By Tasha Ratti
Illustrations by crazyheadcomics.Instagram: @crazyheadcomics
Dear body - thank you for carrying me through the day. Thank you for gifting me the ability to move. For allowing me to dance and jump and sing and smile. For allowing me to feel the warmth of a hug. For enabling me to experience the world – to see, to touch, to feel. Thank you for keeping me healthy. Thank you for being my home.
Social isolation can be an extremely triggering time for someone who has an unhealthy or disordered relationship with food and their body. Whether this be an eating disorder, or a battle with food and body image more generally, the current advice to stay at home and the various impacts this has can be challenging. This article aims to gently draw attention to why these people may be finding things difficult at the moment, and makes the case that although it is important we encourage the desire to use this time productively and to make positive changes, it is equally important that we establish an attitude that embraces bodily acceptance. Repeat after me: It’s okay to gain weight whilst at home, it’s okay if our bodies change because our routine has.
All of a sudden, we are being asked to attune to a new normality. Life has been stripped of routine. How this affects someone who has a disordered relationship with food and their body is really quite complex. The thing is with eating disorders, is that everyone’s mentality and stories are entirely unique, because EDs differ distinctly in type and severity. What I can’t do, is accurately expand on every single reason why people with EDs may be struggling. However, here is a glimpse of my personal experiences and thoughts from over the past few weeks.
What I’ve found most difficult, is the fact that normal routine and daily structure has vanished. This abrupt absence of structure has meant that, for me, my days now revolve more heavily around mealtimes. Being at home also means I’m spending a lot more time than usual in the kitchen, or in close proximity to it, and am therefore consistently battling the awareness of being surrounding by food in some form or another. This has triggered a noticeable increase in the frequency of thoughts I have about food. Since I have also been gifted with what feels like more time, this has increased the amount of attention I am able to give to these intrusive and unwelcome thoughts. What may seem like a really insignificant and trivial aspect of staying at home for most people, for someone who suffers an eating disorder, these things can be really difficult.
Disordered thoughts thrive in isolation. Unhealthy thought patterns feel remarkably more exaggerated, magnified, as well as more frequent, the more time you spend alone. They also thrive on loss of control. Despite maintaining a deliberate mindset of peace and patience as we watch this unfold, feelings of uncertainty are unescapable. No matter how positive we remain, there’s a sense of unpredictability intrinsically intertwined into any ever-changing and unprecedented situation. Intrusive and disordered thoughts, for me, also manifest quite gradually. They are so subtle it’s often difficult to recognise and counteract them.
For others, visible body changes may be triggering. Weight fluctuation (an entirely normal and inevitable response to our lives being a little bit different right now) can powerfully reinforce unhealthy behaviours surrounding food. People may feel concerned that isolation will result in their eating patterns and behaviours becoming analysed more critically by the people they live with. Others may feel overly worried about the limitations on exercising. What are the effects of households stockpiling? How about the impacts of supermarkets being understocked?
In addition to these factors are the pressures online – pressures which, since we are most likely spending more time on screens in quarantine, we are being exposed to more than normal. As someone who’s really mindful about the content I consume on social media, I’ve noticed an overwhelming increase in the volume of posts about quarantine diets, at-home-bootcamps, jokes about weight gain and quarantine snacking, and even fat phobic content. In a world consumed by appearance and image, I’m not in any way surprised about the narrative currently circulating social media. However, how wonderful would it be if as an online community we were slightly more mindful and considerate about the negative effects this type of content can have on individuals? I think it’s so important to advocate and promote the decision to use this time to make positive and productive changes - exercising and eating well are both so important. However, I believe we need to find a balance - one between encouraging these positive things, whilst adopting an attitude of body acceptance. The mindset that it’s okay to gain weight whilst at home and that it’s okay for our bodies to change because our routine has need to be given more attention.
What follows is some guidance about small changes you can implement in order to help you get through this period of quarantine, if you’re concerned your relationship with food and body isn’t at its best.
You are in charge of what you consume on social media. Detox your feed of any fatphobic content and unfollow anyone who is adding to the pressures that this time needs to be used to lose weight. Be honest with yourself about the impact certain accounts have on you. In addition, ensure that you are exposing yourself to a diverse range of body types. Seeing different body types existing happily and comfortably is a fundamental aspect to acquiring a healthy body image. Remove any content which has the potential to trigger negative comparison, or content which may cause you to feel your body is inadequate. This isn’t to say that everything you expose yourself to on social media has to be positive – accounts which remind us of our privileges and keep us informed are so important. However, be mindful of what you consume. I recently came across a body positive online magazine The Unedit, which includes a remarkable advice column by @bodyposipanda
CULTIVATE YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH FOOD
Food is no one’s enemy. Food is tradition, it’s creativity, it’s comfort. Food brings people together. Food is culture. Food is fuel. Bake and cook with those you are in quarantine with, arrange a meal with your grandparents over facetime. Celebrate the role food plays in social cohesion during this period. Enjoying food is also never something that should be associated with guilt. Eating snacks is okay. Do not feel guilty about that quarantine snack. Don’t allow anyone to make you to feel guilty about enjoying delicious food. The guilt associated with eating, when you consider the fact that hunger and taste are both necessities to human survival, is really quite illogical. Food is to be enjoyed. Food is the fuel that keeps us going.
