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Sam Island for BuzzFeed News

The Pandemic Has Made “Summer Body” Pressure Even Worse

Ahead of a summer with already lofty expectations, many people are obsessing over how their bodies have changed in the pandemic.

Posted on April 20, 2021, at 11:21 a.m. ET

Before a trip to visit friends and family in Florida, Laura “lost it.” She had bought herself a “bunch of cute outfits” online, but when they arrived she was not as psyched as she thought she would be. “Nothing fit right. Nothing looked good on me,” she told me in a phone interview. “And I was just sobbing because I was like, I got all these cute summer clothes and I'm a potato.”

It was a devastating blow to her confidence, Laura said, who is a 26-year-old event planner based in Chicago. Like many of us, she noticed her body had changed over the last year. She’s gained 30 pounds since the start of the pandemic, and the prospect of summer has induced some anxiety; for the first time in more than a year, she will reunite with friends, family members, colleagues, and acquaintances. “We're all seeing each other again for the first time,” Laura said. “I haven't seen my family in a year, and I don't want them to see me and be like, 'Oh god, Laura really let herself go this year.'”

She knows her family would “never” admonish her for gaining weight, but her fears are rooted in a real anxiety about attaining the “perfect” summer body. Earlier this month, BuzzFeed News asked for people's thoughts about themselves — and their bodies — ahead of the "Great Reopening." Laura was one of hundreds who responded. The summer season always has high expectations, but the pressure to go all out this year feels especially palpable. “I have trouble fitting into my clothes and don’t want to buy ‘fat clothes’ for the summer,” said Gary, 29. A man named Miles, 19, said he speculated that he’d had an eating disorder “for pretty much [his] entire life.” He added, “I think staring at myself in the camera over Zoom kinda completely fucked my perception of what I look like to myself and to other people.” And he’s certainly not alone. After a year of mostly communicating with colleagues via video conferences, there’s been a considerable rise in people obsessing about supposed imperfections with their bodies.

“Before the pandemic, I was just beginning my journey to feeling better about myself, but I was still punishing myself for not having the desire everyone around me had to be a smaller size.”

One thing is clear: Large swaths of people are anxious about the upcoming summer — and for various reasons. Some are working through body issues that were already present before the pandemic and have only gotten worse over the last year, while others are actually embracing their bodies’ changes and bucking against the expectation to conform to a certain physical ideal.

“This lockdown has been hard for everyone, and it has exacerbated mental health issues,” psychologist and therapist Şirin Atçeken recently told Cosmopolitan UK. “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.”

Some people recognize that the pressure to fit a specific body type had robbed them of enjoyable experiences and that this summer could be an opportunity to change that. Simone, 24, an e-commerce associate living in Georgia, described how the act of just “getting into the pool to begin with” would be a challenge in the past, but before getting to that point, she would always feel overwhelmed by trying to find a swimsuit that was cute enough. “I would always talk myself out of wearing certain things. Like, maybe I did find this one swimsuit that I felt good in, but then I was like, ugh, no, people are going to see my legs,” she said.

“[I] have body rolls and am in no way by society’s standards physically fit,” she said. “Before the pandemic, I was just beginning my journey to feeling better about myself, but I was still punishing myself for not having the desire everyone around me had to have abs, be a smaller size, or be in the gym every day.” But the past year has encouraged Simone, who is a size 12 and 180 pounds, to think more about her body and insecurities. She said she is going to do her best to resist falling “into the trap of the ‘summer body,’” though she added she is about 80% comfortable with herself. “I'm wearing a crop top as I speak to you, which I would have never done a year ago,” she said. “So, you know, just going to a bar, or maybe in a dating setting, and still standing that kind of ground — in that comfort with myself — is going to be the challenge.”

While society has always emphasized getting physically fit for the summer, this year presents a new challenge. As people begin to book vacations and other gatherings, here’s now the added stress of how people might respond if you look different after the pandemic. Take Ashton, a 27-year-old social worker in San Diego who spoke to me about her body dysmorphia as well as an eating disorder she has had since she was 11, which became worse during lockdown. “Because I have dysmorphia, I don't know if I look drastically different. I know that I feel like I look drastically different. So I'm nervous about seeing people that I haven’t seen in a while and them being like, ‘Oh my god, you look so different,” she said. “I am dreading the hot girl summer because I don’t feel even close to hot.”

Since the pandemic disrupted her daily routine and she briefly relapsed, she has been seeing a therapist again and listening to podcasts about health to keep herself on the right track. “I really do want to do things, and I don't want my body image and disordered eating to hold me back, but I'm realistic,” she added. “I know that it's going to come up. And so I have to be willing to acknowledge the discomfort and focus on what I want versus what my eating disorder wants.”

For the few men who responded to BuzzFeed News’ callout, some felt guilty about weight loss. Jordan, a 26-year-old entertainment contractor in Los Angeles, told me, “Isolation and anxiety actually caused an overall loss of appetite, leading to weight loss. It’s awkward to discuss with friends who instead struggled with weight gain and hard to feel happy about being thinner when I know it came from some unhealthy habits.”

“BMI is based on horrific, racist science.”

Jordan also has anxiety because of his sexuality. “I’m nervous to reenter the gay scene, which can already be judgmental, without feeling like I did all I could to look my best in the postquarantine world,” he said. But coming to terms with — and being OK with — your body can be tough, even when you want to make healthy changes. Christian, a 28-year-old who lives in DC, told me, “I want to feel good and obviously look good, but I know my definitions of what those two things mean stem from some unhealthy places within society, and so I’m trying to be OK with not having a six-pack or being less ‘tight’ than I want to be.” While men tend to be less open about their issues with body image, as my colleague Elamin Abdelmahmoud pointed out in February, “men make up roughly 1 in 3 or 1 in 4 cases of eating disorders.”

The idea of attaining a “summer body” is quite rigid. “Summer bodies are dumb,” Beth Lee wrote for the Boar last month. “The ridiculous notion that in order to enjoy yourself over summer you must be toned, camera-ready and 10 times smaller than usual is unrealistic and unfair. Not only does this discourse exclude the beauty of body diversity, but it also creates harmful and dangerous expectations.” However, there are ways to combat the pressure. As Atçeken told Cosmopolitan, leaning into creativity — activities like reading and writing — is a great alternative to nitpicking your body.“When we do something creative, the body releases endorphins and our serotonin levels increase, making us happier,” she told the outlet.

“If you try and really look at your body and challenge the thoughts that society has given us, what's wrong with being fat?” said Natalie, a 31-year-old in Maryland. “BMI is based on horrific, racist science.” She said she had been thin up until the age of 25, when she sustained an injury and started medication that caused her to gain weight — but even when she was skinny, she still thought about “cutting off any fat [she] had with scissors.” Only now, because of the pandemic, she said, she has finally given herself permission to be herself. She said she is tired of “hating” her body and determined to not get bogged down by the anti-fat rhetoric that makes many of us feel bad about ourselves. “I recently deactivated my Facebook because of how many posts I was seeing about losing weight, blah blah blah. I was fat before the pandemic and I'll be fat afterwards,” she said.

“I'm going to wear a bathing suit this summer and I'm going to look hot as fuck. This is my body. I love the sun on my body as much as anyone else. I just have more body.” ●

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.

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