This is the first installment in our new monthly series, Skin Deep, which explores women’s stories of self-perception, visual identity and the cultural forces that influence their choices.

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Lauren Krouse’s relationship with her body has always been fraught.

Growing up as a competitive athlete in high school, Krouse said she was rail thin. But when she got to college and quit sports, the weight came on quickly. “Ever since then, I've struggled to kind of find a balance of enjoying food and healthy exercise and maintaining my weight without just constantly wanting to be thinner,” said Krouse, now 28.

Pre-pandemic, Krouse would regularly run and lift weights. Then, just as the country effectively shut down last year, her life and daily routine, like many others, were completely upended.

Research about the pandemic’s impact on body image doesn’t paint a pretty picture, says Renee Engeln, a psychology professor at Northwestern University and author of the book “Beauty Sick. “There’s strong evidence that women who already struggled with body image or eating disordered behaviors were hit hard by the pandemic,” she said. “Symptoms often worsened, and for many, care was more difficult to access.”

Amid the uncertainty and isolation of this time, it also bore new responsibilities for Krouse, who packed up her life in Wilmington, N.C., in March 2020 and moved to a small town outside of Harrisonburg, Va., to care for her grandmother.

As an unpaid family caregiver, Krouse said she serves as a secretary, chauffeur and chef to her grandmother who had been in a car accident and is battling multiple health conditions. On top of that, Krouse also looks after her two sick dogs, a 9-year-old black Labrador and a 16-year-old Lhasa apso. “I was having a hard time finding time for myself,” she said.

Krouse, who is a freelance health writer, said she started missing deadlines and was constantly worrying about losing clients and damaging relationships with editors.

Lauren Krause at her family's home in rural Virginia. (Jason Lappa for The Washington Post)
Lauren Krause at her family's home in rural Virginia. (Jason Lappa for The Washington Post)

“I stress ate a lot,” she said. “And felt so uncomfortable in my body I knew I had to make a change.”

“High levels of stress make it more difficult to care for your body,” said Engeln. And in a pandemic, which has triggered increases in anxiety and depression, these emotions don’t set the stage for developing a healthier body image. “They tend to do the opposite”

Around April 2020, with her sister’s wedding coming up, Krouse decided to join the bride-to-be and their mother in slimming down for the big day. She was on a plan to lose two pounds a week, a goal Krouse recognizes as too fast. “I was just totally miserable,” she said. “I'm hungry all the time and I was really struggling not to eat up the whole kitchen by the end of the night.”

Krouse’s experience is one Engeln warns about with extreme dieting: It doesn’t just leave you chronically hungry and cranky, it also tends to make you obsessed with food and eating.

Plus, she said, “the diet industry does not exist to make people healthy.” And during the pandemic, it has played on fears about covid-related weight gain, such as “quarantine 15,” to make more money. “It succeeds by selling people the false promise of easy, permanent weight loss.”

Virgie Tovar, an author, activist and body image expert, echoes this view. “Diet culture doesn't do anything positive,” she said. “Weight loss is a trap that keeps us stuck in bingeing and restricting cycles that are emotionally and physically toxic.”

Indeed, Krouse wasn’t seeing much change from dieting. “Weighing myself and taking progress shots regularly just confirmed how slow-going my weight loss was and how much my weight could fluctuate day to day,” Krouse said. After about two or three weeks of fighting hunger, she decided to slow down.

As a health writer, Krouse knew that it was best to lose weight slowly and implement sustainable lifestyle changes. So she began to approach her body issues from a point of wellness to address the bigger problems with her mood and binge-eating habits.

One thing Krouse learned, she said, was the importance of fiber, “It's good for your gut health. It's connected to your mood and so many other health metrics. So I also just worked on incorporating more fiber-rich foods into my lifestyle.”

In January, she and her partner started cooking and baking more, experimenting with Ethiopian, Caribbean, Greek and Turkish recipes, Korean food like kimchi, and traditional seedy Polish breads. “We wanted to just slowly remove processed food from our diet,” Krouse said. “So basically, each week, I set a goal to cook one more thing for myself instead of buying it.”

Krouse was also moving her body again. “I would run around the hospital when my grandma was at appointments or I tried to weight-lift whenever I had time,” she said. “Or I would walk on the treadmill while I was answering emails.”

After writing a story about how meditation can help treat anxiety, Krouse decided to get serious with it. “I’m at a point where I meditate for about 10, 20 minutes every Monday through Thursday,” she said. “And after I meditate, I journal a little bit and make a list of a couple of things, really specific things I’m grateful for.”

Showing herself grace, Krouse said, was key to her self-improvement.There’s this really common and stupid narrative that you have to work harder and have so much discipline to lose weight,” she said. “It makes people feel guilty and bad about themselves and it creates a spiral of failure in setting these impossible goals and not being able to reach them.”

Krouse said she would try to remind herself of just how much she was dealing with in her personal life and she would look for the little wins each day. “Giving yourself space to fail and making the time to acknowledge baby steps is just so important,” Krouse said. She stopped taking progress shots, since they “only showed how long ‘progress’ took,” and when the batteries died in her scale, she never replaced them.

“Giving myself compassion has helped my overall well-being, physically and mentally,” she said. “So much more than any strict plan or negative self-talk ever did.”

Engeln agrees with this approach. “Any step you can take to show your body kindness, compassion and gratitude is a step in the right direction,” she said. “Body acceptance doesn’t come from a magic switch you can flip. It’s a practice, and a difficult one at that.”

Tovar adds that body acceptance is a profound, life-changing spiritual practice. “It's not just an idea, it's a path to healing both individual and cultural trauma.”

After her sister’s wedding, Krouse looked back at photos from that day and was proud of what she saw, saying her toned arms are what struck her the most. She had always wanted thinner arms, recalling how she used to pose for pictures. “I would do that thing where you stick out your elbow,” Krouse said. “So your arm isn't up against your body.”

But with weightlifting, Krouse’s arms and shoulders have gotten bigger, something that she realized is actually healthier for her and more in line with the goals that matter most to her.

“I’m never going to have rail-thin arms,” she said. “And I don’t want to because the arms that can lift my 80-pound dog and carry him down the stairs every night are never going to look like that.”

Tovar, who is releasing a guided body positivity journal next year, often advises people to look to nature. “We forget that body diversity is a very normal and very beautiful part of all life, not just human life,” she said. “There are thousands of types of trees, flowers, plants and animals. We delight in these differences, and we can do that with each other and ourselves.”

Krouse said she’s finally there. “I don’t have that body that I always wanted and I never will. But I’m so happy with what I look like now. It’s actually a really big turning point for me.”

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