I don’t know about you, but I feel like the pandemic aged me at least five years, both physically and mentally. Some days—typically those without any Zoom meetings or a reason to leave my home—I feel fine about the passage of time and its effect on the ol’ meatsack. Other days—especially ones when I’ve spent considerable time on TikTok and/or consuming reality TV—I find myself researching expensive serums, fully panicking about what to wear this summer, and, eventually, thinking about how many years in this meatsack I even have left.
Clearly, re-entry—for those of us who have been inside for most of the past year, and who are now getting vaccinated—can be fraught. The excitement of being able to safely see people again is marred by the reality of being seen in bodies that perhaps don’t look exactly the same as they did a year ago… bodies that are bigger, or smaller, or less muscular, or grayer, or balder, or less glowy (or aren’t even! but that we believe are).
According to Pei-Han Cheng, a New York–based therapist who specializes in body image concerns, it’s completely understandable to have anxiety about your appearance in this moment. First, the pandemic has been incredibly stressful, and took away our everyday routines as well as many of the activities that typically make us feel good about ourselves, including spending time with loved ones. “When we don’t have access to our typical coping or self-care practice, it can really increase our vulnerability to anxiety, negative body image, and self talk,” Cheng told VICE. It’s also been a year filled with ups and downs; we’re currently at a point where good things are coming, but the future still feels very unknown. “When our lives change, our bodies change,” Michelle Elman, the author of Am I Ugly? One Woman’s Journey to Body Positivity and The Joy of Being Selfish: Why you need boundaries and how to set them, told VICE. “And it doesn’t matter what change, or in which direction—humans, in general, are not very good at dealing with change.”
We also spent way more time looking at our phones and watching TV this year (and may still be, as we wait to be fully vaccinated), which doesn’t help. “We are looking at more images and stories that really glorify thinness, athleticism, youthfulness, and fatphobia,” Cheng said. And having anything new or exciting going on in your life—no desire to read or be creative, no gossip, no hangouts to pull you away from TikTok and The Circle—can exacerbate the problem. “We’ve had more time to think, so if you’ve not been using that time to think productively, you have been using it to analyze insecurities, flaws,” Elman said.
And, of course, we’ve been subject to ridiculous messages about hustling, grinding, writing King Lear, etc. during this pandemic, which means the return to something resembling normal life can bring up fears about being judged by other people for how we’ve spent our time. Cheng said that right now, a lot of folks might be wondering, “Will people look at me and judge me for being quote-unquote ‘lazy,’ or not taking care of myself? There’s a lot of insecurity around judgments from other people, and potentially from themselves too.”
If any of this rings true for you—if you’ve been excited to see friends and family but also feel a nagging sense of dread about re-entering the world in your pandemic body, and then also feel guilt about that dread—here are some things to keep in mind.
Know that how you’re feeling right now might not actually have all that much to do with how you look.
“Our relationship with our body, our appearance, can sometimes become a battlefield when we’re experiencing a lot of external stress,” Cheng said. “And so I think we kind of have to take a step back, and really tease our anxiety apart: Am I feeling anxious about my appearance and changes in my body because those are areas of my concern? Or, in some ways, [am I] actually having this more generalized anxiety about what’s going on, with all the uncertainty about other things that are changing or happening in my life?”
“I think our bodies are often used as our greatest excuses,” Elman said. “So if you are feeling anxious around the world, you will project it onto your body. What is ‘easier’—I put easier in quotation marks—is for you to focus on controlling your weight when you cannot control the world outside you. And there is so little we can control in the world right now.”
Avoid seeking out more “evidence” that you look bad; instead, work on a counter-narrative.
Cheng said that when we’re stuck in certain headspaces, like insecurity or shame, “we can have a tunnel vision, and continue to search for things that will confirm or even exacerbate our feelings.” So it could be a good time to stop staring at your face in a magnifying mirror for an hour twice a day, or wistfully gazing at photos of yourself when you looked “better.” (Elman compared romanticizing old pics to “looking at your ex’s images and taking what you want from it in order to hurt yourself.”)
“Ask yourself, ‘Is this a behavior that a person who loves themselves would do?’” Elman continued. “A lot of people, when I say that, are like, ‘But I don’t love myself.’ I’m like, ‘OK, do you want to?’ A lot of becoming a person who loves themselves is changing your behavior first; even if you don’t believe you’re worthy of it, do it, and then you become worthy of it.”
Elman said if you’re trying to unlearn a particular belief (e.g., “I’m ugly”), it’s important to regularly counter it with a new, opposing belief. And if you’ve had the negative belief for a while—for the past year, let’s say, or even since you were a teenager—it’s going to take real effort to counteract it. To do that, she suggested writing down three reasons you’re beautiful every single night, completing the sentence “I am beautiful because _.” And it doesn’t have to be physical things, Elman said; it could be “I’m beautiful because I am a compassionate person.”
What this exercise does, she continued, is shift where your mind goes throughout the day. “When you go through the world, your brain will be focusing on that, because you’ll know you have to write those things at the end of the day,” she said.
