“Are you sure you want to eat that?” “Your jeans won’t fit by the time this is over.” “You don’t want to gain the quarantine-15!”
These questions and comments are only some of those which have risen during discussions of body image during the pandemic. Explicit and implicit messages, embedded in every part of the media and communicated by parents, peers, and more, have spurred conversations in schools and beyond about the toll of unrealistic beauty standards on the health and happiness of teenagers. For some students, quarantine has only increased the pressure to change their bodies; for others, a break from typical social interaction has led to a decrease in concern over their physical appearance.
“There seems to be a cultural understanding that you are supposed to become a better version of yourself during quarantine,” said Sue* (11), who has chosen to remain anonymous so that her struggles with eating do not become one of her identifiers. “I think ‘bettering the self’ is inextricably linked with weight loss and general alterations of the body. I have felt like if I don’t work out, or emerge from quarantine with a weight loss, I will have failed.”
Sue has noticed that although she has work for all of her classes on a regular basis, she spends less of her time engaged during HM Online. As a result, she feels pressured to keep herself productive in other ways, she said.
Jill* (11), who asked to remain anonymous because she is uncomfortable with her peers knowing about her concerns over her body image, has also felt a need to reach these tangible goals in her free time. Specifically, Jill despairs over her own “laziness”; although she lacks the motivation to regularly follow her workout routine, she becomes upset with herself when she skips it. “It felt like if I wasn’t constantly working out, then I was failing in some way,” she said.
“Stop Trying to Be Productive,” a New York Times article, published on April 1, explored the pressure to be productive, whether by organizing messy living spaces, becoming home chefs, or getting in shape. “It’s tough enough to be productive in the best of times, let alone when we’re in a global crisis,” Chris Bailey, a productivity consultant, said. “The idea that we have so much time available during the day now is fantastic, but these days it’s the opposite of a luxury. We’re home because we have to be home, and we have much less attention because we’re living through so much.”
This urge to overachieve, even in times of global crisis, reflects America’s always-on work culture, the article said. It quoted journalist Nick Martin, who stated in a separate article for The New Republic that “this mind-set is the natural endpoint of America’s hustle culture—the idea that every nanosecond of our lives must be commodified and pointed toward profit and self-improvement.”
Johanna Scher (10) pointed out a similar culture at the school. When students at the school have free time on their hands, they always want to fill it in a productive manner, she said.
Now that people have “all the time in the world,” it’s easy to argue that they no longer have any excuse not to make changes to their bodies, Eli Scher (11) said. Eli recently saw a tweet that said if you don’t use your time during quarantine productively, “you didn’t ever lack the time, you lacked the discipline.” Realistically, people shouldn’t have this expectation, he said. “That’s definitely oversimplifying the struggles that people go through.”
Furthermore, the switch to online learning, specifically using Zoom, has caused Oscar* (12) to feel a new pressure in regards to his body image, he said. “Spending a whole day just staring at myself [on Zoom] can oftentimes be very upsetting and can make me very anxious.”
“When we were at school, there was more to our interactions with our classmates than our faces on screen,” Oscar said. “We were able to completely express ourselves, whether through our style choices or our own thoughts and perspectives. We were able to be seen as complete human beings. Now, we are just another box and another figure on that screen.”
Oscar feels that the way he displays himself now has a larger impact than ever before. “I’m trying to take more care of the way that I look because I just feel like I am constantly being watched and judged for the way that I look. I really just want to do everything I can to look a little better,” he said. “There is this fear that sinks in that all you really are is just that image that’s shown in that box. It’s really unsettling.”
Quarantine has left students alone with themselves for far longer periods of time, which can make them more susceptible to negative thoughts, Brian Wu (12) said. “We are the people that look in the mirror and we see ourselves all day, so it’s easy to look at all the flaws and be very critical of ourselves over and over again,” he said.
In a Psychology Today article published on April 15, psychologist Paula Freedman explained that pressure to stay healthy can also come from a lack of control during COVID-19. “With shutdowns and shelter-in-place orders, it can seem like the only things left in your power are what you eat and how much you exercise,” she wrote. “You may be leaning extra hard on tools like fitness trackers and food logging apps to make sure you don’t ‘lose control.’”
Director of Counseling and Guidance Daniel Rothstein said that in response to the anxiety and uncertainty surrounding the virus, some students will increasingly turn to food as a form of comfort, while others will moderate the food they eat more closely.
Living at home, Sofia Jiang (11) has found it challenging to maintain a consistent diet, as it’s now easier to simply eat out of boredom, she said.
