Q&A: Lockdown, body image and body positivity with Sofia Jin

In our second Q&A with the brilliant Sofia Jin, she shares her views on a really important subject: Body image and body positivity. We cover the impact of lockdown on body image, the role of social media in promoting positivity, the interconnectivity between mental health and body image, and lastly, her top tips on beating a negative body image.

Sofia is a storyteller, adventurer and creator, focusing on adventure-led content including travel, hospitality and outdoor adventure. She is involved in adventure media and as an ambassador for The North Face UK. Check out the interview below or relive her first Q&A on her love for active travel here.

The interview

Our relationship with our bodies and how we can be more comfortable in our own skin is a complicated one. We’re talking about food and fitness now, more than ever, but what do you think of the current perceptions of ‘body image’?

Body image is how you perceive your body: the way it looks and the feelings you have about that. I think body image is a deep-rooted issue for all of us. We have complex beliefs about our bodies that have been nestled in our subconscious for a long time, put there by popular culture. For many people, this is that they’re somehow not good or worthy enough unless they meet society’s “ideal”.

Now more than ever we are critiquing these beliefs. Positive changes are occurring with more and more people lending their voices to the body positivity movement, which encourages people to accept the bodies they have, banish stupid myths and dismantle ideas about what’s normal and beautiful.

Discussions about food and fitness can be incredibly positive within this context. Qualified educators help people in their journeys to becoming genuinely healthier and happier. But we need to keep talking about body image to continue effecting real change in people’s lives. There’s still a long way to go when it comes to messaging from the media, diversity and representation.

What impact do you think lockdown has had on this perception?

Oh I know that lockdown had a negative effect on body image! Many of my friends struggled with it, as did I. It felt strange and awkward not moving the way I was used to. Exercise is a sanctuary where I can feel happier and stronger, a refuge from stress and anxiety. Like so many people, my routine suffered and my body composition changed. I’m normally pretty rational with that sort of thing, but this was such a new, different experience for all of us, in an already weird and worrying time, that at first I struggled not to resent the whole thing. But, in a nice surprising twist, lockdown pushed me into yoga and bodyweight training – neither of which I previously did often – and I ended up discovering a new love for both.

Sadly I’ve seen lots of articles and ads telling people to come work on their “lockdown bellies” and such. I find that deplorable. Fitness should be an empowering space that alleviates your worries – not one where your insecurities
are preyed upon, especially during a pandemic! With gyms and fitness spaces reopened, I hope the majority are welcoming their clients back with messages of positivity, no subtext of guilt and shame.

What does ‘body image’ mean to you?

Being involved in sports, I more often choose to see my body for what it can do and not what it looks like. This is obviously not always possible. Insecurity is part of the human condition, so like anyone else I feel insecure about my appearance sometimes. But I re-centre myself by remembering what my strengths are, not just as an athlete but in my relationships with others as a friend, daughter, and media professional. I start with “body image”, but end up layering all these other qualities on top of that until I get a full image of who I am, a sense of my unique value as a person.

Since lockdown, the message of “bettering” ourselves has been fairly persistent. On the plus side, it’s brought with it a load of diet and fitness related content, inspiring some, but on the other side, it’s created a pressure to lose weight and become fitter. What role do you think social media plays and is comparing our bodies to what we see online a good or bad thing?

Maintaining the same fitness levels you had pre-lockdown is a privilege. Many people have not been able to access weights or afford Zoom classes, motivation has been challenged and loved ones have been lost. So, for starters, if you haven’t been “bettering” yourself – that’s totally okay. You’ve survived a global pandemic. Not everyone has been so lucky. Your body is an incredible machine that has been through so much.

When it comes to social media, there are some great figures putting positive, educated health and wellbeing content out there. But directly comparing our bodies to what we see online is never good for us. It’s crazy how social media can
twist our minds, making us believe that a body that has been achieved through heavy restriction and training is normal and something to strive for.

There’s an overwhelming amount of content out there that invites us to compare ourselves to some ideal or image. All those “What X famous person eats in a day!” videos on YouTube, or dangerous diet fads going viral on Tik Tok, or the sheer number of edited or posed images. I didn’t realise ‘hip dips’ (a natural inward curve just below the hips) were something people were insecure about until I saw a video on exercises to ‘fix’ them (creating that insecurity in the first place). Fix what? Nothing is broken!

Comparison is natural, but generally bad for us as we don’t get the full picture for anyone we don’t live with 24/7. In the last couple of years, we’ve seen more and more models and fitness influencers reveal past or ongoing health issues. It’s been really eye-opening. Very brave and helpful on the part of those who have chosen to share. They describe having been praised for bodies that looked “good” but at the time, beneath the surface, weren’t functioning properly due to over-training or deprivation. Some women weren’t having periods, others felt constantly fatigued, or kept getting injured… I get that. I used to be one of those people. I was severely orthorexic when I was younger and, in hindsight, one of the most troubling things about the whole ordeal was the number of peers who said: “Wow, you look great, what’s your routine?” If I had a reply, it would’ve been: “well, I train like an athlete and eat a psychotically clean diet that rarely makes it past around a thousand calories a day”. I had the washboard abs, virtually zero body fat and long lean muscles – the way that people think “fit” is supposed to look – but I was the unhealthiest I’ve ever been, practically on death’s door.

