C/O Travis Nguyen

Students reflect on their relationship with their body throughout the COVID-19 pandemic 

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020, many people have reported increasingly negative body image. The Silhouette discussed body image over the past two years with some students at McMaster University.  

Serena Habib, a student at McMaster, discussed the many negative conversations surrounding body image that took place online over lockdown periods.   

“There was just a lot of public discourse around, like, how we’re always sitting at our desks and getting snacks and I thought that was a lot of unnecessary pressure on people,” said Habib. 

Despite this, Habib said that her body image improved over the course of the pandemic due to the communities that she found on social media. Habib recognized that this was not the case for everyone, noting that other people may have found less supportive communities online. 

“[The pandemic] gave me the time to be able to explore body positivity on Instagram and podcasts that really helped with body image and with taking care of [my] physical and mental health, which I don’t know if I would have gotten to do if it wasn’t for having that time to myself over the pandemic,”

Serena Habib

Sarah Coker, another student at McMaster, also reported experiencing more positive body image after the pandemic. The pandemic helped Coker’s body image because when gyms closed, she began to explore other forms of exercise that felt better for her. Coker, who was diagnosed with anorexia in 2016, stated that, prior to the pandemic, she found herself overusing the gym. 

“Now I just like to go on a lot of walks and listen to podcasts and go out more in nature and [I] do it just because I want to and it feels good for my body, rather than having to be like ‘Okay, I need to get like this [and] do all these reps and sets,’” explained Coker.  

As well, Coker explained that she has lost some muscle since the start of the pandemic and that her time away from the gym made her appreciate the strength that she had built up. 

“[Being] female and being powerful and strong . . . [The pandemic] made me miss that and I hope I can get back to that eventually,” said Coker. 

McMaster student Ekta Mishra also reflected on how the pandemic made her place more value on her physical strength. Mishra noted that, prior to the pandemic, she was far more concerned about how others would view her appearance. However, being in isolation allowed Mishra to redefine beauty standards for herself.  

“[Body image] had to do a lot with exercise and how I wanted my muscles to look and what I felt was acceptable and feminine. [T]hat became something that I got to decide for myself, rather than something that other people [and their] reactions would decide . . . Not facing the scrutiny of the people around you every single day makes a difference in how you begin to perceive yourself,” said Mishra. 

On the other hand, McMaster student Sadie Macdonald stated that when the pandemic first began, it impacted her body image very negatively.  

“There was a lot of time and I was like what else am I going to do? I might as well focus on what I look like.  . .  So that wasn’t good. I found myself slipping into [not] a disorder of any sort but definitely disordered thinking patterns and behaviors,”

Sadie Macdonald

Macdonald said that she found herself exercising excessively and failing to eat breakfast. However, Macdonald said that she caught herself slipping into unhealthy thinking patterns and made an effort to view her body more positively. She added that during the second lockdown, she was quarantining with a friend and she had developed a much healthier relationship with exercise.  

Although she was still exercising a lot, she was doing activities that she enjoyed, such as going on long bike rides. She stated that because she was exercising for fun, she was not focusing on her appearance.  

“I shouldn’t see moving my body as a means to an end in that way. [Exercise] should have value in itself because it makes me feel good and if it’s not making me feel good then I don’t think I’m doing it right,”

Sadie Macdonald

For her, focusing on body neutrality through the pandemic was more valuable than focusing on body positivity.  

“Looking in the mirror and being like ‘wow, you’re beautiful today’ doesn’t help me as much as being like ‘you’re so much more interesting than that; you don’t even need to look in the mirror today’,” said Macdonald.  

Neha Shah, the director of the McMaster Students Union Women and Gender Equity Network, discussed the strengths of the body neutrality movement, explaining that it does more to address systemic issues than body positivity.  

Shah also explained that another aspect of COVID-19 body image is the impact that the pandemic has had on the ability of transgender and gender nonconforming individuals to present in a way that is comfortable for them.  

“For a lot of students, quarantining at home has made things difficult for them; being able to express themselves in the way that feels right to them is maybe not safe for them at home or just not as comfortable,” explained Shah.  

In order to combat this by providing students with gender affirming items and to provide students with sexual health items, WGEN began an initiative last year to provide students with gift cards to access these items.   

“Last year, my predecessor and the former director of [the Student Health Education Centre] collaborated to create a program called collective care, which is our peer-run resource distribution program that is able to run virtually. How it works is students will request a gift card — we have a range of stores that we’re able to provide gift cards to — of a certain amount and indicate why they need it and then we’re able to send out these e-gift cards anonymously to them,” said Shah. 

Body image can be tricky to navigate and is ultimately a unique experience for every individual. With all the challenges that the pandemic has posed, the relationship that each person has with their own body can change in both positive and negative ways. However, when we support one another in our communities, we can help alleviate some of the stressors around feeling comfortable in our own skin.  

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