Body Image in Lockdown (With Body Image & Mental Health Campaigner Natasha Devon)

Joining Brogan Driscoll and Rachel Moss, body image and mental health campaigner Natasha Devon looks into our relationship with our bodies and how we can be more comfortable in our own skin on Am I Making You Uncomfortable?

Transcript

Brogan Driscoll:

Hello and welcome to our HuffPost’s brand new weekly podcast, Am I Making You Uncomfortable? Presented by me, Brogan Driscoll.

Rachel Moss:

And me, Rachel Moss. This podcast is a frank, honest conversation about women’s bodies, health and private lives.

Brogan Driscoll:

We cover under-reported issues and tackle the topics you may even be too squeamish to talk to your mates about. This week we’ll be talking about body image during lockdown. Food and fitness have become such big parts of our lives right now, we’re talking about them more, planning them more and really they’re two of the only things we can control at the moment. So we’ll be asking how that has changed the way we feel about our bodies and later we’ll be hearing from mental health and body image campaigner, Natasha Devon to talk about all that and more.

Rachel Moss:

If you want to join the conversation, we’ve got our very own hashtag. Don’t worry, it’s not the full name of the podcast because that would be way too long. It is A-I-M-Y-U, so Am I Making You Uncomfortable and join the conversation on Twitter and Instagram.

So body image is a huge topic to tackle for our very first podcast. We wanted to get into it because it seems to have taken up so much of our lives at the moment. Just, you know, anecdotally talking to friends, there’ve been people saying things like, “Oh God, I don’t want to put on weight during lockdown,” or, “I feel really shit about the way I look and it’s because my routines changed or my habits have changed.” And then also there’s a whole other realm going on online at the moment. We’ve seen a load of memes about the Quarantine 15, which if you haven’t seen it is just a really gross joke to be honest about putting on weight during lockdown. It’s really shaming.

And then there are even the funnier memes, I saw one that had Barbie on one side and Wolverine on the other and it was like, this is me pre and after lockdown. And on the surface they’re a little bit funny, but actually it’s quite shamy. And I do think impacts like the way we feel about our bodies and the pressure that we feel to look a certain way. What do you think Brogan? Have you noticed that as well?

Brogan Driscoll:

Yeah, definitely. One of the first things my mates said to me kind of to your point was, “Oh no, is everyone going to put on loads of weight while we’re locked down?” There’s so much more to be worried about right now than things like that. And I think when people are worrying about this kind of stuff it really impacts people and you don’t know who’s on the receiving end and how people feel about their own bodies. It could be really triggering for some people. I think as well kind of from a fitness point of view people kind of pivoting from gym memberships or trying to find new ways to kind to work out, especially with being less able to go outside the house but it just feels like every time I go on Instagram there’s another kind of fitness instructor going live with a workout.

And that in itself kind of puts quite a lot of pressure. This morning I had kind of a plan to get up and do some exercise but I just felt really tired and then, you know, seeing that there were loads of other people who are working out in the morning kind of makes you feel a bit bad. So it was just so kind of in your face at the moment.

It feeds into this whole pressure to be productive during lockdown. You see people joking like, I thought this was going to be the time when I wrote my first novel or whatever. And it’s like exercise has just become an extension of that. It’s sort of, if you’re not signing up every day to do these things then you’re failing somehow when actually at the moment as you say, there’s so much to worry about. And for some of us that I know I’ve had days when I’m actually getting out of bed and log onto my computer is quite an achievement. So we shouldn’t be worried about all this fitness stuff and yet here we are. It is obviously impacting so many people. So I feel like there’s so much to talk about and I think it was a great idea to do. I want to focus on this, so well done, Rachel.

Rachel Moss:

Oh thanks (laughs).

Yeah, I think one of the things that I want to say like straight out the gate is that it’s not all doom and gloom. Obviously there are pressures that a lot of people were feeling during this time, but there’s also so much freedom as well. I was telling Brogan yesterday about my mum hasn’t dyed her hair for maybe the first time in about 20 years. And she’s just like embracing the gray. She’s having an experiment, seeing what she feels like and I just love that. And I think, why not? If we tackle it the right way, this could actually be a really great time to try things out, not give a shit about what we look like because we’re only seeing each other on video calls. They’re blurry anyway. So who cares? I mean personally this is the first day I’ve worn a bra for about five weeks, so hoo-hoo (laughs) making an effort for the first podcast.

I have seen people tweeting about the fact that they feel free because they’re not wearing bras. But anyway, now that we’ve established who’s wearing bras and not, should we, should we move on?

