Content note: This article contains detailed descriptions of what it’s like to live with an eating disorder.
In the first weeks of the pandemic, my main concerns were survival-based. Was my income going to take a hit? Was I going to get sick? Were the stores going to look like a disaster movie indefinitely? I’m lucky and grateful that most of these issues have worked themselves out.
The people around me adapted to pandemic life pretty easily too. My fiancé became an overnight baking enthusiast while my friends started a group chat where we share our daily meals or the viral TikTok recipes making the rounds (quick recap to the Dalgona coffee days, anyone?)
In fact, food quickly became all anyone could talk about.
My feed became inundated with mouthwatering headlines about how to make breakfast cereal out of mini pancakes and three-step creme brulee. Even some of the celebrity accounts I follow for fun have become food montages — Selena Gomez recently shared her go-to cooking tunes on Spotify and announced plans to star in a cooking series on HBO.
I get it. The words “global” and “pandemic” paired together echo a severity that is hard for anyone to wrap their mind around. It makes sense that a common way of dealing with this scary time is to quite literally nurture ourselves.
But for me, food isn’t so simple. I was diagnosed with Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder (OSFED) at 16, and I’ve been in recovery for just over 2 years now. Pre-COVID-19, my relationship with food had progressed to a mostly normal and balanced level.
Thanks to structure and the presence of daily routines, I learned to make food secondary to my work, friendships, and family. But staying in all day, every day, coupled with the online emphasis on self-isolation recipes and a less busy schedule (I used to build my day around work, my friends, and going to the gym) means I now carve my day around the meals I cook and consume.
According to the director of services from BEAT, the UK’s leading eating disorder charity, calls to their helpline have increased by 50 percent alongside a 78 percent rise in social media contact. They attribute this to the change in routines, living situations, and diet plans, which can be triggering to someone with an ED.
Melissa A. Fabello, PhD, a feminist wellness educator whose work focuses on body politics and eating disorders, has found that the pandemic is intensifying feelings of depression and anxiety. It’s no surprise eating disorders are on the rise as well, she says.
Eating disorders affect an estimated 30 million people in the United States alone, which doesn’t even account for those who experience disordered eating, a set of harmful habits and behaviors that don’t meet the diagnosis standard. And despite often being portrayed a white, cis woman’s illness, they touch all ages, genders, and sexual orientations.
Eating disorders manifest in many ways, from a refusal to eat to bingeing and purging to being fixated on “healthy eating.”
For me, it was like an endless Excel sheet of numbers in my mind — I would find myself doing the math of every bite consumed, surrendering myself to the never-ending permutations and combinations of the caloric value each bite of food held. That’s how it went every single day, like a standard questionnaire my mind had to fill out for my body, and it was never satisfied.
As if that weren’t enough, my eating disorder brought along uninvited guests such as body dysmorphia, depression, and anxiety. My path to recovery was a bumpy one. The more demons I wrestled with, the more complicated my mental health struggle became. And now I’m feeling my mental state deteriorate once again due to the loneliness and lack of external stimulation.
One day I came across an online support group on Instagram that holds weekly programs where people struggling with an ED can meet up virtually to share their struggles and just foster a sense of community and belonging.
The founder, Diane, says that in this pandemic, pervasive diet culture has found a way to exploit people’s self-image fears during a vulnerable time. There have also been countless “quarantine fit” challenges and a barrage of memes that unintentionally promote fatphobia and shaming.
On the surface, these fitness memes and challenges are simply encouraging “healthy” behavior, right? Not exactly sinister. But I’ve seen far too many of these accounts set weight loss goals and give info on how to cut out unhealthy snacking. Even though I know they’re capitalizing on people’s fears, my stomach still sinks every time I see a post.
I do my best to unfollow these accounts and have even gone on a couple of social media detoxes since the pandemic started. Unfortunately, most of my job involves remaining active on social media, so it’s a pretty unsustainable solution.
Recovering from an ED isn’t as simple as deciding to eat three balanced meals in a day — it’s an uphill mental struggle.
1. Validating my struggle
The first step in dealing with this has been to allow myself the space to struggle and try not to lose myself down a rabbit hole of blame and anger. It would be unfair to expect myself not to struggle — these are unprecedented circumstances.
2. Asking for what I need from family
I’ve also started talking to the people close to me about my struggles. As a result, my family and friends now consciously try not to talk too much about food, which makes me feel supported and less isolated and therefore less anxious. Their support also reminds me that it’s not all just in my head. These are very real problems with very real consequences.
Plus, this has prompted them to schedule regular hangout sessions as a way to keep my mind off things, and it helps them with their boredom too. We Netflix Party almost every weekend and work out together on Zoom a few times a week.
3. Working with a professional
My therapist now gives Zoom counseling — which has been a tremendous help — and got me to try journaling. This makes me plan out the whole day, which helps me avoid making the day food-centric. All these strategies have been helpful in shifting my focus away from food and onto the importance of the healthy, supportive relationships in my life.
4. Surrendering to the uncertainty
I try not to put too much pressure on myself. It’s OK if my recovery takes a little hit right now. The important part is trying to take a small step toward healing the next day. Yes, the future is hazy and distant right now, but we shouldn’t rob ourselves of the proper self-love and care that we deserve.
Zee Praise is a content strategist and writer who focuses on self-help, lifestyle, and entrepreneurship pieces. You can connect with her on Twitter or Facebook and read some of her work over at Medium.