It was March 2020 and I was about to be a college graduate. I was at the doorstep of what I’d heard would be a time of excitement and optimism. But instead, COVID-19 swooped through the door and changed everything.
Between unprecedented health and economic crises, just about every familiar routine I had quickly disappeared. And, of course, my body reacted. My clothes stopped fitting. The scale spat number combinations I’d never seen before. Every glance of my profile in the mirror brought confoundment at my stomach’s refusal to lay flat (not that it had ever been flat anyway).
Though being a “healthy” size had always felt urgent, it was never really a goal I built my life around. But then I started to hear phrases like “Quarantine 15.” It was harmless enough at first, and even a neutral descriptor that most of us seemed to accept ownership of.
As the months dragged on, though, and the novelty of being at home wore off, online diet messaging fell back on more familiar but coded language: how to de-bloat, detox, fight inflammation, intermittent fast, or get in shape. And with it came the familiar sense of shame.
Weight gain is bound to happen to all of us at some point, and living in a global pandemic can certainly magnify it. But what this quarantine experience can also do is present us with the time needed to sit with our thoughts and really work on learning to love our bodies.
“Wellness culture, diet culture, went at the heart of human concerns saying that the worst thing that can happen to you over the course of this pandemic is that your body changes,” says Anna Sweeney, a Certified Eating Disorder Registered Dietitian and Supervisor, Certified Intuitive Eating Specialist and owner of Whole Life Nutrition.
While there will always be some form of interest in weight loss, separating our worth from our weight won’t happen if we’re waiting for a national consensus on it.
There will always be people who see thinness as being synonymous with health — that weight is something determined solely by self-control, or that weight loss will cure diseases. But here are some facts to consider before drawing those conclusions:
1. Losing weight and getting healthy isn’t interchangeable
There’s mounting evidence that pursuing weight loss as a primary health goal isn’t the best way forward. Experts say that a 5 to 20 pound weight gain could still leave you within your body’s natural weight range.
“A fluctuation as such may either mean your body is still at its healthy point, or that your diet and lifestyle prior to the pandemic was very rigid and it took a lot of work to keep you where you are,” says Lisa Hayim, Registered Dietitian and founder of Fork The Noise and Outweigh Podcast host.
2. Increased weight should not always be associated with poor health
While doctors are often quick to suggest weight loss to their patients, recent research suggests that obesity alone does not increase the risk of death. Some research even suggests that people at a higher weight who have also experienced cardiovascular disease, hypertension, chronic kidney disease, and heart attack should feel fairly comfortable about their survival.
This group of findings is called the “obesity paradox” — a phenomenon in which being at a higher weight is associated with a higher survival rate. However, there are other opinions that further scrutinize or even debunk the idea outright. Overall, despite obesity’s characterization as an endemic public health concern, evidence indicates that weight isn’t always a reliable indicator of overall health.
3. Nutrition and exercise are not the only factors to weight management
Most of the information we hear around weight frames the ups and downs as a matter of individual choice — what a person eats and how much they move. But the whole picture is more complicated.
Genetics, age, and sex play a role, as do things called social determinants of health, like socioeconomic status, access to healthcare, and education. In fact, the CDC lists a person’s environment as a key contributing factor to weight gain.
It makes sense. Whether a neighborhood has green spaces, sidewalks, and grocery stores with produce plays an outsized role in the health of its residents.
Though we’ve been trained to see the harms of weight gain, weight loss isn’t always harmless either. Getting off a diet cycle could actually be the healthier option. As Sweeney says, “2 to 5 years out of any specific diet, 98 percent of people regain all of the weight that has been lost.”
Research shows that the body responds to weight loss with a slew of physiological changes that promote weight gain, including increasing hunger hormones and decreasing satiety hormones.
The authors of the same 2018 research paper concluded that as people progressively lose more and more weight, they fight an increasing battle against the biological responses that oppose further weight loss.
This cycle of losing and gaining weight repeatedly actually increases the risk of many of the same diseases we associate with obesity. If you’ve ever looked in the mirror and felt a pang of discomfort and self-hate, ditch the diet and embrace the shift. Here’s how to start the work of loving yourself based on values and not numbers.
Grieve the body you’ve idealized
Feelings of shame around body image are not superficial. They’re powerful and need to be broken apart before you can totally put them away.
“We’re taught to associate beauty with love and acceptance,” says Dr. Kim Daniels, a clinical psychologist and coach who specializes in binge eating and negative body image, and founder of the course your weight is not your worth. Daniels often guides clients through grieving the body they’ve dreamed of having. “Sitting with that sadness of ‘This is not the body that I’m ever going to have’ [is doing yourself a huge favor],” she says. “Mourn that [loss] like you would any kind of loss.”
