04/05/2011 06:55 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Love Your Muffin Top

"Muffin top" may have recently entered the Oxford English Dictionary, but that doesn't mean English-speaking dieters are any more eager to embrace this figure of speech to describe their figure.

In case the term has yet to enter your vocabulary, the OED, also known as the definitive record of the English language, gives two definitions. The first is literal: the top part of the muffin. The second is metaphorical: "a protuberance of flesh above the waistband of a tight pair of trousers." (Oprah once called this Dunlap Syndrome: "That's when your stomach done lap over your jeans," she joked.)

The first is something worth savoring, doubly so if you're a "Seinfeld" fan. The top of the muffin, according to a beloved "Seinfeld" episode, is the best part. The second kind of muffin top is so unsavory that dieters have been known to conceal it under baggy clothes, control it with Spanx and other figure-shaping garments, flatten it with diet and exercise programs, or eliminate it altogether with liposuction or tummy-tuck surgery.

If the phrase still sounds foreign, that's because it is. Two Aussie gals came up with the slangism back in 2003. But maybe it sounds weird to your ears because you're a guy, and you call this part of your anatomy you "spare tire," "love handles" or another term of endearment.

The Body Part Women Love to Hate

Truth be told, guys are generally more accepting of their "fleshy protuberance" than gals. Guys can be as fragile as gals, but if male self-esteem rides on the size of one body part, it's likely not the muffin top. A man with an extra-large muffin top might try to hide it with jokes ("There's more of me to love!"), but it's unlikely that he'll go to great lengths to downsize the body part women love to hate.

One reason: women are more inclined toward self-criticism. Women may be born and bred to be compassionate, but they're also hard-wired to be self-critical. Dieting only makes matters worse. Given that unflattering self-evaluations tend to fuel eating problems, this little-known feminine tendency may help explain why preoccupations with physical imperfections are enduring women's issues.

If you're preoccupied with your muffin top, you've no doubt discovered that bidding it adieu is easier said than done. Rest assured, it can be done, and I'll tell you how to do just that in a moment. First, know that wishing it gone is worse than wasting your time. The more you wish your muffin top gone, the more likely it'll be here to stay. Focusing on what you don't like about yourself fails to motivate lasting change. In fact, dissing body fat inspires such emotional discomfort that it's only a matter of time before you're reaching for comfort food and building a bigger muffin top.

If you lived in Seinfeld's wacky world, you'd have the opposite problem. In his absurd universe, it's easy to get rid of muffin tops but impossible to say good riddance to the bottoms. The good news: whether you'd like to rid yourself of top or bottom, the solution is the same: self-compassion.

A Counter-Intuitive Approach

As counterintuitive as it sounds, the kinder, gentler, more effective way to go is to embrace your least favorite body part. Say what? Don't take my word for it; take Betty's, a 50-year-old weight-management client who desperately wanted to lose her muffin top. Rather than getting a tummy tuck, she tried something completely different: viewing herself with the loving eyes she reserved for her two children.

In a matter of weeks, not only did Betty lose enough weight to comfortably fit into jeans one size smaller, but for the first time in her life, she could honestly say: "I feel zero self-criticism about my body!" What's more, she felt more content, hopeful and naturally inclined to eat healthfully.

Are you curious to know how Betty stopped hating her muffin top and started losing weight? Do you want to learn how to love and lose yours (or at least shrink it down to size)? Among other practices, she tried a tried-and-true compassion-enhancing visualization called "A Head-to-Toe Appreciation." Before you try it, read it through it at least once.

A Head-to-Toe Appreciation

Close your eyes, and imagine your body clothed or naked -- not an idealized image of your body as it once was or will be again, but your present shape. Drink in your reflection as objectively as you can. When self-criticism naturally arises, refocus on a more objective viewpoint.

From head to toe, let your mind count the ways each body part serves you. Your hair shields you from the weather, keeps you warm, boosts your mood on great hair days. Wax poetic if you like: your eyes are the windows to the world. Or stick to the facts: your neck supports your head. Arms make hugging possible. Your shoulders do the heavy lifting, give piggyback rides.

Take extra care with your muffin top and other body parts magazines promise to flatten in no time flat. Unless it's sustained you in illness or protected you in an accident, it can be hard to imagine how belly fat serves you, but it does serve you. If you're a mom or expecting to be one, consider how your body makes mothering possible.

When you finish recounting everything your body does to serve and protect you, mentally step back for one last look. With fresh eyes, reflect on the sum that's far greater than the individual parts. With this heightened awareness, pause to appreciate the living, breathing miracle of the human body. Linger a little longer in this renewed appreciation of your body.

Once you've got the gist of this practice, try it, and see if you like the immediate and dramatic difference self-compassion makes.


Jean Fain is a Harvard Medical School-affiliated psychotherapist specializing in eating issues, and the author of "The Self-Compassion Diet." For more information, see To share your view of muffin tops, please post your comments below.