It was like any other typical night. There I was, scrolling on TikTok at 1am (on a work night might I add), laughing at Homer Simpson videos, liking women shitting on abusive men, favouriting vegan recipes to try later and getting sucked into booktok, when a video with over 3 million views—that would make me rethink my entire teenage life—popped up on my FYP. User @elless420’s voice rang out, “How old were you when you learnt that this second boob area here—you know how some fat people have this going on—that is from sucking in your stomach, like all through your childhood and teens […] Fuck.” Me? I was 24.
I shot up in bed, mouth agape and lifted my shirt to see my own, highlighted by the blue glow of my phone screen. It’s not terribly prominent (or as prominent as it used to be) but it was definitely there, I had always wondered what the hell it was. What was this strange bump? A slow realisation seeped in, that something I was insecure about was actually caused by the insecurity itself. Despite actually being midsized—and with that, comes an untold amount of privilege that fat people are not granted—I grew up, as many do, in a household where I was fat-shamed. For a lot of us, this is where it all begins—the indoctrination and internalisation of fatphobia.
One of the infinite ways this toxicity manifested in me was sucking in my stomach. The least harmful one, right? Or so I thought. I did it all the time, 24/7. It was instinct and it was constant. Rather than buying clothes in my actual size, I would squeeze myself into jeans many sizes smaller, sucking in my stomach like my life depended on it. Walking so tightly I couldn’t catch a full breath, my lungs forcing my belly to relax just to receive an ounce of air before I would suck it right back in—lest anyone saw my natural form. This habitual practise didn’t just happen as a result of insecurity, but I distinctly remember being told by my mother as well as many ill-intentioned aunties (if you’re brown, then you know) to actually suck it in—‘it’s good for your abs’ they said. Well, now those early toxic years have reared their ugly head as I discover I have ‘hourglass syndrome’.
This video led me into a spiral and I scoured the app for more people speaking on it. Another video stitching the one above had also amassed over 3 million views. 20-year-old Olivia detailed her same horrified reaction to the original video, “I saw her video and it fucked me up. I’ve been sucking in my stomach since I was in seventh grade. […] I looked it up. It’s called stomach gripping or hourglass syndrome. It’s permanent. It doesn’t go away and it causes breathing problems—worse for asthmatics, which I am, and I had no idea—and it causes your lower ribs to move inward and it [gets] stuck that way.” She proceeded to state that the bump or ‘second boobs’ are scar tissue and went on to demand people to stop telling young girls to suck in their stomachs.
Although both these videos went viral, they were not the first ones to report on the condition in the TikTok sphere. The health issue was originally discussed by user Marie Soledad who detailed their experience with misdiagnoses from medical professionals, family members and others in their life on the shape of their stomach. Discovering hourglass syndrome, Soledad decided to share what she learnt on the platform and gained over a million views in the process. Now, I know what you’re thinking—you heard the word permanent and you’re panicking because that’s exactly what I did too. But we aren’t going to get all our information from TikTok because well, it’s TikTok. So, don’t freak out just yet. I’ve done the research for you.
Stomach gripping essentially refers to the process that occurs when you suck in your stomach. Basically, what happens is an activation of the upper abdominal muscles. This occurs when you’re pulling in your diaphragm in the opposite direction that inflates the lungs. So, sucking in pulls the diaphragm inwards and subsequently pulls the lower ribs inwards as well. Doing this, repeatedly over a long period of time, produces the hourglass syndrome.
It takes the appearance of a smaller waist (I’m telling you now, it’s not worth it) as well as an ‘up-turned’ belly button, a horizontal crease situated across or above the belly button. This reportedly occurs as a result of an abdominal muscle imbalance. Basically, your upper muscles become in a state of constant constriction, leaving your lower muscles lax, and thus pulling your belly in an upwards direction. While we have been told that engaging your abs (especially during exercise) is an important part of activity—there can be dire consequences if not done correctly or in the right environment.
A detailed report conducted by The Washington Post with numerous scientists unveiled not just the obvious mental detriment such action may cause, but the subsequent physical implications on your bodily health aside from something as superficial as appearance. According to Heather Jeffcoat, president-elect of the Academy of Pelvic Health Physical Therapy, this forces pressure on the pelvic floor leading to potential “incontinence and pelvic organ prolapse,” she told The Washington Post.
Julie Wiebe, a clinical assistant professor in physical therapy at the University of Michigan-Flint, told the publication that the motivation to suck in the stomach has come from hyperfocus on abdominal work in fitness alongside the societal pressure for a flat and thin stomach area. Wiebe, agreeing with Jeffcoat, stated that it extends even beyond the pelvic floor and causes long-term pain issues in your lower back and hips as well as constriction in breath. Basically, taking deeper breaths will prove more difficult with this condition. And in fact, it goes on to highlight that muscles which are overly tensed are actually less responsive and thus, actually limit your body’s ability to take in the impact of your exercises. That’s right, it might have an adverse effect on your ‘gains’.
The potential back pain that can occur is a result of other muscles working overtime to make up for the lack of support from the constricted diaphragm. When the diaphragm doesn’t descend downwards (as it should) into your belly—breathing into your lower torso—then it puts the neck under strain as it tries to compensate for the lack of breath. This plays a critical role in neck and shoulder pain.
“I’m not saying don’t ever engage your abs again,” Wiebe continued in the report. Rather, we must “understand that they are part of a functional whole, and they’re intended to play on a team, and they need to be appropriately engaged for the task you’re up against.”
You’ll be thankful to know—I definitely am—that it’s not permanent. It can be healed. It is possible but it takes serious work, especially if you’ve done it for years. The first step, according to the experts who spoke to The Washington Post, is awareness. Recognise when you’re stomach gripping when you don’t need to be. If it’s ab day at the gym, then go for it—engage them, but you shouldn’t be overexerting them when you go to dinner, chill at home or try on your outfits. Let that belly relax. That’s the next step to reverse the damage.
Essentially, you have to retrain your muscles. This is achieved through consistent belly breath work and abdominal massage. If you find this difficult to begin with, then start on all fours and let your belly naturally fall; when you take those relaxed breaths in, take note that it should fill your torso and not your chest. If you feel your shoulders rise, this is a sign that you’re not belly breathing. Focus on really relaxing the stomach area and letting that air fill it. Once you’ve mastered this beginner move, you can move on to more advanced exercises or practice even while sitting or standing.
There are loads of resources available online on what to do to help ease this problem and retrain your muscles; however, if you are experiencing severe symptoms it’s, of course, best to contact a professional. While we now know we can physically fix the problem, we need to do the same mentally. I’ve gone on a long and tumultuous relationship with my body, and as I have gotten older, I have realised the horror of its impact on my health; what I was putting myself through to ‘look’ healthy rather than be healthy—just the way I was.
I hope you are there with me on this journey of unlearning such toxicity in both health and beauty. I’ll wear my fucking jean size and bodycon dresses and let my food baby hang. I will never suck in my stomach again. And if you don’t like it? Well, you can just fuck off.