Refinery29 is proud to partner with Aerie, a brand dedicated to celebrating real voices and real bodies. Here, plus-size model and Henning founder Lauren Chan pens a heartfelt personal essay about what it was like to experience body image anxiety during the pandemic, and the lessons she took away from it.
First, a disclaimer: I don’t usually talk about weight and body image, because I’m a firm believer that the size of our bodies has nothing to do with our value as human beings — so much so, that I’ve spent my career as a plus-size model, fashion writer/editor, and brand founder fighting for size inclusion in the fashion industry and, ipso facto, for women to remove the learned link between their weight and self-worth. But I still fall victim to bad self-esteem spirals (I’m human! With nuance! Who falters!), especially when I gain weight, and the pandemic has been full of spiraling.
During the past 17 months, I’ve gained almost exactly as much weight as the average American. The American Psychological Association also found that 61% of Americans reported “undesired weight gain” during the pandemic. The numbers don’t surprise me: I’d be straight-up mind-blown if we didn’t all gain a little weight while trapped in our houses, stressed about our health, well-being, livelihood, relationships, and, well, the very fabric of society as we know it. Through that lens, what’s a little extra belly fat in the grand scheme of things? We survived a pandemic, and it was our bodies that got us through this historically horrific time alive.
And yet, I felt anxious about my body the whole time. My general mood declined, there were instances of negative self-talk, I practiced restrictive eating, I downed a little too much wine, I picked at my skin, I became upset after spending too much time on social media, and I even contemplated skipping modeling work for fear of having my body ridiculed. In hindsight, I should have sent my prefrontal cortex a cease and desist the second these behaviors appeared, but because they didn’t happen all at once — they snuck up on me — I spent several regrettable months in a tailspin.
I ended up putting some of my go-to feel-good habits into play, like reducing as many stressors as possible (spending time away from work), investing in bodywork (reflexology, acupuncture, and massages), limiting screen and mirror time, and hanging with my animal pals outside. My usual solutions helped a little, but I was discouraged to find that they didn’t all-out cure my anxiety like they had in the past.
And that’s because, I discovered, my pre-pandemic remedies for body image anxiety largely hinged on a mindset of body neutrality wherein I didn’t really think about my size. I had a life before lockdown: In 2019, my typical week could consist of morning park sessions with my dog and husband, 60-plus hours of work on my business Henning, photoshoots for my job as a plus-size model, a side-hustle as a micro-influencer, potential work travel, dinners socializing with my friends, managing the rest of my life in my spare time, and maybe even a weekend getaway. When that all went away, I lost the distraction part of my body image equation — the pandemic had taken a toll on my relationship with my body, and I slowly began to realize my body image had been slipping.
One morning, I decided to talk to my therapist about my new pandemic-fueled body image anxiety. They asked one question that really resonated with me: How would I comfort someone else having this experience? Better yet, how do I think I deserve to be comforted? Something clicked. Over the next few weeks, I tried this trick on repeat. First, when my clothes didn’t fit, then when I didn’t want to go to a modeling job, or when I felt anxious before seeing friends or family for the first time since the Before Times. It worked every time. Treating myself with the unconditional love and motivational care that I insist on giving others made me feel immediately soothed.
I was taken aback by my experience — I thought I already loved myself, period. But I’m learning that even though I have strong, positive beliefs about body and size, the voice in my head isn’t always the most caring or considerate. That’s likely because I have a lot of work to do on my self-image (hi, workaholic with an achievement complex here). Plus, body image isn’t something you “fix” once, it’s a relationship with yourself that needs to nurtured. For now, I’m trying to flex this new muscle (with help from others who have mastered this habit, like Kendra Austin and Bunny Michael).
I used to dismiss advice about talking to your inner child or speaking affirmations in the mirror because I didn’t understand exactly how to do it, which is why I’m leaving you with a few real examples of how I’ve used my inner voice to ease my body image anxiety:
Anxiety: I’ve gained weight and am feeling uncomfortable in my body because my clothes don’t fit. I should monitor what I eat until I can wiggle back into my jeans.
Remedy: Your body got you through a global pandemic — can we please give it a great, big hug and a round of applause? It’s completely understandable to feel physically bothered by pants that cut into your stomach, but I think this sounds like a great reason to get those new jeans you’ve been eyeing.
Anxiety: I don’t want to go to set and work as a model today because the client might be mad that I’ve gained weight.
Remedy: Oof. This feeling sucks. You are allowed to think it sucks. But — hear me out — I think you should thank yourself for doing sometimes-uncomfortable work in order to make a living. Plus, someone might see these images while shopping and feel better having seen a body type like theirs. How about you try to go today and if you hate it, don’t book this client again?
Anxiety: I feel nervous to see friends and family that I haven’t seen since the Before Times. What if they notice my weight gain and judge me for it?
Remedy: You deserve gentle, loving, patient relationships — and you deserve to talk to yourself in that way, but today I’m getting straight to the point: Your loved ones don’t think that your appearance has anything to do with who you are and why they love you. After all, do you care what they look like? Exactly. Enjoy yourself and try to focus on conversation and connection today.
Anxiety: I can tell that I’ve gained weight in my social media posts. Maybe I should start Photoshopping myself to appear smaller.
Remedy: I know it’s hard to put yourself out there, but have you done inventory lately on what your community has been commenting and how your posts have been performing? There are 99% positive comments and your recent swimsuit posts performed 600% better than average. The takeaway: Your community is here for transparency and real talk — keep it up.
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