TW: difficulties with body image

While we have all had different experiences of lockdown, one sentiment which I believe has been universal is the recent feeling of utter timelessness. With no certainty of the future and no way to return to the past, we are all forced to live squarely in the present, as if all of our lives have been paused for a moment. Unchanging. While each day seems to have become indistinguishable from one to the next, the one thing which is somewhat within our control, which does change, is our bodies.

To say that society’s interest in weight loss, skincare, exercise, and fashion is totally unique to the past couple of months would be ridiculous. Whether we go back one year or two-hundred, people have always liked presenting themselves in a way that adheres to the standards of the time. Yet, I believe that the most recent uptick in fears and worries regarding our bodies stems, not only from the usual desires to fit in, but from a desire to reassert control over our lives, to prove that time hasn’t just stopped, and we can continue to develop and “improve” ourselves. Diets and exercise offer us a routine, a purpose and a distraction from the immense weight of this global crisis which seems to be so out of our control.

Admittedly, I always want to look my best; I like to take pride in my appearance and, while compliments are always nice, the opinion which I respect the most regarding this matter has always been my own. So, when I started to exercise pretty intensely on a regular basis despite joint pain, and when I started to give myself a far more restrictive diet than I had before, and when my skincare routine began to verge on excessive, I believed that it was purely because I enjoyed setting myself goals and feeling like my image would meet my own high standards. It didn’t matter if nobody else could see any difference, because I would.

However, this all had to change after I dislocated my shoulder. Though the injury itself is relatively minor, it has temporarily limited my range of movement. Exercise would be dangerous, and even simple things like combing my hair put me in a great deal of pain. I felt awful. While the physical pain of the injury was immense, what was more distressing was how I felt about myself. When I saw myself in the mirror, I felt disgusting, yet, only the day before, I felt incredible. The fact that my perception of myself could so drastically change within a matter of hours immediately helped me to see that this issue was all in my head. Yet despite this, my response was to compensate for the lack of exercise with an even more restrictive diet. That was the only way that I felt I could regain some control.

Of course this all sounds ridiculous now, but the fact that I was so irrationally upset over all this, helped me to understand that I had been using my body as a coping mechanism. I saw my body as a map of time, the outcomes of past achievements and the potential for future improvement. While my intense focus on my appearance does somewhat stem from the fact that I have more time to think about how I look, I know that it was, for the most part, a way of dealing with the sheer lack of control this quarantine has made me feel over my own life. If I am only eating a certain number of calories a day, I know what the outcome will be in a few months’ time, while I cannot have that level of certainty for almost anything else.

There is nothing wrong with diet and exercise, as long as you’re doing it for the right reasons. I wanted control and, despite knowing I was hurting myself, I pushed myself too far. Unfortunately, I’m not alone in this. Among friends and online I have seen a definite increase in fears and anxieties regarding appearance, worries that lockdown would just be wasted time, time that could be filled with personal growth. Self-improvement is always admirable, but its main focus should always be the self and your mental wellbeing.  While it should go without saying, these uncertain times will remain uncertain, regardless of how you treat your body.

The reality is, it is unfair to take out our daily stresses and anxieties on our bodies. We should never neglect ourselves as a result of our fears about the world as a whole. It is true that our bodies offer us a level of control which we cannot exercise elsewhere, but that only gives us more reason to be better. In a world that often seems so uncertain and cruel, why not be kind to yourself?