I wrote recently about dating – or more accurately, the sheer relief of not dating – during lockdown, and the following came out of delving further into that.
It’s been interesting to see what happens when your habits and routines are upended, hasn’t it? The things you carry on doing, and the things you abandon with glee. The things you miss, and the things you can’t believe you ever had time for. Lots of people, particularly women, have enjoyed a break from their usual getting-ready rituals. Some have compensated for not wearing make-up by devising skincare routines that the Kardashian women would view as immodest, while others have embraced simply staying an acceptable level of clean and leaving it at that.
Personally, I’m too wedded to routine to stop putting on at least a bit of make-up most days, and doing a lot of what I’d do if I were still going to the office. It’s what makes me feel human; I put more of myself into my day when my hair is clean and my legs are smooth. I’d love to want to relax my standards – have I internalised too many patriarchal notions of how women should look? Almost certainly – but I also believe that people should be able to do what they like with their own bodies. Especially during stressful and uncertain times – whether it’s a full face of slap or going a bit ‘forest witch’, whatever gets you through the day. I think most of us would say that having the chance to figure out why we do certain things, and who exactly we do them for, has been useful.
Having lived alone for almost two years and worked from home a fair bit, I felt pretty well-prepared for a lockdown. Back in March, I assumed I’d be reasonably OK with an increased amount of solitude, and I remember thinking wryly that a lot of people were about to get very well-acquainted with their own issues. When the usual structure of your day has gone and there are fewer distractions, it’s easy for long-buried demons to find footholds in your head and claw at the insides of your skull. And lockdown has made me think about my body in a way I hadn’t really done before.
Body image is such a fraught thing, and of course, I can only write from my own fairly privileged perspective. But when you’re dating or in a relationship, your physical attractiveness is very much implied. There is someone – or someones, if you have the constitution for the Google calendar rigmarole of seeing several people at once – who wants to touch you. Who wants, probably, to have sex with you (usually a compliment). Who will hear your complaint about your thighs/stomach/arse and tell you you’re being silly. And as a long-time outsourcer of my own self-esteem, when I’m single and unable to date, I’m not getting any external feedback, so I’m left with my own internal voice. I finally have to pick a side: do I accept my body, and if I can’t actively like it, at least aim for a kind of neutral stance on it – or do I continue hating it? Am I on my own team, or not?
Seeing your body as a thing to be scolded and castigated is an extremely difficult habit to break. In the middle of a global health crisis, it feels like we should be grateful for bodies that function mostly as we’d like them to, and not get too caught up in the aesthetics. But it’s not that simple, is it? Our everyday worries aren’t swept away by international disasters; if anything, we’re forced to look at the quotidian things anew. At the start of the lockdown, when ‘buying food’ and ‘taking exercise’ were among the only reasons we were allowed to leave the house, I think a lot of us were suddenly made to feel more aware of our own flesh and appetites. And with the rest of our lives effectively on hold, it’s been hard to escape the churn of our more self-destructive thought patterns.
I’m currently trying to conquer my fear of swimming in the sea. I think there’s something primal about being scared of the sea – it’s so vast and unknowable, both full of unseen life and with a pulse of its own. But to live in Brighton and not occasionally plunge oneself into its bracing waters feels like a wasted opportunity. And like a number of my fears, the fact that my mind revisits this one over and over feels like a sign. I think I’ve known for a long time that deep down, this is a fear I want to cast off.
Fortunately, I have a friend who’s both a keen sea swimmer and extremely tolerant of my anxious tendencies, so back when it was hot, we went down at low tide and she cheered me in. Even the quickest paddle, the swiftest dip of shoulders into the cold blue, felt like I was trying. Tackling a gut-deep fear – even taking a baby step towards it – generates a unique adrenaline rush, a shot of champagne to the bloodstream. Each time I’ve waded out of the water, shivering but elated, every inch of me has felt properly alive. It’s physical joy, and it’s just for me.
I try to hold the memory of that joy in my cells. I swam in the sea, my body withstood the chill, my arms ached pleasingly the following day – all of that felt good, and most importantly, mine. For once, I felt at ease in my own skin; this physical thrill had nothing to do with anybody else. That feels important. I’m far from the only person who’s constantly outsourcing her sense of self-worth, and I think we all struggle to feel that our bodies are wholly our own. And this is never more true than if you identify as female – if you go by ‘she’, then good grief, the comments and criticisms and judgements never seem to end.
But when you’ve got someone else around, you at least have a choice of voices to listen to. When you’re on your own, there’s only one voice, and it’s wholly up to you whether it’s a kind one or not. I don’t have answers here, only hopes – that you try, where you can, to be kind to yourselves.