Post-Pandemic Wardrobe Anxiety Has Nothing to Do with Your Body

Leaving the house again feels weird and getting dressed is hard. But dieting isn't the fix.

Pandemic Weight Gain
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On Tuesday, a reporter for the New York Times spoke to Jessica Short, a 39-year-old conservation program assistant in Lansing, Mich, and she acknowledged a truth that for many of us, feels universal right now: "I had to leave the house for several days in a row and realized then that none of my pants fit," she said. Short decided to start a diet, which the Times posits would delight the $61 billion diet industry that sees our post-pandemic body anxieties as a growth market.

The article received a swift and deserved backlash on Twitter for the way it characterized pandemic weight gain as the "unhealthy" result of people coping with the stress of lockdown by "sitting on their couches, wearing baggy sweatsuits, drinking chardonnay and munching on Cheetos," instead of "creating healthy meals or riding their Pelotons for hours." Never mind the level of privilege required to own a Peloton (and have apparently endless free time to ride it!). When we pathologize benign coping strategies like comfort eating and comfy clothes, we reinforce the message that your health is solely determined by your weight and level of fitness. In fact, just surviving a global pandemic where millions lost their jobs, homes and lives was good for your health. And so is taking time out to relax and comfort yourself when you're living through a history-making collective trauma.

The piece also rested on the assumption that weight loss is the one and only solution to pandemic weight gain. But you could also just… not do that. Because we know it doesn't work. According to an evidence review of common commercial weight loss protocols first published in 2007, and later updated in 2013: People lose some weight in the first nine to 12 months of any diet, but over the next two to five years, they gain back all but an average of 2.1 pounds. "The dieters had little benefit to show for their efforts and the non-dieters didn't seem harmed by their lack of effort," Traci Mann, PhD, the paper's co-author who is now a professor of health and social psychology at the University of Minnesota told me when I interviewed her for Scientific American last year. "Weight regain appears to be the typical response to dieting, not the exception." This isn't a failure of willpower, by the way; it's how our bodies are programmed to respond to restriction, in order to keep us alive. Most people now embarking on Noom, or WW or whatever Gwyneth Paltrow is doing to atone for eating bread, are likely to feel really good about this plan for a few short months. But cut to later this summer, or next January, or next spring, and it will be a different story. And this all takes for granted that we believe weight gain is always a problem to be "solved" in the first place. What if it's just not?

This wardrobe anxiety isn't really about the clothes or your body, however it may have changed in recent months. It's about feeling out of control, which, let's face it — we've all felt, in a massive and existential way ever since an invisible virus showed up and changed everything.

But Short did articulate an anxiety that many of us can relate to right now: As we get vaccinated and the world opens up, we have to start getting dressed again. And it feels hard for so many reasons, as I recently wrote in my newsletter Burnt Toast. We're re-learning normal. Our pre-pandemic clothes may not fit the same way. The weather is warming up, which can bring heightened anxiety about showing more skin. And as wonderful as it is to reunite with loved ones, it's also intense. It's going to get easier but it's not particularly easy right now, even though there is so much joy and relief. And so this is a high trigger time for body checking and restriction. But we can choose not to shame and torture ourselves with diets. Instead, we can check in with the friends we're going to see beforehand, and say: "I can't wait to see you, but I'm feeling really weird about my body right now." I bet so many dollars that they will say the same thing and you can agree to let each other off the hook for the expectation that you'll somehow come out of the pandemic more gorgeous than ever. I mean, even Will Smith isn't doing that. (Yes, we can acknowledge the amount of thin/male/celebrity privilege there and still appreciate the sentiment.)

I don't want to discount the fact that getting dressed is especially complicated if you live in a larger body or are newly transitioning to plus sizes, because it is a rough wakeup call about how much the fashion industry hates fat people. Many brands are making an effort to be more inclusive, but many more still don't even bother to size above a size 12. But whenever I feel particularly alienated by retail, it helps to remind myself that even when I was thinner and had many more clothing options, I was still prone to last-minute panic about what to wear to an event. That's because this wardrobe anxiety isn't really about the clothes or your body, however it may have changed in recent months. It's about feeling out of control, which, let's face it — we've all felt, in a massive and existential way ever since an invisible virus showed up and changed everything. We've had to work really hard to find comfort and control where we could in the past 14 months (hence the couch and the Cheetos). And now everything's changing again. For the better this time, but change is still change. So when we get hit with that tidal wave of "none of my pants fit!" instead of dieting, we can start by asking ourselves what we're really worrying about, underneath or alongside the pants thing. Let's name that fear or worry (or multiple fears and worries) rather than letting it silently fester.

If the people you're seeing aren't the kind of friends who will be open to this conversation, then consider yourself in a pact with me. Because I am pinky swearing with you, right now: We will be compassionate with ourselves and our bodies, even if we don't feel quite like our old selves. We can recognize that this discomfort comes from years of intense cultural programming because we've been taught for so long to fear and resent weight gain. And so even as the body positivity movement has made us more accepting of other people's larger bodies, we may still struggle to give ourselves the same permission to take up space. But we don't have to treat re-entering the world like a high school reunion. We can come out of this absolute hell of a year, imperfect, because we are always allowed to be imperfect.

Virginia Sole-Smith is a journalist who covers weight stigma and diet culture. She's the author of The Eating Instinct: Food Culture, Body Image and Guilt in America, and writes the newsletter Burnt Toast.

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