On the other hand, Wu has become more controlling of the food he eats; he now prepares all of his meals from scratch in advance. The combination of meal-prepping and working out regularly helps to mitigate the toll quarantine is taking on his body image, he said.
Social media is one of the major pathways through which the notion that staying in shape is a necessity is promoted, Louise Kim (9) said. Kim has seen several TikTok videos spreading the message that people should focus on working towards “summer bodies” while in quarantine.
“Diet culture is so ingrained in how we view ourselves and others that even when we’re alone, with no one to ‘impress,’ we are measuring our bodies, our food intake, our size and shape and weight, and considering what those measurements say about us,” Laura Breiling wrote in an an NBC article published April 26.
“Diet culture” can induce tremendous anxiety around eating, Rothstein said. “Unfortunately, as we grow up, we are inundated with media and then peer messages that to be happy and popular, we have to look a very specific way,” he said. “We get the erroneous message that happiness comes from the way you look, rather than that deep, good feeling we all had as children that our bodies are amazing and can do wonderful things.”
Although they’ve always been present, the number of posts promoting diet culture on social media has significantly increased since quarantine began, Jill said. “There are all of these videos on TikTok and Instagram titled ‘how to get abs during quarantine’ or ‘lose the ten pounds you’ve been wanting to lose during quarantine.’”
Maria* (11), who would like to remain anonymous so that her classmates do not learn of her relationship with her mother, discussed below, has also seen more TikTok posts revolving around body image. Although she hasn’t seen any posts prompting teenagers to alter their bodies, she has noticed that TikTok users who have slimmer bodies usually have comments sections filled with positive remarks such as “drop your workout routine.” On the other hand, users who do not have “perfect bodies” tend to receive many body-shaming comments on their posts, she said.
Furthermore, the internet is full of information about eating disorders, often promoting that material in a dangerous manner, Sue said. “I have so much time and I’m on my computer so often that it’s so tempting [to seek out that information],” she said. “It’s just very, very hard to discipline yourself.”
In the NBC article, CEO of the National Eating Disorders Association Claire Mysko explained the sharp increase in posts concerning weight gain. “This is a period of heightened anxiety, when our community is working to find new ways of staying connected,” she said. “Negative body talk and weight gain jokes have long been default modes of commiseration in our culture. But, in fact, these messages don’t bring us closer together—they stoke fear, they keep us from exploring health from a holistic perspective, and they are outright harmful.”
Johanna believes that the standards set by accounts promoting increased exercise during quarantine are often unrealistic, as people can exaggerate how much they are working out. “The internet is the only way we’re communicating with each other, and people like to make their lives seem perfect on the internet,” she said. It is a dangerous position for teenagers to be in, as they may assume everyone else is consistently working out, she said.
Wu said that he has also been more aware of posts on social media of people, whether it be peers or influencers, with “seemingly perfect bodies.” “It forces you to actually want to be like them, when in fact being yourself and loving yourself is probably like the biggest priority right now.”
Furthermore, after recently committing to college, Wu joined many Instagram and Facebook groups with other incoming freshmen. On one Facebook group, all students are encouraged to post introductions of themselves, usually consisting of a blurb and a photo. Wu and friends in the group usually talk to each other about the photos they see, making commentary such as “Oh my god, this guy is so hot; this girl is really pretty,” he said.
“These types of conversations play possibly the biggest role in getting into people’s perceptions of body image,” Wu said. “I’m guilty of [having these conversations] myself, so there’s no reason why other people wouldn’t.” The thought of other students discussing Wu’s own appearance is especially nerve-wracking, he said.
While videos on TikTok haven’t had a major effect on Kim herself, she believes they can give her peers unhealthy expectations of how they should be spending their time, she said. “I’ve taught myself to disconnect my self-worth and self-value from how my body looks,” Kim said. “But if this was two or three years ago I might have felt quite pressured.”
Sally* (10), who has asked to remain anonymous in order to avoid others’ misconceptions, also credits some of her unhealthy thoughts concerning body image to her amount of social media usage. It takes almost no effort to compare oneself to beauty standards plastered over social media, she said.
“You can understand all you want about feminist culture and Eurocentric beauty standards, but I think at the end of the day, it’s really hard to not internalize some of it,” Sue said.
In addition to social media, pressure can come from the home, Rothstein said. “Eating three meals a day with family can be a pleasure for many, as it is a time to connect, but for others it can accentuate whatever family tension there was around eating before the pandemic hit.”
For Maria, this tension arises when her mother comments on her body. When HM Online first began, Maria, who was on birth control, left the city—and her medication, which is shipped to her apartment—to stay at another residence. Until her family returned to the city, she had no access to birth control.
