Disordered Eating: Leaving Stigma Behind and The Impact of the Pandemic

This article includes references to eating disorders and disordered eating behaviours in general. If you are affected by the issues discussed in this article, help is available from the Leeds University Union’s Help and Support team, the University, and organisations like the Beat charity.

Nine months into the COVID-19 pandemic, it was reported that there had been a 128% increase in the number of people waiting for eating disorder treatment compared to the previous year. With our lives thrown into upheaval, the intrinsic link between disordered eating and fear of loss of control has been brought into the spotlight more than ever before. For most of us, our daily routine changed dramatically, and the pandemic brought with it a plethora of stressors — many COVID related, some financial, and for swathes of us, it meant a deterioration in our mental health.

There are many factors that contribute to a manifestation of disordered eating; using food to cope with stress and overwhelming emotions, restricting food to gain a sense of control, overexercising to deal with negative body image, to name a few. So it seems unsurprising to see that the pandemic and the situations we’ve found ourselves indirectly feed into these patterns of behaviour. In 2020, the University of Minnesota Medical School studied 720 young adults and evaluated factors such as psychological distress, stress, financial difficulties, and food insecurity during the pandemic. They found several key factors that led to changes in eating behaviour, with mindless eating and snacking, increased food consumption, eating as a coping mechanism, and a re-emergence and increase in eating disorder symptoms being dominant. 

All of these factors have been widely discussed during the pandemic. Many people have divulged that working from home has increased their propensity to reach for more snacks, many have turned to food to cope with stress, and more people than ever have reached out for help with eating disorder symptoms. As a whole, the pandemic has served as a reminder that how we eat is so deeply intertwined with our mental health and the circumstances of what is happening around us. 

As a result of these factors, many people have taken to the internet to report their ‘quarantine 15’ lockdown weight gain, which, while most likely intended to be flippant and jovial, may have a damaging impact for those already suffering with poor self image and disordered eating. Thirty million people suffer from some form of eating disorder, so the talk of punishing and rectifying weight gain like it’s something to be afraid of can be of great stress, and cause someone who is restricting to do so even more, as well as make someone stuck in a binge purge cycle feel more helpless.

 Nevertheless, it’s not just people with pre-existing food-related issues that this can have an impact on. The sheer volume of this kind of messaging online can make anyone feel stressed and panicked, and people previously unaffected by food and weight and shape have found themselves ruminating over these topics, causing mounting distress.

A few months into the pandemic, I sought help for, and was diagnosed with an eating disorder. It was something I’d been wrestling with for years but hadn’t wanted to divulge for fear that getting treatment meant gaining weight. The increased amount of time at home and inability to busy myself meant that for most of the day I was obsessively thinking about food and my weight. It was pure torment – so much so that I finally reached out to my GP and eventually got the help I needed. Over the course of a year I gained some weight, something that previously would have petrified me, but it was something my body desperately needed. I felt monumentally healthier; I wasn’t freezing all the time anymore, I could concentrate more easily, and I had mountains more energy. 

Most importantly however, though it was a slow and difficult process (which is still ongoing), I learned to accept and appreciate my body and what it could do when I took care of it. I saw the beginning of my recovery journey as learning to feed my brain and body to be able to do the things I enjoyed. Despite the strides I’ve made, the vilification of pandemic related weight gain is still incredibly difficult to digest. It is important for me to see my weight gain as beneficial and a step in the right direction, but how is this possible when I constantly see content that tells me to feel differently? 

In spite of this, the number of body neutrality and self-respect movements rising in popularity on social media and in media in general is encouraging. These aim to emphasise what your body can do rather than what it looks like, unlike the body positivity movement which advocates for unflinching self-love. It’s more about accepting yourself than it is about attributing affectionate labels to your appearance. Katie Budenberg, who runs the Instagram account @make_love_not_diets, has cultivated an impressive following by tearing down diet culture and posting self acceptance and self respect reminders. “It is very rooted in a riot against diet culture and just loving yourself no matter what the scale or society might say about your body”, Budenberg says of the account, where she regularly posts satirical videos and messages of self acceptance.

Stigma still has a fighting presence on social media however, and now the Government is planning to make calorie counts on menus obligatory as part of it’s childhood obesity strategy. In the name of health, we can expect to find metrics alongside our meals which can be incredibly damaging to people with disordered eating habits, or may even contribute to a rise in these habits in young people. Reacting to the proposals, Beat’s Chief Executive Andrew Radford said:

“Requiring calorie counts on menus risks causing great distress for people suffering from or vulnerable to eating disorders, since evidence shows that calorie labelling exacerbates eating disorders of all kinds.

Although we recognise the importance of reducing obesity, research shows that anti-obesity campaigns that focus on weight instead of health are counter-productive, while the number of calories consumed is not a reliable indicator of health.

Public health campaigns need to consider people’s mental health as well as their physical health. They must move away from obesity-shaming to emphasising healthy behavioural changes and instilling confidence into people.”

As Radford explains, obesity is a crisis that needs to be tackled, but these measures seem counterproductive and don’t seem to target the real problem, which is encouraging people to eat healthier. Low calorie content does not indicate health, and rewarding people for low calorie choices can encourage restrictive behaviour, especially if geared towards children. The focus here could rather be making healthier choices more affordable, or providing education around nutrition and healthy eating combined with an active lifestyle.

It is clear that shifts in attitude are desperately needed – socially and institutionally – when it comes to health, body image, and weight. There have been so many challenges to those vulnerable to eating disorders, throughout the pandemic and beyond, and those struggles are still ongoing. Despite the fact that we are beginning to talk more about and accept the self-love and body positivity movements, there is more room for improvement when it comes to tackling the stigma around weight gain and caloric intake. When we talk about waves of the pandemic, we should also be mindful of people who have had mental health struggles unearthed in the wake, and how we as a society can contribute to mitigating the damage that may be caused.

Header Image Credit: Pixabay