What My Fixation on Having a Flat Belly Taught My Daughters

Parents' Editor in Chief Liz Vaccariello shares how she tries to model a healthy body image for her daughters. 
Ari Michelson

This is a column about how I marveled at my belly as it ballooned during my pregnancy with twins. It’s also about how, months later, I accepted its new size and shape, grateful that the girls—and I—were healthy.

Unfortunately, it’s also a column about how much mental and physical energy I’ve spent since then trying to trim and firm this one area of my body—and how worried I’ve always been that my fixation was rubbing off on my daughters.

In 2008, Olivia and Sophia were 3, and I was editor-in-chief of a prestigious health magazine. I had a front-row seat for every study that came out about nutrition, exercise, weight loss, and how food affects health. The body-positivity movement hadn’t begun to bud, so we wrote cover lines like “Flatten Your Belly” and “Foods That Fight Ab Fat.” And in my role as editor, I wrote a book called Flat Belly Diet! with registered dietitian Cynthia Sass. She had devised an eating plan based on research showing that a calorie-controlled diet rich in small portions of olives, oils, nuts, seeds, avocados, and dark chocolate would lead to weight loss—and specifically target visceral belly fat. (This type of abdominal fat surrounds your organs, and research shows it’s metabolically active and can increase the risk of heart disease and diabetes.)

I had just finished three whirlwind months doing television and radio interviews about the book (rehearsing talking points ad nauseam around the house) and was starting to worry about the messages that Sophia and Olivia were absorbing. So one day, I casually asked them, “Why does someone go on Mommy’s Flat Belly Diet?” and then prepared myself to address any food or body-image issues I might have already created. “To be healthy!” Olivia chirped, and relief washed over me.

As a mom of daughters and as a journalist, I want to model a healthy body image. The girls have never heard me say, “Ugh, I feel fat.” When I decline candy or decide to skip a second portion of pasta (admittedly rare occasions!), I’ll explain how those things affect my energy. When I come home from the gym, I toss out an “I’m getting so strong” or “That felt awesome!”

Then again, my daughters have also seen me turn sideways when I look in the mirror. Can they tell that I’m squeezing in my abs when I try on a dress? Do they notice when I’m tossing Spanx into my bag on the day of a photo shoot?

I do want to look lean—and I adore photographer Ari Michelson, who talked me toward the flattering angle in that photo over there. I’m not proud of my vanity, but it’s my truth.

If any of this rings true to you, you’ll want to check out Parents “Mom Bellies" series (linked below). Whether you have a love-hate relationship with your belly or have made inspiring peace with your shape, the real-life postpartum stories are captivating.



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