“At their core, disordered eating behaviors are coping strategies,” said Lisa Du Breuil, a psychotherapist who treats patients with eating disorders at Massachusetts General Hospital. “When we’re under stress, we fall back on what’s most familiar. We are all living with this ongoing existential threat. Of course that’s going to show up in your eating.”
Eating disorders thrive during periods of isolation.
When stay-at-home orders were first put in place, therapists and dietitians who treat individuals with eating disorders immediately began to worry about the disruption to their clients’ daily routines. “Pre-Covid, you had lunch breaks, the school day, bedtimes, and all these other external cues that once provided a structure for basic self-care activities,” said Ayana Habtermariam, a nutrition therapist in private practice in Arlington, Va. “Parents are now having to recreate on their own.”
The lack of social interaction was another risk. “Eating disorders thrive in isolation, because there’s already so much shame and stigma; a lot of the behaviors are done in secret,” Millner said. “When you are literally isolated all day and don’t have the same opportunities to sit down and eat with other people, the disorder will intensify.”
As the pandemic has progressed, therapists say the toll of that isolation is only deepening, as people feel increasingly anxious, depressed and lonely. But reopening cities brings new stresses. After all, isolation offers one small reprieve from body dissatisfaction. “I have a lot of clients who have felt some relief from the focus on their body because they’re not seeing other people, and they are able to spend the day in comfortable clothes,” Millner said.
Now, the comfort of that loungewear life is replaced by new fears around whether old clothes will fit, or if others will notice how our bodies have changed. “You may also be worrying about whether your kids’ bodies have changed, and will people judge you for that,” Millner said.
This transition is heightened by social media memes about the “Quarantine 15,” many of which are directed at mothers. “The primary lesson diet culture teaches us is that we should beat ourselves up for every mistake we make,” said Irina Gonzalez, a mom in Fort Myers, Fla., who gave birth to her first child on March 30.
Gonzalez said having a newborn during a pandemic has been difficult: “None of our friends were able to come over and offer that new-mom comfort of bringing meals; I don’t have that village of support that I had heard about.”