Caroline Groth, Stephanie Millier and Laura Henshaw on the dangers of unhealthy body image during social isolation

Caroline Groth, Stephanie Millier and Laura Henshaw on the dangers of unhealthy body image during social isolation

From Caroline Groth to Stephanie Miller and Laura Henshaw, Kate Lancaster spoke to some of Australia’s most influential wellness influencers about the very real danger of unhealthy dieting habits and negative body image as we come out of social isolation. 

If social media was to be believed, anxiety about gaining weight during isolation has run rampant over the last few months. For some, social distancing became a time to ‘detox’ or recommit to regular exercise and home cooking, while for others it’s been a welcome reprieve from intense routines.

Falling into the latter category might not have meant eschewing healthy practices altogether, but maybe you opted for a gentler activity than your usual 5am HIIT? Maybe you felt a little less guilty about having that extra glass of red mid-week? Or perhaps you forgot about fitness entirely? There’s no right or wrong way to have spent your time in quarantine, but as we start to venture out and our lives slowly begin to return to some semblance of normality, there’s a growing sense of unease amongst the women I know.

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The pressure returns

Being in isolation meant taking a break from diet culture and the societal expectations women often face in relation to their habits and appearance – what we eat, what our bodies look like if we choose to work out – but moving back into the world brings with it those once-exhaustive conjectures; the idea that how we look is how we should be judged, which makes it suddenly feel of the utmost importance again.

In truth, it seems laughable that we should be expected to emerge from our respective quarantines looking the same (if not better) than when we went in. And let’s not forget the pressures of, oh yeah – the whole global pandemic thing. I’m very aware of all of the above, and for the most part, I have a relatively respectful relationship with my body. So why does the prospect of putting on my pre-COVID Levi’s send me into a mental tailspin, cursing myself for every workout I didn’t do and vowing to subject my body to its own restrictive measures until I’ve successfully eradicated the extra weight?

You’re not alone

It’s not healthy, but I know I’m not alone. Many women, especially those who have struggled with eating disorders or developed unhealthy relationships to exercise in the past, reported feeling triggered by COVID-19 restrictions going in. Health coach and wellness influencer Caroline Groth, who has been open about her previous long-term struggle with an eating disorder, has been responding to private messages on her Instagram page from women seeking her advice.

“A lot of hours in my day are spent talking to girls [on Instagram] who are struggling so deeply,” she says. “For some people, [isolation] might be the first time that they’ve ever really just been with themselves. So all of these emotions and thoughts and feelings are showing up because there’s nothing to push them down or distract yourself anymore, which can be really tough.”

Now we’re starting to experience feelings of anxiety about going out, which can steer us towards damaging quick fixes or encourage potentially dangerous behaviour. It’s something that Keep It Cleaner (KIC) co-founders Steph Miller and Laura Henshaw can relate to, having both previously struggled with an unhealthy relationship to food and fitness.

Miller warns against this kind of behaviour, which served as the inspiration and mandate behind their popular health and wellness program. “No good comes from restrictive dieting and harmful forms of vigorous exercise. Your happiness is more important than what you look like,” she says.

A path forwards

But when you’re faced with little distractions and feeling perceived pressure, it can be hard to navigate those negative thoughts about your body as we step out of our homes again. So we asked Groth, Henshaw and Miller to share their experiences and advice on how to manage these fears and avoid developing harmful habits as we move out of isolation.

1. Cut yourself some slack

Firstly, it’s normal and perfectly okay for your routine to have changed and adapted during isolation so don’t punish yourself if it has. “We live in such a tough world already,” says Groth. “With a global pandemic and the worry about making enough money to keep a roof over our head, we don’t need to put added pressure on ourselves.”

Miller agrees, stressing the importance of letting yourself adjust to the situation. “The past few months have definitely been filled with uncertainty and heightened levels of stress, so I haven’t put any pressure on myself to change the way I eat or move my body. I’m actually really proud of myself when I stop and think about how far I’ve come with my relationship to food. I’m snacking more than I usually would, as I’m sure many of us are – and I’m totally okay with it.”

Try to reframe negative thoughts or ‘isolation regret’ by telling yourself that you did the best you could for yourself at the time. “Isolation isn’t a chance to compete about who did the most. In the beginning, I was excited to continue my training at home but the more I leaned into isolation, the more I saw it as an opportunity to give my body a chance to rest,” says Groth.

“Say to yourself, ‘Some days I had crap days and I ate crap food, but you know what? I got up every morning and I showed up for myself or for the work that I might be doing. And with everything going on, I tried to do my best and I’m proud of myself for doing that.’”

2. Take the focus off your appearance

If your body changes during lockdown, know that it’s not the end of the world. In fact, it’s almost unavoidable for most of us, but shouldn’t be cause for concern. “We are sitting more and we don’t have as many activities or things on. I have been eating less healthy and more than usual and that’s ok,” says Henshaw.

“Something we speak about often with our KIC community is that our weight or size does not define us or have anything to do with our worth. During these uncertain times, we recommend focusing on transforming your mind through healthy eating and movement. A physical transformation can sometimes be a byproduct of that, but it should never be the end goal.”

3. Ditch the comparison trap

Isolation will be different for everyone, but it can be particularly hard to get perspective when we’re all living apart and relying on social media to make us feel connected. Groth recommends reevaluating the people you follow if you’re starting to compare your isolation experience to that of others.

“I’ve definitely had to mute or unfollow some people because their posts are triggering me. I don’t need to see people working out two or three times per day because I don’t want to feel as if I need to be doing what they’re doing,” she says.

If you are wanting to make changes to your health and fitness after time in isolation, make sure you’re choosing to do it for yourself. “A lot of the time when we feel we need to make changes, it’s because society expects it of us – to eat a certain way or look a certain way or feel a certain way – but it has to come from yourself because you want it,” says Groth.

4. Examine your patterns

If you’re noticing an increase in negative thoughts around health and fitness, Groth recommends being mindful of the patterns that might be behind them. “For a lot of people it’s about acknowledging that there’s a feeling there. If you’re feeling fear around not exercising or having a meal without needing to exercise, trying to identify where that fear is actually coming from,” she explains.

“Try writing down what is showing up so that you can see a pattern. For example, you might have been sleeping really poorly and now it may be making you feel a certain way. Note that down and really figure out how you operate mentally to see if you can shift that.”

For Henshaw, KIC’s meditations have been a key part of curbing negativity during isolation. “I’ve always loved the idea of exercising my mind a little more regularly but I guess the chaos of normal life stopped me from really dedicating time to it,” she says. “In isolation, I’ve forced myself to meditate most days and I’m really noticing the difference in my focus and mental health. Negative thoughts are so normal and there’s nobody on this planet who hasn’t experienced them, but meditation has helped me to focus my energy on more positive, self serving ones.”

5. Know that things won’t be this way forever

The days might feel like they’re moving at a different speed than they once did, but the situation we’re in isn’t permanent. Your circumstances will continue to change with things happening in the world, so it’s helpful to accept that it may take some time before things return to ‘normal’.

Remember that your body has seen you through this period of unprecedented change thus far, and it will still be with you on the other side – so be nice to it. And if all else fails, think about what you do have rather than what you don’t. “Focus on the things you like about yourself, whether they’re physical or not. Sometimes I actually compliment myself out loud!” says Miller.

Adds Henshaw, “It’s easier said than done but try not to sweat the small stuff so much during this time. I am grateful for my health, my family, having a home and the ability to move my body so it doesn’t matter what the number on the scales says.”

If you need support or somebody to talk to, please contact the Butterfly Foundation on 1800 33 4673.

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