This practice of accepting your body as it is forces you to acknowledge the fears you’ve developed about your body. When you’re able to disprove the idea that the shape of your body determines your happiness or worth, those fears will subside.
Reframe your thinking
Psychiatrist Dr. Priyanka, Medical Director at Community Psychiatry, coaches people who are learning to address negative thoughts through what she calls the “check, challenge, change” strategy.
Check, Challenge, Change Strategy:
1. Check. Acknowledge the negative thought you’re having about your body.
2. Challenge. Ask whether the negative thought is helping you achieve your goals or feel better.
3. Change. Change the behavior to support a new pattern.
Acknowledging thoughts is hard, so pay attention to when you feel stressed or upset. The more you practice this habit the more intuitive it will become, and the better equipped you’ll be to see that negative thoughts are not always based on reality or rationality. “Just going from checking a thought to challenging a thought can cause change,” Baweja says.
In her self-help book for body image, Beyond Beautiful, writer Anuschka Rees suggests readers devise a comeback for these kinds of negative thoughts. When I noticed that a lot of my distaste with my body focused on my lower stomach, I started responding with “I deserve to spend my time and energy thinking about things other than the shape of my stomach.” Coming up with this statement made me roll my eyes, but it immediately reframed negative thoughts from absolute truths to just ideas.
Practice body gratitude + mindfulness
Daniels recommends ending each day by thinking of three things your body did for you. Maybe it allowed you to run errands or play with your kids. The idea is to focus on what your body can do, rather than what it looks like.
Writing these thoughts down could also have powerful effects. A 2018 study found that participants who wrote about aspects of their body they’re grateful for were more satisfied with their bodies afterward than participants who wrote about their ideal vacation.
Another study found that even generic gratitude journaling led participants to not experience body dissatisfaction when looking at thin models.
Another practice Daniels recommends is looking in the mirror and describing yourself in objective terms. Instead of immediately labeling yourself negatively, describe the color of your hair, the shape of your arms, or the length of your torso. “We’ve put so much moral meaning on our bodies,” Daniels says. “But it’s just a body.”
Wear comfortable clothes
Anyone who has ever left the house in a pair of uncomfortable (but slimming) jeans knows what powers it can wield for your psyche. But sometimes we need a reminder of how simple (and more comfortable) approaches can be just as radically satisfying.
“You don’t have to perform for people via your clothing. You’re allowed to exist comfortably,” says Christyna Johnson, a nondiet Registered Dietitian and host of the Intuitive Eating for the Culture podcast. She advises sticking to clothes that don’t require constant adjusting as it might distract or draw thoughts back to the body throughout the day.
“It’s serving the purpose of reducing that tactile sensation of clothing. Because that takes up a lot of brain space. And if I can reduce the amount of brain space that you’re using for your clothes, we can do other things,” she adds.
Set conversational boundaries
It can be helpful to remove yourself from in-person and online conversations about dieting, weight loss, or body image. Both Sweeney and Johnson recommend auditing your social media and unfollowing anyone you tend to compare yourself with, whether it’s about your body or your financial situation.
Then, Sweeney suggests supplementing your feed with a more diverse range of people to “expand the visual repertoire you’re taking in.” Daniels suggests consuming more body neutral and anti-diet material, whether it’s reading books or subscribing to podcasts.
“Immerse yourself into that world and keep it in the forefront of your mind,” Daniels says. “People are making billions of dollars off of you hating yourself. Do you want to keep buying into that system?”
Some people will need professional help to heal their relationships with their bodies. Johnson recommends speaking with a therapist and a dietician whose practice is informed by Health at Every Size.
“I know for some people that seems like I’m saying that they’re broken, which is not the case at all,” Johnson says. “Repairing your relationship with food and your body is going to extend so far past your body.” For example, Johnson often coaches clients through setting boundaries with food, like deleting calorie counting or movement tracking apps. Once they’re comfortable setting those boundaries, they often become empowered to establish boundaries in other areas of life.
No matter the amount of inner work you do, negative thoughts are bound to show back up every now and then. However, that’s not what body acceptance is about. “The longest relationship we’re ever going to have is the one we have with our bodies. It’s not feasible that it’d be a positive experience all the time,” Sweeney says.
Johnson explains body image as our brains conceptualizing where our bodies are in space. It serves a purpose, for example, by letting us know when we’re going to bump into something, but it’s also subject to emotions. Knowing this, we can take a bad body image day as a cue to assess what else we’re feeling or how we’re progressing with our holistic health.
Reprogramming how we see our bodies isn’t easy. But when we do, Daniels points out, it frees up time, energy, and a whole world of possibility. Then, we get to “focus on who we want to be, instead of what we want to look like.” Imagine that.