NEWS

Staying Body Positive After Covid-19

drawing of glowing woman hugging herself with flowers in her hair

Verywell / Nez Riaz

Key Takeaways

  • Weight gain is a natural response to the stress and changes experienced in the pandemic.
  • But as a result of toxic diet culture, some people are struggling to accept the changes their bodies have undergone during this time.
  • As pandemic restrictions are lifted, practice gratitude and focus on the body's resilience.

Feeling good in your body is not an inherently easy task. And feelings of self-consciousness are only compounded by increased social media consumption, toxic "summer body" imperatives and, perhaps, changes in your weight after a year more sedentary and isolated than ever before.

But perception is everything. For Robert, a 27-year-old living in New York, weight fluctuation was a common thread contributing to body dysmorphia and low self-esteem throughout his life. But after going through four periods of gaining and losing weight in the pandemic, something changed. He began to shift his focus away from feelings of self-hate.

"[I] spent so much time hating my body in isolation that I am truly tired of it and refuse to anymore," says Robert. "It's been a long journey for me."

Reframing our thinking to a more body-positive outlook is possible—with work. Unraveling society's unhealthy attachments to diet culture and unrealistic standards of beauty begins in our own minds, and as life slowly returns to normal we have an opportunity to emerge even stronger and more accepting than before.

A Natural Response

Robyn Pashby, PhD, a psychologist who specializes in weight- and body-related issues, notes food quickly became a source of comfort in the pandemic as routines were upended, sleep was disrupted, and feelings of stress, fear and anxiety skyrocketed.

Robyn Pashby, PhD

Despite popular opinion that we could have all used this time to eat better and exercise more, weight gain is actually a quite natural response to this situation. Of course people gained weight.

— Robyn Pashby, PhD

The popular opinion she refers to is the result of an extremely toxic diet culture in America. Moving less and eating more, even as the result of a global pandemic, is the antithesis of what has become an unrealistic goal or standard for physical beauty. So, despite the fact that weight gain is a normal part of life, many folks are feeling uneasy after a lifetime of internalizing this social standard.

"As anxiety about reentry rises, so does the desire for the 'quick fix' to what society has deemed a problem of willpower and self-control, i.e., weight gain," Pashby says. "But the problem isn't the weight gain. The problem is the societal view of what weight gain means."

Problematic Social Standards

In a society that has historically rewarded thinness while treating other body types as less-than, it can be extremely difficult to shake the feeling that you should always be working toward a better version of your physical self. And it doesn't help that the diet industry targets its potential customers through the majority of the media we consume every day.

"People stand to make a lot of money off us feeling bad about ourselves," says therapist Dawn Friedman, MSEd. "We need to recognize that there is steady pressure for us to want to make our eyelashes longer, our hair shinier and our bodies smaller. Companies invest millions in trying to get us to feel dissatisfied enough that we’ll spend our money on the solutions they’re selling."

Social media is a main culprit. Whether it's celebrities hawking "skinny teas" or fitness influencers saturating feeds with strategically posed gym photos, we're much more likely to come across an image that will make us question whether our weight and body shape are good enough.

While body positive images and campaigns are becoming increasingly more common, they still serve as the minority when it comes to the images we consume and internalize. And during a period of time in which media consumption became the bulk of our interaction with the outside world, many folks are struggling to maintain a body-positive outlook.

Coping in the Pandemic

"Comfort food" is a common phrase for a reason. While the specific foods differ from culture to culture, research shows that consuming certain foods really can provide comfort and alleviate loneliness. In a year of extreme isolation, we've often turned to food.

Dawn Friedman, MSEd

With very little to look forward to in general, many of us found eating something delicious the highlight of the long, often lonely days of the pandemic. So of course we ate more than usual.

— Dawn Friedman, MSEd

While we had more opportunity and reason to seek comfort in food this year, the physical activity of our former lives simultaneously came to an abrupt halt. And this doesn't just refer to workouts in the gym for gains, but rather the walking, dancing and playing we experienced in our daily lives. Needless to say, this contributed to bodily changes, as well.

For the many individuals that use energy exertion as a coping strategy in itself, the struggle this year has compounded. For Taylor Hornburg, a 34-year-old living in Missouri, getting physical helped her in recovering from alcohol addiction. When pandemic restrictions kept her from the gym, it initiated a physical and emotional roller coaster.

"When I quit drinking a few years ago, going to the gym really helped me establish a healthy routine and reconnect with my body after years of abusing it," Hornburg says. "Then suddenly that was no longer an option."

While she feels slightly self-conscious about the weight she's gained, Hornburg is just happy to be healthy. This same sentiment was echoed in dozens of conversations for this article, as so many individuals try to keep in mind that despite the changes our bodies might have undergone this year, those same bodies carried us through one of the most severe and frightening health crises of our lifetime.

Practicing Acceptance

Focusing on the body's resilience through this time, rather than becoming overwhelmed by the societal pressures of perfection and productivity, is just one way to treat your body with the respect that it deserves.

"In order to increase our own acceptance of our bodies as we re-enter society, we need to regain perspective," Pashby says. "We are still living through the worst public health crisis in over a century. No one was supposed to earn a new degree, get toned and lean, or write a novel. We were all in survival mode for the past year and it’s not over yet."

Psychologist Courtney Cornick, PhD, psychologist and owner of virtual therapy and coaching platform CAYA Wellness, suggests some strategies for embracing the changes your body may experience. You might compliment yourself when you face the mirror each morning, or build a body-affirming support group online or in person. It could also be time to take yourself shopping.

"Buy a few pieces of clothes that fit so that you can feel comfortable and confident," Cornick says. "Acknowledge that you may have to pick a size or two up from when you bought clothes in the past."

Holly Schiff, PsyD

As we prepare to go back out in the world, quiet your inner critic. Take some solace in knowing that quite everyone else in the world is dealing with the same struggles as we all emerge from our pandemic quarantine.

— Holly Schiff, PsyD

Switching up your social media feed can also have a positive impact. Unfollow accounts that promote unhealthy diet and fitness culture or prompt feelings of dissatisfaction in your own body, and replace them with body-positive ones. Not only will this diversify the types of bodies you see daily, but will also help tackle the task of lessening self-critique, which chips away at our self-worth when we don't keep it in check.

"As we prepare to go back out in the world, quiet your inner critic," says psychologist Holly Schiff, PsyD. "Use thought stopping. When a negative thought about your body pops into your brain, say stop and mindfully replace it with a positive one."

Changing the way you think about your body's adjustments and adaptations takes time and effort. But that work will pay off. After moving home for a year of virtual schooling, Kristen Kolp, a 20-year-old college student, has experienced a major shift in self-perception. After struggling with body imagein the past, she now feels more confident in her body than ever.

"I spent so much time alone that I eventually realized the only person I have to dress up for and impress is myself," she says. "And I decided I quite like myself."

And learning to like yourself can go a long way. After Robert stopped seeking approval from others, he discovered that real self-acceptance was more solid and lasting.

"I learned that I simply had to stop craving other people’s approval that I looked good," he says. "I had to learn to trust that the compliments I give myself are just as good, if not better, than the ones that come from other people."

What This Means For You

Bodies constantly adapt and change, and weight gain should not be viewed as negative. If you're feeling self-conscious, focus on your body's ability and resilience in carrying you through life's challenges rather than comparing it to what you might see on social media.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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  1. Spence C. Comfort food: A reviewInt J Gastron Food Sci. 2017;9:105-109. doi:10.1016/j.ijgfs.2017.07.001