Lisanne, our guest writer this month, is an anthropologist within the Chemical Youth research group at the University of Amsterdam. Her research focuses on young people in Amsterdam, where she follows their trajectory towards ‘super health’. She describes the belly as a social phenomenon.
The social belly
In a society where good health, or indeed, super health has become a commodity, the belly has become a center point of attention. Its transformability gives way to all kinds of experiments, supplements, measurements, trainings and products as it is the one part of our body that immediately responds to environmental and lifestyle changes. Bellies can be flat or fat, hollow or bulging, rumbling or bloated, tight or blubbery. The changeable character of the belly is both its most attractive and repulsive feature, as we tend to measure and monitor our bellies after trying out a different diet, product or work out. And even though our relationship with our belly seems to be a personal one, the way we experience this area may very well mirror the way we experience the social environments we find ourselves in.
Experiencing stress through the belly is an obvious example of external factors influencing the delicate internal balance of the gut. But what about diagnosing yourself with candida, cutting out gluten from your diet or participating in an intensive bootcamp to work those abs as expressions of culture and social environment? In sharing recipes, collectively exercising and reviewing products our belly-experiences travel to create a wider network of not just health, but also frustration and insecurity. And we might ask ourselves what kind of culture we create in feeling the constant urge to discipline the gut area. I say area, because the belly does not confine itself to a surface of skin. We recognize layers such as skin, fat, muscles, gut, bowels, and even microbiomes working together to maintain a delicate balance. Even though we can only guess what really goes on behind the first layer of skin, we tend to assess our bodily value through what we see in the mirror when we lift our sweaters and ask ourselves questions like: Did my work out pay off? Are those probiotics working their magic? Did I overdo it last night with dessert? Should I quit gluten? Am I in need of a detox? But just because the belly can be manipulated, trained, cared for, influenced and disciplined, does that mean that it should?
These and other wonderings beg the following questions: To what extent do we self-identify through our bellies? And does this trigger us to also identify others based on the look of their abs? Perhaps it will. But the next time you are discouraged by Instagram or hesitantly lift your own sweater facing a mirror, you might see beyond a layer of skin and discover the colorful spectrum of culture.