After having a few conversations with clients, I asked people on Instagram if the new “social isolation” mandate was triggering their body image issues.
And my DMs blew up.
Lots of people talked about how not having their routine—especially their normal exercise routine—was f*cking with their heads. Routine is extremely important for mental health for lots of folks, and physical exercise is a crucial tool for fighting anxiety and depression (as well as a whole host of other physical and mental issues), so this makes sense.
But on top of that, people were struggling with the loss of such an important tool for controlling the size or shape of their bodies.
Other people talked about the stress of being stuck at home, bored and stressed, and not trusting themselves around food. One woman wrote that she is terrified she’ll eat everything in the house if she stocks up on food because she “can’t stop herself when it’s around,” but is too embarrassed to tell her husband why she won’t let him stock up.
Another told me that the only thing that keeps her distracted from the thought of food is going to the office, and that now it’s a daily battle against her cravings and hunger at home.
Others observed that despite not being triggered by anything specific, extreme body dysmorphia or negativity was striking them seemingly out of nowhere; they might feel fine and normal one day, but then look in the mirror the next day and feel unbearably huge, disgusting, fat, or ugly.
This last fact makes a lot of sense to me, since body image issues are often built upon the foundation of two major factors:
Fear, or feelings, of disconnection. (Think: fear of being unworthy of love, fear of rejection, fear of abandonment, fear of people not liking us, or feeling unable to get our needs for intimacy and connection met.)
A need to avoid or escape negative feelings. People who can’t tolerate their feelings require something manageable and tangible to focus on or blame, in order to avoid those big scary feelings.
Given these foundational factors, during a time when stress and anxiety are high, stuff feels dark and hopeless, and we’re all socially isolated, body image issues are bound to increase in both frequency and intensity.
While there is a ton to unpack here, I’m most struck by the fear people are experiencing right now about gaining weight.
Without their routines to control them, without food intake being carefully rationed and planned for, without work to distract them from their cravings, and the ability to go to the gym, a lot of people are freaking out right now.
What if this goes on for weeks or months? What if I get completely out of shape?
This, among the fear about losing loved ones, getting sick, the economy, our healthcare system caving in, and our entire civilization collapsing, is what I heard:
What if I get fat?
Each person who wrote to me about this acknowledged that this was “ridiculous,” and that they were embarrassed to be having such thoughts and fears. Each person wished they could be different, wished they didn’t care about this, and was trying to “focus on more important things.”
But this was there anyway. I can’t help but reflect on what this means.
What a powerful moment in history this must be for people whose body image issues are only “under control” because their bodies are “under control.”
I know that if this had happened back when my identity and self-worth was based on my body being super strong and lean, I would have been devastated. My entire reality would have seemed to crumble as I faced the possibility of losing the thing I had worked so hard for, the thing that made me “special” and impressive and worthy.
I would have also been facing the embarrassing insight that having a “perfect” body wouldn’t mean jack sh*t if our economy collapsed and we all headed into a depression, and that instead of spending my life learning skills that would help me survive the apocalypse, I had spent it doing deadlifts and counting macros.
How are people in that boat processing this new fear, I wonder? Are they realizing their identity and self-worth has been based around having a body that requires constant dedicated work and control? If so, how is that affecting them?
It’s also a powerful moment for people whose body image issues have never been under control, who’ve spent their lives hating their bodies and trying to change them to no avail.
What does it mean to hate the way you look as the world falls apart, I wonder?
The truth is that our bodies were never meant to be something we controlled, and the size and shape of our bodies was never meant to be the project we spend our lives working on.
Something about getting this little glimpse into the possibility of it all suddenly being out of our control exposes the lies upon which many folks have built their lives:
That being thin and lean is important, and will earn you happiness and belonging.
That controlling your body with discipline and willpower is good, and important.
That how you look is an important part of who you are.
I believe now is a good time to pause and reflect on this; to look inward and reassess the foundation upon which you have built your life, and what role food, weight, and your body plays in it.
How has a fear of fatness impacted the life you’ve been living? How about the fear of being out of control?
In what ways have you dedicated your life to the pursuit of something that isn’t true, or doesn’t matter? What can you learn from this? What can we all learn from this?
I would love if this global crisis provided the impetus for people to get more honest with themselves; if we could collectively use this crisis to dig deeper, to reassess and compassionately explore our priorities, internalized beliefs, and unconscious behaviors.
If a fear of gaining weight or being unattractive has been secretly ruling your life, now is a good time to pause, and both admit and explore that.
If hatred of your body or appearance has occupied a lot of your time and attention day-to-day, now is a good time to admit and explore that.
May we all use this time to check in. May we all use this mandatory social pause to dig deep into ourselves with honesty and compassion, and face what we’ve been avoiding.
I’m here if you need me.
Elephant’s Continually-updating Coronavirus Diary. ~ Waylon
How to Enjoy Life Amidst the Coronavirus Fear: Your Go-To Guide from Books to Podcasts & Wellness Practices.
What the Coronavirus is Teaching Me: 5 Lessons from Uncertain Times.
The Artist’s Stay-at-Home & Stay Sane Guide.
10 Simple Ways to Boost your Immunity without Leaving the House.
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