Between unstable mental health and weight fluctuations, Britons’ self-esteem has taken a hit over lockdown. Kate Ng speaks to those who have been affected
When lockdown was first imposed in England last March, Bethan Vincent went from working out at the gym at least four days a week to not at all. The sudden change in routine made the 30-year-old marketing consultant from Church Fenton, in North Yorkshire, feel sluggish and unmotivated, compounded by anxiety and depression.
“One of my main reasons for going to the gym so often is for my mental health,” she tells The Independent. “I suffer from anxiety and depression, but realised how good exercise made me feel in my early 20s. It’s been like a treatment for me.”
But when the ability to go to the gym was snatched away during lockdown months, Vincent not only worried about the mental health consequences, but she also gained a stone in weight (over 6kg). Then the second lockdown in October came, taking a bigger toll on her mental and physical health, as the weather turned cold and dark.
“By the time we got to Christmas, I had put on around four or five kilograms and it wasn’t a lot, but it was enough to make me feel not good and not confident,” she says. “My clothes didn’t fit right, things were a bit tight and uncomfortable, some of my muscle tone was gone. For me, it wasn’t just about body image, but keeping healthy and at that point, I just didn’t feel myself.”
Vincent is far from alone in the changes she experienced with her body. Research from dating app Bumble found that more than half (58 per cent) of UK adults are now more concerned about their appearance, with more than two-thirds saying they have held back from dating again because they lacked the same body confidence they had before the pandemic.
A survey from Public Health England found that more than 40 per cent of adults in England put on an average of half a stone in weight during the pandemic, with 21 per cent gaining a stone or more. According to the study, most respondents said unhealthy eating habits like comfort eating and snacking were the main reasons behind their weight gain.
For Charlie Young, 29, cooking elaborate, often luxurious meals, was one of the only ways to make lockdown more enjoyable for him and his housemate. “I would spend loads of time planning for these complicated, rich recipes, and then we’d eat them over the course of a couple of days,” the London-based computer analyst says. “My belt keeps reminding me that they’ve taken their toll.
“But cooking was one of the only things that brought me some joy during lockdown, you know? I enjoy team sports, but when that was taken away from me, I had to find something else to make me happy.”
Young, who gained just over a stone in weight, says he does feel more insecure about his body now than he did before lockdown, and recently thought about getting a personal trainer to help him regain some of his confidence. “I’m quite careful to avoid putting myself in a mindset where I think the weight gain is completely negative, but I have caught myself avoiding the mirror quite a few times as lockdown progressed,” he says.
He explains: “When I tried clothes I haven’t worn in a year on again, finding that some didn’t fit anymore did make me feel quite low for a period. It really shows how your physical self can impact your psychological wellbeing.”
Social media also had a huge impact on people’s self-esteem and body confidence during lockdown; it became the window through which we viewed much of the world when we were cut off from real-life interactions, says neuro-linguistic programming coach Rebecca Lockwood. Comparing ourselves to others on social media – particularly in the run-up to summer, when pressure to have a “summer-ready body” is at an all-time high – can lead to distorted perceptions of oneself.
“In a world where social media has become so easy and addictive to access, it’s more common than ever to get wrapped up in judging ourselves and comparing ourselves to others,” says Lockwood. “The thing is, on social media, people most of the time only share the good things and we’re not always aware of what’s really going on.”
To combat negative feelings about post-lockdown bodies, Lockwood advises: “It’s important to think about all that you are – rather than thinking of yourself in terms of weight or size. Tap into how much your body does for you, how it supports you to live each day and the feelings of gratitude you have towards your body for all that it allows you to do.
“If you have gained weight during the pandemic – as a lot of people have – then it’s important to acknowledge this, however, gaining weight shouldn’t always be seen as a negative thing.
“Our bodies do so much for us and it’s important to truly bring our awareness to the fact that we are whole and our bodies and minds should be whole. When you’re negative towards your body from your mind, it creates a disconnect which can then cause more negative feelings, behaviours and self-sabotaging actions which spiral to make it even harder mentally and physically.”
James Wilson, founder of Mind Switch, agrees that social media magnifies feelings of comparison and adds: “We’ve been largely isolated from meaningful connection with other people and have therefore not had the external validation and approval that we’re used to.” Since lockdown, Wilson has seen a huge rise in clients coming to him with self-esteem and confidence issues.
Wilson lists three steps people can take to rebuild their confidence, which include: being kind and compassionate to yourself, appreciating what your body enables you to experience, and focusing on what you can control.
“Remember lockdown was a totally new experience, and you’ve done the best you could,” he says. “We don’t often give ourselves the same compassion and understanding as we do the people closest to us. Take a moment and ask yourself: what would you say to a friend or family member who is feeling the way you are?”
He adds that what other people think about us is completely out of control and advises: “Each time those anxious thoughts come, take three slow breaths and replace your focus on one thing you can do today for yourself. Remember self-esteem has to come from you.”