The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the daily lives of many people in profound and trivial ways. Embrace the beltless pants, experience creative baking — and perhaps take a long time sitting, whether for virtual meetings or Netflix parties.
For many people, these types of behaviors, along with the ongoing stressors and limitations of the pandemic, have translated into newly gained pounds or heightened discomfort about body image.
It may seem premature to consider addressing weight loss or body image while still dealing with the uncertainties and stresses of the ongoing pandemic. However, science has shown that living with disasters and personal turmoil often causes a shift in life priorities and thinking more about the value of one’s life. Science also reveals that life’s upheavals can be a great time to think about and create habits change.
I am a developmental psychologist and health coach. I have taught college students about cognition and motivation for the past 20 years, as well as about lifelong physical and mental well-being. Behaviorists have found that when these types of disruption disrupt normal routines, eliminating unhealthy behaviors and replacing them with positive changes in personal habits can be easier than ever.
However, this is not another article on how to lose weight. It’s not meant to elicit an unusual reaction like stalking Jennifer Lopez’s or Chris Hemsworth-y’s ass.
Instead, I’m calling on people to redefine the “perfect body” by better appreciating the body’s functions – what it can do – rather than focusing mostly on how it looks.
Celebrities are not good role models
According to Merriam-Webster, ideal is “the standard of perfection, beauty, or excellence.”
However, respecting and appreciating the body for what it can do, rather than how it looks or compares to cultural ideals, can positively affect body image. For example, behavioral scientists have found that exercising for health, pleasure, and wellness is associated with positive body image and healthy eating habits, while more negative body image is associated with exercise for reasons of appearance.
There are physical benefits as well. For example, focusing on fitness goals, rather than losing weight, has been shown to promote longevity. Scientists have also found that exercise can reduce the risk of adults developing a serious case of COVID-19 as well as potentially fatal complications.
On top of all of this, as journalist Charles Duhigg reports in his book The Power of Habit, experts have found that exercise is an essential habit that often supports the adoption of other positive health behaviors, such as better nutrition.
Appearance and accessibility
As a psychologist, I realize that we are an appearance-oriented culture. I am not suggesting that people ignore aesthetic goals.
Instead, I suggest that seeking out other people to identify their own body image ideals can be unable to adapt. This is especially true when people choose celebrity icons and social media influencers as their ideals. For example, there is evidence that comparing one’s appearance to pictures of celebrities is associated with both dissatisfaction with body image and disordered eating.
Research indicates that the most effective role models are people with whom one identifies or shares some similarities. This makes it easier to set achievable goals, rather than focusing on public images of celebrity icons. Here too, it is important that the goals are realistic and applicable to people’s lives. It is also important that they avoid making comparisons of appearance with people they know, as this can also lead to body dissatisfaction.
Instead, setting achievable goals involves focusing on specific behaviors one can commit. For example, if someone sets a goal of moving more easily, they might plan to go to the gym for 30 minutes three times a week. If the goal is pre-pandemic clothing, they may exclude an unhealthy snack from their daily eating routine.
These are the actions that people can directly control, while it is not clear how one can achieve the appearance or weight of a particular famous person or friend.
Clarifying the personal meaning of the “perfect body” is not just a thought experiment. Understanding one’s values helps set goals and then establish habits in daily life to achieve them.
Using myself as an example: As a 48-year-old, my ideal body image involves getting as strong as possible as I get older. I don’t want to feel or look sensitive, so my workouts primarily involve resistance training – with some running to relieve stress. These are achievable because I appreciate the benefits of these activities.
To make sure I maintain my workout routine, I schedule it in advance so I know exactly how I’m going to fit it into my day rather than leaving it to chance and giving it up completely or doing it too close to my bedtime, which interferes with my sleep.
For role models, I look to the behavior of other strong women—like the women of Girls Gone Strong, an organization that promotes women’s health and strength through fitness—to inspire me to achieve my goals.
Even after discovering personal body image values and setting achievable goals, it can still be difficult to let go of old, unhealthy habits. Wendy Wood, a University of California psychologist and the most important expert in the field, has found that many behaviors are automatically activated by being in a context — a location — that has prior associations with that behavior. Moreover, those associations matter more than a person’s current goals.
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Let’s say achieving body image and fitness goals involves taking a brisk walk every morning. Turning this into a habit means avoiding past behaviors—don’t set the coffee maker to run dry in the morning, turn on the TV or check the phone before walking—as well as adopting new behaviors, such as getting dressed the night before and making a route in advance.
How do you start? The first fruitful step might be to ask: What are the ways in which the pandemic crisis has changed my life’s values, priorities and attitudes? The answers may be a good basis for a successful health transformation of body ideals.
This article is republished from The Conversation, a non-profit news site dedicated to exchanging ideas from academic experts. Written by: Janet J. Posofsky, University of North Carolina – Greensboro.
Janet J. does not work. Posovsky for any company, organization, or organization that benefits from, consults with, owns or receives funding from this article, and has not disclosed any relevant affiliations after her academic appointment.