether You Have Thigh Gap or Thigh Glam, You Deserve to Feel Luscious, Peaceful, and Beautiful in Your Body Right Now

Ten Things I Would Tell My Young Self About Bodies, Shame, and Love if I Could Travel Back in Time

Body-Anxiety and Body-Shame: The Epidemic and the Escape

34 thoughts on “Belly Fat: A Love Story”

  1. I have a teenage daughter who struggles with her weight, and experienced becoming ‘curvy’ at a young age. Her younger sister is a beanpole and eats garbage all day long because she won’t try new things. While my oldest eats sushi and salads and will experiment with everything including a very active life. She often questions why her sister was ‘lucky’ in that way and I remind her that the 7 year old, and myself, are “thin” and wholly *unhealthy*. And that I was teased the whole time I was growing up for being, I guess, underweight. Also that genetics play a huge part, and that she is doing her part to make herself, most probably, the healthiest one in the family. It’s hard to raise a young woman and see her struggle with what she percieves as a weight issue. I don’t think her confidence suffers at all now but she is coming out of a long period where she would not eat in front of friends. Which was very worrisome for me. I don’t expect her perspective on what defines health or beauty to shift right now being the age she is. But I’m trying and hoping for her to come in to her own in the years to come as we all must. Another thoughtful post ?

    1. Sam, I cannot imagine how difficult it must be as a parent to watch children go through things like this. It sounds like you are doing such a good job and reminding her that actions count, not a particular size or weight. Good for you, Friend! I really like reading about your parenting adventures.

      1. Thank you ???. I’m so thankful that she also has wonderful female role models to help us along, including great friends which, at this age, can be sketchy!

  2. Thank you for sharing your story, Shelly – I can understand that you felt vulnerable writing this post. So much of what you’ve written resonates with me, and I’m sure I’m not alone. I really hope we can all learn to “let go, accept and enjoy” our bodies “right now in the moment”.

  3. Thank you for writing your beautiful story- I can relate whole heartedly. I am now 53 and have finally discovered joyful movement after deciding to join an over 50’s boogie boarding club in my beachside town! I wore bathers for the first time, I bought my first wetsuit, and I went in the ocean which has previously terrified me. And I loved it- belly fat and all! And this is thanks to people like you who share their stories, the body positive movement, HAES and many others over many years. What joy!

    1. Julie, this makes me so happy. I am so delighted to hear about your joyful movement adventure. Wow! How amazing–go you! I need to try boogie boarding. I am so glad my post meant something to you.

  4. You are such a beautiful soul and heart! I love your drawings – they feel so fresh and real. It is so true how much our life is shaped by how we feel about our life. It is a tremendous journey to find joy and acceptance for how we are, and also dedication towards our happiness and well being.

    1. P, thank you so much for these wonderfully kind words. I am so glad you enjoy my drawings, too, and that they feel fresh and real. Drawing and painting makes me feel more alive, and so maybe that spills out onto the paper. I hope so.

  5. I think you have done your readers an amazing service, and that this post will be one of the ones that works slowly but surely into the soul! I think every woman, and many men, have an experience in childhood or adolescence that gives them a hang up about a part of their body (for me it was my best friend, a boy, laughing at a photo of me in a bikini, because I was holding my tummy in. I look at the photo now, and like you, see I was a very typical shape and size, but felt shame at that moment). I am now fond of my tummy, and I thank it for holding on to reserves of fat when I nearly starved myself in my early twenties. It transformed itself into a humungous egg twice when I was pregnant and a deflated balloon afterwards! My tummy reminded me about posture and continues to help me to focus on my core strength. My tummy tells me when I am hungry, anxious, excited, angry, sad. We’ve been through a lot together. I will remember this every time I have one of those moments when I feel like I should look like a catalogue model.
    By the way I have practised ‘the wheel’ pose twice since your gorgeous photo; I try to radiate the same joie-de-vivre your photo shows when I practise it! I think my wheel is a bit wonky, but I will carry on experimenting! Your posts have taught me so much about playful movement whatever I am doing. I ran across a car park yesterday (I actually wanted to skip, but I thought I would look a bit too weird) and am bouncing up the stairs, dancing with my laundry and exploring more movement in my yoga practice. Thank you.

    1. Ali, thank you so much for this beautiful response. It makes me so happy you think that this post is a service for my readers. I have thought about writing this before, but it never felt right and until this weekend. So, maybe it is for someone. You are so brave, too, to share your own struggles. I am so sorry you struggled with that and am amazed at how you have made it through and bring so much beauty to the world in all you do. And I am so happy about your wheel, too! I have to keep practicing mine. I am a little rusty on it right now, and I want to be able to do wheel pose well into my later years. I am so, so happy that my blog has taught you about playful movement. And your blog has really made me want to play in the garden, and your blog was also inspirational in helping me get outside more. It’s a good trade, I think! 🙂

  6. It is a sad state of affairs as to women are judged for their physical appearance s and their vulnerabilities makes them look stick like skinny creatures which is again beauty on face and not beneath ……the inner beauty has been vanishing due to external so called vivid fitness external so called beautification

  7. Ah, it would be so good for us all if we could learn to put being healthy before all these notions of being a perfect size! And just think of all that wasted energy and attention spent pursuing those notions instead of developing ourselves in other ways…

    1. Ann, that is so well said. The horizons of my life have really opened us since I stopped worrying about being the perfect size. Thanks for reading friend and, as always, for your kind and thoughtful comments.

  8. Thank you for sharing this my friend. I love that you were so open about this. And yes – these expectations are affecting men now, too.
    I was a fat teenager and bullying just made me comfort eat and make it worse.
    Since losing that weight in my 20s I have been sometimes obsessive about keeping it off.
    I still put weight on easily around my middle and I admit it makes me feel horrible when it happens. If I cook I keep the portions small but my wife does not believe in putting half a pack of anything back in the fridge so evening meals are on the generous side when she cooks and I deal with his in a unhealthy way by not eating all day the next day! I wish I could learn not to care 🙂

  9. Friend, thank you so much for your kind and generous comments and for your bravery, too. I am so sorry you were bullied as a teenager. Bullying behavior is so awful and causes pain for so many people. Please know that I think you are fantastic, and that wouldn’t change whether you had less or more fat around your midsection. Your fantastic-ness comes from the loving, thoughtful, and adventurous ways you approach the world. Fluctuations in weight can never change that. Hugs and love.

  10. That’s the first time I’ve encountered orthorexia. You come across as someone who’s so much fun, & kind & compassionate. I’m glad you learnt to enjoy your exercise & eating & body again 🙂

    1. That’s so kind, Nik! I do have a great deal of fun in life, and I try to be kind and compassionate. And definitely learning to make peace with my food and body has helped me. Thanks for reading and for your very kind note.

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