Why Some Challenges Aren’t Worth Taking: I’m Looking at You, Belly Button Challenge!

challengeThis blog originated out of our Fittest by Fifty Challenge — to be the fittest we’d ever been in our lives by the time we turned 50. Along the way, we’ve talked about challenges of various sorts and why we like them. See here for “Why I Like Challenges” and here for Sam’s post about the burpee challenge.

But one challenge we will not be promoted is the Belly-Button Challenge. It’s old news by now, really took off last week on social media. Here’s the challenge, according to the Toronto Star in an article entitled “The Terrifying Horribleness of the Belly Button Challenge“:

attempting to reach around one’s back and touch one’s belly button to prove one is svelte enough to do so.

It started in China and went viral, with mostly young women posting pictures of themselves reaching around to touch their belly button.  It was touted as a test of fitness.

But no sooner had it taken social media hostage than the naysayers kicked in with their two cents.  Instead of testing fitness, people complained that it promotes body shame and an unhealthy aspiration to ultra-thinness. But then it came out that not even all thin people can successfully do this. Anyone who has taken yoga will know full well that there are some maneuvers some people can do, and others other people can do, and no one can do everything. Not surprisingly, it depends on all sorts of things.

In a tongue and cheek article, “Don’t Try the Belly Button Challenge,” posted on The Atlantic‘s website, James Hamblin writes that in fact:

It’s actually a test of shoulder flexibility, not fitness. The shoulder has the greatest range of motion of any joint in the body. If you’re looking to impress people, how about telling them that fact?

And then a body positivity/boob self-examination counter-movement took hold. #BoobsOverBellyButtons encourages women to forget about their belly buttons and instead focus on their boobs. Here’s what it says on Curvy Kate’s website:

Well here at Curvy Kate HQ we think that this is a load of old tosh and there are a heck of a lot more important things to be checking on your body than whether your arms are flexible enough to reach all the way around your own torso.

So welcome the #BoobsOverBellyButtons movement! We want to encourage you guys to check your boobs and get to know what normal feels like…rather than doing these ridiculous body-shaming (and downright painful) demonstrations.

And despite how silly the belly-button challenge is, there is something irresistable about it for so many people. Jennifer Lilley’s Huffington Post article, “Why I Detest the Belly Button Challenge, But I Couldn’t Resist Trying It,” gets at this push-me, pull-you reaction to the challenge. Despite thinking that it’s a ridiculous measure that tells us nothing and, worse, triggers the diet-mentality and body hatred, she feels drawn to it, knowing she won’t “pass.” She takes the challenge and, as predicted, she can’t touch her belly button:

However, my thrill in not meeting the goal in this challenge was quickly replaced with thoughts I recognized all too well. For the first time in a long while, I felt a pang of disappointment. I caught myself in the mirror striking a pose in which I was half-hugging myself, trying to embrace an ideal. I was astutely aware of the space between my fingers and my navel. I even took my other hand to “measure” the distance with my outstretched fingers, and then stared at it.

What is it about “failing” the challenge that makes a person feel inadequate even when they know full well that it’s not a measure of fitness and that it’s no comment on their worth or even their health?  It’s that pernicious message–Lilley likens it to the thigh gap, which is another thing that people associate with thinness and, by false extension, health, when in fact lots of it has to do with the physical hand a person is dealt. See “Why the Thigh Gap Makes Me Sad” to read more about the thigh gap.

The Belly Button Challenge is different from the Burpee Challenge or a 30-day Yoga Challenge or any kind of challenge that pushes us in the direction of establishing a habit or that has us immerse ourselves in something for a period of time as a sort of discipline or sees us working toward a goal (like our Fittest by 50 Challenge). It’s different because you try it once and then it’s over (like can you touch your nose with your tongue? Can you whistle?). There’s just not a lot that it tells us about anything and it’s not clear what we are to do (lose weight? Work on shoulder flexibility?) if we “fail.”

Not so useful. But I’m sure most of you who read this blog never thought it would be anyway.  And I have to admit I was curious how far from being able to do this I would be. Answer: about 4 inches.

5 thoughts on “Why Some Challenges Aren’t Worth Taking: I’m Looking at You, Belly Button Challenge!

  1. After first hearing about this in this post, I too was instantly drawn into an attempt. But it was more for the shoulder flexibility measurement. I am a yoga teacher and I know the limits of each of my shoulders in the back scratch test (aka Cowface) and I wasn’t very surprised to find that I couldn’t reach my navel. More so that I was so close and that the difference between shoulders was less than expected. Kind of a neat affirmation for my practice of balancing both sides! Thanks for the post!

    1. Thanks for this. I also thought of differwnt yoga asanas right away. Some are just literally out of reach!

  2. I can do it, but I have *extremely* long arms, a very short torso, and very flexible joints – nothing to do with my “fitness” level” at all.

    (My proportions and hyperflexibility are such that I had to be checked for Marfan Syndrome. My doctors wanted to make sure my aorta wasn’t about to blow out on me.. thankfully I’m clear on that).

    I had to look up “collarbone challenge”. Good grief. Okay, I could do that one a few years ago, when I was drastically unhealthy and underweight for my frame. But I could not do anything else at that time, like go up stairs without feeling faint, or carry groceries. I think I’ll keep the “excess” flesh, considering that it consists of useful things like shoulder muscles.

  3. I first read about this challenge on a Dutch eating disorder website. Thoug it pointed out the disturbing nature of this challenge, like your post too, I was tempted to try it. I “failed” miserably. I am all fo rfitness, but again, this challenge clearly doesn’t acknowledge each individual’s body type, strength, flexibility, etc.

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