Bellies get a lot of body image blame. Postpartum women, in particular, try to excise their midsections as quickly as possible; no one wants to get the “when are you due” question while cradling her 6 month old. And personally, my postpartum belly was my body image Achilles heel. In other words, I drew a straight line from my belly (particularly my diastasis recti) to my body image.
In retrospect, 9 and 10 pound babies in a size 0 frame created a nice test case for recognizing faulty body image logic. This is because my belly woes weren’t figments of my imagination. My postpartum belly was (is) “messed up.” Unfortunately, obvious physical proof of change led to conditional statements that seemed irrefutable. For example, I told myself, “If my belly isn’t flat, then my body image can’t be good.” Subconsciously, I believed the converse of this conditional as well: “If my belly is flat, then my body image will be good.”
My logic was faulty.
I recently listened to a lecture series on logic. The puff of Aristotlean letters bursting forth from my ear buds left me in a daze: “If M belongs to every N, but to no X, then neither will N belong to X…” I can’t pretend I absorbed much from the lectures. However, they did get me thinking about the role of logic and valid arguments in our body image beliefs.
The lecture series reminded me that a valid argument is one in which the conclusion logically follows from the premises (I could grasp that concept at least). I decided to test the validity of a diastasis recti/body image syllogism.
My Initial, Subconscious, Syllogism
I had assumed fixing my belly would solve my body image problems. I had also assumed women without broken apart bellies won the body image lottery. If I had written these assumptions as a syllogism, it might have looked something like this.
Premise 1: My belly has a diastasis recti.
Premise 2: Women with diastasis recti have a poor body image.
Conclusion: Therefore, I have a poor body image.
But was this argument valid? Premise 1 was obviously true. And my conclusion was subjective, but still true. However, Premise 2 was not true. Some women with diastasis recti certainly have a poor body image, but some women with diastasis recti must have a good body image. As a result, even with a true conclusion, this syllogism was not valid.
Okay fine. But what’s the point of writing out a syllogism? For me, logic helps me recognize and then remove fatalism. Subconsciously, I had believed I couldn’t improve my body image without closing my diastasis recti. I hadn’t run formal syllogisms through my head, but the core belief was still grounded in this faulty logic. I had conflated my belly with my body image.
To be fair, narrowing my diastasis recti did help my body image, but I don’t know by how much. It probably wasn’t the most significant cause of my body image improvement, especially because my belly still looks “messed up.” Therefore, I wasted a lot of time fixating on one body part.
A Valid Syllogism
What would a valid syllogism about diastasis recti and body image look like? Probably something like this:
Premise 1: Some women have diastasis recti.
Premise 2: Some women have a poor body image.
Conclusion: Therefore, some women with diastasis recti have a poor body image.
That’s a bland conclusion. But, a valid one. Its imprecision highlights an important point: We don’t have enough premises to draw any firm conclusions about the relationship between postpartum bellies (and, in particular diastasis recti) with body image. As a result, when we cling to the most obvious body image solution — getting flatter bellies — as THE solution, we are operating under faulty logic. More specifically, we are succumbing to the availability bias.
The Availability What?
According to Dr. David Levy, the availability bias, a.k.a. availability heuristic, is “a cognitive strategy for quickly estimating the frequency, incidence, or probability of a given event based on the ease with which such instances are retrievable from memory.”
Exactly how does that definition relate to postpartum bodies and body image? I’m glad you asked. The connection may not seem obvious at first, but stay with me.
Many women fixate on their bellies because they believe a less than flat belly is the cause of poor body image. This fixation corresponds with an obvious physical cause of poor body image. Consequently, some women focus all their energy on fixing this cause. Therefore, they view shrinking their bellies as THE solution.
This is the most obvious solution because it is the most available. We can see our bellies in the mirrors, when we look down, and sometimes through other people’s eyes (ahem, like when they ask when you are due). But we can’t see other possible solutions to body image problems.
When we focus one physical imperfection, we fail to realize that a poor body image can have multiple causes and solutions. Physical inactivity, irrational thoughts, sleep deprivation, an unsupportive partner, childhood hangups, etc… could all be part of the body image puzzle. This doesn’t mean our bellies have no relationship to body image, but it does mean we need to widen our scope if we want to look at the problem logically.
Bellies are a Thing, Body Image is a Concept
Conditional statements rely on faulty syllogisms and the availability bias, but also on inappropriate conflation. We can’t fuse bellies and body image — a belly is a thing and body image is a concept. This isn’t even comparing apples and oranges; it’s more like comparing apples and justice. They aren’t part of the same language universe.
If we assume fixing a belly will fix body image, we are conflating things with concepts. Body image doesn’t have a home. It doesn’t exist anywhere, other than as a concept meant to help us order our thoughts and feelings. When we refer to a “good” or “bad” body image, we are pretending it objectively exists. But of course it doesn’t. Concepts are useful. We clearly need them, but they shouldn’t be equated with actual things. They are more interesting than that.
We need to snap the cord between our belly and our body image. We can work on them in concert, and we can recognize overlap, but we can’t assume they are language body doubles.
Luckily, we can overcome the availability bias by forcing ourselves to think of multiple ways to address body image. We don’t need to obsessively check our bellies, measure our gaps, or jump on a scale. Instead, we can recognize body data as useful, without letting it dictate our body image.
Ultimately, we have finite control over physical entities like our bellies, but we have amazing leeway over concepts. We get to decide how to measure body image. And that’s pretty cool.