‘Don’t beat yourself up’: 10 ways to feel happier with your body as the world reopens

As pandemic restrictions are lifted in England, many of us will be returning to offices and meeting up with friends for the first time in more than a year – and some of us may not look the same way we did in pre-Covid times. We may have gained weight, or lost muscle, or simply look more tired than before. Perhaps we harboured vague goals of returning to the world with sculpted abs and perky posteriors, but life in a pandemic puts paid to the best-laid plans. So how do you feel OK about your body as the country begins to open up? The experts weigh in.

Exercise self-compassion
“I totally get it,” says the body-positive activist Courtney Belle. “We all feel conscious about our bodies sometimes. But we have just been through such a hard time, and it’s normal for your body to fluctuate, and that is absolutely fine. Bodies change all the time, and it’s not the worst thing in the world to put a bit of weight on. Don’t beat yourself up for something that’s completely normal.”

Realise that you aren’t the centre of attention
“It’s really important to remember that people are wrapped up in their own lives and insecurities and don’t really care how you look,” says the body-confidence and anti-diet-culture advocate Alex Light. “You care how you look far more than anyone else does. So that’s something to remember when you’re seeing people after lockdown.”

Ignore critical voices
That said, although most people won’t care about how you look, or even notice a difference, there are people out there who may comment on your appearance, or make you feel bad about yourself. After Belle was diagnosed with an underactive thyroid aged 10, she was regularly encouraged to lose weight by family and friends. “My parents wanted me to be smaller,” she says. “I don’t know if they were worried I would be bullied. But it had a bad impact on me.” For years, Belle took diet pills, stopped eating properly and tried various remedies to lose weight. “I spiralled,” she says. “I got to the worst place I have ever been.”

People still will sometimes make digs but, aged 21, Belle came to a realisation. “I couldn’t live like that any more,” she says. She decided to work on her relationship with food, and stop dieting. “If people are quick to judge me, that’s them pushing out their own insecurities on me,” she says. “I wish them well. It’s their problem, not mine.”

Find your true priorities
“We are still in a global pandemic,” says the body-confidence coach Judi Craddock, “and your priority should not be to lose weight. There have been a lot of people expecting to lose weight and get shredded during lockdown, and placing huge pressure on themselves to have this dream body. But that should not be your No 1 priority. Instead, decide what is important to you. Is it reconnecting with family? Nurturing your mental health? Getting back into your hobbies? Put your focus into these things, instead of worrying about how your body looks.”

Focus on what your body can do, not how it looks
Psychologist Dr Suzanne Manser is an advocate of the body-neutrality movement. Many of her clients struggle to feel positive about their bodies. “It’s so hard for many people,” she says. “Body neutrality is easier to get to: focusing your attention on what is actually meaningful about your body, which is the fact that it allows us to live, rather than how it looks.”

For people feeling anxious about re-entering the world, Manser encourages them to switch their focus. “When you are feeling like you hate your body,” she says, “connect with what is meaningful to you in that moment. So if you’re out with your friends and feeling uncomfortable, think about what you’re doing. You’re spending time with your friends. Having a connection. If you’re worried about your colleagues seeing you at work, think about what is important to you about your work. Try and take your mindset away from any focus on your body appearance.”

Remember that confidence is a work in progress
“I think people sometimes assume that I woke up one day and told myself I feel good about myself,” says Belle, “and everything was smooth from then on. There are still a lot of setbacks. There are some days that I wake up and think: ‘My belly is massive.’ But instead of spending hours focusing on that, I tell myself that I’m not going to spend time hating myself for it.”

Put on clothes that make you feel good, not restricted
We all have something in our wardrobe that reliably makes us feel good. Now is the time to dig it out. “Go for those clothes that you know you can pull out if you’re having a bad body-image day,” says Light. Craddock advises her clients not to opt for anything tight-fitting. “I always say to people, make sure you can eat a proper meal in your clothes, bend over and sit down in them,” she says. “Otherwise, you will feel uncomfortable, and that will trigger negative thoughts as well.”

Curate your social media
All the experts strongly advocate a social media purge. “We’re constantly consuming content,” says Light. “If you can make the content you are consuming positive, it will have a massively beneficial impact on your mental health.”

This worked for Light, who started out as a fashion blogger, posting heavily edited pictures of herself online, while secretly struggling with her body image and eating disorders. “I have had a really rough history with my body image,” she says. “I’ve recovered from eating disorders. It’s been a tumultuous journey. But what massively helped me was finding the self-acceptance community online, and learning about what diet culture was.”

The more Light learned about the commercial forces pushing diet culture, and followed body-positive activists online, the more the voice in her head telling her that she was ugly started to quieten. “During my recovery,” she says, “I started opening up about my progress and posting about it on Instagram. Initially the things I was posting I believed, but not for myself. But the more I spoke to women around the world, the more I truly began to believe it for myself. I think if I can get to a good place with my body, anyone can.”

Quell the unkind voice in your head
If you’re feeling rotten about how you look, says Light, “a really good exercise is to ask yourself: ‘Would I say this to a friend, or loved one?’ If you wouldn’t say it to anyone else, why would you say it to yourself? The things we say to ourselves are often shocking, and go unquestioned.”

Practice gratitude
So many people have suffered during the pandemic – they have lost loved ones, or their jobs. “Have gratitude for your body,” says Craddock. “Especially if you’ve had Covid and recovered from it. Be grateful for all the ways your body has kept you alive. It’s a vehicle to help you go about your day-to-day life. Shift your focus away from what it looks like, to what it does for you, and have appreciation for that, instead.”