Have you ever actually, in real life, seen someone rub their belly when they were full? Are we sure that isn’t something we’ve just witnessed Joey Tribbiani do in Friends? I’ve been tasked with answering the question of why people rub their bellies when they’re full, but I’m completely wrapped up in the question of when it’s truly happened.
To answer the original question of why, however, is ultimately to answer the question of when. My best guess is that the gesture originated in theater, as a non-verbal way of implying fullness. Passed up through silent film, cartoons and other media, we’ve simply come to associate belly rubs with satiation.
My other theory is more Freudian: Men who rub their bellies are experiencing womb envy. They wish they could place their hands upon their full stomachs and have that fullness be life. Women rub their pregnant bellies to feel a closeness with their unborn child, and men rubbing their food-stuffed stomachs is a desperate attempt to feel the same.
There’s some evidence, though, that rubbing your belly can aid in digestion, whether it’s actually full or not. On YouTube, there are dozens of medical videos demonstrating how to give yourself an abdominal massage to promote bowel movements or lessen bloating. There are also lots of fetish videos of women rubbing their bellies, in case you were wondering.
Usually, the medical tutorials on belly rubs involve more pressure and unique placement than your average post-meal belly rub. It seems unlikely that lightly grazing your stomach with the palm of your hand will actually help your organs do their job. Again, I still think this barely even happens in real life, but we’re discussing hypotheticals.
Realistically, the “I’m stuffed” belly rub is actually more of a gentle touch, a momentary resting of the hand on the abdominal region. The reason you touch it is because, well, it’s there. Few other parts of the body can expand so rapidly as the stomach. We’re not accustomed to experiencing such fluctuations anywhere else, and because it only happens to the stomach, it remains a novelty. It’s like the tendency to touch your hair after it’s been cut — it’s simply something different.
To this end, patting your belly also signals comfort and acceptance of your body. People tend to carry themselves with their stomachs sucked in, conscious about how their body looks to others. Rubbing a full belly thus represents a shirking of these norms, a symbolic approval of one’s body in contrast to our usual sense of restriction.
On the most basic level, rubbing your tummy just feels nice. But deep in your subconscious, your spirit thinks so, too.