Sandi Duverneuil, a 52-year-old from State College, Pa., discontinued her gym membership as the pandemic hit and transitioned to working from home in a sedentary job. “I steadily gained weight. And I was mostly okay with it and my outgrown hair as long as I didn’t have to get into my work clothes or turn on the camera on Zoom. Now I am starting to worry about going back into the world,” she said.
As a clinical psychologist, I have witnessed many of my patients struggle with the ambivalence about more natural and less polished appearances, as well as the restriction in activities and increase in snacking that led to weight gain during the past year. Studies have similarly reported decreased physical activity and increased weight coinciding with the beginning of the shutdown, although none were based on nationally representative samples, and media organizations have used the term “pandemic 15” to describe the weight gain.
Whether to focus on losing pandemic pounds has become a fraught topic. On one hand, the proponents of body positivity are calling for the unconditional acceptance of your body and weight, and even for having a “hot (fat) girl summer.” “You need to start with loving yourself as you are, because anything else will eventually backfire,” said Kelly deVos, author of the book “Fat Girl on a Plane.”
On the other hand, some people are looking at the societal reopening as a chance for a fresh start and for committing to changes that will not only shed pounds, but also improve their health. “I was oddly grateful for gaining some weight during the pandemic because it clarified for me that that’s not the way I want to be — I just wasn’t my old active, energetic, happy self,” said Sherry Richert Belul, a writer from San Francisco. “So, I decided to get back into exercise and eat healthier food, and it worked.”
If you are torn between acceptance and change as you make your way out of the pandemic, here are ways to reconcile them in support of your well-being.
This is a good moment to choose to make acceptance of your body and appearance a lasting gift of the pandemic. The isolation, losses and existential threats we have faced have reinforced the age-old lesson that what is on the inside of people is more important than what’s on the outside. “We should apply that lesson to ourselves, as well as to others,” deVos said.
Christina Stanton, a middle-aged tourism worker from New York City, was hospitalized twice with covid-19 and barely moved for four months afterward. “My body changed in different ways, and I gained a lot of weight, but I have such gratitude that I survived. I have a healthy level of acceptance if I never get back to what I used to be, and have embraced the new look,” she said.
“Acceptance is an active process and not a sign of resignation,” said Nathaniel Herr, an associate professor of psychology at American University. It takes courage and work to relate to yourself with honesty and kindness. Only when you are able to do that can you clearly identify any areas you might want to change and have the energy to address them. “Acceptance is a prerequisite of any change,” Herr said.
Clarify the 'why' behind your decisions
We now have a unique opportunity to be intentional and deliberate about how we reengage with the world. Maybe you decide that the money and time spent on frequent hair treatments are not consistent with the more natural and less-pressured way you want to live. “Instead of being on autopilot, the pandemic reset allows for creating a life and appearance that are more aligned with our values,” said Debbie Sorensen, a clinical psychologist in Denver and a co-author of “ACT Daily Journal.”
An external motivation for change is never as strong and lasting as an internal one. Your looks might be a reminder of how things have altered because of the pandemic. But instead of trying to change yourself physically to be more in line with the pressures of the pre-pandemic “normal,” create your new normal. Going on a beautifying binge just because everybody else is doing it will only make you feel inauthentic and dissatisfied.
Figure out what makes you tick, and use that to fuel your reasons for acceptance or change. If you’ve realized how important travel is to you, putting the money you would have spent on expensive Botox treatments toward your tourism bucket list can help bolster your acceptance of a few extra wrinkles. On the change side, Duverneuil decided to adopt a puppy to help her become more active. “I want to be a healthier person who walks more, and I love dogs, so this made sense for me,” she said.
Make a workable plan
If you have identified something you want to accept or change and why, it’s time to make a plan and act. Studies have found that proceeding gradually makes goals achievable. You can transition to gray hair with lowlights or a balayage treatment, for example. Or, you can initially schedule a brisk walk each Tuesday and Thursday at lunchtime, rather than every weekday.
“Make behaviors you are striving for more alluring and enjoyable, and make the cost of putting off your goals bigger,” said Katy Milkman, a professor at the Wharton School and author of the new book “How to Change: The Science of Getting From Where You Are to Where You Want to Be.” To increase healthy eating, for example, fill your fridge with your favorite fruits and make getting sugary snacks dependent on driving to a distant store.
And keep in mind that stopping a bad habit can be as difficult as starting a good one. Obsessively checking your appearance in the mirror or constantly weighing yourself can get in the way of accepting pandemic changes, for example, so try replacing them with an activity such as meditation.
Make sure to harness the power of real life and virtual social support. If you have embraced your gray hair but find that your social circle is judging you, seek out people with a mind-set similar to yours, such as the group Silver Sisters. If, on the other hand, your friends and family are not supportive of your focus on getting back to the way you looked and felt before the pandemic, find encouragement elsewhere. “When we are a part of a group that shares our goals, we are much more likely to achieve them,” Milkman said.
Remain self-compassionate and flexible
Everyone wavers on self-acceptance at times. And everybody falls off the wagon or loses steam in pursuit of change goals. Although you may be tempted to double down on self-criticism during these hard periods, an opposite approach will be more beneficial. “A self-compassionate attitude tends to lead to a desired way of being in the long run,” Sorensen said.
Be flexible and inclusive when figuring out the reasons for acceptance or for embarking on a change. You may decide that enjoying your friends and family is your priority right now, and that any personal changes will have to wait. Or you might invest in a new wardrobe so you can feel good in your post-pandemic body without adding more stress.
Letting go of an all-or-nothing approach can help you come up with more options that make sense for your life. “Research shows that either/or thinking is not helpful when deciding on your goals and putting them in action,” said Shireen Rizvi, an associate professor of clinical psychology at Rutgers University.
Taking into account that we have all just gone through one of the hardest years in recent history can also help put things in perspective. You can acknowledge how depleted the pandemic left you feeling, honor your bruised mind and body, and slowly embark on meaningful changes that are now possible. When you recognize your inner bully, you can choose to ignore it and instead make healthy choices because you love yourself.
Jelena Kecmanovic is the founding director of the Arlington/DC Behavior Therapy Institute and an adjunct professor of psychology at Georgetown University. Find her @DrKpsychologist.