Trigger Warning: Eating Disorder
Over the last couple weeks, our routines have slipped between our fingers and into the wind. Many of us, myself included, are worrying about what this present means for our future. I worry about my family back on the East Coast, particularly the ones with compromised immune systems. I worry about my income, which is now on pause. I worry about the state of our nation’s economy and the health of those who are not as fortunate as myself. I worry about the doctors, nurses, grocery store clerks, delivery drivers, and parents. But also…I worry about my body.
I’ve written about my eating disorder here and there. It’s been a part of my life for over ten years, and at this point, I’ve dismantled a lot of the pain and stigma I have associated with my eating habits. I’ll always be “recovering,” and I’m cool with that. And yet worrying about my body during a national pandemic seems downright shallow. I’m embarrassed to admit that in the midst of everything, I’m thinking about my weight. It feels stupid and shameful—I read some bad news about the virus or Trump and all I can think about is whether or not my jeans will fit in a few weeks. The thoughts are obsessive: I’m afraid I’ll emerge from quarantine as a person that I don’t recognize. That I’ll be judged upon re-entering the real world. That on top of losing a sense of normalcy, I’ll lose control over my body as well.
I’m embarrassed to admit that in the midst of everything, I’m thinking about my weight. It feels stupid and shameful—I read some bad news about the virus or Trump and all I can think about is whether or not my jeans will fit in a few weeks.
Quarantine and isolation mean different things for people, especially for those recovering from eating disorders. For some of us, it means forgoing a healthy diet, one that we’ve learned to implement that’s both steady and approachable. It’s losing access to gyms and yoga studios and struggling not to calculate the ratio of jumping jacks to calories burned in our living rooms. There are social media posts about the “Quarantine 15,” or the idea that everyone is going to come out of isolation heavier, and those can be incredibly triggering. Maybe we gaze back to familiar habits—binging, restricting, and purging.
I feel ashamed of those thoughts, too. The desire to control my weight so aggressively makes me feel ignorant and insensitive, like I’m contributing to dangerous messaging. But it’s confusing scrolling past a post that reads “How to Avoid the Quarantine 15,” and another that says “Loving My Body, No Matter What.” I want to lean toward the latter, but my old habits are desperately trying to draw me towards the former.
It’s easy to feel like the world as you know it is completely changing shape. Our routines, which are essentially forms of self-imposed control, are disrupted, and we are left feeling helpless. Or at least I am.
And so I ask for help. One of the most beneficial ways I have coped with triggers is through community. I virtually met up with Lindsey Hall, eating disorder advocate and author of the award-winning blog, I Haven’t Shaved in 6 Weeks. I asked her how she was coping with quarantine and the fresh stream of fatphobic messaging.
“[When I see something like that], my perspective is really quite simple: I read it, I witness my instant irritation towards it, and then I attempt to practice empathy and radical forgiveness. I refuse to bathe in the fear it creates,” Lindsey responded.
The fear that Lindsey is referring to isn’t just the fear of gaining weight—it’s the fear of losing control. Some of us have lost jobs, clients, access to self-care methods, hanging out with our friends, a good portion of the outdoors, and a general sense of safety. It’s easy to feel like the world as you know it is completely changing shape. Our routines, which are essentially forms of self-imposed control, are disrupted, and we are left feeling helpless. Or at least I am.
Exercising control by manipulating our bodies is nothing new. While eating disorders affect all genders, women have historically been the victims of diet culture. We learn from a very early age that we can control our bodies through food and exercise. (Brands recognize this, and make it easier for us to find calorie-torching workouts, or low-cal foods like SkinnyPop, SkinnyCow, and SlimFast.) And so when we lose those tools—the gym memberships, the easy access to grocery stores, the “safe” foods—we fear losing control over our bodies. Thus, the eating disorder is triggered.
I was surprised at how many of my friends could empathize with the fear of gaining weight during quarantine. My best friend Kait and I were FaceTiming the other night, and I gently asked about “the food stuff.” Though we’ve both had tumultuous experiences with our EDs, it’s not something we often discuss. But in such a time of fragility, talking about our disorders felt both compassionate and necessary.
We learn from a very early age that we can control our bodies through food and exercise. And so when we lose those tools—the gym memberships, the easy access to grocery stores, the “safe” foods—we fear losing control over our bodies. Thus, the eating disorder is triggered.
“There are two things coming up for me,” Kait said. “One, I don’t have my normal workout, my walk to work, access to my familiar groceries…. And two, I’m forced to be alone. The isolation forces me into a space where I see all the things I wish I could control and don’t or can’t.”
People like to compare children to sponges, but adults are sometimes just as absorbent. In a time of chaos and loss of control, it’s hard not to soak up some of the more negative emotions and messaging. We’ve lost control, we’ve lost our routine, and we’re alone. In these moments, as I confront my triggers, I’m able to offer myself compassion—it’s okay that I’m triggered. I normalize it; I move on.
“It’s scary to vocalize how hard this is, let alone how it immediately heightens our daily
disorders, obsessions, and vices,” Kait added. “But I’m learning the sooner I recognize it and call it what it is, the sooner I get my power back.”
Maybe instead of trying to clutch any remaining fragments of control, we can take this as an opportunity to surrender.
This is all temporary. It’s a much needed reminder Lindsey shared too. The world has pressed pause and forced us to create space to be in our homes, in our bodies, and maybe attempt to appreciate the quiet space within. Maybe instead of trying to clutch any remaining fragments of control, we can take this as an opportunity to surrender.
Isn’t that healthier in the long run, anyway? So much of my preoccupation with food and exercise stems from a desire for physical health—but what about my mental health? How does berating myself for eating a Girl Scout cookie or skipping a workout contribute to my happiness? It doesn’t; it makes me feel lonely and like I’m failing. So I’m trying to acknowledge that I don’t always have control. I can’t say that I’m okay with that—I still scroll through the news or lose a client and start to feel the ol’ eating disorder itch creep in—but I’m acknowledging that now is a particularly sensitive time, so maybe I should be more sensitive to myself. It may be just a step, but I think it’s a step forward.
If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, please visit the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) for more information and support or text “NEDA” to 741-741. Other NEDA resources can be found here.