Summer is here, the sun is shining (well, sometimes) and all restrictions have lifted. For the first time in almost two years we have been enjoying meeting our friends, dancing in clubs and going to bottomless brunches. But while innocently enjoying ourselves and helping the economy, we’ve been thrust back into a state of worry, with a focus on losing weight post-lockdown.
Public Health England released a statistic that 40% of people in the UK had put on half a stone during lockdown, then, inevitably, news outlets started talking about weight gain, weight loss and the ‘obesity crisis’, as they like to put it. Public Health England is now in the midst of launching its ‘Better Health’ campaign, set to include an updated NHS Weight Loss Plan, an app to help reduce alcohol consumption and measure BMI.
Gina Tonic, the founder of fat liberation publication The Fat Zine, has suffered with body image issues her whole life and has already felt the negative effects of this campaign. “It’s especially hurtful seeing an authority figure ‘confirm’ your worst fears about fatness,” she tells Cosmopolitan UK. “The government's anti-obesity strategies felt like a personal attack on me and the fat community. I feel angry more than anything - the problem is not fat people using the NHS but an underfunded national health service that the tories want more excuses to say isn't working.”
Back in February after Boris Johnson set out his roadmap out of lockdown, you only had to log onto any social media platform to see myriad posts referencing "lockdown weight-gain" and the need to get a "summer body" in time for restrictions to be lifted. Most of us saw the 'fat Barbie with three chins' meme shared on social media far too many times, which simultaneously applied pressure to the masses to lose weight while centring fat bodies as the butt of the cruel joke.
The largely fat-phobic posts that were shared across social media may have seemed light-hearted to some, but in reality, they can be hugely problematic. The dominating conversation focussing on weight-loss infiltrated the minds of many young women, who were obsessing over getting their bodies 'ready' for '#HotGirlSummer'. Gemma*, 23, told Cosmopolitan in February that she booked in with a personal trainer almost immediately after the roadmap was announced. Danni, also 23, admitted she downloaded a calorie counting app after her friends all declared they were about to begin diets in time for the summer.
"This past year I’ve felt the worst about myself I ever have," said Gemma, who’s been kept up at night thinking about her appearance. "I feel a lot of pressure to get fit and 'in shape' for the summer. It’s ingrained in me that the more I weigh, the worse I look, and the worse I am as a person."
Gemma’s is sadly not a unique experience; it's something psychologist and therapist Şirin Atçeken has noticed among her clients. "This lockdown has been hard for everyone, and it has exacerbated mental health issues," she says. "It can be dangerous when we associate health with weight, and also when we try to lose weight in a short amount of time. We can do more harm than good to our body, and it can lead to eating disorders."
Another popular post that did the rounds back in the spring was a photograph of a plate of ice cubes with the words, "My diet between now and the 21st of June" written above it. It might have raised a chuckle, but it goes without saying that in the wrong hands, an image like this - one that promotes restrictive eating - could be incredibly triggering.
Danni is in recovery from an eating disorder, and although she was excited about the prospect of lockdown lifting, the subsequent weight-loss discourse made her slip back into body-negative thinking. "Multiple friends have mentioned weight they've gained, or plans to diet with the lifting of restrictions. It's an unavoidable conversation topic with those unaware of my ED right now.”
"Calorie counting is a major trigger for me, and everyone else around me being on a diet really affects me," she adds. "The posts and conversations have affected me, a recovering ED sufferer, so how will those in worse mental states feel? It's damaging and worrisome."
The feeling of having a 'deadline' for a 'post-lockdown glow-up' is something that's applying pressure - both conscious and subconscious - to plenty of women. Kat, 22, suffers from body dysmorphia and has found herself being directly affected by the conversations on weight loss. "I've been calculating how much I have to lose each week to make sure I lose 'enough' by 21 June," she told us earlier this year. "It sickens me and it’s kind of embarrassing. I feel like I want to do everything I can to not be repulsed by my body, but in my mind that means I have to lose weight.”
Kat has since been affected by Public Health England’s encouragement of weight loss and thinks that using lockdown weight gain as a hook is irresponsible. “Weight gain and loss is such a natural part of life and we've been through such a turbulent time, so it's completely normal to not be focusing on our BMI. Also, half a stone average is really not a lot, considering there was a 'tsunami of pandemic eating disorders' warned about in February,” she says.
Kat actually ended up gaining weight as restrictions lifted, but also worked out a lot more too. “I felt like I was constantly battling myself and not being disciplined enough because I had this deadline to lose weight and I wasn't meeting it. I was gaining weight, so I just felt really bad about myself,” she adds. While Kat hasn’t let this become an obsession, it’s often on her mind. “I still think about it at least a few times a day, even if I'm not acting on it.”
It might sound easier said than done, but the first step to unpicking ingrained, damaging beliefs about weight and body image ideals is to go a bit easier on yourself. "It’s ok to come out of this lockdown a little heavier than when you went in," reminds psychologist Şirin. "Take solace in the fact that you aren’t the only one. We aren’t as active as we were, we are all exhausted, and we have very different priorities."
To continue building on your self-esteem and avoid fixating on losing weight before June hits, Şirin advises a couple of things. "Limit screen time," she suggests. "Phones and computers have become even more part of our daily lives, and it is destructive. Switch them off, turn off notifications and put them away for set times during the week. Replace them with reading, or tapping into your creativity." There's science to back up this theory, too. "When we do something creative, the body releases endorphins and our serotonin levels increase making us happier. Creative people are proven to have more grey matter and naturally higher levels of serotonin. When we are creative, we see things differently, and are more accepting of things around us," says the psychologist.
And what else? "Celebrate yourself," urges Şirin. "Spend 10-15 minutes a day focusing on all the amazing things that you are as an individual, and everything that you have achieved over lockdown and how you have managed to demonstrate how capable you are. Keep it by your desk, on you as a person so you can use it for an instant confidence boost when you need it."
Many young women found themselves in a panic to lose weight before restrictions were lifted but now they have eased, societal pressures around supposed beauty ideals are more rife than ever. As these pressures combine with PHE’s new push to encourage weight loss, are we set to see a body image crisis that will far outweigh the so-called obesity crisis?
It’s been a tough year and a half, and the last thing we need is overwhelming pressure to change how we look. Summer can already be a hard time for women when it comes to body image, with worries of stretch marks, cellulite and baring skin in a bikini. Why can’t those involved in policymaking just let us enjoy this time, without encouraging us to shed pounds and slim down?
*Name has been changed
If you're struggling with poor body image or disordered eating, call Beat's helpline on 0808 801 0677 or visit their website to seek help and advice. Beat is the UK's leading charity dedicated to helping people with eating disorders.
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