My Body Is My Own in Lockdown
In 2020, I devoted my newfound free time to the activities and relationships I deprioritized during pre-pandemic life. I fed a sourdough starter until it spilled onto the countertop. I revisited the worst of my middle school fiction writing days. I called friends I hadn’t reached out to enough during my junior year and went into frantic event-planner mode, avoiding my physical realities by designing Zoom challah bakes and soliciting virtual speakers. When I ran out of shows to watch and baked goods to concoct, I just sat on my bed and thought.
Perhaps the most surprising relationship I’ve contemplated in 2020 is mine to my body, my female body—a body I hadn’t ever embraced on my own terms.
I’ve never been in a space where my body’s been entirely my own.
In my experience, the female body is judged by its ability to negotiate the ideals of a society intent on sexualizing it—it, a pronoun, because first and foremost, women are seen as bodies, in need of decoration and molding to earn validation (of course not all women are female, and not all people with female bodies are women). It must be draped in clothing that toes the line between revealing and concealing. It spends early mornings tying off its frayed edges in sweaters and miniskirts. Its workouts section off specific limbs and segments to focus on, per TikTok creators’ unsolicited suggestions. Because, as these videos affirm, recognizing a woman in her entirety would veer dangerously close to rejecting the notion that her body is only a sex object.
Before the 2020 pandemic, I stopped hoping that I’d come of age in an era that unequivocally repudiated these notions. Now, corporate directives to maintain an ideal female body are cloaked in women’s empowerment speak to pander to a feminist consumer base. Their sexist tactics still creep in with Mad Men technicolor. Hair removal is “optional,” says Billie, but this beauty brand advertises gendered razors, profiting off a culture where women (myself included) subscribe to attractiveness rituals partially out of obligation. Just the same, Sonalee Rashatwar, known on Instagram as the @thefatsextherapist for posting body image content deconstructing fatphobia and desirability politics, ends up brandishing a partnership with Playboy across their page. Despite Playboy’s new sex-positive optics, I doubt the hypocrisy of Sonalee endorsing a rebranded misogynistic monolith’s “sexual wellness CBD products” is lost on Sonalee’s base.
Over and over again, I think I’ve found earnest body positive content until I am met with telltale signs of producers failing to live up to their own professed values. Too often, “feminist” material is underwritten by the male gaze. And in a pre-pandemic world, when the female body was property to colonize with critical eyes and costly rituals, I resigned myself to an understanding: I will never exist in a space where my body’s entirely my own. Save for small instances of resistance, I accepted this status quo.
Until now. Due to COVID-19, my time in the world outside my house has been cut in half. So has the amount of effort I put into modifying my body to appease other people’s expectations.
Before the pandemic, I enjoyed getting dressed for school. But baked into the early morning routine was a latent fear that my clothing wouldn’t satisfy competing preferences for my appearance. Now, getting dressed, as an activity, is solely personal. With virtually zero outward incentive to contort my look a certain way, I’ve maintained interest in skirts and ditched jeans I bought for their purported slimming properties. I no longer seek to balance any ingrained proclivity to Tznius with my subconscious anxiety around looking “prudish.” Instead, I find peace in choosing clothes according to how they make me feel: productive or happy or just plain functional.
My entire approach to physical wellbeing has also changed as I navigate living in lockdown. Pre-COVID, my attempts at healthy living rarely stemmed from a healthy place. In a society that conflates discussion of fit bodies with messaging about how bodies should mold to fabricated expectations, the line between “being healthy” and engaging in disordered behavior is thin, sometimes nonexistent. Fitness industry giants thrive by convincing women to let exercise and food punctuate a reward/punishment cycle that elevates outward appearance as a lens into inner wellbeing. Even with a strong support system, I fell victim to a mindset of looking at myself, really valuing who I was, from outside in. My relationship with my preferred method of exercise, swimming, exemplified this.
Growing up in pools, I was inculcated with warnings that swimming too much, getting too fit, develops “unfeminine” muscularity. I never heeded these damaging remarks as a reason to stop swimming, but over time, I learned to tailor my workouts in the pool relative to this concern: spending equal time isolating arms and legs to avoid becoming “disproportionate.”
But throughout the pandemic, I have found few experiences as freeing as being in the water, able to expand and contract without restraint. Overwhelmed with the sheer value of space, becoming “disproportionate” is the furthest concern from my mind. Sometimes though—usually when I’m in the pool—I contemplate the tragedy in a comment I began hearing as young as twelve: demonstrable strength is somehow unfeminine. Women must surmount incredible obstacles and develop tenable resilience, always obscuring their battle scars.
My refusal to focus on how swimming does or doesn’t change the areas I’m advised to keep “dainty” is a personal revolution. I no longer entertain casual objectification after experiencing freedom from it in a world of my own design.
And so, in quarantine, released from confines instated long before I was born, I’ve become creative again. In 1929, Virginia Woolf asserted that a woman endeavoring to write fiction needed a bit of money and a room of her own. By rejecting the extraneous claims made on my body, I’ve constructed a “room of one’s own” inside my own head, taking back space once occupied by anxieties rooted in appearance. During quarantine, I find the energy and mental pliability to draft first chapters for novels I’ll never finish and experiment with screenwriting. (Having the capacity to attempt art in this time also evinces privilege.)
In a period defined by restriction, my female body is freer than it's ever been. No longer constrained by outside pressures and anxieties, I possess sole jurisdiction over my being. Age, time, and awareness have helped me realize I don’t need to resign my being to oppression, no matter how glamorized. Even so, I needed the isolation of COVID-19 to calcify these realizations.
I take pride in my quarantine resilience—an assertion of my space, freedom over my mind. Finally, I am confident recognizing that this is my body. When the pandemic is over, I will continue to strengthen it through my own convictions.