We’ve all seen the quarantine-15 memes, read the posts about binging on stay-at-home snacks and listened to a friend or coworker talk about weight gain during COVID-19.
While many of these posts and comments aren’t intended to cause harm, the onslaught of negative body talk can impact your mental health and make you feel othered or shamed if your body does not conform to conventional beauty standards.
“I cannot tell you how many patients have brought up weight,” says Dr. Sarah Halter, a family medicine provider at UW Neighborhood Factoria Clinic. “People are dying and losing work, but we are still so stressed out about gaining a few pounds.”
Finding body acceptance is hard enough in the best of times — not to mention in the middle of a pandemic.
So, how can you feel good about your body and avoid shaming yourself and others? And what does this even look like during the current crisis?
It’s OK if your weight fluctuates
During the pandemic, factors like gyms closing, groceries shifting to highly processed foods with long shelf lives and your routine being thrown completely out of whack can disrupt your sleep, increase stress and cause anxiety.
It’s understandable if your weight shifts because of these changes.
“There are so many variables that can affect weight,” says Karen Conger, a registered dietitian at Harborview Medical Center. “I’m hesitant to even work with patients about weight loss or have that as a goal under normal circumstances, but certainly right now is not a good time to be focusing on it.”
While your weight does contribute to your health, and obesity is associated with earlier onset of chronic diseases, like diabetes and heart conditions, it is only one of the many factors that go into your well-being.
Instead of fixating on a number on the scale, try to consider wellness holistically, Halter says.
By allowing space for your mental, emotional and spiritual health — along with acknowledging outside factors that impact your body, like access to healthcare, food and movement — you can help improve your overall well-being.
How to create a more positive self-image
If you are struggling with negative self-talk, try using cognitive behavioral therapy practices, or CBT, to reframe how you view your body.
“Taking time to identify a belief that fuels painful emotions or drives unhelpful behaviors — and finding a kinder and more realistic way to view yourself — can be really helpful,” says Dr. Kate Hoerster, a licensed clinical psychologist and an assistant professor in the UW Department of Psychiatry and Behavior Sciences.
For example, if you’re worried about what your coworkers will think if you gain a few pounds during stay-at-home orders, try to get curious about where this thought is coming from.
Once you’ve acknowledged the thought, you can work on creating a new, more compassionate belief about your body. This may mean choosing an affirmation to repeat to yourself, or celebrating all that your body can do, like breathe in oxygen, pump blood and even help you move through this pandemic.
If intrusive thoughts creep in, try not to judge yourself or get frustrated. Instead, notice the thought, then gently remind yourself of your new more compassionate way of thinking.
Why it’s important to listen to your body
During COVID-19, you may be experiencing more or different cravings than usual. Maybe you’ve jumped on the bread-baking bandwagon, or you might be turning to food to help you feel better.
“It’s OK for food to be a source of comfort,” Conger says.
You don’t have to drastically restrict the food you eat in order to be healthy, she notes, and shaming yourself for eating certain foods or labeling food as either good or bad can be harmful.
“It’s really when we have guilt around what we eat that we start to have a problem,” Conger says. “We feel like we’ve blown it, so we eat the whole pack instead of a single cookie. We aren’t enjoying them anymore and then we don’t feel good anymore. I mean, eating an entire pack of kale probably won’t feel great either.”
The key is to find some balance.
“I think there’s an opportunity to reflect on what you want your health to look like and how you want to nurture your body and soul right now,” Hoerster says.
Physical activity and eating some fruits and vegetables can boost your mental and physical health and even reduce symptoms of depression or PTSD, but it defeats the purpose if these actions are coming from a place of shame or a belief that your body is only acceptable if it looks a certain way, she notes.
It’s important to check in with yourself to determine what is best for you and your body — not what society is telling you to feel through implicit and explicit messages.
Sometimes the cues your body sends can indicate deeper wishes, like wanting to call a friend who you aren’t able to see right now or needing to grieve the loss of normalcy. Other times your body might be asking for some fresh air, a nutritious meal or, yes, a sweet treat.
“Pay attention to your thoughts around what is really going to help you,” Conger says. “And if it’s the cookie, it’s the cookie.”
How to practice self-love
Loving and even accepting your body can be a big ask, and it’s OK if you aren’t there yet.
Conger, Halter and Hoerster share some small practices you can do to help cope.
Unfollow body-shaming media
With confusing and harmful messages coming from the entertainment industry to online trends (hello thinspo and thigh gaps) to even politics and healthcare, it’s no wonder that it’s hard to have a positive relationship with your body.
Halster recommends a simple yet effective way to cut through the body-shaming noise: Marie Kondo your social media and unfollow influencers or sites that don’t spark joy.
Get some movement
Instead of putting unnecessary pressure on yourself to use your at-home time to transform your body, focus on adding movement that you actually enjoy into your day.
Whether it’s dancing in your kitchen or walking around your neighborhood, joyful movement can help you feel more present in your body, boost your endorphins and increase your mental and physical health.
Feel your feelings
Hearing comments about weight gain or seeing negative body-image posts online can be irritating and upsetting.
“It’s the idea of death by a thousand cuts,” Halter says. “Our brain’s response to social rejection is similar to its response to pain. It’s OK to acknowledge that those feelings can hurt.”
Allowing yourself to feel your feelings can help to reconnect you with your body.
No matter what you do, try to give yourself some grace and compassion during COVID-19 and beyond: Your body and identity are so much more than a number on a scale.