'Girls of isolation': Powerful images of women living alone amid pandemic

When writer and artist Olivia Gatwood returned home from her first isolation food shopping trip in California’s Santa Cruz, she stripped down to her underwear in order to reduce the risk of any contamination from her clothes.

As she stood in her kitchen alone, the reality that she was dealing with the coronavirus pandemic from the confines of her apartment where she lives by herself, really hit her.

She wanted to capture the feeling, so took a self-portrait, and posted it on her Instagram page, captioning it “Self-Portrait of a Lady in Quarantine”.

Olivia's 'Self-Portrait of a Lady in Quarantine'. Photo: Instagram/@oliviagatwood

She put a call out to her followers to send her their own self-portraits, with the idea of making a collage of other women who were isolating alone. Within 24 hours she’d received hundreds of photos from women across the world.

The pictures kept coming, so she set up @GirlsofIsolation page, dedicated to showcasing how women are living, feeling and coping with being in isolation away from their loved ones. To date she’s published several hundred images, and the account is growing daily.

“I think the fact it gained traction so quickly, speaks to the fact that a person's individual space is more likely to resonate than a general statement such as ‘We're all in this together,’” Olivia tells Yahoo Lifestyle.

“Of course, we are all being affected, but the spectrum of that should not be underestimated. It is a different experience to be quarantined in a mansion in Malibu than it is to be quarantined with four children in an apartment,” she points out.

“I think the girls who initially responded to the post were really responding to the idea that they wanted to showcase their spaces too, however similar or different they may be.”

Despite the differences in people’s living spaces and their situations, Olivia has noticed some glaring similarities in all the black and white photos.

“I find people's expressions to be very similar,” she says. “It's a combination of calm, melancholy, and sensual. Which I think is a result of being alone in your personal space but during a time of collective grief.”

She hopes the page will encourage women to reflect on how they see themselves and how they want to be seen while in their isolation spaces.

“All I ever want is for girls to feel less alone, to feel worthy of being treated well, and to feel excited to keep living. I hope the page can do that,” she says.

She’s also keen to encourage women who are isolating alone to “honour what you’re feeling [if you have the resources to do so]”. In other words, don’t put any pressure on yourself.

“If you need to rest, rest. If you need to eat, eat. This is absolutely an opportunity to create things, but don't pressure yourself to finish your novel or whatever,” she says.

“A saving grace for me has been routine. I have become very attached to small things that make me feel good - reading in the backyard, eating a popsicle, watering the plants - and I've been treating them the way I would going to the movies with my friends pre-pandemic. Like an event I can look forward to.”

Olivia’s approach to being isolated alone is one to be emulated, President of the Australian Psychological Society, Ros Knight tells Yahoo Lifestyle.

“Routine and enjoying small moments can bring some structure to the day,” she says.

As Olivia has also shown, the space you find yourself in can also affect your experience. “If you can keep a separate space for work, and one for relaxing, it can stop lines becoming blurred, and give you proper down time,” says Ros.

Many of the women commenting on the @GirlsofIsolation page have mentioned missing human contact.

While this can’t be recreated, there are some ways to feel physically comforted, says Ros.

“Hot showers can be physically stimulating, as can wearing soft fabrics and putting nice blankets on your bed or sofa. Exercise can also make your body feel good. Of course, none of these things are the same as a hug but they can help.”

If things get really tough when you’re isolating alone, it’s important to pick up the phone.

“If you feel a bit low, talking to a friend is good. But if you’re really stuck, then speaking to your GP could be a good option. Remember, two brains are often better than one when it comes to problem solving – even if they’re not in the same room,” she says.

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