June 15, 2021

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Weight loss The COVID cocoon: Meet the people who transformed themselves during lockdown

14 min read
The isolation of the past year has functioned as a cocoon for some, providing an opportunity to grow and change, whether it be physically—through weight loss and plastic surgery—or mentally Julia McArthur had never liked her nose. Since she was a preteen, the petite 24-year-old thought that with its prominent bridge, her nose overpowered her…
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weight loss The isolation of the past year has functioned as a cocoon for some, providing an opportunity to grow and change, whether it be physically—through weight loss and plastic surgery—or mentally

Julia McArthur had never liked her nose. Since she was a preteen, the petite 24-year-old thought that with its prominent bridge, her nose overpowered her face, distracting from her unique eyes (she’s of mixed ethnicity—her father is of South Asian descent and her mother is white). She was self-conscious about her profile to the point where if she was talking to someone, she’d be sure to face them head-on. If she was in a car and someone stopped beside her, she’d angle her head to diminish her nose.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, being home all the time and on camera for online nursing classes caused McArthur to focus on her insecurities more than usual. During Zoom calls, “I would have to find the perfect lighting that didn’t reflect off my nose, or everything had to be in front of me so I wouldn’t have to turn my head,” she says. “I was just getting exhausted thinking about how much I disliked my nose.”

In May 2020, she reached out to a plastic surgeon for a consultation about a rhinoplasty—something she’d done once before, in 2018, when her uncertainty and the high cost had deterred her. But this time, she was able to work 70-hour weeks as a personal support worker during the summer, saving enough to pay for the procedure. In August, she had her nose job—which reduced the bump on the bridge of her nose and lifted its tip slightly. Her bruising and recovery went largely unnoticed since she was always at home and would wear a mask in front of people. While her family and boyfriend know about the surgery, the change is so subtle they sometimes forget she’s had it, so she doesn’t expect her friends to notice. The procedure was purely for herself. “My nose is now just a part of me, instead of this unnatural feature that I have, this thing I kind of despise.”

READ: What lockdown looks like for a Gen Z

Almost universally, if to varying extents, the pandemic has been a difficult and stressful experience. According to Statistics Canada, fewer Canadians are reporting good mental health—55 per cent in 2020, down from 68 per cent in 2019—and one-third of respondents to a Leger survey say they’re exercising less; jokes about the “quarantine 15,” referring to weight gain, abound on social media. But the isolation of the past year has also functioned as a cocoon for some, providing an opportunity to grow and change, whether it be physically or mentally. McArthur isn’t alone in undergoing a transformation cloaked in the confines of a virus-induced lockdown. And as the country inches toward normalcy, the cocoon is primed to crack open, and from it, many butterflies will emerge.

The pandemic forced us all to see ourselves in a new light—literally. The shift to online everything means we are constantly looking at our own faces onscreen. It has resulted in what plastic surgeons like Stephen Mulholland call the “Zoom boom.” He’s seen a 50 per cent bump in business at his downtown Toronto practice for all surgery types, and a 100 per cent increase in rhinoplasties, double-chin surgery and jowl surgery, compared to before COVID-19. Of the patients he sees for facial surgery, nearly everyone mentions how they appear on Zoom as part of the reason for getting the procedure, says Mulholland. “They’ve always hated their feature, be it their lids, their jowl, their double chin,” he adds, “but Zoom has propelled them into the abyss of aesthetic enhancement.”

A study published in the International Journal of Women’s Dermatology earlier this year calls the phenomenon “Zoom dysmorphia,” a condition in which “patients seek cosmetic procedures to improve their distorted appearance on video-conferencing calls.” The survey of more than 100 dermatologists in the U.S. found that nearly 57 per cent of providers reported an increase in patients seeking consultations compared with before the pandemic, and 86 per cent said their patients cited video-conferencing as a reason for wanting procedures like Botox, fillers and laser treatments.

But the pandemic and its disruptions have been an “impetus to self-reflect” on a deeper level as well, says Catherine Sabiston, a professor of exercise and health psychology at the University of Toronto. She attributes this to the pandemic being similar to other traumatic life events, like being diagnosed with a chronic illness, for example. “It’s that moment where you reflect on who you are and how you can improve, and what’s important to you.”

