Reentry into pre-social-distancing life is going to be such a joy. Reentry into nonstretchy pants? Maybe not so much.
The coronavirus changed so much about people’s lives — including, for many folks, their bodies. Gyms closed, child care vanished, and while food became a comfort for some, others had their appetites squelched by anxiety. The yearlong media diet of bad news may have also given them a new wrinkle or two.
And these are just things that may have happened by following social distancing recommendations. Americans who contracted COVID-19 may still be reckoning with difficult physiological changes, including hair loss and even tooth loss.
If you’ve been feeling trepidation about your post-lockdown looks, know you’re not alone. In January, David Frederick, an associate professor of health psychology at Chapman University, asked Americans to describe how the pandemic influenced their body image.
Forty-eight percent of female respondents said it contributed to negative feelings about their weight. When asked about overall feelings of attractiveness, 43% of women and 26% of men said COVID-19 negatively affected how attractive they felt.
These feelings may come from various places, including disrupted exercise routines or more time spent staring at screens. Researchers in Britain, in a study published in the Personality and Individual Differences journal in February, posited that an increased consumption of media — which can glorify thin bodies — could contribute to anxiety over body image. Researchers also found that the lockdowns, for those struggling with an eating disorder or with a history of eating disorders, had been especially triggering for harming behaviors like bingeing.
It doesn’t have to be like this, though. “You are enough; your body is enough,” said Joy Cox, who studies weight stigma at Rutgers University. “I don’t think we say that enough, honestly.” Instead of thinking about your body’s imperfections, why not focus on the fact that your body carried you through a global pandemic, emerging as a survivor on the other side? That’s remarkable and worth celebrating.
Here’s how to quiet that inner critic as you prepare to go back out in the world.
Find the source of your insecurities.
Take a moment to think about the part of your body that’s vexing you. Then think about where that anxiety originated. Chances are, someone told you that part of your body was a problem, Cox said.
“If it was a family member who said, ‘Oh, look at that pudge,’” she said, that person might be carrying around other people’s perception of their own body, not necessarily what a person thinks of it herself.
What matters is what you think about your body because, simply, you are the person living in your body. Cox urges you to strip away the negativity others have implanted and start facing your body with facts. Those thighs? They are strong and have carried you for miles. Your arms? They can haul the grocery bags in one trip. Your neck? Holds up a brain full of important information.
If your own mind is spitting out negative thoughts on its own, try practicing “thought stopping,” a technique often used in cognitive behavioral therapy, Cox said. When a negative thought about your body pops into your brain, say, “Stop.” Then, mindfully replace that thought with a positive one. For example: If you’re standing in front of the mirror, zeroed in on your belly fat, stop that thought and remind yourself that your body carried a baby, or has run marathons, or allows you to haul mulch in your garden.
Be aware: It’s not just personal.
Diet culture is everywhere — for example, in the terms “quarantine 15” or “the COVID 19.” These terms of weight gain pushed the idea on social media and popular culture sites that, amid mass illness and unemployment and other pandemic woes, one aspect worthy of your emotional energy was staying thin enough to fit into your jeans.
Even if no one has ever found fault with your body, you have most likely internalized ideas about how bodies should look. Chances are, those ideas are divorced from our actual health. These ideas are connected to capitalism’s incessant need to sell diet products, said Connie Sobczak, co-founder and executive director of the Body Positive, a nonprofit that leads body-positivity training. Creating a hierarchy of good, better and best bodies generates market opportunities for selling what we need to get those bodies.
Take a good look at your media and social media consumption. Consider unfollowing or muting thinness-championing friends, influencers and celebrities. Another step? Calling out — even if only to yourself — examples of fat phobia in TV shows, movies and more. When you start purposefully noting diet culture whenever you see it, you’ll be astounded at how it has permeated our daily discourse.
Remember, you belong here (and everywhere).
People who live in larger bodies often do not feel welcome in certain spaces — like the gym, Cox said. But practicing body acceptance can change that.
“Research shows that shame doesn’t work,” Cox said. “Shaming doesn’t actually lead to behavioral change, but acceptance fosters behavioral change and fosters us to be active in spaces that we traditionally are not welcome in.”
She pointed to a 2011 study in the journal Qualitative Health Research. Participants were invited to join the Fatosphere, an online community where the word “fat” was neutral and treated like any other descriptor — i.e., having brown hair or being short or tall. Negative conversations about weight were not allowed, and participants were urged to open up about their experiences in a safe, body-positive space.
After a year of participating in the Fatosphere, participants reported positive changes to their overall well-being. They also felt more confident going into spaces they traditionally would have avoided. When people begin to see their bodies as the wonder they are, not the things they are not, “people actually do find the liberty to do things that society tells them they can’t do,” Cox said.
Taking that first step into a seemingly hostile space may be daunting — especially after a year spent at home. Cox recommends beginning with positive affirmations.
“Start by telling yourself you are grateful and thankful for what your body can do for you,” she said. Then remind yourself that your body is enough, that you deserve to take up space and that every body belongs in this world.
Try on something new.
“Needing new clothes because your old ones no longer fit is not a sign of personal failure, especially during a pandemic,” Cox said. Wearing clothes that don’t fit properly is not only uncomfortable but also makes you self-conscious.
If you can afford a few new things, shop for pieces that make you feel good, Sobczak said. You could also rent clothes from brands like Banana Republic, Ann Taylor Loft and Fashion to Figure.
If new clothes are not an option, put the pieces that you still feel good wearing into heavy rotation. Few others will notice that you’ve dressed in the same four items over and over.
Embrace your face.
Roxana Daneshjou, a clinical scholar in Stanford University’s dermatology department, consciously avoids the term “age spots” when describing signs of aging on one’s face; instead, she uses the term “wisdom spots.”
“Stress, genetics and sun exposure all play a role in aging, but living inevitably leads to aging,” she said. Instead of focusing on the frown line that showed up a year into lockdown, Daneshjou recommends shifting your focus to feeling gratitude for all the work your skin does to protect you.
It’s never too late to start caring for your skin. “I encourage people to moisturize, avoid irritating products and use sun protection to avoid sun damage,” she said. That routine won’t necessarily undo your crow’s feet, but it will help keep your face healthy as you age.
Your friends don’t care.
OK, first the depressing bit: The process of making new friends, especially for teenagers and young adults, can be superficial, with attractiveness playing a role in whom we choose to befriend, said William Chopik, who studies social and personality psychology at Michigan State University’s Close Relationships Lab.
What we’re experiencing now, though, is different. We are looking forward to connecting with old friends. When Chopik wanted to examine what makes a relationship last, he asked university students to answer questions about either their romantic or platonic relationships. The results, which are under review for publication in an academic journal, found that when it came to friendships, enjoying time spent together was the only item that strongly correlated to a person’s commitment to that friendship. He adds that existing psychology research shows we value humor, honesty, sincerity and a positive attitude in our friendships. Good looks? “That’s at the very, very bottom,” Chopik said.