Coronavirus has mercifully killed the beach body
May is traditionally a terrible month for my self-esteem. Having emerged from layers of sweaters and puffy coats, I'm faced with the first truly beautiful days of the year, days that come with the reminder of the even hotter ones that lie ahead, when I'll eventually have to wear a swimsuit around other people. All my life that's brought with it dread and anxiety, self-loathing and shameful attempts to "self-improve," with a summer deadline.
Of course, May is manufactured to be this way. It's why dated phrases like "swimsuit season" and "bikini body" still conjure up images of idealized bodies; they're the currency of diet-hawkers, predatory gyms and trainers, and social media influencers. But this year is already markedly different: We're in quarantine, and it's radically reorienting our relationship with fitness and wellness.
For the most part, brands haven't been able to publish an advertisement blatantly urging women to get "beach body ready" for years without being slammed by protests and think pieces. Still, May is crunch time for the billion-dollar industry that preys off men and women's insecurities. Even if "beach body" and "bikini body" have become recognizably insidious language, the concept — of slimming down for summer so you can look "good" in fewer clothes — is more difficult to weed out. This weekend, for example, actress and body neutrality activist Jameela Jamil called out a new Instagram ad for a company called "SlimTum" that promoted the idea that "nothing says feminine like an hourglass figure!" Additionally, influencers and celebrities regularly push diet pills and scammy weight loss teas alongside pictures of their professionally-toned bodies. The pressure can be even harder to shut out now too, since it's often couched in the language of empowerment.
Quarantine could easily have exacerbated this negativity about our bodies. For one thing, by definition it requires us to be sedentary; for another, stress can lead us to eat in ways we're told aren't conducive to an optimal figure. And to a certain extent, these things have both been true: There are an alarming amount of jokes out there about getting "quarantine fat" or gaining "the COVID 19." But there's been a counter-revolution too, one pushing back against these conclusions with messages of body positivity, neutrality, and reassurance. Almost every major health and wellness, outdoors, and beauty publication has posted one or more articles about how "It's okay to eat more and exercise less during quarantine" or "It's okay if your body changes during quarantine" and "No one should worry about working out right now." The sentiments are being echoed in social media posts and viral affirmations, too.
it's not just "it's okay to gain weight, heck, this is quarantine."
it's that there was never anything anything wrong with gaining weight, or being fat, or having always been fat, or becoming fatter than you used to be. never. there was never anything wrong with any of those.
— tommy (@tommyinboots) May 3, 2020
The motivators behind exercise are transforming as well. I suspect very few people are using their time in quarantine to fret about what they're going to look like at the beach when no one knows if there will even be a beach we can safely go to in a few months. Instead, workouts are appealing because they're a way to move your body after long days of sitting around or to shake off excess energy. Likewise, exercise is increasingly being turned to for its mental health benefits — the surge in popularity of Yoga with Adriene, for example, reflects a national impulse to find mindfulness through movement.
Additionally, with short term goals stripped away, we're forced to reconnect with the reasons we practice our preferred exercise routines in the first place. I had an entire nine-month calendar of running races fall down around me in March as the coronavirus pandemic ballooned; with no half-marathons in my near future, I briefly wondered why I should keep up a strict running regimen at all. The pandemic has allowed me to re-evaluate what I love about lacing up my shoes in the first place and to find the value in a run for the sake of the run and not some arbitrary end-goal.
Even our relationship with food is evolving. With restaurants closed and expeditions to the grocery store now an ordeal, we're forced to become more purposeful with how and what and when we eat. Habits adopted out of convenience during a busy workday (say, my 19 daily trips to the office candy jar) give way to pre-planned meals and intentional eating. And because we're dining at home almost exclusively, we're also likely eating better, since home-cooked food is "one of the biggest predictors of eating a healthy diet," Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, a cardiologist and dean of the Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition Science, told Time. (This isn't universally true though; experts also predict "the pandemic [will] widen ... nutritional disparities" since the benefits of eating at home are only available to those who are food secure to begin with). I'm also less "guilty" now when chowing down on my indulgences, such as the occasional cinnamon roll or cookie; there's nothing wrong with deriving pleasure and comfort from food, especially now.
Quarantine offers us a natural opportunity to reorientate why we exercise and eat. These days, it's likely not because we're working toward a certain goal or ideal version of ourselves — all of those parts of life are on hold. Instead, we must fall back on the essentials; moving for the sake of the movement, eating foods because they're what we want to eat.
Even a year in quarantine couldn't entirely rewire us to care less about appearances and more about the way we feel, though. Still, it's an eye-opening place to start. For once, I'm spending May with no expectations of myself — a freedom so sweet and new, I might just not give it up once it's done.