“Drink water. Get sunlight. You’re basically a houseplant with more complicated emotions,” reads a meme that was ubiquitous online in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
It wasn’t unusual in those days to need a reminder to tend to the basics of body maintenance. Between shelter-in-place orders, high anxiety, and disruptions of all kinds to the routines many of us have for self-care, the last year and a half have wreaked havoc not just on bodies, but on our feelings about those bodies.
The pandemic has affected our bodies and our body image in numerous ways, according to studies in the UK and North America. Research reveals increases in eating disorders and sedentarism, as well as an increased desire for thinness among women and muscularity among men. The stress and uncertainty of COVID-19 has been written on the body, and on the way the mind observes and judges the body.
“The cultural stigma around weight gain and larger body size and the idealization of thinness is so pervasive. Nobody escapes it,” says Diana Winston, UCLA’s Director of Mindfulness Education and author of The Little Book of Being. And that has long been the case. That pervasiveness isn’t due to the pandemic—though it has been heightened by it.
Even elite athletes—from four-foot-eight gymnasts and nimble jockeys to muscled shot putters and swivel-hipped soccer players—don’t always love their strong and talented bodies, which, it’s worth emphasizing, come in incredibly different shapes and sizes. In a 2019 post on the Relentless Athletics website, Callie Smith, recently a Division 1 diver, shared her story of forced diets and ongoing body shaming that left her in tears after most practices. “I spent my entire freshman year hating myself,” she wrote. Eventually, a nutritionist intervened in the abuse from her coach.
The connection between the shape we’re in and the way we experience the world, including our mental health, is clear.
If even elite athletes are feeling body shame, what about us mere mortals? Whether you’re a guy who isn’t loving his “dad bod,” or you’re one of the throngs of office workers whose commute is now to the couch, the connection between the shape we’re in and the way we experience the world, including our mental health, is clear. Sometimes dark or judgmental thoughts arise from the messages our culture gives us about who is considered healthy or attractive. Sometimes we judge ourselves even when no one is watching, playing the role of our own worst critic.
Jessamyn Stanley, a much-loved yoga teacher and mindfulness practitioner, and the author of two books, including the forthcoming Yoke: My Yoga of Self-Acceptance, makes a point of working with many different kinds of people and body types, and continually works to accept her own larger body. Our bodies are how we show up in the world, she says. “Your skin color, your body size, where on the planet your body was born, what it is shaped like, what it has and doesn’t have, what it does and doesn’t do.”
Our Body is a Process, Not a Product
At the same time, she encourages us to remember that how our bodies look isn’t everything. She advises us to do three things to break the cycle of rumination about how we look: checking in with how we feel, even if the emotions are painful; remembering that our body is a process, not a product; and, finally, always going back to our breath.
“It’s important to notice your body, and the way that you communicate with your body,” says Stanley. Trying to have a healthy body without noticing how you’re talking to yourself is “like slapping a Band-aid on a deep infection,” she says. “So much of negative body image comes from worrying about how you look and worrying about what other people are going to think about how you look. And for me, it’s really helpful to just think, ‘How do I feel right now?’”
“If you can focus on how you feel, then you can start to trust yourself, trust how you perceive the world, and that you don’t need to look to anyone else for guidance or approval.”
Yoga Teacher and Author of Yoke: My Yoga of Self-Acceptance
Noticing your self-talk about your body can help break the cycle of judgment. Then we can take the next step, says Stanley. “The ‘how do I feel’ can guide everything,” she says. “How do I feel can guide what you eat, it can guide what you wear, it can guide what type of activity you do.” Eating shouldn’t be a fraught activity, and Diana Winston is a proponent of the Intuitive Eating movement, and the work of Christy Harrison, an anti-diet activist whose work is backed by a large trove of data that tells us that diets, which Harrison characterizes as “life thieves,” just don’t work.
Stanley says that, “If you can focus on how you feel, then you can start to trust yourself, trust how you perceive the world, and that you don’t need to look to anyone else for guidance or approval. You don’t need to look to anyone else for guidance or approval. You don’t even need to ask yourself ‘How do I look?’ because you know how you feel.”
Exploring Self-Compassion and Body Image
Winston is collaborating on a pilot study at UCLA to look at whether self-compassion practices related to one’s own body might reduce weight stigmatization in others. She theorizes that the combination of mindfulness and loving-kindness practices may engender a profound shift in how we feel about our own forms.
Winston also encourages a focus on what the body can do. “If it’s not exactly the size and shape that we want it to be…what’s it capable of? What’s joyful?” she asks. “Tuning in to the goodness in the body regardless of the shape,” she says, is a way to begin shifting focus.
“Practices of loving-kindness are so important right now,” says Winston. If you’re new to loving-kindness practice, she advises starting “gently and slowly.” Think about someone you love and imagine them sending you love. She emphasizes that it may be too hard at first to send yourself that love, so pick anyone, even the family dog or cat! You might then move on to picking a part of the body that you do like, and sending kindness there yourself. Use a phrase like, “May I be at ease.”
You can also use mindfulness to check in with your body in any moment, any day and hour and minute of your life, and to accept your body as an ongoing process that is constantly changing. Your body doesn’t always look the same, Stanley reminds us. “It’s in a never-ending state of change from start to finish.” Here, Stanley says, is where the real acceptance is. “Every stage in the process is important. From birth, to babyhood, to adolescence, to car accident, to baby, to… There are so many things that happen to you in your life that you can’t really be hung up on what your body looks like.”
Loving your body as it is means accepting all the ways it will change. “All that matters is that you’re breathing, you’re still here, and focusing on that breath and letting the breath guide everything,” Stanley says. “The breath can connect you to everything that is everlasting. The body is not everlasting. And that—that’s OK,” she says.
Our self-esteem can always shift, says Winston. “Using mindfulness to notice the thoughts and feelings that arise in relation to weight is a great practice,” she says. “Connecting with the health of the body and the feel of the body is key.”
Riding a bike, lifting weights, sweating it out on a treadmill—each can be a mindfulness practice. Whatever the physical activity, instead of simply working out to master a skill or improve your condition, you can move and breathe in a way that shifts you from feeling busy and distracted to feeling strong and capable.