The concept of “swimsuit season” isn’t new, but swimsuit season 2021 is uncharted territory for all of us. Not only are we beginning to meet up with people that we haven’t seen in more than a year, but now we may be seen in swimsuits and other warm weather clothing. After an emotional and isolating year, our bodies may feel or be different for a number of reasons, including drastic changes in lifestyle, anxiety and fear. Add to all that the usual “summer body” pressure, and it’s easy to see how this summer’s “swimsuit season” might be especially triggering.
As Chief Strategy Officer of Veritas Collaborative and The Emily Program, I have decades of clinical, research, education and program development experience dedicated to eating disorders. One of my primary goals in life is to have the kids in my house (and everywhere!) have confident, loving relationships with their bodies and themselves. Below, I’m sharing advice on how we can all practice self-compassion this summer and help loved ones who may be struggling with body image.
Summertime and body image
Summer is traditionally a more difficult season for people with body issues. Warmer temperatures and more revealing clothing styles can leave people struggling with how their bodies are perceived by other people, perhaps because they are judging their own bodies or concerned how they’ll compare to others. In the summer, there are more occasions where they have to take their body into the world and show it to more people in a way that may be very uncomfortable for them. Many social events also involve food, such as cook-outs, picnics, and patio dining, which can add another challenge. These overarching difficulties can cause a lot of anxiety: “All of a sudden I have to go out and be social, show my body and eat in front of people. How am I going to do all of that?”
Pressure of the “ideal summer body”
The ideal summer body seen in the media and on social media is a false promise that is never attainable, because it can’t actually be achieved in real life. We’re not highly edited, staged photos with strategic angles 24/7 when we’re walking around in the world — we’re real people.
I’ve seen the pressure of the ideal summer body show up in many ways for those we serve: through the Instagram and TikTok channels they follow, who their influencers are and the environmental commentary of people, friends, and family. As we emerge from the pandemic cocoon of being at home, there’s often a lot of body-related commentary from others about themselves or others. Maybe we haven’t left the house very often in non-athletic or leisure attire and are expressing concerns like “I forgot what it’s like to wear jeans.” When we say those things around people who are really uncomfortable in their bodies, their discomfort is heightened even more. And when we compare ourselves to others, oftentimes, we wind up feeling less than.
Social media and treatment
There is so much social media that is positive, and there’s so much that isn’t. Social media algorithms make it all too easy to go down rabbit holes, and if your entire social media experience becomes a set of image-focused messages, it can be difficult to find the positives. To do so, you have to actively work to switch your environment on social media by seeking different topics and connecting with influencers who are body-positive or body-neutral. Even then, advertising will lag far behind and continue to serve you unhelpful content.
Social media is one of the areas we focus on in eating disorder treatment. We know that social media is highly reinforcing, that your brain can experience a dopamine spike when you look at something rewarding and makes you want to look more. Many times we ask people in treatment to consider a social media break or putting limitations on their consumption and highlight steps that can help them achieve this through technology strategies, family support, and understanding why they want to consume and engage.
Ways to practice self-compassion this summer
Summer 2021 is a unique time in our existence to reenter the world and reconnect with people and experiences — and that doesn’t depend on your body looking a particular way. If you find yourself focused on how you will look doing certain things this summer, I urge you to shift to a lens of compassion and gratitude. You get to do things that you haven’t been able to do for so long. You get to see these people that you haven’t been able to see for so long.
It’s also important to acknowledge the many emotions you may be feeling about reconnecting. You might feel excited, scared, anxious, nervous, or sad. Maybe some of your personal relationships changed over the past year and there is someone you don’t want to see this summer. Much of the time, how we feel about our bodies is influenced by our emotional state and tending to our emotional needs is good self-care. Coming into this season of reconnection isn’t really about our bodies, it’s about our relationships. Focusing on that is a great way to practice self-compassion.
How to help a loved one navigate summer body image struggles
A great way to help someone with body image struggles this summer is to reflect on your own self-talk and be aware of what you’re saying and modeling. We can really influence and support somebody in their recovery by being positive, or at least neutral, and appreciative of ourselves. What are you saying about your body? Are you talking about the way your clothes fit? Are you engaging in diet talk?
Diet language isn’t helpful to anyone, but it’s really not helpful to your loved one struggling with body image. Use this season of reconnection as an opportunity to avoid some of the traps that many people fall into by commenting on their body, other people’s bodies, their eating and other people’s eating. At the end of the day, these topics are not terribly interesting compared to connecting with those you are sharing time or an experience. Instead, focus on reconnecting, experiencing the present, and be aware of what you’re broadcasting, because those are all things that your loved one will pick up on.
The change in season, temperature and wardrobe affects us all. In eating disorder treatment, we focus on what the body does for us and how we can be gentle with it versus disparaging it or being disappointed by it. Our bodies got us through an incredibly difficult time and being kind to them honors all they have done. We also think the part of the brain that is involved in body image and body perception is one of the last to change and reconfigure to the current reality. While people may still feel uncomfortable in their bodies during treatment, we remind them to focus on nurturing themselves and their bodies, and that body perception will catch up.
Are you or a loved one interested in learning more about eating disorder recovery? Explore Veritas’ core program elements.
Dr. Lampert is the Chief Strategy Officer for Accanto Health, with brands Veritas Collaborative and The Emily Program. Additionally, Dr. Lampert is Co-Founder and President of the REDC, the national consortium representing eating disorders care focused on treatment standards, best practices, access to care, and collaborative research. She is also Treasurer of the Eating Disorders Coalition, a DC-based national organization for eating disorders policy and advocacy, and a Board Member of WithAll, a Minnesota-based organization that empowers eating disorder prevention and strengthens support for recovery. She holds an adjunct graduate faculty position in the Department of Food Science and Nutrition at the University of Minnesota.
Dr. Lampert completed her doctorate degree in Nutrition and Epidemiology and Master of Public Health degree in Public Health Nutrition at the University of Minnesota. She earned a Master of Science degree in Nutrition at the University of Vermont and completed her dietetic internship at the University of Minnesota Hospital and Clinics. She has an expansive range of policy, clinical, research, education, teaching, and program development experience in the area of eating disorders.
One of her primary goals in life is to have the kids in her house (and everywhere!) have confident, loving relationships with their bodies and themselves.