By: Abby Loomis
Sometimes after sitting at my desk for 7 hours listening to Zoom lectures, my mind drifts back to the early days of the pandemic, when life seemed a lot easier. We had dalgona coffee, Tiger King and a two week long spring break! What could be better? If you were like me, you probably thought that this would be the perfect time to start working out, especially with the new Chloe Ting Two Week Shred everyone was talking about (the first video has 336 million views!).
But as we all know, the pandemic lasted a bit longer than two weeks. Quickly, what was a fun break from school became a concerning and life altering event. Schools began to announce that they may not open in the fall, and would likely continue online classes. People were laid off from their jobs, forced to move back in with their parents or adjust to an entirely new format of learning.
Life was upended, and any semblance of normalcy was quickly lost, taking a large toll on everyone, especially those with mental health issues. While this exacerbated all mental illnesses, I am going to be discussing how the pandemic not only affected those with restrictive eating disorders, but how it also caused an increase in disordered eating in those without a previous history of eating disorders.
First, it is important to understand what exactly eating disorders are and what can cause them. According to Psychiatry.org, “[e]ating disorders are behavioral conditions characterized by severe and persistent disturbance in eating behaviors and associated distressing thoughts and emotions”. One does not need to starve themselves in order to have an eating disorder, they may purposefully cause themself to throw up their food, consume large amounts of food without control during a binge, or obsessively restrict their diets. One’s genes can put them at a greater risk of an eating disorder, but according to Eating Disorders.org, it is oftentimes one’s environment that can lead to the development of eating disorders.
Major stressors and traumas, like assault or home instability, can lead one to develop an eating disorder. And, from personal experience and medical evidence, disordered eating is often a way for one to feel in control of their life, as for many it is hard to control their external environment, but they can control what and how much they eat.
COVID-19 provided more than enough stressors that could lead to or exacerbate pre-existing eating disorders, such as isolation, job instability, deaths of loved ones and chaos surrounding supermarkets (i.e. food shortages and possibility of getting COVID-19). In fact, according to a recent survey of those who have eating disorders, 53% of those in the U.S. reported that they were ‘very concerned’ about their eating disorder being exacerbated “due to a lack of structure”.
As well, the COVID-19 era is also notable for the shift towards online learning, and the use of Zoom in particular. We all know what it feels like to have your camera on and constantly worry about whether or not we are making the right facial expressions or if our face really looks like that. In fact, a study found that 86% of dermatologists reported that patients were “citing video-conferencing calls” as a reason to seek cosmetic care. But this increased body awareness associated with Zoom is yet another factor which can contribute to or worsen disordered eating. Many people with eating disorders avoid mirrors in order to avoid triggering themselves, but with Zoom they are constantly confronted by their reflection and by proxy, constantly confronted by harmful thoughts about their appearance, which could lead to a relapse into disordered eating.
However, there is another factor which has exacerbated disordered eating. With all of this free time, we have all spent an immense amount of time on social media, either making content or watching others. Experts know that social media, particularly Tik Tok, which has gained popularity during the pandemic, has a negative impact on body image and can be used to proliferate disordered eating habits in the form of ‘weight loss tips’ or intentionally triggering images which are referred to as “thinspo”. Even well meaning content, such as workout routines, can feed into disordered eating behaviors without any intent by the creator. For example, in the comment section of the previously mentioned Chloe Ting Two Week Shred, one does not need to scroll far to find comments reminiscent of 2016 pro-anorexia Tumblr, such as ‘body checks’.
During the pandemic we have used social media and the Internet as a whole in order to keep ourselves occupied and in touch with others in order to preserve our mental stability, but for many it has a deteriorating effect. We have too much time alone with ourselves in which we can pick ourselves apart in the mirror, bit by bit. And then once we go back online, it is easy to find content which can decrease our self worth even further.
But what can we do? In the face of constantly mounting stressors and triggers, how can we protect ourselves from developing or falling back into disordered eating habits? The Center for Discovery advises that we should attempt to provide structure for ourselves, setting aside specific times for eating, sleeping, and partaking in our hobbies, as well as limiting social media use. By setting aside time to take care of ourselves and incorporating that into our daily structure, it is easier to ensure that we actually do those things instead of forgetting about them or brushing them aside amidst the chaos of quarantine. As well, it is of utmost importance to connect with loved ones to alleviate feelings of isolation, even if it is only for a quick call. While we cannot eliminate all of the stressors of COVID and possible triggers for eating disorders, we must put in the effort to take care of ourselves even when it is difficult. When we notice ourselves slipping into harmful behaviors, we must step back and focus our energies on self-care. There is no shame in asking for help or calling a hotline. This is a time of immense chaos and stress, and we need to ensure our wellbeing and mental stability.
National Eating Disorders Hotline
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline