Cleavage is over – welcome to the age of killer abs
Abs began in 2001, between Britney Spears singing I’m a Slave 4 U at the MTV awards with a diamond in her belly button and an albino Burmese python around her neck, and the imperial period of Sex and the City, in which Carrie Bradshaw wore, among other hipbone-baring looks, a green and white belt around her waist to match a skirt that hung low from her hips, framing several inches of flat stomach. At some point between these two pop cultural moments, desirable abdominal muscles went from gently toned to set in stone. Take a look at Britney and she is lean and muscular but still with a hint of a curve to her belly, the suggestion of pliability. Just a few months later, Carrie’s abs look as if they were carved by Michelangelo.
We are living in the age of abdominals. A flat tummy doesn’t cut it, and nothing less than obliques carved into visible ridges will impress. When Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck went Instagram Official this summer, the frankly magnificent topography of Lopez’s lower ribcage area was the killer detail. Cristiano Ronaldo can do 142 sit ups in 45 seconds; Cher, who is 75, can plank for five minutes. Do try to keep up, because the bare midriff is no longer just for the beach. This year, it was awards’ season hottest look. Valentino, the chic Italian fashion house with form in creating red-carpet gowns that nail the fashion zeitgeist, dressed both Carey Mulligan and Zendaya in floor-sweeping Oscar dresses that were essentially long skirts with very fancy bikini tops. At the Emmys, Michaela Coel showed an elegant sliver of abs through her neon dress by Christopher John Rogers. Zendaya’s abs wore sunshine-yellow chiffon, Mulligan’s glittering copper, like smelted coins.
Fitness has been elevated from a chore to a religion (if you don’t believe me, you obviously haven’t been to SoulCycle) and abs are the mark of the truly devout. Many of the most fashionable regimes of the last two decades – yoga, pilates, barre – target a sculpted middle, and gym gear has evolved to showcase them. (If Jane Fonda was launching her aerobics empire now, she would definitely ditch the leotards for a bra top and leggings.) Abdominals may be the height of fashion, but they are not frivolous. A strong core improves your posture, protects your back and stabilises your joints to help guard against hip and knee problems. Cheer, the cult documentary following the fortunes of the Navarro College cheerleading team, combined two modern obsessions – Netflix and abs – in one addictive package to dazzling effect.
With perfect timing, fitness gave us abs just as woke was killing cleavage. Popular culture used to serve sexiness straight up, female bodies pressed into meaty slabs to suit red-blooded patriarchal tastes. It would be nice to be able to say that society has evolved into inclusivity and the placing of equal value on each and every human body, but, sadly, that would be total nonsense. More accurate to say that fashion now approaches the subject of sex gingerly, like someone trying to broach a controversial subject without getting their head bitten off. Abs, which are wholesome and healthy but also quite hot-looking, are a kind of visual euphemism for erotica.
Of course, you can opt out of the abs race by keeping covered. Well – kind of. Our love of a midsection corseted by abs has also driven the rise of the long, body-skimming dress, a look that is done best by The Vampire’s Wife, but seen everywhere. This demure look relies for its silhouette on a crunch-toned narrowness around the middle.
The new high-waisted trousers are less forgiving of a soft tummy than, say, an oversize white shirt tucked loosely into low-rise jeans. Perhaps we have reached peak abs? We’ve got a little while until bikini season rolls around again. My fingers are crossed.