Stomach Symbolism Explained

bare midriff main

Stomachs are the body’s food processor, digesting food as part of the process of absorbing nutrients. Filling stomachs is a basic part of our lives, especially important during wartime. A fat belly symbolizes a range of things, both good and bad. And, stomachs are important means of attraction, which is shown in the art of the belly dance.

What Basically Does Your Stomach Do?

Let’s start with our own stomach.  

The stomach basically serves as the body’s food processor.  We eat food for a range of reasons, including simply for pleasure, but our body sees food as a source of nutrients to run our body. 

The food needs to be processed so that nutrients can be used by our body.  This is done via a process beginning with us chewing our food.  The food goes to the stomach, where helped by digestive juices, the food is broken down.  Then, the food moves along to the intestines.  

Do Cows Have Four Stomachs?

Our bovine friends are ruminants, which is a fancy term for “chewing cud.”  Cud is (this is a tad disgusting, sorry) food cows chew a second time.  Cud-chewing is a common cow thing.  

Cows eat grasses which require special processing in their bodies.  Their stomach allows the grass to partially be processed, with help of microbes (some microbes are friends), and then it comes back up for them to chew it some more.  

And, after it is softened up, it can be swallowed for more processing.  This processing is done in a stomach with four chambers, parts, like our heart has four chambers.  So, it is really one stomach with different compartments.  

“Army Runs On Its Stomach”

There is a common saying, attributed to Napoleon but surely voiced by others before him, that an army runs on its stomach.  The meaning of the saying concerns the importance of supply to maintain a successful army.  And, a basic concern here are rations, or the daily meals.

Those who study wars often are not too concerned about such matters. We often focus on battles.  Filling stomachs, however, is a basic part of warfare.  A starving army, sometimes the case on the rebel side in both the American Revolution and Civil War, is not likely to be a very good one.  If nothing else, many will go AWOL.  

Filling bellies is an important part in military strategy.  It also is a good target.  Blockades, keeping supplies from getting through to the enemy, is a common tactic to starve the other side to surrender.  And, this includes a “total war” approach because not only armies will be deprived of food.  World War II led to food shortages and rationing, in some areas years after the war.

Why Is A Stomach Called A“Belly”?

“Belly” comes from a word meaning a bag or pouch as well as something that swells up.  

Consider that image and its application to the stomach makes sense.  The word at times had a negative meaning (too big of a belly! A glutton).  It also now has a bit of a “low rent” symbolism as something someone might say in a non-formal way, including in a childish fashion.    

What Is Fat Buddha All About? 

Food is basic to life.  A filled belly is a sign of contentment.  

A big belly is a symbol of plenty.  A larger stomach is favored in some cultures because being too thin suggests you are not healthy and/or have limited means to fatten yourself up.   The painter Peter Paul Ruebens favored painting attractive plump women, leading to the term “Rubenesque.”  Some people today personally find such people attractive as well.

Fat Buddha is a symbol of this.  It was first introduced in China, where a fat belly symbolized good health and fortune.  Fat Buddha is often portrayed as happy and laughing as well, pleased with his good tidings.  Fat people are sometimes stereotypically portrayed as happy as well.

Big Bellies Can Mean Bad Things  

A fat belly could also symbolize being too greedy.  Gluttony is one of the “seven deadly sins.” Historically, as well as in some places today, many people do not have enough to eat.

A big belly symbolized having too much, unfairly taking more for yourself. A big belly today is often frowned upon, even if the person is not an unhealthy weight.  

A local tribal leader in Africa or elsewhere also might symbolically be seen as having a big belly, again to show their power and plenty.   But, there is a fine line there and soon it can mean corruption. 

A fat belly can also be a sign of the local “big man” with a lot of power, perhaps somewhat corrupt.  The corrupt power broker “Boss Tweed” was satirized with a big belly.

A fat belly in some cases can be a sign of malnutrition and povertyKwashiorkor is a disease that leads to bloated bellies, a result of lack of proper nutrients.  Black children with bloated bellies at times is a common symbol of malnutrition. 

We often think of very thin or even skeletal (such as victims of prisoner of war or concentration camps)  people as symbols of deprivation and want.  But, in some cases, a big belly (at least of a certain type) can be a symbol of something seriously wrong.  

Bellies Are Sexy?

People, especially women, often work very hard to make sure their stomachs are the “right size,” whatever that might be.  Food is a very important part of culture and there is a lot of food ladened symbolism.  And, of course, that good usually goes into our stomachs.

People find a range of things sexually appealling.  Scientists generally argue that there tends to be an evolutionary reason involved.  A healthy body would be a sign of a good mate.  Not to be reductionist, but the ultimate aim is a baby bump.  Talk about stomach related symbolism!

Stomachs have sex appeal.  Many people put their stomach on display, even piercing their belly button in part to draw more attention to the stomach.  For some cultures, this is immodest.  A bare stomach would in that case be a symbol of impurity, a bad mate, perhaps.

The sexual aspect of the belly is clearly part of the practice of belly dancing.  Belly dancing is especially associated with the Middle East.  It has a saucy, naughty side, but also is a complex art form.  Not only fun, belly dancing also symbolizes a comfort level with your body.


There is a saying that “you cannot be too rich or too thin.”  And, in an age of plenty, many people do work hard to have tight, thin bellies. And, this can lead to problems, including eating disorders and fat shaming.  It’s an unfortunate aspect of the importance of food and the stomachs where they wind up.   Thankfully, stomachs are not treated in quite as simplistic a way as a whole.   Not only is it better for us as a whole, but it provides more fodder for this piece!

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