Brogan Driscoll:

Yes. Let’s move on and let’s bring in Natasha Devon. Natasha, thank you so much for joining us. We’re really, really glad to have you on the podcast. I know that you’ve done so much work in the past around mental health and body image, particularly speaking to younger women about the way they feel about their bodies and why they feel certain ways about their bodies. Why is this whole realm so important to you? Why do you think it’s important to talk about and why did you get into it?

Natasha Devon:

The reason that it’s such a big deal, particularly now at this point in history, is something that you actually touched on in your introduction where you said it’s the one thing that you can control, or at least we’re told that we control. I think actually the extent to which we are able to moderate our size and shape is exaggerated by the fitness and fashion and beauty industries because it’s advantageous for them to do that. But we have this feeling that we can’t control it. So during times of increased stress, anxiety, even trauma, a lot of that energy turns inwards and we start to focus on our bodies because we feel that that gives us a sense of control during times when we might not feel we have control in other areas in a way that’s logical. But unfortunately that’s also a huge part of the pathology of eating disorders.

You know, it’s well established that people who have anorexia in particular have quite often experienced bullying, trauma or large amounts of stress in their life and that energy turns inwards and becomes negative body image or very controlling behaviors around food. And that’s why, particularly for women, although I should say not exclusively for women, body image and mental health are really closely correlated. If you went to your doctor and you were going to be diagnosed with depression, anxiety, addiction, any of the, the most common mental health issues, then low body image and low self-esteem are two of the things that your doctor would be looking for in order to diagnose you. So that’s why it matters in a nutshell.

Brogan Driscoll:

And of course we’re not just talking about at one end of the scale eating disorders and mental health problems. But then also people who perhaps haven’t really realized that they’re impacted by body image concerns might be having them for the first time in lockdown. Have you heard of women having those kinds of experiences in lockdown more than usual, would you say?

Natasha Devon:

Yes. I think that part of the problem is that when it comes to eating disorders and body dysmorphia, we’re all on a scale of that to a lesser or greater extent. So it can be really difficult to recognize when you’ve gone past a tipping point. And I remember actually the first time this occurred to me. I went to see Susie Orbach, who wrote Fat is a Feminist Issue. And she’s one of my heroes. I have never seen such a tiny person physically take up so much space. Like she just has this presence and this way of saying things that you go, “yes.” She was speaking at an event I was at and she said, you know, I first started practicing as a psychotherapist 30 years ago and if somebody had come into my office and said, “I’m cutting out an entire food group in an effort to lose weight,” I would have diagnosed that person with a very serious eating disorder. Now, I see that advocated as a lifestyle choice in women’s magazines.



So those goalposts have moved, you would no longer receive that diagnosis now because what is socially acceptable is becoming more and more extreme. So I think that’s important to bear in mind. But I do also see, just like you said in the introduction, a lot of pressure on particularly women at this time to emerge Phoenix-like from the lockdown completely physically transformed. You’re both journalists, so you will have seen this because I’m on various websites as a freelance journalist, you get sent the press releases and as soon as we went into lockdown, they were on it, weren’t they?

Brogan Driscoll:

Oh, God, they were. So many from PTs and gym’s saying, “this is the time to be the best you.” It’s a hard one because as someone receiving those, I feel for gyms and PTs right now because obviously business is down, especially if you’re someone who owns your own business and you work in the fitness industry. Of course you’re going to try and capitalize on the situation at any way you can because at the moment your income is down and I do appreciate that’s probably part of it, but at the same time, I’m never going to be my best me during lockdown because if you haven’t noticed, there’s a pandemic happening outside. iIt doesn’t sit well.

Natasha Devon:

No. Particularly for me, the narrative that doesn’t sit well with me, that seems just really regressive is this thing of every calorie you consume you have to compensate for in lockdown. First of all, it’s just scientifically untrue. Even if you just sat on your ass all day, your body would still require a significant number of calories just to function and survive and keep your heart beating and your immune system tip-top, which is obviously really important right now. But also I thought we’d gone past that, there’s this idea that we have to apologize for what we consume. I thought we were done with that. Apparently not, it’s everywhere.

