Self and the City is a column intended to increase visibility and dialogue surrounding mental health, relationships, harmful stereotypes, and the necessity for self-care and vulnerability. Self and the City will be headlined by Jessa Chargois on a bi-weekly basis. Submissions and guest columnists are welcomed to send work to firstname.lastname@example.org.
I believe that our bodies adapt to our surroundings; our natural cocoons protecting us from the outside world of unpredictable stressors. As much of the world enters month eight (or so) of self-isolation quarantines in an effort to reduce the transmission of COVID-19, an influx of appearance-driven anxieties have begun to manifest and expose our discomfort with change. From TikTok to Instagram, my social media feeds are filled with “quarantine transformations”; before and after videos displaying the change in the physical appearance of predominantly female-identifying young adults, perpetuating this socially-constructed concept of an “ideal body.” In a time where we, as a culture, have so many issues to concern ourselves with; the astounding rates of unemployment nationwide, the long-awaited social justice reckoning sweeping through the states, the 2020 election, the volatility of the educational system, and the fear of the second wave of Coronavirus destroying our societal progress, it feels overwhelming to utilize what little energy I have left to motivate myself for an at-home workout. Frankly, I spend most days wondering, ‘Am I doing enough to protect those I love?’ rather than counting my drastically reduced steps. While everyone is coping differently throughout this time, I can only speak on my personal experience navigating my personal health and my relationship with my body throughout this turbulent time. This account is in no means universal, however, it is meant to offer solace for those feeling similarly lost and disconnected from their bodies throughout the last few months.
Yesterday I put on pair of denim pants for the first time February. Eight months later, the zipper on my favorite light wash “mom” jeans did not come close to closing. As I stood in my childhood bedroom staring at my reflection in a mirror, I couldn’t help but feel discouraged and overwhelmed with the changes in my body. I am not the same person I was in February, and thus, my body has reflected the change. At the turn of the new decade, I was sprinting through Manhattan daily, clocking upwards of 10,000 steps a day, hopping from subway car to platform, from event to event, sprinting up the stairs of my apartment building to change from work attire to a date night outfit, and dancing through the streets of the Lower East Side on a weekly basis. Fast-forward eight months, I’m clocking a fifth of my previous steps daily, walking to and fro from my childhood bedroom to my childhood living room. There is no doubt that the shift from regular existence to this new routine is exacerbating countless struggles with food, this false notion of an “ideal weight,” and our personal relationships with our bodies in a more overarching way.
While we once joked online and through social media that the “quarantine fifteen” would wreak havoc on us all, the scale is starting to point towards a “quarantine twenty.” While I once worried this was an exclusively “me” problem, my conversations with friends and family have led me to realize far too many of us are combating similar demons whether it be the “extra” weight on our arms, hips, stomachs, thighs, faces, and so on. We’ve subscribed to an “ideal body” reinforced through social media, the beauty, and the fashion industry, and Hollywood, for far too long, we have lost touch with the natural fluctuations of our bodies in times of trauma. This time period is not normal and thus, our bodies will change in order to offer us the protection we need. For many of us, we are basing meals around what is available to us, what will last longest, as well as what is affordable rather than our previous diet preferences. Regardless of what the case is for you, I can only speak for myself. As I have moved back to my childhood home in the Hudson Valley, my options have become limited in comparison to the array of cuisine accessible within Manhattan. Seeking out local produce, I have yearned for fresh options while still staying within my minimal budget. I have not always chosen the healthiest option, often pursuing the easiest choice such as takeout or pre-prepped meals. I have sacrificed mindfulness for ease of access, and have paid the price in the long run, feeling weak, sluggish, and unable to zip my jeans.
When discussing body image and health, there is much to unpack. I am in no way an expert, however, I am someone just like many of you. I am young, conscious of my appearance, and want to feel good in the body that protects me. My daily routine of dancing in bars, biking through the downtown streets, hugging my beloved, squeezing into packed subway cars, and running to work (late, yet again), has been diminished. These comforts have been compromised and disrupted and as a result, our lives have also been disrupted, changed for the foreseeable future. Thus, isn’t it understandable that our bodies would change as well?
