Content Warning: This article contains a discussion of eating disorders. Reader discretion is advised.
“Due to coronavirus, my summer body will be postponed until 2021.”
“I’m either coming out of this quarantine fifty pounds lighter or one hundred pounds heavier only time will tell.”
“Week two of quarantine got me like: These sweatpants are all that fit me right now.”
I’m used to hearing frustrating, diet-culture fueled comments on the internet, but when I first heard jokes like these about staving off the “quarantine 15,” they — as the kids say these days — “hit different.” I have struggled with body dysmorphia and disordered eating since eighth grade, and while I’ve recently made dramatic successes in actually recovering, COVID-19 has proved an unprecedented obstacle.
Disordered eating comes from many different places, but for me, and many others, it comes from needing to feel a sense of control over myself and my life. Even when everything is in chaos, our bodies seem to be one of the few things we still have at least some power over. During a global pandemic, the desire to reach for that comforting sense of “control” is tempting, to say the least. For the first time in months, and for some of my friends years, the creep of calorie anxiety is settling back in as we are stuck inside with more time to think, the disruption of the routine in which we found comfort, and messages from the “wellness” media warning us not to “let ourselves go” become more omnipresent.
We all need to find ways to combat anxiety and general mood swings during this time. Baking copious amounts of banana bread? Great. Doing a bunch of home workouts? Sure. I won’t lie that my walks and runs have been an invaluable part of managing all the feelings I’ve been experiencing, but I have dealt with this condition long enough to know that I can have dual motivations.
“I’m not stress waking to burn calories but I’m also not not stress walking to burn calories,” a friend said as they called me while on a walk to talk to me about the worsening body dysmorphia they’ve been experiencing, along with the growing desire to restrict. “I downloaded Cronometer for the first time in a year and started logging what I ate because it gave me some relief,” they said. I would love to say that I had no idea what they were talking about, but it’s a tempting (albeit unhealthy) coping mechanism that’s hard to give up. Another friend told me it was taking all of her willpower not to drive to Target and buy a scale to “make sure” her weight wasn’t fluctuating “too much” in quarantine — something I did at the beginning of freshman year in an attempt to “reassure” myself that I wasn’t gaining the freshman 15.
Disordered eating is deeply rooted in negotiation. Saying you can have the cookie as long as you go for that run, or that you can take that day off from the gym as long as you “eat light” to “compensate.” Seductive as these negotiations can be, “restriction simply exacerbates eating disorder thoughts and behaviors,” as therapist Jennifer Rollin says. Ignoring our innate hunger cues also disrupts the hormones that signal hunger and satiety. What’s more, “hanger” is actually an example of how hunger can trigger or exacerbate heightened emotional states like anxiety, depression, anger, fear, etc. These emotions are already being worsened by physical distancing and the overturning of daily life, restriction can just add fuel to the fire. If that weren’t enough, COVID-19 had also increased stress around food, with trips to the grocery store becoming one of the highest risk activities in which we currently engage.
For me, body dysmorphia makes the way I perceive myself the equivalent of a room of funhouse mirrors. One day I feel cute and confident, another I feel so monstrous that I want to hide from everyone. For people with eating disorders, and even those who have never struggled with disordered eating before, being isolated provides more time than ever to fixate on anything you feel stress about, including your ever-present body, which can frequently be translated to concerns over weight, as is pointed out by Mayo Clinic psychologist Leslie Sim. Another aspect of quarantine is the disruption of the routines in which we engage to present ourselves. My mom has bemoaned the fact that her hair, which she dyes to avoid gray roots, is starting to “look like a skunk.” Numerous friends have run desperate hands through their hair, expressing dismay over feeling “shaggy.” And putting on makeup and changing out of your pajamas feels far more optional as the days go on. Doing little things that make you feel better, no matter how much of an effort they can seem, is a great way to boost self-esteem in quarantine. Not slipping out of my routine of washing my face, combing my hair and putting on some uneven (cause who can get them to match) winged eyeliner has been crucial to keeping my body image out of the danger zone when possible.