Rebecca Garland, a health and life coach in Calgary, has been seeing this type of reflection among clients at her business, Élan Performance, which has been busier than ever. “There’s more of a push to do the inner work,” she says. Many of Garland’s clients are female leaders in medicine who are exhausted, burned out and trying to rediscover what fulfills them. Others are looking for help losing weight, which Garland says often leads to tackling deeper emotional problems. The pandemic has “dismantled all of our certainty, routines and grounding, so we have to rebuild,” she adds. “And from that space we’re open to new possibilities.”

READ: The lasting psychological toll of reporting the pandemic

Sabiston has seen research and anecdotal evidence suggesting some people have managed to turn to self-care over the past year and are focusing on themselves in ways they weren’t able to before. Months of self-containment have also provided space for people to make changes absent the judgment and constant feedback of others, she suggests. That was the case for Monica Belyea in Toronto, who fully embraced her love for sequined, sparkly clothes during lockdown. First, she posted photos of them on social media and then she started wearing them to the grocery store. Her unabashed adoration for beautiful flash has extended to other parts of her life: she redecorated her home in sequins and bright colours, and started a life-coaching business, which focuses on helping people “find their ‘sparkle.’ ” Belyea’s shimmery outfit choices (she literally has a closet for her sequined items, many of which she thrifted during the pandemic) are for her own enjoyment, but are also meant to be a pop of colour for others around her. Her splashy style is here to stay, pandemic or not, she says. “Once it’s released, you can’t shut it back in,” she laughs.

weight loss Monica Belyea at her home in Toronto. (Photograph by Christie Vuong)

Belyea worked her way up to embracing her love of sequins (Photograph by Christie Vuong)

The slowdown of quarantine—and the closure of gyms—means many people are off their exercise routines: one-third of Canadians are less physically active than they were before the pandemic, according to a Leger survey. But for some people, lockdowns removed barriers that were keeping them from exercising, like having to find time in a busy day or the cost of gym memberships, says Sabiston (in the same Leger poll, 16 per cent said they’re working out more).

Certainly, people found ways to work out at home. In the early months, customers cleared shelves across the country of workout equipment like resistance bands, mats and dumbbells. The fortunes of fitness bike company Peloton also rose meteorically as the pandemic began; in September 2020, it posted its first-ever quarterly profit thanks to a 172 per cent surge in sales. Many people turned to free exercise options, such as online sensation Adriene Mishler, a Texas yoga teacher whose YouTube channel (Yoga with Adriene)—featuring her earnest, relaxed instruction and blue heeler Benji—received 47 million views in April 2020, compared to 14 million in February.

Closer to home, Maddie Lymburner—a Canadian fitness YouTuber who posts free at-home workouts often set to the latest pop hits—was seeing anywhere from 30,000 to 100,000 new subscribers per month before the pandemic. She gained one million subscribers in April 2020 alone and has racked up 481 million video views to date.

READ: The pandemic has proven that we don’t need the gym after all

Sweaty workouts aside, Sabiston says, to compensate for the sudden absence of our commuting routine, more people are incorporating even simpler intentional movement into their days, like walking around the block. At a time when public health guidelines are ruling our lives, physical activity and pursuing a physical change are ways people can take back some control, says Sabiston.

Michael Le, a virtual personal trainer in Calgary, estimates that 70 per cent of the people who have joined his online fitness community since the summer are either new to working out or are easing back into it after a years-long hiatus, perhaps while raising children. Jessica Shields, 50, a single mother of a six-year-old in Thornhill, Ont., had just started training for a half-marathon before the stay-at-home restrictions began. She gained 20 lb. during the months of lockdown, and then realized she was miserable. “I was going to break down if I didn’t do something I loved,” Shields says.

Now, after completing hundreds of workouts on the Peloton app, she’s shrunk her waist and reduced her resting heart rate (it was 74 beats per minute in March 2020 and has now returned to 64 beats per minute, according to her trusty Fitbit). Her daughter sometimes joins in with her workouts. Shields also completed adry January” and hasn’t had a drink since, having indulged in three to four bottles of wine a week during the worst of the pandemic. The lockdown afforded her time and stripped away the excuses she used to make for herself, making this lifestyle transformation possible. Says Shields, “I feel like I’ve got my life back.”