I am here to tell you that it is okay to feel complicated and confusing feels about your body and physical appearance right now. It is extremely important to acknowledge the power and presence of social media and entertainment have on perpetuating an unhealthy and unrealistic body standard for both men and women and everyone in between. Regardless of if you believe you do or do not subscribe to those “standards”, chances are, these images have been subconsciously repressed into our psyche. Thus, when we lose control of our lives, our surroundings, our jobs, our politics, and our routines, we may add more additional stress and pressure to the factors we can control such as our bodies. The invasive way our culture polices our bodies in a systemic issue, one we have created overtime of repeated imagery; the small waists, the large breasts, the washboard abs, the perfectly groomed bodies, the luscious hair, the big eyes, and the full lips. It is okay to be anxious right now about your reflection, but just understand, there are multitudes of societal layers being reflected back at you, not just simply your body.
Along with the lack of control, we are all unanimously feeling, it is important to also recognize the stress that this lack of control ultimately induces. Stress notoriously can have a wide array of effects on the body. From headaches to missed menstrual cycles, stomach ulcers to tense muscles, stress can be a large factor when a body is facing weight fluctuations. As well as physical side effects from high-stress situations, our body can endure non-physical side effects, such as disrupted sleep and mood swings. The effects of stress can manifest in altered behaviors or impulses, such as increases or decreases in alcohol or drug dependency, increases or decreases in appetites, or increases and decreases in productivity. Our bodies are built to protect oneself, and it is important to remember that coping is normal, and we are all undergoing one or more of these symptoms throughout this time.
If any of you are similar to me, you may also be struggling to channel this stress and anxiety discussed into motivation to work out alone in your spaces. As a former athlete, I thrive in competitive environments such as class workouts (boxing, hot yoga, or pilates to name a few). I refuse to subscribe to a gym membership because frankly, I am not mentally tough enough to motivate myself to run alone on a treadmill or squat alone. I excel when I can compete with a stranger, outpacing their punches to a boxing bag or sinking that much lower on a pilates machine. With gyms closed for health precautions during COVID-19, I have found myself lacking the self-discipline to push myself on pre-taped workout sessions, unable to muster the spirit to compete against myself. Over the last few months, I’ve worked through this feeling of “I should be doing more”, understanding that this is slow period of movement may be exactly what my body needed after years of running through New York City. Maybe, my body isn’t punishing me for relaxing, rather, is it showing me compassion for listening to her.
With our lifestyles and routines disrupted, it is important to remember that body shaming and harsh self-judgment may come and go. As long as we acknowledge the thoughts, and allow them to pass without too much pain, our body will thank us. Take space to thank yourself and be gentle with your emotions. You aren’t “bad” for eating food that makes reminds you of fond memories, enjoying an extra drink that makes you giggle recalling your friends, or taking a day to lay on a couch watching reruns of your favorite sitcom. It has taken me a long time to understand that you must speak to yourself about your body the same way you would speak to your best friend about theirs. I would never tell them their upper arms are looking bigger today so why am I thinking that as I look in my childhood mirror? While I may not be able to zip my favorite blue jeans, I am feeling warm and fuzzy about my wider hips and the way I fill out my favorite underwear just a little bit better from behind. Change is hard, but sometimes, change is necessary in order to protect you from the current world.
While this process is far from linear, there has never been a better time to redefine your relationship with your body, dismantling the social constructs of beauty and the “ideal body” that rule too many of our worlds. Your body has carried you through an unprecedented time of turbulence and danger-be appreciative of yourself. While I may not always love the way my reflection looks, that reflection is of me, and I love her. The extra little love around my waist will come and go, but the care and affection I hold for myself will stay. There is no “right” or “wrong” way to exist during this time, but I urge you to be gentle with yourself.
When I think back to the turn of the decade, I was far from comfortable with my body. I did not appreciate her for her strength and ability to adapt. While my blue jeans may have fit then, my love for myself was far from present. The jeans will fit again one day, but for now, I’ll smile and feel radiant in my sweatpants.