Brogan Driscoll:

Yeah, I was just about to ask about that regression. Rachel and I have been chatting a lot about how it feels like we’ve really gone back in time. We were big fans of the body positivity movement and felt that in a way, we’ve moved beyond that kind of stuff. But then you have a program, the restaurant that burns off calories, which went out a couple of weeks ago, which was just awful. I mean I didn’t watch it because I knew better than to watch it, but there was such a backlash. But if anyone doesn’t know about it, it’s a program where there was a restaurant on one side where diners were invited to come and eat and enjoy themselves and eat as much and drink whatever they wanted. And then in this kind of secret side room, there were a bunch of fitness enthusiasts. And their task was to burn off every calorie that was eaten within the restaurant. And it just felt like it was a program from another time. Like it felt like it was a program that you would have had 10 years ago, 15 years ago in the kind of supersize versus super skinny kind of era, you know? And I felt that I was so surprised to see it. Natasha, what do you think about the program?

Natasha Devon:

The thing that was most disappointing about that program, from my perspective, was that they had a GP co-presenting it, which gave it a legitimacy that it shouldn’t have had. But it does speak to this wider trend of saying health and beauty in the same breath and this idea that you can visually assess how healthy someone is, which is nonsense, it’s absolute nonsense. But it’s something that as a body positivity campaigner, I get asked all the time. I get asked about promoting obesity and if there are certain body shapes that shouldn’t be celebrated or represented because they are “unhealthy.” What people who ask those kinds of questions don’t understand is that all the evidence shows that if you like your body and respect your body, you will naturally make healthier choices. You will feel less self-conscious about exercising.

You will feel more empowered to listen to what your body wants and eat in response to those physical hunger cues. That loving your body is actually part of the health conversation. And all bodies are different. I subscribe to health at any size, a kind of philosophy which says that health is a lifestyle. It’s not a weight. It’s not a size. It’s not a look. And I get so frustrated. I remember a couple of years ago I was invited to go and be part of a think tank for the NHS and they were saying, “how can we get the population to lose weight?”

And for me that was the wrong question. If we’ve got an issue with the population being sedentary and unable to eat healthily, the questions we should be asking is how can we give people access to those healthy lifestyle choices? Not how can we get them to lose weight no matter how they do it.

Brogan Driscoll:

This kind of diet culture that we’re all talking about, it’s almost like being thin is the goal and we thought we’d passed up. But sadly, especially during lockdown, some of the stuff that’s coming out is just, it’s reminding me of the Special K diet days when the aim was to deny yourself things rather than nurture yourself, especially nurturing your mental health. But we know that this period is affecting some of our listeners and we’ve actually got some testimonials from a few people who told us how lockdown is impacting their body image. So I think now might be a good time to listen to one of those each day.

Carly:

Hello, I’m Carly, I’m almost 35. I live with my partner here in France and since lockdown started, I’ve definitely been noticing the weight creep on the scales which has not done much for my confidence. I’m at the point where I’m actively avoiding needing to put on jeans or anything that shows me just how much my body has changed since being in isolation. I think the most depressing part of it is I’ve been trying really hard to get moving every day to do a workout every morning. And yet the scales are still going in the wrong direction and I’m looking and feeling really bad about myself.

Brogan Driscoll:

So that was one of our listeners called Carly. Thank you so much to her for sending that in. Natasha hearing that, were you surprised to hear some of the things that she was saying?

Natasha Devon:

Well, for me it was symptomatic of something that women tend to imbibe very early on in life, which is that we need to be the most attractive we could ever possibly be at about the age of 21 and then just grip onto that for dear life and try and retain that image. And obviously bodies change. They change in response to your environment, your health, your hormones, your metabolism, health issues, injury, and childbirth. You know, there’s so much that causes your body to change and fluctuate and it will always find its own level. And part of trusting your body is understanding that your circumstances have changed. Maybe I have gained a few pounds, but I will lose them again when things go back to normal.

A lot of people have been taught to mistrust their body’s hunger signals. The other thing that really spoke to me about Carly’s testimonial was what she said about exercise. And so often, we’re taught to think of exercise as a punishment for eating. One of the things I’ve found really helpful is I do yoga and I know that yoga isn’t for everyone. But something that I would recommend to everyone is before a yoga session, you’re told to set your intention for the session. So you have to think about what you want out of it. And what I always want out of it is I’m somebody who’s very in my head. I get very caught up in my thoughts. And then sometimes it feels like my head and my body are two separate entities. It’s not connected. And when I exercise it’s kind of reconnecting my brain with my body. And the other thing that I aim to do through exercise is to create endorphins, which are just magic for your mental health. They restore your chemical balance if you have had a period of anxiety or stress. So my intention is always to connect to my body and create endorphins. If that exercise happens to have an impact on the way that my body looks, that’s neither good nor bad, it’s neutral. It’s a side effect. That’s not why I’m doing it.