For Devyn Thomson of Orillia, Ont., the beginning of 2020 was exceptionally tough. In January, his relationship of five years came to an end, and at the end of February, he lost his mother to a sudden heart attack. Then the pandemic began. Newly single, isolated from his friends and family, and already suffering from a depressive disorder, the 34-year-old fell sick—not with COVID—and had to quarantine at home from his job as a disability support worker. When he took stock of his options, he resolved that doing nothing might lead to “a horrible depression that could last who knows how long,” says Thomson.

He decided to start running on the trails near his home. “I think I made it 100 yards before I had to stop.” Overweight and not one for exercise, he was winded, coughing and hacking. And yet, he says, “as horrible as I felt, I came home and thought, ‘I’m going to do it again.’ ” He started using an app to help him ease into running five kilometres, and in eight weeks, he hit that goal and kept going, adding distance to his runs on the Trans Canada Trail with the aim of reaching 10 km. By the end of the fall, he was running 16 km. “It almost felt meditative to me,” he says. “I’ve got depression and deal with an anxiety disorder, OCD—I’m all kinds of fun upstairs. When I was out there, I didn’t have any anxieties.”

weight loss Thomson finishes up a run in Orillia (Photograph by Michael Stuckless)

Thomson finishes up a run in Orillia (Photograph by Michael Stuckless)

Thomson changed his diet alongside his new running habit and lost around 50 lb. He also began an online master’s degree in counselling psychology. Pre-COVID, he says, his social anxiety had kept him sedentary and isolated. During the pandemic, “I ended up almost with an extreme version of that,” he says. “I went from living with someone full-time to living alone and not seeing friends and family. It was almost like an evil genie granted my wish.” Now, he craves connection, old and new. “I’ve lived under this shroud of depression and anxiety for so long, it felt like I really had lost myself.” Now, he says, “I think I’m the same person I’ve always been, but I’m unearthing who that person is. I’m becoming a healthier version of myself.”

Pauline Leoncio in Vancouver might say the same. She had quit her job and was set to go on a European backpacking trip when the pandemic began. For three months after her plans were stalled, the 26-year-old found herself glued to her couch, watching Netflix and eating junk food. “I couldn’t manage my emotions,” she says. “I was crying all the time. I didn’t know what to do about anything.”

In June, she experienced a breakup, which sparked a realization: it was time for her to begin coping. She started off with therapy, then downloaded the Calm app, meditated and journalled daily, and began attending spin classes every week. She ate more healthily. “I went full force on the transformation thing.” She figuredthis time sucks, there’s nothing else to do, so I might as well work on myself.” She says her routine is what gave her comfort and a sense of control in the wild uncertainty of the pandemic.“I definitely feel proud,” says Leoncio. “I have never stuck to any sort of habit for this long.”

Indeed, feelings of success are important to making a long-standing commitment to self-care strategies, says Sabiston. “That sense of accomplishment is one of the main things that connects physical activity to mental health,” she says, adding that it can transfer to other facets of life and can even bolster mental health when facing a challenge beyond the pandemic. Prior to Leoncio’s shift, her ways of coping were indulging in self-pity, food and binge-smoking. Her new habits and lifestyle are more than temporary distractions: “I realized I have to do [these things] to be the best version of me, to feel good about myself and my life. There’s no other option. I can’t not do these things now.”

There was a surge in meditation app downloads early on during lockdown—the top 10 English-language wellness apps, led by Calm and Headspace, saw nearly 25 per cent more downloads in April 2020 versus January of the same year. In Victoria, the British Columbia Association for Living Mindfully—BCALM for short—has seen a spike in referrals from doctors for their meditation courses. There’s a waitlist of more than 3,000 people just from Vancouver Island.

These are people who are struggling, says Mark Sherman, family physician and executive director of BCALM, but have the opportunity to practise new skills and “could end up in a really beautiful and resilient place.” But he notes there are many who are not in this position. “My concern is the people who don’t have access to those resources or skills, and [who] are sinking ever deeper into their depression, their anxiety and their pain.” An IPSOS poll found that while 66 per cent of women and 51 per cent of men say COVID-19 has negatively affected their mental health, only one in five people who experienced stress had sought help for their problems. Sherman foresees a wave of dire mental health crises as the pandemic wanes.

