If you’ve struggled with body image lately, you’re in good company. It’s clear from all the workout videos, fat-shaming memes, and jokes about the “quarantine 15” that our culture is really concerned with how this pandemic might affect our bodies.
The dominant culture (sometimes called “diet culture”) promises us that if we make sure our bodies look a certain way, we’ll be happy, healthy, and thriving.
It convinces us that we can meet many psychological, physiological, and emotional needs by buying products, gym memberships, and $14 bottles of juice. But there are ways to meet your needs that don’t force you to obsess over your pant size, both in “regular life” and in quarantine.
By figuring out which psychological needs you’re trying to address through preoccupation with your body during this crisis, you can arm yourself with far more compassionate and effective tools for thriving.
Need 1: Stability
During a season of unprecedented instability, it’s no wonder you want your body to stay the same. A changing body can feel overwhelming on top of the many other changes happening.
While it may feel tempting to restrict food or force yourself to exercise to try to prevent weight gain, these activities probably won’t provide any lasting stability. In fact, research shows that intentional weight loss predicts future weight gain, so if you tighten the reins during quarantine, you may struggle with weight cycling (or “yo-yo dieting”) long after the curve is flattened.
Instead, give yourself structure, but let it be flexible. Try to develop self-compassionate rituals to do around the same time each day, such as a morning cup of coffee or tea, listening to your favorite podcast, or moving through a set of stretches or yoga poses.
Lasting stability doesn’t come from maintaining a clothing size or sticking to a rigid way of eating; it comes from maintaining a sense of self. Your body may change, but you are still you. Having a bit more fat on your body is not a threat to who you are.
Need 2: Certainty
The only certainty we have is whatever is true today. We don’t know how long this pandemic will last, nor can we predict the extent of the impact it will leave on our world.
Since diet culture tells us that pizza is “bad” and carrots are “good,” those binary categories can feel like the path to certainty. If nothing else is certain, at least you can be certain you’ve been “good” today for drinking a kale smoothie.
Sure, foods vary in nutritional composition, but all food contains energy that we need to survive. When you attach “good” and “bad” value judgments to food (and to yourself, the eater, by extension), you set yourself up to land guilt-ridden at the bottom of a pot of mac and cheese or some other diet culture demon.
Don’t waste your energy searching for the “perfect” way of eating in quarantine. If right now is all that’s guaranteed, spend it eating whatever foods help you feel nourished and satisfied, and then turn your attention back to whatever is happening in your life today.
Need 3: Control
These days, with shutdowns and shelter-in-place orders, it can seem like the only things left in your power are what you eat and how much you exercise. You may be leaning extra hard on tools like fitness trackers and food logging apps to make sure you don’t “lose control.”
However, we actually give up control by following rules about calories, macros, or step counts. When we live within the guardrails of these devices, they end up controlling us and disregarding our nuanced food and activity needs.
The human body is smart. It will tell you when it’s hungry, thirsty, antsy, or tired. Try using this time to take off the Fitbit, delete the food logging apps, and hide (or better yet, smash) the scale.
None of us chose this pandemic, but we choose our response to it. We control whether we follow recommendations to stop the spread, even if it means temporarily having fewer food options and less opportunity for physical activity. We control whether we choose self-punishing actions or self-compassionate ones.
See whether you can reopen the lines of communication between your body and brain, like noticing the urge to sit down after a morning of chores, or noticing your muscles feeling stiff after a few hours on the couch. Those are natural cues saying rest, stretch, or move. It is within your control to respond to those cues with intention and clarity.
Need 4: Self-expression
Fixating on your body during a global crisis is kind of like when a kid whose parents are divorcing starts smoking pot and skipping school. The behaviors on the surface are really expressing emotions underneath.
Perhaps the anxiety you’ve attached to your body is actually signaling unprocessed existential material. After all, there’s a life-threatening virus sweeping the globe. Journaling or talking to a therapist can help you dive deeper to explore what your body concerns represent to you and find more effective ways to process those emotions.
Need 5: Comfort
As infants, food is one of the earliest forms of comfort we receive. It’s natural to turn to familiar behaviors to cope during uncertain times.
However, as soon as you decide eating is off-limits, it becomes simultaneously irresistible and laced with shame. Instead, let yourself cope using food if that’s what you find yourself pulled towards at this time, but try to do so with a curious attitude. Do you feel soothed, or did it not quite do the trick?
If eating effectively satisfies your craving for comfort, great. If it doesn’t, perhaps you’ll find comfort with a warm bath or shower, wrapping in a cozy blanket, stretching, cuddling a pet, or calling a loved one. The key here is to allow food to be just as viable an option as everything else on your list, and let your body be your guide.
Need 6: Validation
If you’re used to receiving praise and compliments for how you look, you may worry about losing that validation if you gain weight or lose muscle tone during the quarantine.
You are not vain for wanting validation. However, looks-based validation is fickle. Perhaps this is a good time to make a list of your strengths, and name the qualities you value in your loved ones. The more you validate yourself and others for more meaningful characteristics, the less importance you’ll attach to the stuff on the outside.
Plus, reserving validation for people in thin or muscular bodies is just a cruel way that Diet Culture discriminates against people in bigger bodies. Bodies are supposed to come in all shapes and sizes. Just as humans are diverse in height, skin color, and shoe size, we’re naturally diverse in body size.
Thin bodies are not superior to fat bodies. If you can internalize this belief, body size becomes neutral.
This pandemic reminds us that the future is not a guarantee. The next time your brain gives you a negative thought about your body or tells you what you’re “allowed” to eat, try zooming out on your life. We only have eight or nine decades on this planet (if we’re lucky). How many of them do you want to spend chasing a goal weight and sucking in your stomach, when you could be doing literally anything else?