It’s March 2020, the height of the first wave of this pandemic in the UK, and the world is coming to grips with being locked inside for the first time in quite literally forever.
As it happens with most things, we turned to the internet for guidance, entertainment and purpose.
Influencers such as Chloe Ting and other fitness gurus exploded into the mainstream, everyone talking about taking this particular harvest of lemons and making them into a sour protein shake.
“I’m going to get in shape! Get the body I always wanted! I’m not going to lounge around on the couch all day doing nothing on YouTube and eating away my boredom!” is what we collectively decided – well, almost all of us. I never claimed I would do such a thing.
But all over Twitter and Instagram, people were posting these challenges to get that rockin’ bod we all secretly crave. How long did that last again?
I went into full lockdown at the beginning of April; I was working at a bookshop then, and while we did close our doors to the public in mid-March, we still went to work on other things to keep the business running. I, like many of my colleagues, got the furlough boot on that first week of the month, and I stayed home for the following two months.
Since I was still living with my parents, I didn’t get out much at all, since I didn’t even have to do the shopping or other menial tasks that would require outside contact. I was the poster child for responsible isolation.
And while I saw all these people I followed and knew spewing nonsense about “getting fit” during quarantine, I snickered to myself thinking that could never be me. I had never been one of those people who found joy in any sort of physical activity; I did not like to jog, and I wouldn’t be caught dead in a gym if I could help it in any way. So, while these pretenders were doing squat challenges for the ‘Gram, I was sitting comfy on my couch, reading a book a day and binging the best Netflix had to offer.
I felt better than I had in ages.
Sure, I won’t pretend quarantine didn’t bring about many issues with my mental health, because it did. I had virtually no contact with anyone aside from my immediate family most of the time, and if we could barely stand each other under normal circumstances, this was borderline chaos.
But one thing I’ve noticed, and this revelation only came about recently, was that my body image and self-esteem is at an all-time high.
Ever since I was a vulnerable teen going through puberty, I had issues with the way I viewed myself. Now, I realise a lot of these issues came from how other people perceived me.
They told me I was too big, too wide, too much. I wasn’t good at PE, so that meant I wasn’t fit. When I had to enrol in a gym for health reasons, I was made fun of because what 15-year-old gets told by the doctor she has to work out? I ate a lot, so that meant I was fat – never mind that I don’t think I’ve ever been overweight during my teens, or after.
I was smart, or smarter than the people in my class, which meant I could never be attractive because everyone knows those two things are mutually exclusive.
Those things, inevitably, followed me out of my teens and into my adulthood. I went into uni with a very twisted perception of who I was and how others saw me. I never had the confidence to go and talk to people I didn’t know, which didn’t bode well for making friends or getting into relationships. To this day, it’s a struggle.
Then 2020 happened, and suddenly it didn’t matter how I looked because the only person seeing me was, well, me.
Self-esteem and body image are directly related to how others perceive you. You can look at yourself in the mirror and think you’re perfectly fine, and the minute someone points out something they think is a flaw – which, most of the time, is a completely arbitrary and subjective detail about your body that you probably never even would’ve noticed – suddenly it’s the end of the world. Why is that?
Well, first of all, we all want to be accepted: by our friends, by our family, and by society as a whole. When someone points at something about you that they don’t like, your first instinct is to hold onto that feedback, store it in your mind, and try your best to improve on it. However, what we fail to realise, and perhaps the most important, is that we’re never going to be everyone’s ideal person. There’s always going to be something about us that someone won’t like. While you could be too curvy to one person, you could be too skinny to someone else. There is no “perfect human”.
What happens when you remove the societal aspect of body image? What happens when your body is taken out of the context in which it was being judged and scrutinised? Suddenly, you can look at yourself in the mirror again and think, “This’ll do.” Sure, for the first few weeks, those societal expectations are still there; the brain takes a while to adjust to a new reality. But once those are gone, you might think “Why am I trying to do a hundred squats in the middle of my living room just so I can then go sit on the couch and eat my third frozen dinner of the week?” And I’m not talking about people who exercise because they find fulfilment in doing so – we all need something to hold onto in these trying times. But I know at least 10 people on my Instagram feed who I know for a fact were only doing it because they thought their bodies weren’t good enough, and that’s not a good reason to do anything, let alone squats.
I’m not going to sit here and pretend I’m suddenly super-duper confident in myself; I’m really not. But one thing I’ve come to notice is that after spending immeasurable amounts of time by myself, with no one looking at me or judging me, I’ve come to accept my body for what it is. I’m never going to be super skinny, or have a thigh gap, or look like an Instagram model whose body isn’t even real to begin with.
Lockdown helped me realise that it’s okay that I’ll never be those things. My body is the way it is for a reason, and it knows what it needs and how to ask for it. All I have to do is listen. So that’s what I did, and I’ve never felt better about my body image. I’m more confident now than I’ve ever been because I’m not worried about people judging me for looking a certain way. The only person I have to answer to is myself, and I wish I’d figured that out sooner.
So, if there’s one good thing I’ll take away from this hell year, it’s this: the key to self-love and acceptance is realising that the only person who can give me the confidence I want about my body is me.