Our self-criticism is at an all-time high right now. This is why uncertain times lead to negative thoughts…
One of the most unsettling stats I’ve read in a very long time is that 61% of adults feel negatively about their body image most of the time, according to research by the House of Commons Women and Equalities Select Committee.
That’s most people in the UK. That’s most of the people that you know, that you look at on Instagram, walk past in Tesco, sit next to on the train and work with who all feel like their body is somehow wrong or shameful.
Things have only got worse recently. The same study shows that 53% of adults reported feeling ‘worse’ or ‘much worse’ about their body image during lockdown. Eating disorder charity BEAT has reported a 73% increase in calls during the pandemic. And if my conversations with friends are anything to go by, the pressure for a lockdown glow-up got to the most of all of us at some point in the past six months.
Renee McGregor, sports and eating disorder specialist and member of the Strong Women Collective, isn’t surprised. She says that uncertain times and body dissatisfaction are, unfortunately, intrinsically linked, and it’s all to do with lessons that are ingrained in us from when we are young.
“When we are younger we learn that there is value in the way we look. The Western society ideals further cement this as there is so much emphasis on image, success and achievement,” she says. “During uncertain times, when life feels chaotic and messy, so many of us need some form of anchor or a place we can try to contain some of this discomfort. If we have always projected dissatisfaction and unhappiness on our image, this becomes the container for these difficult emotions,” she says.
With this in mind, it makes sense that a global pandemic is the time when negative body image would thrive. Not only do we feel out-of-whack emotionally, but the achievement Olympics that has been playing out on social media has added to the idea that we are not doing enough, not learning enough, not exercising enough. Simply, that we are not enough. While that sounds convincingly true when the voice in your head repeats it over and over again, it’s important to recognise that this negative self-talk is not OK and isn’t true.
“When your body becomes our punch bag and your pursuit for happiness and contentment lies in achieving a certain body aesthetic it is a sign that your relationship with yourself is toxic and harmful,” says Renee.
So how do we learn to look at ourselves more positively? Firstly, it’s about understanding that our discontent is very rarely actually about our bodies. “These are just the mediums we use to deny difficult emotions that we do not want to experience. Remember that our thoughts are not facts, they are a barometer telling us something is going on. We need to be more open and curious about what they are trying to tell us.
“We believe that if we control our body we can then control our environment and momentarily, we may receive some relief but it is short-lived. In reality, what our body looks like has no influence over aspects of our life we can’t control,” Renee says.
Unfortunately, it isn’t a case of swapping the subject of our control for a more positive one. No, apparently there is no healthy way to force control in an uncontrollable world (trust me, I asked). Instead, “we have to learn to manage anxiety. Appreciate that when life is uncertain we may become more critical or more negative and then ask yourself ‘how do these thoughts serve me?’,” Renee says.
However, you can change your focus. Rather than dwelling on the things that are out of our hands, we should lean into what we do know. For example, saying “right now, at this moment, I can still meet my friends outside with social distancing” rather than immediately jumping to, “I can’t cope with another lockdown and I will never see my friends again”.
Reigniting that feeling of positivity can stop you from internalising – as can simply talking. Remember, most people have been suffering from negative body image, so it’s important to remember that you are not alone. Chances are, a friend will be struggling just as much as you are, and giving each other a distracting conversation, a positive affirmation or a non-physical compliment could really help to take your mind off what you look like.
If your body image is negatively affecting your mental health, it’s important to get help from an experienced practitioner who can start to help you to understand how to become more compassionate and considerate towards yourself, regardless of the situation.
For more information on body image, including how to get help, visit BEAT’s website at beateatingdisorders.org.
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Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).