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How to Change the Way You See Your Body This Summer

Don't let self-criticism ruin your summer.

Key points

  • Many are struggling with poor body image after the pandemic. Approach any pandemic weight gain with self-compassion.
  • Restrictive dieting and compulsive exercise only sustains bad body image and engenders disordered eating patterns.
  • It's important to invest in one's appearance in a way that is fun, rather than a way that is self-critically focused on size.

As the nation lifts COVID-19 restrictions, many of us are looking forward to a summer full of fun and socialization out in the world. Imagine making up for all the pool parties and beach trips you missed in the summer of 2020. It’s exciting! It’s scary! What are we going to wear?!

But what should you do with yourself if you’re entering this summer preoccupied with bad body image? Instead of feeling joy at the thought of a day at the beach, you may feel terror at the prospect of being seen in a bathing suit. It’s very difficult to enjoy your hard-earned summer if you’re plagued by self-critical thoughts that your body is the wrong size or shape.

Body image refers to the thoughts and feelings you have towards your appearance. When body image is healthy and positive, you understand that your appearance is just one small part of what makes you who you are. You can dress yourself up, dress yourself down, have good days, bad days, and still respect the inherent worth of your body.

When body image is poor, your appearance takes on an emotionally laden, out-of-proportion importance in your life. Poor body image causes you to hate the way you look. You may avoid being in pictures, looking in the mirror, or going to social events. Or, you may be desperate to change the way you look, resorting to restrictive diets, compulsive exercise, or even cosmetic surgery.

If you’re distressed about the weight you gained during the pandemic or anxious about your appearance, you might be struggling with poor body image. And instead of dedicating yourself to a harsh plan to change your body, which is sure to put a damper on your summer, I would like to suggest an alternative way to approach body image. Let’s talk about how to enjoy your summer by shifting the way you see your body.

Keep It in Perspective

Most of us know what it’s like to put on a pair of jeans that used to fit but just… don’t anymore. It’s uncomfortable. It’s sad. It makes you question all your life choices. For people with bad body image, the too-small clothes become a symbol of their inherent failure, unattractiveness, and undesirability.

If you gained weight during quarantine and are in a crisis of too-small clothes, you have two options. The first option is to panic. You can immediately Google a new diet and workout regimen to return yourself to your former body. Unfortunately, changing your body doesn’t usually change poor body image — it is an emotional problem, not a physical one.

Your second option, when facing the psychic agony of too-tight jeans is this: Stop. Just stop and breathe. Do not move a muscle. Do not install a calorie-counting app. Take a moment to reflect on the last year — all you have endured and lost. Be grateful for the miracle that you made it through. And consider: Is weight loss really where you want to put your energy this summer?

Don’t Stress About Your Pandemic Weight Gain

Many of us have spent the last 15 months cooped up and stressed out. Remember March of last year? We were all glued to the news, and the internet was full of home gym ideas and fitness plans. Get in the best shape of your life during quarantine! We really all thought we were going to get it together! How little we knew of what the next 12 months would actually feel like.

Our original quarantine goals look naïve and trivial in the harsh light of June 2021. In a world that felt scary and dangerous, was there anything you felt like doing less than working out? Your body was focused on surviving. You couldn’t leave the house. You were anxious and scared. You needed comfort. I don’t know about you, but I didn’t want the comfort of high-intensity interval training. I wanted the comfort of a feather comforter and a piece of warm cinnamon toast.

You might say: but I should have done better! I had free time, and I should have exercised. I was home, and I could have cooked more, instead of ordering Grubhub five times a week. Whether you should have made more effort towards health is at this point irrelevant. You probably didn’t. And the fact that you didn’t is completely understandable.

Instead of berating yourself for your choices, try being benevolently realistic about your emotional capabilities during the pandemic. You were going through a frightening time, and you did your best to take care of yourself. Your best just wasn’t what you wanted it to be, and that’s okay. You did what you could with what you had available at the time. All you can do now is dedicate yourself to living well in the present day.

Practice Self-Compassion

I am willing to bet that your private thoughts about your body are occasionally very cruel. You think things about your body that you would never even consider speaking out loud. If someone talked to you the way you talk to yourself, you probably would go through a lot of trouble to get that person out of your life.

Try talking to yourself about your appearance the same way you would talk to your best friend. Would you ever, in a million years, suggest to your best friend that she stay home from the beach because she looks less-than-perfect in a bikini? No, you wouldn’t, unless you’re not a very good friend.

Give yourself the kindness, generosity, and gentleness you offer your loved ones. Remember all that you have been through in the past year, the safety that you fought so hard to maintain. Did your body really survive a global plague, only for you to berate it for not being small enough? It seems a poor repayment for your immune system's hard work.