When Maria first began taking birth control during winter break, she noticed an increase in her appetite as a side effect. “When I started gaining weight, it was new, but I liked the way I looked,” she said. However, Maria’s mother began to use backhanded insults to convince her to work out more. “She would be like, ‘It’d be fun to exercise together,’ or ‘I’m seeing my trainer today, want to join?’”
When she went off of birth control at the start of quarantine and lost weight, Maria’s mother commented that she was “way too skinny.” “It’s always one [type of remark] or the other,” Maria said.
Sue, too, has found it difficult to be surrounded only by members of her family. Specifically, although she dislikes eating alone, Sue knows that if she opts to eat with her family, they may make comments concerning the food she eats and the way she looks, which is a worse alternative, she said.
Oscar has also felt pressure coming from his family members, who want him to always look “presentable,” he said. His parents often tell him that he has to fit into the stereotype of how young men are supposed to look. “If you don’t look the way you are supposed to, that is a disappointment.”
While Oscar used to describe himself as a “stress-eater,” that habit has diminished since the start of quarantine. He credits this to his relationship with those he is quarantined with; he does not want to disappoint his family members by eating too much or at the wrong times. When he goes to the kitchen to get a snack, Oscar is wary of his parents’ voices in his head. “It feels like every time I eat anything, I have these judging eyes staring at me,” he said.
Prior to quarantine, Sue’s friends balanced discussing their own problems concerning body image with comforting each other on similar ones. Although Sue hasn’t grown apart from her friends, if she’d like to discuss problems concerning her body image with them, she now has to make the conscious effort to seek out her friends, she said.
On the other hand, seeing fewer people has taken pressure off of Kim, who spends less time thinking about her body image during quarantine in part because she isn’t going to spend the summer going out with other people, she said.
Because Jiang spends all of her time with family, she’s begun to wear looser-fitted clothing, such as sweatshirts and sweatpants, on a regular basis. As a result, she’s spent less of her time concerned with her body, she said.
Natasha Stange ‘19 wears summery clothing more often since starting school in California, where the weather is warm year-round. Because of this, she usually has incentive to try to “look good,” she said. When quarantine began, with no summer plans in sight, this incentive diminished and her routine grew more sedentary, she said.
The warm weather also used to make it easier to get outside to exercise, she said. “I used to go on hikes with my friends in the San Gabriel mountains on the weekends, and the social component of that [type of exercise] made it more fun too,” she said.
However, Stange has recently attempted to find motivation to eat healthier foods, without letting concerns over her diet consume her. She has become more active on her food and fitness Instagram account, @fit_foodie24, which motivated her to maintain a regular, healthy diet during this time.
Johanna has also been using some of her free time to exercise and make healthy home-cooked meals, but she follows her own goals instead of allowing external pressures to dictate her diet and routine, she said.
While she thinks inspiration from external sources can be beneficial, Johanna chooses to focus on her own personal workout goals to ensure she is safe and avoids unrealistic expectations. “What works for [some] won’t work for everyone and can cause harm if not executed perfectly,” she said. “Trying to match someone else’s routine and expect the same results is dangerous because everyone’s body is different and everyone is at different levels of fitness.”
Elias Romero (10), too, has made an effort to work out more frequently and eat healthier than usual so that he can maintain strength as an athlete. Although his primary motivation is to stay in shape for wrestling, Romero has noticed that working out has positively impacted his body image, he said.
Oscar, like many teenagers, feels that the pressures to attain certain physical goals need to be discussed and dismantled, he said. However, he has noticed a discrepancy between the amount of men and women who speak freely on the topic.
Generally, there is less discourse surrounding men’s body image problems because of a cultural system that puts more explicit emphasis on female beauty standards, Eli said. Still, men feel pressure to look a certain way, and that can not be dismissed.
Understandably, body image related issues are tied heavily to gender roles and societal expectations of men and women, Oscar said. But overall, it is important to recognize that everyone goes through difficulties. “We all have insecurities. We all have things that we are ashamed of and that we are nervous about,” he said.
“Social isolation can be challenging, but it can also be a time to ask the deepest questions—where will my happiness and self-acceptance really come from—my outer reflection, or that feeling from inside that I am lucky to have the wonderful body I was born with?” Rothstein said. “This can be a challenge for everyone at different moments, but if you are spending a lot of your time worrying about your body image and what you eat, talking to someone in Counseling & Guidance, an adult you trust, or another professional can be very helpful in gaining perspective and reducing worry.”