Our bodies go through a lot on a daily basis, but especially so over the past year and a half—they’ve worked hard to protect us against (or help us fight) a deadly virus, deal with the loneliness and boredom that comes with a national lockdown, and manage the anxiety and fear of a global catastrophe.
And yet, here we are again, talking about getting that “summer body”—something that seems to come up in the media every time the weather finally gets warm enough to ditch the winter jackets. Except this time, we’re all just starting to emerge from a pandemic that threatened us, not only physically, but emotionally and mentally.
Take pandemic eating habits, for example: While it’s true that people have gained weight (and haven’t been able to escape “Quarantine 15” memes or tips on how to stop snacking while working from home), there’s also been an increase in eating disorders and disordered eating, Kelli Malkasian, PsyD, a board-certified psychologist specializing in eating disorders, tells Health. “It’s to the point where myself and my colleagues were calling each other constantly asking if we had space in our practices for additional patients,” she says.
Diet Culture in the Age of Body Positivity
Research backs this up too: According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), there was a 41% increase in users calling the organization’s help lines during the first nine months of the COVID-19 pandemic. And in a study published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders in July 2020, researchers found that nearly one-third of the 1,000 participants polled admitted to restricting diets or using “compensatory behaviors” like purging or exercise.
Basically: In a time when we should have been focusing on surviving, practicing self-care, and maintaining our mental health, many were hyper-focused on weight—and now, the annual campaign for having a “summer body” is back to terrorize us while we’re still recovering.
This summer, let’s try something different: Let’s reject diet culture, and instead, practice compassion and self-love to enjoy our summer (and our lives) regardless of our weight. If you need help getting started, here are six expert-approved ways to ditch the “summer body syndrome” rhetoric and start loving the body you have.
1. Find time for friends and family
After spending more than a year in various stages of lockdown and isolation, the best thing you can do for your mental health is to start socializing again. “One thing [that helps] is those connections,” Dr. Malkasian says, “getting back out around real people and real bodies.”
This may be difficult, as many have expressed fears about physical changes post-pandemic. But Dr. Malkasian believes that our loved ones might actually be the voice of reason we need. “We can get that external validation of who we really are, and what our value and worth is beyond what we look like,” she says.
2. Don’t blame yourself for how your body may have changed
Diet culture thrives on shame and the thought that we are totally in control of our weight, when in fact, our bodies are complex and respond to stress in specific ways, Emma Nacewicz, a clinical nutritionist, HAES practitioner, and body-positivity advocate, tells Health. “Your body’s stress hormones [were] through the roof,” she says, adding that it went into protection mode during the pandemic in case something else more serious (like a famine) was around the corner.
The bottom line: Your body didn’t get the memo that you (and everyone else) experienced a pandemic that would eventually subside, so it was just doing it’s best to protect you. Instead of “blaming” your body for gaining weight, instead try thanking it for being there in your time of need.
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3. Stop focusing on what you should have done differently
With all the time we spent at home this year, we could have easily fit in some daily home workouts or coped with some “healthier” eating habits, right? Not exactly—but that’s what many people thought and expected of themselves. “There’s been a lot of talk about the [‘Quarantine 15’] and immense pressure on people [to lose or maintain weight],” Dr. Malkasian says. “It’s like ‘Hey, you’re home, you’re not doing anything, it’s easy for you.'”
But anyone who spent months working where they live (and living where they work), will tell you it was much more complicated than that—people were also homeschooling children, taking care of their elderly parents, or just trying to keep food on the table (and worrying they’d bring back the virus in doing so). Let’s be clear: You did your best, and that was enough.
4. Remember: Your worth is not tied to your weight
It sounds cliche, but it’s true: The number you see on the scale doesn’t define you as a person. “Do the inner work and know that your body isn’t tied to your self-worth,” Nacewicz says. That could look like journaling, repeating mantras or affirmations, or just making a list of all the non-physical things that make you exceptional. These all serve as daily reminders that your weight is just that—your weight. It’s not the entirety of your being, and gaining weight doesn’t make you a bad person.
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5. Know that no one is paying attention to you—and that’s a good thing
It’s easy to get in main-character mode (you are, after all, the main character in your own life). But remember: You’re more often that not, merely an extra in the lives of others. And so, while you may think people will notice any physical changes that came from the pandemic, the truth is, they probably won’t.
“People aren’t going to look and think, ‘Oh, she gained weight during he pandemic,'” Nacewicz says. In fact, she says, they probably aren’t thinking about you at all. “Everyone is too self-absorbed to be looking at you and judging you,” she says. And remember: That’s not a bad thing—it gives you the freedom to just exist.
6. Start backing away from social media a bit more
Now that COVID restrictions are loosening and we’re able to step away from our computer screens and out into the real world, it may be time to start scaling back on your Instagram or Facebook use.
“Last year, we had 24-hour access…and people were constantly on social media because it was the one way to stay connected,” Dr. Malkasian says. But, she adds, for those who have been known to struggle with body shame or are heavily influenced by diet culture, that increased exposure can actually have a negative effect—leading to even more shame and feelings of comparison. Now’s the time to take a break—your TikTok followers will understand.
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