Some of the corniest advice I’ve ever heard regarding self-love is to evaluate whether you would say the things you say to yourself to a loved one. If a friend called up and said that they’d gained weight, lost muscle mass and were eating more Ben and Jerry’s in quarantine, would you berate them? No. So why not extend that to yourself? It can seem ridiculous the first few times you try this, but challenging self-hating thoughts is the only way to keep them from taking over. Aware of how the coronavirus is impacting people, the National Eating Disorder Association has compiled low-cost and free support options, and a pop-up on their website links to a specific COVID-19 resource page.
Body image is especially linked to social comparison. In a time of social distancing, our point of comparison is prone to shift to social media and other sources of often unattainable, altered bodies, so it might be a good time to limit or disengage.
I cannot stress enough that eating disorders aren’t just a “girl thing” and that, as with all mental illnesses, they can affect people of all genders, ages, races, religions, ethnicities, sexual orientations, body shapes and weights. The NEDA reports that an estimated 20 million women and 10 million men in America will have an eating disorder at some point in their lives, and a growing number of men and non-binary individuals are reaching out to clinicians for help. Eating disorders don’t look the same. There is even EDNOS (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified) because restriction is not the only type of way to have disordered eating. I only focused on restriction because that is my personal experience. It’s also worth noting that there are different stages of eating disorders and recovery, and that for those just beginning to recover, this situation is especially tough.
It’s possible to change how you eat without the toxic voice of diet culture weighing in. Diet culture has convinced many of us that honoring hunger and feeling satisfied and full when we eat is something to feel guilty over. I thought I’d broken my ability to listen to those most straightforward of signals with years of calorie counting and portion control, but I am slowly gaining them back. Sometimes that means I eat breakfast at 8 a.m. when I first wake up, and other times it means I don’t start eating until 11 a.m.. Being in quarantine and having the loosest schedules we have had in a while is stressful. Still, it also means you can honor hunger and fullness signals without having to plan around a three-hour lab. However, loneliness can be a strong predictor of disordered eating, so any way to make eating a more social activity may be a good idea. Recipe exchange emails have flooded my inbox, and I’ve started a back and forth of DMs with my sister when we see meals that look good on Instagram. Making food you can get excited about, like fried rice with lots of sesame oil or black bean sweet potato tacos with lots of guacamole, as well as having a pint of ice-cream in the freezer on hand for Zoom movie night, is a great way to nurture your relationship with food and others. Eating is more than just sustenance. It is a social and pleasurable experience, and making sure not to lose sight of that can help keep our relationship with food from suffering too much in quarantine.
While on a Zoom call with my therapist (something I am incredibly grateful and fortunate that I still have access to), I got angry when she suggested that I “lower my expectations.” As usual, the main reason I get angry at my therapist is when she’s right when I don’t want her to be. There’s so much anxiety right now over the belief that we aren’t using our quarantine time “correctly.” That makes it easy to forget that this situation is unprecedented and that there is no inherently “wrong” way to spend quarantine time. You don’t need to use this time in any particular way. Our daily routines have pretty much been decimated, and our usual comforts such as spending time with friends, nights out, lunches at our favorite places on campus have been changed into FaceTime-watching Netflix and Discord conversations while playing Club Penguin. So much has changed in the last month — it’s perfectly reasonable that our bodies might change as well. Remember that this situation is temporary. Our bodies, along with our lives, will experience many changes. In my experience, fighting those changes tooth and nail is never worth it. Taking care — actual care — of yourself is though.
Emma Smith is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at email@example.com. Emmpathy runs alternate Fridays this semester.
Students may consult with counselors from Counseling & Psychological Services (CAPS) by calling 607-255-5155. Employees may call the Faculty Staff Assistance Program (FSAP) at 607-255-2673. An Ithaca-based Crisisline is available at 607-272-1616. For additional resources, visit caringcommunity.cornell.edu.