Do what you can to think about things other than your appearance.
Elman said she believes thinking way less about your body is the key to feeling more confident. When you find yourself ruminating on, say, your skin or your hair, make a point to pivot to something—anything!!—else. “You can literally say to yourself, ‘We don’t have time for this. We’re gonna find a better thing to do right now,’” Elman said, adding that it’s worth making an actual list of alternative activities you can turn to when you find yourself obsessing about your appearance. “Put it on your phone so it’s accessible,” she said. “You can pick up a book, watch a TV show, do your laundry, put your bills away… like literally practical things you can do which are a better use of your time.”
“When you are insecure,” she continued, “you actually physically spend time on it. I mean, the hours I used to spend changing my outfit. So put the first outfit on and be like, I don’t have time to change. I could cook something or have lunch, go for a walk—go do something that is more productive than changing your outfit when your first outfit was OK.”
Elman said this isn’t about trying to “fix” your negative thoughts—which gives them more energy, and can make you feel ashamed of your shame. It’s about gently redirecting, maybe via a go-to phrase like “stop commenting on my body” that you repeat in your head whenever self-hating thoughts pop up. She said it’s similar to being in a conversation with a real person and setting a boundary with them by giving them the same response over and over again until they start to get it. Over time, she said, “your thought almost learns, Oh, I’m not getting the reaction I want when I say this. OK, well, this conversation goes nowhere. So let’s try a different thought.”
If your clothes no longer fit, get new clothes.
Getting dressed can be a big point of stress if your body has changed, as can shopping for new items. But that hesitation will likely turn to relief once you’re moving through the world in newly comfortable clothes.
“When you look different and you feel bad about yourself, you almost dress in a way that reflects that,” Elman said. “You reinforce your belief that you look bad. So, let’s say you have gained weight. If you squeeze yourself into your old jeans, you feel uncomfortable because you have a button pushing into your stomach.
The whole lunch, you’ll be thinking about what you look like because you literally have a physical sensation pushing on your stomach—rather than treating your body as if it is equally as beautiful as it was [when] smaller.”
Spend less time on Instagram or other apps that make you feel worse about how you look.
“You have to limit your screen time,” Elman said. “There is a point where you are cycling through the apps—I call it cycling, where you’re opening and you don’t really know what you’re looking for. Be conscious in what you’re doing: I’m going to open this app because I want to post the photo.” As someone who used to do a lot of app cycling, I’ve found it’s helpful to hide apps from yourself, so that you have to intentionally seek them out instead of opening them out of habit.
When you are using apps, Cheng said to check in with yourself regularly. “You can ask yourself, Do I feel a sense of ease, expansiveness, and feel grounded in power after reading this? Or do I feel constricted and have the urge to hide, or do more to make myself feel like enough?” she said. If it’s the latter, it might be time to mute, unfollow, log off, or even delete the apps entirely for a little while. “If you’re using it as a tool for self-abuse, you might want to not just take an hour off social media… you might need a week off social media,” Elman said.
If you do genuinely need to be on an app for work or for creative inspiration, consider making a separate account where you soley follow the people you want/need to hear from, or only follow accounts that are going to make you feel better about yourself. (VICE’s resident Swole Woman, Casey Johnston, has more tips for doing this here.) That way, you can still satisfy your desire to scroll, but without the shitty feelings that often come with it.
Be honest with other people about how you’re feeling.
Cheng said that feelings like insecurity and shame “really like secrecy, and create an urge to hide.”
“Oftentimes, when we start to avoid/hide, we also start to feel more and more insecure and ashamed, because you don’t really allow yourself to receive positive or affirming support from other people,” she continued. “Avoid hiding or keeping everything to yourself; talking to someone who you can trust will be important.”
Beyond that, Cheng said to be intentional about spending time with people who validate and affirm your feelings, and who will support you in your goal of developing more body acceptance. And if you’re dealing with people who frequently comment on your appearance, don’t hesitate to be direct about how it makes you feel, or tell them to knock it off. Elman said you could respond to a remark about your appearance with something like “wow, that’s rude” or “ouch, that hurt”… or just sit there in silence, letting their comments hang awkwardly. “It makes it known that it’s not OK,” she said. “And you can let that person be uncomfortable in that silence, because they shouldn’t have said it.”
Recognize that you can’t always self-treat negative body image, and that there may come a point where you turn to a professional for help.
Cheng said that when you’ve tried a lot of things to redirect your thoughts or feel better about yourself and it’s just not working, it might be a good time to talk with a therapist (or find a support group). She also said that being really preoccupied with your appearance (or a specific aspect of it) can be a sign it’s time to seek help, as are major behavioral changes. “For instance, if you start to avoid going out or cancelling plans with friends because of feeling insecure about your body, or because you don’t want to eat in public, or you start to spend more time exercising with a more rigid mindset,” she said. And whatever you do, be gentle with yourself; there’s a lot going on in the world right now, so try not to feel too bad about feeling bad.
Rachel Miller is the author of The Art of Showing Up: How to Be There for Yourself and Your People. Follow her on Twitter.