Rachel Moss:

It’s really interesting that you say that because it is kind of something that I feel personally. I feel like I know better and as an adult have taught myself to know better. There’s decades of diet culture and the way that my mom used to openly speak about her own body, you know, around me and still does really, that I could just can’t really seem to shift.

Natasha Devon:

What you’re talking about there actually is the difference between conscious logic and unconscious programming. Some of the things we learn unconsciously, I think sometimes we confuse that with our gut instinct because it feels like it comes from nowhere, but it’s not. It’s things you’ve been taught by your environment. So the way it works is around 90% of your total capacity for thought is unconscious and therefore invisible to you and your unconscious brain learns through repetition, whether that’s words, images, or experiences. So let’s say you’re walking down a street and you pass a bus stop with a diet advert on it and then a row of magazines and you see a billboard with a very conventionally attractive woman on it. And then you pass two people discussing how they’re going to go on a diet. And then maybe you pass a gym and your unconscious brain is drinking in from that idea that you’re not good enough and that you need to be changed.

Now, consciously and logically, you know that that’s not true. But you’ve got 90% of your capacity for thought, which is learned through repetition. That’s how the world works. So sometimes you feel that conflict and one of the things that I recommend is to try and get as much repetition questioning that narrative. So one of the things that I teach young people to do is every time they’re exposed to advertising to automatically ask questions like: do I agree with this and what’s the agenda here? So that’s what becomes the unconscious habit. And you can also use positive affirmations. If you try and tune into what your inner voice is telling you. Things like self-limitation, “Oh, this is just the way I am and the world can never change.”

A lot of people have an inner voice saying that, but you can choose to challenge that with another self-affirmation that you’ve chosen. And eventually that becomes the unconscious habit if you remember to do it each time. The key with positive affirmations is to use language that you already use when you’re talking to yourself. If you constantly find yourself saying, “I’m ugly, I’m ugly, I’m ugly,” it’s far more effective to say I am not ugly than it is to say I am beautiful.

Brogan Driscoll:

One of the other things that we have spoken about a lot when planning this podcast is privilege, especially right now. There’s a lot of crazy things going on outside our front doors, a lot of scary things going on and you can feel a bit silly to say that you’re worried about your looks. But if you got any advice or any thoughts for women who are having these feelings but also then are on top of those feelings having guilt because they feel invalid.

Natasha Devon:

Yeah, it’s a really common thing to feel like we don’t deserve to have our feelings validated. And I mean, first of all, it’s really important to be aware of your privilege if you have the luxury to be able to work from home and feel relatively safe at the moment, et cetera, et cetera. You know, not be a key worker. All of these things give you a level of privilege and if you have an awareness of that, then you’re a good person. But you also sometimes need to put that to one side and address what’s going on with you. In my book, “A Beginner’s Guide To Being Mental,” with a drawing of the imagined hierarchy of human suffering. It’s basically everybody on each level going, “I don’t deserve to feel this way.” And I think it’s Simon Amstell who says, if you had one broken leg and your next door neighbor had two broken legs, you’d still have one broken leg.

And that leg needs fixing. And more to the point, if you focus on fixing that leg, you can then maybe help your neighbor with their two broken legs. But you can’t help them when you’ve got one broken leg.

Brogan Driscoll:

Yeah, absolutely. I’m going to play you another one of our testimonials. So lockdown may be making some people feel self-conscious. It may be making some people feel free and really body positive or for some people they’re just a bit confused and a bit in the middle. So we’ve got a testimonial here from a listener called Anna who touches on that.

Anna:

My name is Anna and I’m a student. I live in Leeds with my housemate. I definitely think since being locked down, my relationship with my body image is kind of up and down. It’s a bit weird at the moment because obviously we don’t really have any reason to get dressed, to put makeup on and they are usually the things that kind of make me feel good about myself and remind me how I like to look. I think not having that makes me feel kind of unsure of what I like to see when I look in the mirror.

Natasha Devon:

I also think not getting out as much and not getting as many steps that I usually get, makes me feel quite lethargic and definitely conscious of weight that I might be putting on.

Brogan Driscoll:

So, I know Anna touched on weight again there at the end, which seems to be such a theme at the moment. But one of the things that really stood out for me as well that she said was just this uncertainty around none of us are getting dressed up or wearing makeup or whatever it might be. Our daily routines have changed so much and it’s so interesting how that like feeds into your identity.