Outlaw Restrictive Dieting

Statistically, the one thing that restrictive diets predict is eventual weight gain. I will say this again. Diets make you gain weight. This may seem counterintuitive, but restrictive diets can trigger disordered eating patterns. The more you restrict the type and amount of food you eat, the more you crave “forbidden” foods. It’s only natural — we want what we can’t have.

Self-denial of nutrition, a basic need, can trigger a cycle of bouncing back and forth between food restriction and binge eating. And even if weight loss occurs initially, this is not a healthy way to live, because it costs you, physically and emotionally. You begin each day with fresh resolve to “be good.” And you end the day, exhausted and starving, elbow-deep in the bag of tortilla chips you vowed not to touch, which you’ve hardly even enjoyed. You go to sleep feeling like a failure, which only intensifies your self-criticism the next morning. And so the cycle continues.

This isn’t a failure on your part, but rather proof that relying on willpower and self-control just isn’t that effective when it comes to nutrition. Binging is the natural result of restricting; your body is evolutionarily designed to prevent starvation. We just aren’t that strong when it comes to food. We aren’t meant to be that strong. Even if we could be that strong, it might make us insufferable to be around, or make our brains very unfriendly places to live.

Be honest with yourself about how sustainable any new health regimen will be. Ask yourself, “Would I be able to keep up this change forever?” If not, it is probably too restrictive. If you’re still confused about what to eat and how much, consider making an appointment with a Registered Dietitian, who can assist you in finding a sustainable way of eating tailored to your needs.

Focus on Sustainable Healthy Habits

I am not suggesting that you abandon health efforts completely — just that you do not use intentional weight loss as your primary goal. Perhaps you’re noticing that you’re not sleeping as well, or you feel fatigued, or that your physical abilities have weakened. Now is a great time to take a multidimensional look at your overall health. Here are a few questions to ask yourself:

  • Are you drinking enough water?
  • Are you including fruits or vegetables with each meal?
  • Are you eating three enjoyable meals a day at semi-regular times?
  • Are you getting movement and exercise most days?
  • Are you finishing your meals at comfortable fullness (happily satisfied but not stuffed)?
  • Are you honoring your known food allergies and sensitivities?

Focusing on small, sustainable goals can help you feel better in the short term and the long run. Remember that weight is only one metric to measure overall health. We all have different genetics and body types, including body size. If you focus on living well, you can usually trust your body to settle into its own healthy, sustainable weight without forcing it.

Buy Bigger Clothes

One major barrier to feeling comfortable in your body is: What the heck are you going to wear? Squeezing into too-small clothes isn’t just emotionally disheartening; it’s physically uncomfortable. No one feels good about their body with seams and buttons digging into their soft edges.

Consider taking an unflinching inventory of your wardrobe and culling out your clothes that simply don’t fit. If this feels too emotionally daunting, invite a friend to help you out. Remember that clothes are just made of fabric, and you are made of flesh and bone. Up until the last century, clothing wasn’t sized — it was custom made to fit your measurements. Let go of judgment about clothing sizes, which are made up anyways. The clothes should be made to fit you — not the other way around.

Instead of staring longingly at your old shorts that are way too small, donate them, give them to a friend, or simply put them away in a bin under your bed where they can’t gaze at you reproachfully. Focus on finding yourself a few clothing staples that fit your current body and style. Invest in your appearance in ways that feel fun, rather than self-loathing. Clothing, makeup, accessories, and hair are all wonderful ways to express your personality and have nothing to do with body size. If new clothes aren’t in your budget, try looking at thrift stores on sale days, or having a clothing swap with your friends.

Challenge Societal Beauty Standards

Finally, interrogate your beliefs about beauty. If you are stuck on the belief that thinness equals beauty, ask yourself: Why? Why does thinness equal beauty? Who decided? Who taught you that? How does it benefit you to hold on to that belief?

If you look at the long stretch of history, you’ll find that standards of beauty are notoriously short-lived and unreliable. It is helpful to keep in mind that your society’s definition of attractiveness is not an immutable fact. It is shaped by art, media, and commerce. Most importantly, beauty ideals tend to be based on what people who have money and power look like in your society.

You can choose whether or not to ascribe to the current beauty standard. Oppressive forces like racism, misogyny, classism, fatphobia, and ableism may still shape how the world perceives your body and attractiveness. It can be a powerful act of resistance to refuse to adopt your society’s beliefs about your body—to dedicate yourself to thinking kind, loving thoughts about your appearance, even in a harsh world. This isn’t a one-time decision, but rather, a practice — a difficult one that grows easier with each repetition.

You can create your own standard of beauty that takes into account much more than the size and shape of your body. Maybe you have an infectious laugh, are a great dancer, or give wonderful hugs. Or perhaps, you can put assessments of your body aside and rely on your inherent worth and dignity as a human being. And perhaps you can get that dignified human body into a bathing suit and out into the light of day.