So, the gym bro with a six-pack is not necessarily healthy. I read something the other day like, “a six-pack can’t indicate someone’s health any more than someone’s face can indicate their kindness”. That’s true. The way healthy looks on you might look totally different on me. My washboard abs are long gone, but I’m much healthier now than I was seven years ago. Health happens on the inside, and there is just no possibility for a single photo to ever capture that.

Describe the interconnectivity between mental health and body image. When it comes to promoting body positivity, what are your top tips?

When people have poor body image (seeing themselves poorly compared to the standards set by society) their mental health can completely tank. I follow a few people who have devoted their platforms to promoting body positivity by
reminding people of their true worth – something that has nothing to do with our outer shells. I think that underpins it all, really.

The body positivity movement started in order to challenge the ways in which society presents and views bodies. The aim is to accept the bodies we have and destigmatise marginalised bodies (those bodies we rarely see presented to us in
the media: differently-abled, different genders and races, different sizes, so on). And you can’t talk about the value of a body without discussing the rest of a person too.

I think the best body positivity messages help people value who they are over what they are. To prize intangibles like relationships and experiences above the pursuit of image. To source their self-esteem from skills and hobbies. Yes, it is difficult to genuinely embrace that view in a society that treats different bodies differently. But is chasing an image really worth it? Isn’t what little time we have better spent actually living life?

Scales can’t take into account how much we make people laugh, how good we make people feel, the good we do in the world, how loved we are, how worthy we are, what kind people we are. How we look on the outside is not an indicator of how deserving we are of love and happiness. Any message that emphasises this is, in my opinion, a good one.

Lockdown has inevitably resulted in some people gaining weight and getting into bad snacking habits, however, it has also allowed people to feel a bit more freedom than they would normally do, whether it’s a new hairstyle, routine or hobby. Do you think the feeling of greater freedom, having been released from the confines of office work etc, can help maintain a healthy body image?

Yes! A sense of freedom can provide a vital perspective and absolutely help maintain a healthy body image. During lockdown people were experimenting in the kitchen, cutting themselves fringes, getting on a bike for the first time in ages… I have friends who’ve said, “hm, I’ve realised there are a few things I don’t actually like about the way I was living before.” Lockdown challenged people to find a new balance. New things that occupied them and made them happy. And, where it worked, I hope they’ve found something that sticks. Because again, if your version of being healthy requires unrealistic standards then that’s not healthy. Living comfortably in your body while treating it right through nourishment and enjoyable movement – without over-fixating on anything or punishing yourself – is what you want. If your regimen requires soul-wrenching stress, it’s not worth it.

Finally, what do you think is the best way to beat a negative body image?

I think the most effective thing is to transform how you see your body: love it for what it can do, not punish it for what it does or doesn’t look like. Understand how your body serves you personally. Try putting it into words if that helps.

For example, my body is a reflection of the things I love. Tapered back? Years of swimming. Strong arms? Climbing. Where my fat tends to distribute? That one’s genetics – love you, Mum and Dad!

Start by finding a sport you genuinely like to do. Forget numbers and ego – do it because you love it, not to be Strava proud. The more you enjoying moving, the more you’ll start to appreciate your body for what it can do. World champion climber Alex Puccio recently spoke about how her overpowering love for climbing helped her get past her self consciousness about her back muscles when she was younger. She described hating how dresses looked on her. She would never dare wear a tank top in high school. Society taught her – as it has taught many young women – what “sexy” and “feminine” is, and that image didn’t include muscles like hers. But her passion for climbing ended up overweighing nonsense messaging from the media: she loved what her body could do, she loved feeling strong. That overwhelming love and appreciation for its capabilities, for letting her do something that made her so happy, replaced any self-consciousness about how it looked. That’s exactly how I feel about my sports, too.

I source my self-esteem from my skills, passions, and experiences. These are the things that truly enrich my life, keep me healthy and happy. I am not defined by how I look, and neither are you.

Beating negative body image is a lot about accepting change, too. My body has changed tremendously over the years, because that’s what bodies are supposed to do. They’re supposed to adapt and evolve to our ever-changing circumstances: getting older, mental health, our relationship with food, our stress levels, pregnancy, our sports… So many factors go into changing bodies, yet so often we see change as a failure of our willpower. This narrative is full of blaming and self-loathing: we “let ourselves go” or we “just couldn’t say no”, which is incorrect and unfair. It’s also a great way to make sure you remain perpetually unhappy. (Life IS change! You’re going to keep changing until your time comes. Better get used to it!)

Speaking of life… It goes fast! It is an inevitability that, being involved in the outdoors adventure community, I have lost friends in the mountains and contemplated my own mortality. I have met people who climb mountains with prosthetic limbs, these are long, arduous journeys that they remain full of appreciation for. I have had one or two “this is it” moments in my own life, outside of the mountains, during which my body image came nowhere close to what at the time I thought were my final thoughts. My last point is a bit deep, but worth remembering. Your life is a unique, precious adventure, and it doesn’t start when you reach a certain jean size. Don’t miss it.

Thank you, Sofia! Really eye-opening and important stuff. For anyone who wants to follow Sofia’s journey, check out her Instagram and YouTube, or visit her blog.