Lockdown and the Self

When quarantine began a very small part of me was excited. Without societal pressure and with nowhere to go, I could wear whatever was comfiest and closest, and not care how bad I looked. A luxury I never allow myself in the ‘real world’. And thus, my quarantine chic was born. Giant purple dungarees, a bare face and slipper socks became my daily uniform…

This changed the day I caught sight of myself in the mirror and felt ripples of self-hatred. I looked like a speccy, spotty, thirteen-year-old. I hadn’t been this taken aback by my appearance since puberty.  

Everything began to mount up. With nothing better to do than self-criticise I decided my glasses make my face look doughy, that my haircut is flat and fish-like and that there is something peculiar about my chin. Worst of all, with the advent of online classes, I’m finally able to see what I look like when I’m listening, talking and conjugating perfective verbs (who hasn’t wondered). 

During this downward spiral, I am also being blasted by social media reminding me that this is a time for self-improvement. It is everywhere. It even reaches my dreams. This is the time to get fit, I pant to myself as I sweat away on the treadmill. I imagine myself coming out of quarantine, sleek and svelte and ready to show the world how good the whole experience has been for me. I am very on trend. My Instagram lights up with forgotten acquaintances starting workout ‘grams to instruct people how to exercise from home. I am recommended routines using water bottles as weights, using books as weights, using kegs as weights (because apparently, I’m more likely to have kegs than weights) and am reassured that these are all totally doable at home. The first couple of weeks is full of this upbeat and hopeful spirit. We are going to come out of this as better, fitter, thinner people. But as lockdown drags on the tone changes. 

There is an increasing backlash against this need for self-improvement. Suddenly the Instagram stories are pleading with us not to spend this time thinking about our bodies. That we don’t need to improve ourselves, or strive for creative brilliance. They say that just being is enough. And I begin to embrace that whole-heartedly. I put down my scales and stop wearing makeup again. Just being. I gobble down 6 Weetabix as a cabin fever induced afternoon snack. Just being. I wake up one morning and think the word unrelenting. Unable to open my eyes, I shut off my alarm for a few more minutes of just being. 

I’m not saying that people should be putting pressure on themselves to self-improve. I don’t think that’s good for anyone’s mental health. But I also think the concept of just being is equally dangerous. We can’t just pretend this isn’t happening and stare into space for however many months.  

I’ve spoken to many of my friends about quarantine emotions and it seems everyone is teetering on thin ice. I think much of it is about our lack of control, and the fact that daily struggles seem so puny in comparison to what some people are living through right now. It’s incredibly privileged to worry about what I’m wearing when so many people are fighting for their lives. However, it is something I can control.  

I think the reality of what we need, or I need, is a medium ground. As this process continues, and I adjust to the new normal, I catch myself smiling at my makeup free reflection and sometimes genuinely wanting to go for a run. I relish the Zoom gatherings where I have a chance to dress up. But I don’t spend an hour getting ready for online class. I’m not in a perfect place, no one can be right now. A few days ago, I spent twenty minutes deciding what to wear for a Skype session. With my elderly Russian tutor. It was stupid, but it made me feel good. And anything that makes us feel good at the moment is exactly what we should be doing. 

Auriol Reddaway