Gurpreet Kaur was getting ready for her college’s virtual farewell party when her anxiety kicked in. Her eyes kept bouncing frantically from the clock to the protrusive grey hair on her head, to a visible outline of hair on her face and body, and finally to the knee-length dress that she had picked out months before the lockdown.

After spending two hours trying to hide her grey hair, in vain, she opted out of the party that was supposed to be virtual in the first place. And for the next three days, she couldn’t find the nerve to touch or even look at her hair. That day her bubble, of not caring about how she looked during the lockdown, popped.

The Coronavirus pandemic ushered a lockdown period unprecedented in our collective memory. While the social and economic manifestations of the lockdown are still playing out in various ways, an invisible effect of the pandemic is taking a toll over women’s relationship with their bodies.

In October 2020, a research conducted by UK’s Anglia Ruskin University found that a majority of COVID-19 related stress and anxiety arise due to negative body image in adults in the country. Closer home too, negative body image issues have become an unheard but major cause for concern.

My relationship with my body, said Gurpreet, went from positive to negative during the pandemic. “When I am out (in the hostel), I don’t have this family pressure to look like a certain prototype of beauty. When your family keeps pestering you to look a certain way, it impacts how you look at yourself too,” she said

She is not alone. There are many more girls who feel like her. Aashna Nagpal, another student from Delhi, felt an unsaid pressure during this pandemic to lose weight.

“There is a commonly held belief that now that you have this time during the lockdown, you have to make it productive. There was a pressure to show up in a smaller body when you come out of the pandemic and even I started fixating on it a lot,” she said.

Megha Dhillon, Assistant Professor at Lady Sri Ram College, says that many factors fused and exacerbated concerns that people had with their bodies before its onset.

“Many reasons could contribute to this increase including the sedentary lifestyles created by the shutdown of gyms and parks, the inability to access salons and beauty parlours, and even anxiety and loneliness. There was and still is a tremendous amount of uncertainty about what lies ahead for us. Stress based changes in appetite and its links to changes in weight could have also triggered body image issues,” she said.

Social media, already infamous for causing all bad things in the 21st century, finds itself in the middle of this conversation too. A Lancet study conducted in 2019 found that young girls experience more online harassment, low self-esteem and poor body image that subsequently leads to higher depressive episodes.

Young artists on Instagram are, however, trying to challenge this commonly-held perception with their art. Vidushi Yadav, one such young artist, draws her women with body hair and cellulite. After testing positive for the virus, earlier this month, she began to re-examine her relationship with her body and art.

“Before the lockdown, my art was still talking about acceptance for your body but now I feel my art is slowly transcending towards radically loving your body - and experiencing immense gratitude towards how your body fights for you,” she elaborates.

Artwork by Vidushi Yadav

Instagram feed of Sanjana Singh, the Chief Content Curator of Terribly Tiny Tales, is amusingly and emotionally uplifting. Her content ranges from meaningful poetry to showing her workout schedule, to fighting off bullies and trolls.

“I rekindled my love for dancing recently and wanted to share it on my profile. The moment I posted it, the love started pouring in - so many compliments, heartfelt comments. And then there was this one comment that said - “Kis bhans ko naachte hue dekh liya aaj” (Why did I have to see this buffalo dancing). And though it was a stranger who I blocked immediately, it kept playing in my head. I still keep saying my mind because I know there are the people to whom my words matter.”

Despite a decent level of awareness about body image issues, people are still hesitant to seek professional help for it.

Priyanka Mansingka, a practising psychotherapist, based out of Mumbai feels that the major reason behind this is connected with the nature of this disorder.

“Most people think of this as an external issue and would rather go to the gym or parlours for this. However, it is important to understand that any negative feeling of the body comes from our perception, that is in turn influenced by our environment, childhood period, and society. Thus, the root of the body image issue is in the mind, not in the body and to deal with this, one must deal with one’s mind.”

The writer is a student at IIJNM, Bangalore