Natasha Devon:

Yes. So my very good friend and fellow author, Shahroo Izadi, talks about this a lot. So she had a compulsive eating disorder and she had this very binary idea in her head that she was only allowed to treat her body kindly when she looked a certain way. The thing she says that always stays with me is that she had all these really expensive creams and body lotions that just expired because she thought, I’m not going to apply these until I’m thin. I don’t deserve them until I’m thin.

And the thing that allowed her to have a healthy relationship with food and incidentally to lose weight, was to start living her life as though she had attained her goal weight already. So she started saying yes to social invitations. She started working out. For her pleasure, she started taking care of her appearance, using those body lotions, putting on a bit of makeup. Those were forms of self-care. And I think what a lot of people have done in lockdown is they’ve gone, “Oh, well, no one can see me. And, and also I don’t feel great about myself, so I’m just not gonna do any of those things.” But certainly for me, I really like the act of putting on makeup and it’s not really for anyone else. I enjoy it, it’s self-care, it’s soothing, it’s relaxing and it’s also creative. So I’ve continued that habit because I deserve to.

Brogan Driscoll:

Something that I’m noticing people saying a lot on Twitter is how they’re feeling a greater sense of freedom within lockdown. There are people who have kind of dyed their hair crazy colors because they’re at home or who have shaved their hair because they’ve always wanted to do it and now it feels like quite a good time to experiment. So I feel like there are some positives about that and I’d be really interested to talk about how maybe people can kind of get on board with that if there are positive spaces for people to be sharing how they’re feeling. There’s a hashtag called My Quarantine Body on Instagram, which is a body positive space that I’ve noticed, which I quite like.

Natasha Devon:

This is a good time to do some introspection because it’s such a personal thing - what you do and do not choose to do with your body. It’s about why we do something. The extent to which we do something and the extent to which we’re dependent on it psychologically, and that’s a very private conversation that requires a little bit of naval gazing. But I know a lot of people, they are quite restricted in what they’re able to wear and how they’re able to express themselves and the fact that they are experimenting in quarantine is a really positive thing because if we are going to make changes to our bodies, that’s where it should come from; creativity and self-expression, not obligation to be a certain way.

What I would say in terms of talking about it particularly online is, who you follow is really important. Going back to what we were saying earlier about the unconscious brain learning through repetition. On average, people check their phone about 84 times a day. So if you want to talk about your brains learning through repetition, your online community, your online environment is super, super important.

So I’d really encourage people to make sure that their online wallpaper is positive and inspiring and diverse.

Rachel Moss:

I definitely need me to clear out and start following some more positive accounts. And to kind of round things off, Natasha, we have a question that we ask all of our guests who come onto the podcast. Of course, we’re called, Am I Making You Uncomfortable? And so will you tell us what is it in life that makes you uncomfortable?

Natasha Devon:

Small talk. My job involves going all around the world to events and schools and colleges and universities. And so often I find myself in a situation where I have to walk into a room of people that I’ve never met before and just strike up a conversation.

Rachel Moss:

Oh, I’m so bad at that too.

Natasha Devon:

Most things if you practice them, that’s what confidence is. It’s just practicing them until they aren’t weird anymore. But with that, it just never gets less awkward I find.

Brogan Driscoll:

No, and if you’re on the receiving end, you don’t. You 100% know what people are doing. When someone comes up to you and they say, “Hi, my name’s Brogan.” And then you’re just like, you’re trying to network right now, like, you know, straight away.

Rachel Moss:

Yeah. To be honest, if I ever go to something like that where there’s a networking element, I just hang out by the food and just eat the food. So I’m like, my mouth’s full, I can’t network with anyone or go for a lot of loo breaks. You know, when you’re at an event like that and there’s just a quiet bit, and I’ll be like, “Oh, I need to go to the loo again,” even when I don’t actually need to go into the loo, I just go and stand in there.

Natasha Devon:

Just like Bridget Jones.

Rachel Moss:

Yeah.

Brogan Driscoll:

That’s all we’ve got time for this week. Thank you so much, so Natasha Devon for joining us. It was such an insightful conversation. We’ve got lots to think about.

Natasha Devon:

Oh, you’re really welcome. Thank you for having me.

Brogan Driscoll:

I’m Brogan Driscoll and you can follow me @Brogan_Driscoll.

Rachel Moss:

And I’m Rachel Moss and you’ll find me @rachelmoss_.

Brogan Driscoll:

Catch up with us next week for more chat about women’s bodies, health and private lives. This podcast is produced by Chrystal Genesis, and our sound engineer is Nag Kirinde.

You’ve just listened to Am I Making You Uncomfortable? And the hashtag is A-I-M-Y-U.