Are You Dreading Being Seen in Your Post-Pandemic Body?
It’s a topic that has been swirling around with our clients and in conversations with other people. As the world reopens, we’re able to go to parties, restaurants and beach trips again. Or maybe you’re heading back to an office or school. Whatever “returning to normal” looks like for you, you may be dreading being seen in your body post-COVID.
If that’s you, this week’s lesson is going to be helpful. Perhaps you’re finding yourself crying while getting dressed, beating yourself up in the mirror, not being able to be present with friends and enjoy life again because you’re so self-conscious, trying to squeeze into clothes from 2019 that don’t fit, flat out hating your body and feeling disgusted with yourself and then eating all the things and feeling worse.
This feeling not only takes you out of your life and prevents you from enjoying the present moment. But you’re also at risk for falling into the dieting trap to “fix” the situation, which can be a catalyst for a painful restrict-binge cycle that can be detrimental for your emotional and physical health and deteriorates your body image and confidence.
Picture this instead: getting ready for dinner with your girlfriends, or a summer barbecue: you throw clothes on, feel cute or at least don’t care so much, and go. You’re able to be fully present and enjoy yourself and life opening back up, wearing clothes that fit and make you feel good. You’re actually having fun and feeling free around food, eating what you want, stopping when you’re full, feeling at ease in your body and living your life.
That’s the goal. So let’s talk about how to go from dreading being seen post-Covid to feeling confident and present without worrying about your body.
What’s the Real Problem Here, Anyway?
Before we jump in, it’s important to acknowledge a couple things. One, the anti-fat bias in our society that this fear is stemming from to begin with, which is perpetually reinforced and capitalized on by diet culture. We made it through, if we’re lucky, a global pandemic, and Gwyneth Paltrow’s weight is headline news. This is insane if you think about it, but here we are, distressed about how we look after 15 months of what’s likely a massive lifestyle change for most of us.
Two, you’re absolutely not alone if you are indeed distressed, and it makes sense within the context of our society to have these feelings. There is nothing wrong with you. Nevertheless, I know it’s a frustrating place to be. So let’s get into where to go from here, shall we?
How to Approach Post-Pandemic Body Image: Stop Being a Jerk to Yourself
There are a few important antidotes for feeling shitty in your body right now, and the first is a mega dose of self-compassion. There are three aspects of self-compassion, as outlined by research pioneer and author, Dr. Kristin Neff (you can catch our interview with her here!). The cliff notes version goes something like this:
- Embrace self-kindness. Instead of beating yourself up for how you look right now, practice being warm and unconditionally accepting of yourself. Avoid body and diet talk as much as you can, and instead ask yourself, what do I need right now? (we’ll walk through some potential ideas for honoring those needs in a minute).
- Acknowledge common humanity. This is the recognition that all humans are flawed and are inherently imperfect, and thus you. are. not. alone. in however you’re feeling. Phew. Comforting news, right?
- Practice mindfulness. This is the act of allowing and observing all your thoughts and emotions, no matter how crappy they are, without resisting or avoiding them.
And this brings us to an uber-important concept that sounds eye-rolley but can absolutely change the way you relate to yourself, which is to recognize your inner critic, aka the source of all those crappy, judgmental thoughts. That’s right, slap a label on that bitch and start to call her out when she’s being a bully. I wrote all about this here so you can head that way for a deep dive on how to manage your inner critic, but essentially you want to do three main things. The “three Cs” is a helpful way to remember this process, which is based on a little evidence-based, psychology-backed framework known as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy:
- Catch your inner critic popping up. Label it (ah yep, there’s my inner critic popping up)
- Challenge the critical thought. Ask, is that actually true? So what?
- Change the negative thought and tap into self compassion. Ask, how would I speak to a friend in this situation? What do I need right now?
So back to your post-pandemic body image.
Let’s say you’re getting ready to go to a birthday party, where you’ll be seeing friends you haven’t seen in over a year. You’re ripping through your closet trying to find something to wear and have a thought along the lines of “everyone is going to judge my weight and think I let myself go.”
In that moment, using the three Cs of CBT, you:
- Catch your thought, and label the inner critic popping up: argh, you again. Just trying to protect me from judgement and not feeling hurt, but not actually helpful. This thought makes me feel self-conscious about my body and being seen.
- Challenge the critical thought: Is it actually true that everyone is going to judge me and I’m going to have a horrible time? Have I really “let myself go” or am I actually working on taking the best possible care of myself right now? And so what if people did judge me, what does that mean for me? Do I really care so much about what others think and am I willing to let that ruin my day?
