The pandemic has made the day-to-day lives of every American more difficult, but for those with eating disorders, the social isolation and lack of routine have been especially challenging.
Rhonda Kildea, a Las Vegas-based certified eating disorder specialist, says proactive factors like family and social connections—people seeing you and saying, “I’m concerned about you”—aren’t as common right now. “If we’re isolated, none of that is happening, so food or the lack of food becomes your one and only support system,” Kildea says.
Diagnosing an eating disorder requires a professional, but someone with an eating disorder is characterized as having “severe disturbances” in eating behaviors, along with food-related thoughts and emotions. A “preoccupation with food, body weight and shape can also signal an eating disorder,” the National Institute of Mental Health states.
The most common eating disorders include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder, which all begin with an unhealthy relationship with one’s own body image, or “how you see yourself when you look in the mirror or when you picture yourself in your mind,” according to the National Eating Disorders Association.
“Many of us internalize messages starting at a young age that can lead to either positive or negative body image,” the NEDA states. “Having a healthy body image is an important part of mental well-being and eating disorder prevention.”
The dangers of diet culture
Maintaining a healthy body image can be increasingly difficult for all genders due to societal norms, media pressure and diet culture. Eating disorder recovery advocate Talia Mann describes diet culture as “a system of beliefs that worships thinness and equates it to health and moral virtue.” She says it labels foods as “good and bad” or clean and not clean and constantly promotes weight loss.
Examples of diet culture include internet communities that actually promote anorexia and disordered eating, such as the popular social media hashtag “thinspo” (short for “thinsperation”). The thinspo movement began in the early days of the internet and moved to websites like Tumblr and various “pro-ana” (or “pro-anorexia”) blogs. Many of these websites are still around today and serve as a gateway for people, often young girls and women, encouraging one another to stay dangerously thin.
Some hashtags like #weightloss have been banned from platforms like TikTok, but more covert, seemingly less extreme forms of thinspo exist throughout the world of social media.
Mann, who suffered from an eating disorder for a decade, remembers how impressionable she was, especially when viewing this type of content.
“Unfortunately, young children and adolescents are so susceptible to these types of images that promote extremely skeletal, malnourished bodies,” she says. “I remember looking at stuff like that and thinking, ‘That’s what I want to look like,’ and that’s extremely problematic. There’s a lot of pro-anorexic or pro-eating disorder websites where people are sharing tips on how to engage in these very harmful behaviors. Thinspo is not a word we should throw around loosely. It’s very dangerous.”
A study published by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America concluded that “social media use was significantly associated with increased depression.” While social media has often triggered people dealing with body image issues and eating disorders, isolation during the pandemic could create even more problems.
“It’s impossible to get away from it entirely,” Mann says. “We’ve started seeing things like the ‘quarantine 15’ or, if you’ve gained weight, here’s how to quickly burn it off at home—that kind of stuff.”
Mann says that’s especially damaging, as people are already dealing with their own trauma responses to the pandemic. “Our bodies constantly fluctuate and change,” Mann says, adding that it’s perfectly OK if you gain some weight during quarantine.
A different way of eating
Mann says any message that promotes thinness as an ideal, and dieting as a way to achieve that ideal, is a red flag, even if it appears harmless. She instead recommends intuitive eating, a model that has helped people with chronic dieting and eating disorders, as a way to maintain a healthy relationship with food and their bodies.
“It’s really the only way to address eating issues,” Kildea agrees. “Diet culture begets itself. You go on a diet, diets don’t work long term, and you gain the weight back. It’s the only industry where people blame themselves when it doesn’t work, instead of saying, ‘Maybe diets don’t work.’ Intuitive eating is not ‘eat whatever you want.’ It’s working on eating what your body needs, eating when you’re hungry, stopping when you’re full and taking care of your emotions in a way other than eating [or not eating].”
The principles of intuitive eating, according to intuitiveeating.org, encourage rejecting diet culture (along with the guilt and shame associated with the ups and downs of dieting), “honoring” one’s hunger and nurturing and respecting one’s body in place of depriving the body of food or entire food groups.
Dealing with social media
When it comes to social media, Mann encourages asking oneself, “‘How does this person make me feel?’ If they don’t make me feel great, or they make a comment about diet culture or something that doesn’t align with my values, I have no problem unfollowing. You can choose what you want to see.”
Kildea stresses the importance of talking with a licensed therapist or dietician when one starts to feel that there might be a problem.
“The solution is not a diet or a drastic change in what you’re eating, because that’s just really cutting the weed off at the surface,” she says. “The real solution is talking to a therapist [and figuring out] the reason why these issues are there, [why] you’re coping with emotions.”
Talking through our emotions is even more important during the era of coronavirus. As we continue living in a pandemic and in relative isolation, people need to be mindful of being compassionate toward themselves.
“Even if you don’t feel good about your body, you don’t have to make food choices based on how you feel about your body,” Mann says. “You should make food choices to feed yourself when you’re hungry, even if you don’t feel good about your body that day.”
Her biggest advice? “Don’t stay silent,” she encourages. “Talk to somebody you can trust. You don’t have to hold it in, and you don’t have to suffer.”
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