by Hanna Carney //
Trigger Warning: this article discusses eating disorders and body image.
Everyone can appreciate a good ice breaker question. The rare thought-provoker can save you from having to listen to the all-too-monotonous answers of your classmates during syllabus week. One of my professors tried to get creative by asking us “how have your eating habits changed during COVID?” This question took me aback. What a specific, personal, and possibly triggering question to ask. And this same question was asked again in another one of my classes later that same day. I assume that my professors had nothing but good intentions. But from their perspectives as privileged, white men, they may not have understood how inappropriate such a question could be–especially now.
Why is there such an emphasis on eating and body image during the pandemic? I remember downloading Tik Tok during quarantine in March and being bombarded with Chloe Ting challenges, complaints about post-COVID weight gain, before and after pictures, etc. And these trends have not alleviated. Recently, people have been hula hooping to lose inches on their waists. I feel like every day I hear someone mention intermittent fasting. #WhatIEatInADay is making its way around social media with people listing their calories for the day, and some of these numbers are dangerously low. Diet culture has seemingly always existed in the United States, but why has there been an upsurge since the beginning of the pandemic?
Perhaps the danger that COVID poses to our bodies is festering in the American Psyche. As Lalita Abhyankkar writes in “Anorexia in the Time of COVID,” “eating disorders are only partially about body dysmorphia and body image. They often stem from an attempt to achieve control while in a state of anxiety or uncertainty.” Therefore, the anxieties that come with living through a pandemic are risk factors for those who suffer from eating disorders or struggle with body image. Since the beginning of 2020, people have experienced isolation due to quarantine and social distancing. Most of us had to stay at home near full-time. We’ve had to restrict our grocery runs, so a lot of us have been at home with overly-stocked fridges and pantries. Those who are underweight or obese have been added to the list of those at risk. And, of course, we’ve been exposed to the endless discourse on social media surrounding weight gain and weight loss (both pandemic-related and otherwise). These examples do not constitute a comprehensive list of risks that the pandemic has posed to those with eating disorders. There is an undeniable overlap between COVID and these disorders as one exaggerates the other.
This overlap can be seen in the way medical care resources have been exhausted as a result of both afflictions. The National Eating Disorders Association reports that they received a 70% increase in the number of calls and chat inquiries from 2019 to 2020. Just as we saw hospital beds full of COVID patients, inpatient eating disorder units became full. Those unable to receive inpatient care were put on waiting lists. Clearly, the stress that COVID has put on our healthcare system has extended to eating disorders and mental health in general.
When we speak of the pandemic, we obviously refer to the spread of COVID throughout the world. But perhaps the implications of our use of “pandemic” should include the current mental health crisis associated with COVID. Pathologies like anxiety, depression, and eating disorders seem to be comorbid with living through a pandemic, so we should acknowledge and attend to these serious issues. Just as you put on a mask to protect your family and strangers on the sidewalk, or socially distance from your friends, you should make it common practice to check in on yourself and others. We must be aware that this pandemic is far more widespread in ways we don’t always consider.
For urgent services, you may reach the 24/7 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the 24/7 National Crisis Text Line by texting HELLO to 741741, or the 24/7 National Lifeline Crisis Chat service here.
For support, resources, and treatment options for yourself or a loved one, you may contact the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline. You may call (800) 931-2237, text (800) 931-2237 from the hours of 3-6pm Monday through Thursday, or you can access the chat feature here. For crisis situations, text “NEDA” to 741741 to be connected with a trained volunteer at Crisis Text Line.
If you are a member of Cornell University, Cornell Health Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) is available to all students at Cornell University. If you feel you are in need of psychological services, you may call to set up an appointment with CAPS at 607-255-5155 or visit their website here. For urgent services, you may reach the Cornell Health 24/7 phone consultation line at 607-255-5155 and press 2.