- Change the negative thought and tap into self compassion: If I was speaking to my friend right now, I would tell her that she is being really hard on herself, and there are so many wonderful qualities about her to focus on. I would say ‘you’re a kind, funny, smart woman who takes great care of herself and is worthy of enjoying herself at this party regardless of how she looks’. Right now, I really need some self compassion, to find a comfortable outfit I like to wear, and turn on some music that makes me feel good.
This is the mindset work that has to happen regularly in order to shift the way you relate to your body. The more you practice this in the moment, the easier it gets to manage those nasty thoughts, and the less frequent they pop up altogether. It may sound wild, but I can confidently tell you that even with the occasional wobbly body image moment, I don’t have the ongoing loop of negative thoughts running through my brain anymore, and it never occurs to me to look in the mirror and call myself disgusting or ugly. And that used to happen on the reg, my friend.
Honoring Your Body’s Needs
Now that you’ve coached yourself through that moment and shifted your mindset to a more compassionate place, it may be helpful to ask yourself what you need right now. Here are a few go-to ways to do that:
- Practice body respect: one of the simplest, most effective ways to honor your body is by wearing comfortable clothes. Sounds groundbreaking, but over and over again we hear from women who refuse to buy up in sizing because it indicates failure or lack of control which is bonkers. The alternative is squeezing into something that doesn’t fit well and has you constantly body checking, thinking about how terrible you feel. It’s absolutely a privilege to buy new clothes, and may require jumping some logistical hurdles, but it’s usually worth trying to figure it out. Especially if the alternative is intentional weight loss in order to fit into smaller clothes. I’m now on the verge of rambling here, so just trust me on this one and buy comfortable clothes.
It’s also worth asking how you physically feel. What’s the ole self care like these days? When we physically feel good (hydrated, rested, nourished), our body image tends to be better, too.
- Practice body appreciation: instead of focusing on how your body looks, try intentionally shifting into gratitude for how your body functions. If you’re reading this right now, you survived a pandemic! You get to go to a birthday party, and see loved ones and laugh and maybe swim or dance or eat cake! You’re doing great! So why the hell are you being so hard on your body, the vessel that keeps showing up for you day in and day out, no matter how many miles you’ve put on it, or babies you’ve birthed or vodka cranberries you drank in college. What if you gave your bod a ‘lil hug today and said wow bod, thank you so much, you are actually the best?
- Practice body neutrality: this is the goddamn hill we’ll die on around here, because how you look is the least interesting thing about you. There are so many other meaningful things to think about aside from your appearance, and so many wonderful aspects of you to focus on while making small talk at a birthday party. I may not know you, dear reader, but I know for sure that’s true. And this is important, because when your entire self worth hinges on how you look, things get dicey when it comes to eating and exercising (trying to control how you look). Plus all that mind space and energy that could be allocated toward other things gets tied up, and a harmless birthday party turns into a nightmare. So we have to take the emphasis off of how we look and come back to the idea that we don’t have to think we’re beautiful 24/7 to respect our bodies or have a fun, confident, fulfilling life.
A Couple Other Things to Keep in Mind About Body Image
One of the most eye-opening concepts for our clients is that shitty body image is not always about our bodies. Often we filter tough emotions or uncomfortable circumstances by thinking “well if I was thinner, then everything else would be better.” We take our shit out on our bodies, because there’s a neat and tidy solution for that problem (dieting).
If you find yourself freaking out in the dressing room and vowing to lose weight in order to feel better, I’d nudge you to consider what else is happening in your life right now that could be contributing to some hard feelings. Are you taking out any frustration, anxiety, anger, sadness, etc. toward your body? What’s actually going on? Because fat is not a feeling and poor body image is usually a blinking sign that something under the emotional hood needs addressing.
This is where I also encourage you to zoom out, and bring your focus to the present moment. Celebrate your resilience having survived the past year (yes, still harping on this fact), so when you’re feeling anxious about being seen, can you consider what’s most important to you? What do you want to enjoy? Maybe catching up with friends, or beautiful weather, or great food or music. If it’s a wedding or another big event on the docket, we’ve got some tips for you in this podcast episode.
Finally, I would be remiss to skip over the suggestion to get support if you’re struggling with food or your body right now. We’re talking to a lot of people who are up against post-pandemic body image issues, and perhaps it could be a wake up call for you too, to face your stuff. You don’t have to live like this, and many other women are saying no more.
Book a free Breakthrough Session to chat with one of us here, and we’ll get you rolling in the right direction so you can feel confident, happy and worry-free heading into post-pandemic life.