Toronto-based clinical psychologist Tayyab Rashid is a specialist in positive psychology who has worked with people who have experienced severe trauma, such as 9/11 and the shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand. He thinks it will take time and research to truly understand the widespread effects of the crisis. And he says it would be foolish to say that everyone had a chance to reevaluate their lives during the pandemic. But he also says that for a minority of people, the pandemic acted as a catalyst to transform. He describes transformation as the ability to make meaning of our experiences and ultimately wanting “a life that is worth living for you and for others.” It’s a process, he says, that happens over a period of time—and time is something many of us suddenly felt we had more of when the pandemic started.

Indeed, there are some aspects of the past year that may have helped spark momentum for deep personal change. Rashid says that experiencing solitude—not social isolation, which is systemic and more harmful—can actually be beneficial to the process of transformation because it leads to introspection, which can lead to reflection. (Introspection is looking inward, he says, whereas reflection is thinking about a more specific experience or event.) “Giving people the ability to tolerate loneliness and to then have a dialogue with themselves is really important for transformation,” says Rashid.

This inner dialogue is exactly what Natasha Harley, 39, welcomed as lockdown began in 2020. The administrative assistant at the University of Calgary and single mother of a teenager had found a therapist that fit her needs (a Black woman who understands Harley’s Jamaican-Canadian culture) at the end of February, right before the country shut down. It led to a year of healing from childhood trauma. “I was thankful for the slowdown because it allowed me to quiet everybody else’s voice and really listen to my own,” she says. Harley discovered that emotional scars from the physical abuse she endured as a child damaged her self-esteem as an adult and left her constantly choosing relationships where she wasn’t valued. “Even though it didn’t feel good, the abuse was familiar,” she says.

weight loss During the slowdown, Harley saw a therapist who helped her heal from childhood trauma (Photograph by Leah Hennel)

During the slowdown, Harley saw a therapist who helped her heal from childhood trauma (Photograph by Leah Hennel)

Over the course of her therapy, Harley ended a romantic relationship and let go of friendships that no longer served her. The pandemic made things easier in some ways: “There was no guilt in creating distance because it was forced, so it gave me the buffer I needed to really cut ties with people I probably should have cut ties with a long time ago.” It was a difficult and lonely process, but ultimately, she felt it helped her blossom, allowing her to understand herself and go back to doing things she loves, like crocheting and baking, and to be there for her high-functioning autistic son. Harley’s experience has also galvanized her dream of finishing her university degree and becoming a therapist. She feels her healing will leave her in a better position to date once the pandemic is over.

Harley has lost people to COVID-19 and attended virtual funerals for her loved ones, which she describes as “surreal.” But the situation the pandemic created for her personally is what propelled her transformation, she says, and for that she’s grateful. Without it, she still would have been “running around, distracted, maintaining unhealthy relationships, too worried to pull the plug.”

This past year has “been a time for me to focus on what I want,” says McArthur when talking about her rhinoplasty. Plastic surgery “will not make you happier,” she adds. “It just brings up the confidence that was always there but was masked by your insecurities.” She says her family—particularly her older sister, who’s finishing a master’s in psychology—helped her work through whether she was in the right place, mentally, for her procedures (she had a second surgery, a breast augmentation, in December 2020, which she says was a “spontaneous decision” she made to take advantage of the fact that her learning was still virtual and her six weeks of healing time wouldn’t interfere with in-hospital nursing training).

Already, McArthur is experiencing the positive effects of her rhinoplasty, moving her head during Zoom calls, picking up her coffee, taking a sip without the self-conscious worry. “I can now take the time I would spend obsessing over these features and put it into something more effective,” she says. She’s awaiting the opening up of the world, for all the regular reasons, but also so she can emerge with her new perspective. “I look forward to expressing, to my classmates, my peers, my friends, this new self-confidence I have, the new skin I’m in.”


This article appears in print in the May 2021 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “The COVID cocoon.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.

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