When I was eight, I informed my grandmother that I wanted my belly to be concave. (I wasn’t quite up to that vocabulary level yet, but that’s the gist of it.) Basically, I wanted it to “go in.” I thought that’s what it meant to be truly skinny. I don’t remember her exact response, only her explaining to me that healthy bellies aren’t meant to “go in.”
It’s one of my earliest memories of body dysmorphia.
Thirteen or so years later, I was in college and still grappling with the body that stared back at me from my bedroom mirror. I knew I was thin. I mostly felt ok about my appearance, but why did my lower abdomen have to protrude ever so slightly like that? Why wasn’t it perfectly flat? One day, I stumbled upon a blog article titled, Does This Make My Uterus Look Fat? The blog no longer exists, but the title distinctly lingers on in my memory.
Wait a second. That gentle protrusion below my belly button was an organ? I was about to graduate as a nutrition major, I had taken two semesters of anatomy and physiology, and flipping heck, I had never once considered that.
From then on, I started to observe my body. I watched how it changed throughout the month, and I noticed something. Right before my period, my belly “pooch” (a.k.a. my uterus) became that bit more pronounced, and I became that bit more self-conscious. Every. Single. Month.
In actuality, there is little evidence that our body weight changes much throughout our menstrual cycles. If anything, it might fluctuate one or two pounds. Our body, however, does change. And so, too often, does our self-consciousness, thanks to our media-skewed expectations of how our bodies “ought” to look.
Some of that body dissatisfaction likely stems from the very real, tangible water retention that commonly occurs the week or two leading up to menstruation. Some women experience this more significantly than others.
What really seems to get to us, though, is not an increase in weight at some point in our cycle, but rather an increase in weight preoccupation. Here’s what happens: leading up to menstruation, serotonin naturally dips, which can lead to feelings of depression; our body physiologically attempts to boost serotonin by increasing cravings for sweet, carbohydrate-rich foods; we are more prone to emotional eating; and, when we “give in” to those cravings, we feel riddled with guilt along with, you guessed it, body dissatisfaction.
So what do you do?
If part of your discomfort is related to physical bloating, a healthy diet combined with regular physical activity may help. Drink plenty of water and keep an eye on high-salt foods, like those prepared at restaurants and cafeterias, canned soup, lunch meats, and cured meats. Load up on fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and simply prepared proteins.
The heart of the matter, though, is that we need to have a conversation about not just the female body, but your female body, which is beautifully unique and responds to the world in its own, individual way. Keep track of how you feel about your body in conjunction with where you are in your cycle. If you find that you feel more negatively about yourself or that your clothes fit less well around a certain time each month, view it as a sign that your body is preparing for a natural process, and it’s time to take extra-good care of it. Practice self-compassion.
As women reach menopause, they run into a similar conundrum. Suddenly, the estrogen that once made fat more likely to accumulate around the hips and thighs plummets, and weight settles somewhere new. You guessed it: the belly.
There isn’t an ab routine in the world that can do much about it, either, because our bodies change. They change from one life stage to the next, and they change from one day to the next. Ladies, the female human torso is made up of a stomach and intestines, and a uterus that shifts in position and size throughout the month and our lives. We aren’t supposed to look the same at age 60 as we did at age 25. We aren’t supposed to look like our best friend or even our sister (except all those identical twins out there), and we certainly aren’t meant to look like a Barbie doll. We’re supposed to look like us.
So go easy on your bathroom scale or pant size. Focus on taking care of yourself from all angles, and I promise, your body will settle into its individual version of healthy. Health is what we reach when we stop trying to control our bodies and instead start listening to them.