Small changes like waking up at a regular time and getting dressed every day can make the days feel more normal. Constructing a vague timetable about what you want to achieve each day can minimise the feeling that you’re confined to your home and remove the perception that days seems to consist only around breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Set a goal for the end of the week, set a goal for the end of the month. Read that book you’ve always wanted to. Draw. Go for a walk, call your friend, send a postcard. There are endless activities and ideas which you can incorporate into your day; ones which help recover a sense of normality.
Try to adapt a mindset which makes peace with the fact that weight fluctuation is entirely normal and natural during this period of time. Whilst it is admirable to see people making positive changes, such as using this time to get in shape, remember that no one is under any obligation to do this. This period of time can be used in so many productive ways – for reflection, for development, to read, to create, to rest.
I don’t want to compartmentalise eating disorders to affecting solely females, as all genders can experience a disordered relationship with food - studies suggest that up to a quarter of people living with eating disorders are male. However, if someone identifies as a woman, it is highly likely that any negative relationship with food has in some way been impacted by the societal construction of femininity. Body positivity encompasses our individual relationship with our own bodies, and for a female, it embodies deconstructing the very flawed and dangerous narrative which has been fed to women. When a narrative exists which objectifies women’s bodies for the attraction of others, and where the pre-requisites for attraction are unattainable body shapes and sizes, what we have created is a narrative where girls will only feel happy, confident, and positive about their bodies if they are able to achieve unattainable physiques. Body positivity symbolises unlearning this conditioned idea. It symbolises realising that the purpose of your body is not to be an inanimate commodity for the pleasure and judgement of others. How others or society view your body is irrelevant. Your body does not exist for anyone; your body exists for you. It symbolises understanding that are not just a body, but that you are a multi-dimensional person, one with an identity beyond your size and shape. You are your interests, your passions, your talents. You are your successes, your creations, your kindness, your ideas. Envision how much space and energy is currently being taken up by thoughts about food, size, exercise, and numbers - imagine all the things that could fill this space instead.
TALK TO SOMEONE
If you’re finding things difficult, confide in and talk to someone you trust. There will always be someone willing to listen; someone who loves you and wants to help. If you don’t feel comfortable or safe doing this with a family member or friend, there are numerous helplines and support groups online. Beat have a helpline for under 25’s daily from 3pm – 10pm on 08088010711, and Young Minds provide a free 24/7 crisis support service for anyone who may be experiencing a mental health crisis where you can text YM to 85258 for urgent help.
YOU’RE NOT ALONE
To anyone reading this who may be finding things difficult, it’s really important you understand you are not alone. A really painful aspect of disordered relationships with food are the feelings of embarrassment and shame associated with them. Disordered relationships with food are common. So many people are going through something similar to you. The NHS reports that 6.4% of the adult population – about 1 in every 15 people - will display signs of an eating disorder. This is likely to be an immense underestimate, as it only includes those known to medical services who are seeking or receiving treatment. It’s predicted that there are about 4 million people in total suffering with EDs in the UK when we take into account the vast amount of undiagnosed people in the community. Shockingly, 8% of women will have bulimia at some stage in their life. Therefore, it’s important that people are aware they aren’t alone in their experiences. When 80-85% of people with an eating disorder are not underweight, it’s really easy to forget this. Beat have actually reported a 30% increase in demand of their services during the coronavirus outbreak. Be compassionate and understanding with yourself that during what’s a disorientating and uncertain time, some days will be good, and others not so good, and that’s okay.
To end this piece, I just want to re-iterate to anyone who needs to hear this: You do not need to use this time to lose weight. It’s okay to gain weight whilst in quarantine. It’s okay if your body changes because your routine has. Your body might get softer in the stillness, and that’s okay. Bodily changes are entirely normal, natural, and inevitable as a result of our lives being a little bit different right now.
How to best tell someone you have an eating disorder
As this has been written from the perspective of a female, the content may not be entirely relatable to everyone. For more information and advice regarding EDs, the charities Beat, Anorexia & Bulimia Care, and Young Minds provide amazing resources and support.