TW: dieting, eating disorders
Societal Pressures and Covid-19
Society and weight gain has always had a long and unhealthy history. With the pandemic, and the so-called “Quarantine 15,” a spin-off of the “Freshman 15,” the perpetuation of diet culture has only increased. This is very dangerous, as dieting has a direct link to developing eating disorders. A higher use of the internet and social media has also expanded the reach of this issue. There is a detestably large amount of advice articles on the internet that provide tips for how to ‘Lose That Quarantine 15.’ With more activity on social media, there’s been an increase of weight loss pressure, especially with TikTok and other popular social media apps.
The generalization that people have only gained weight during quarantine is untrue, and can be dangerous. Everyone’s bodies and situations are different, thus everyone’s reactions to their environment will be different too– especially if that environment is suddenly changing. This leads to not only weight gain, but weight loss. In some cases, people have also used this quarantine as motivation for getting fit and working out; others have lost their motivation to thrive day to day. Everyone has dealt with the stress of the pandemic differently, and it’s important to recognize that everyone needs support during times like these. This includes supporting people who have gained weight during quarantine. The guilt of simply eating or not exercising only piles onto the already stressful time the world is enduring– people are worrying about paying their bills, staying alive, unemployment, and overflowing hospitals. So, we really don’t need diet culturing piling onto our already overtaxed brains.
Fixating on someone’s weight during this time is a problem in and of itself. Why, during a large life changing historical event, would focus be on a number on a scale? While it is true that others are looking to avoid the stress of news about Covid-19, turning the focus onto weight not only increases people’s anxiety, but can add guilt and perpetuate further harmful ideas. Commenting on someone’s weight or size is incredibly invasive, and it is ultimately no one’s business.
Dieting and Eating Disorders
One of the many facets of diet culture is the connection between body size and how moral, good, or worthy one is. In essence, the size of someone’s waist would determine if they are worthy of love– a completely false and made-up narrative. Because of this false idea, a large percentage of the population diets, and Americans spend an estimated 66$ billion annually on dieting.
People who diet moderately are five times more likely to develop an eating disorder. For those with extreme food restrictions, the rate increases to 18.
These are, frankly, terrifying statistics, especially when more than half of young teenagers, specifically girls, diet. This statistic is only growing. Popular social media apps such as TikTok or Instagram have algorithms that make it very easy to find toxic dieting tips or to watch restrictive “What I Eat in a Day” videos. While some parts of social media advocate for self-love, body positivity, or body neutrality, there are some areas of the internet that can be very harmful to people who look at it.
The Pandemic and Mental Health
The pandemic has been felt in many ways, whether through the economy, our physical health, and our social interactions with others. One very important part of our overall health and well-being is our mental health, and that has definitely been negatively affected by the pandemic and quarantine. An increase of worry and stress, along with isolation and job loss, are some of the factors that have impacted out mental health.
A poll made in July 2020 by the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) showed that 53% of people felt that their mental health had been negatively impacted by the pandemic. This is an increase from their first poll in March, which had 32%. It can be speculated that this number has risen even higher since July, as many more months have passed since then. Many of the people who took the KFF poll spoke of specific negative side effects, such as:
- 32% reported difficulty sleeping
- 32% reported difficulty eating
- 12% reported an increase in alcohol and substance use
- 12% reported worsening chronic conditions
Research shows that job loss is associated with increased depression, anxiety, distress, and low self-esteem. Job loss can also increase rates of alcohol and substance abuse. With around 30 million Americans losing their jobs during the pandemic, this can greatly affect overall health and well-being.
There’s a large body of research that shows that social isolation and loneliness, something that a lot of individuals have been feeling and dealing with during quarantine, are linked to poor mental health. Research from the SARS epidemic in 2003 showed that people who were quarantined exhibited signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression:
- 28.9% showed signs of PTSD
- 31.2% exhibited signs of depression
Health care workers show higher signs of stress and negative mental health than the general public. With an overwhelming number of hospitalizations from Covid-19, burnout in hospitals is very high, particularly in nurses. A KFF tracking poll from April found that 64% of households with a health care worker have at least one adverse effect from stress and worry over the pandemic.
Weight and Quarantine
While there hasn’t been much actual research done on weight gain during quarantine, it is obvious that the media attention has inflated the amount of people who are actually gaining weight. In fact, one study shows that only 22% of the participants said that they increased weight by around 5-10 pounds. A large majority of its participants, around 60%, reported that their weight remained stable. In a different poll, around 50% of people say they gained weight. This poll also found that around 70% of U.S. respondents and 35% global respondents said that stress-eating was the main cause of their weight gain.
This data is inconclusive, and it’s likely the full extent of quarantine weight gain can be properly determined once the pandemic is actually over. Nevertheless, whether one has gained weight, lost weight, or has a constant weight during quarantine, it doesn’t matter. Someone’s value or worth is not decided by their weight, or what size clothing they wear, especially during quarantine.
Break Away from Diet Culture
The connection of all three of these things ⎯an increase in eating disorders and exposure to diet culture, negatively impacted mental health during the pandemic, weight gain during quarantine⎯ all create the increased stigma and danger surrounding quarantine weight gain. So, what are some ways we can break away from this toxic culture?
- Recognize Diet Culture
Before you can find ways to break the cycle, you need to recognize diet culture in yourself and all around you. Think about how you may talk or think about yourself and others, are you shaming them or yourself’s weight? What kind of media are you absorbing? Are your social media feeds generally body-positive or body-negative, and how do you react to those kinds of posts? Understanding and interpreting your impact on diet culture, or how much diet culture you absorb will help you take a step back and think differently about yourself and others. Without recognition, there is no way you can break the cycle.
- Take a Social Media Break
While Instagram and other social media sites might be great for inspiration when it comes to nutrition and fitness, this can also cause a lot of comparisons and shame. If, when you’re scrolling through social media, you start feeling shame or guilt, or start comparing yourself to others and not feeling great about yourself, recognize it. Understand where these negative emotions are coming from and take a step back. This could be deleting the app all together, or taking less drastic changes like unfollowing certain people, or trying to use the algorithm in your favor to show you different posts that might not make you feel as bad. This is one way of both recognizing diet culture and breaking the cycle of diet culture.
- Break the Cycle
There is more than one way you can help break the cycle of diet culture, especially during the pandemic where stress and guilt can already be at an all-time high. If you’re someone who works out a lot, or puts a lot of focus on your weight, ask yourself why, or how, that thinking affects you. Try and take the focus off weight when creating more body-positive habits and a more positive mindset. Recognize that excessive workout routines or a heightened focus on weight only offers the illusion of control in this Covid-19 world where you might feel very out of control. Ask yourself why you think weight gain is something to be ashamed of and take steps to break away from those influences. Take time to relearn the truth, that weight gain is not inherently evil, or something to fear.
- Find Ways to De-stress
There are lots of reasons to be stressed during quarantine, especially if you have additional guilt or stress because of weight gain. Obviously, this is different for everyone, as everyone has different hobbies or different things they find relaxing. Going outside, either for a walk around our neighborhood or going for a family hike in the woods, are effective relaxation methods. A lot of people have rediscovered how calming and beautiful nature can be, even if it’s very cold during the winter in some areas. Other than that, you could read books, or enjoy other calming hobbies you might have. Make sure these de-stressing activities are healthy, both for your mind and your body. Stress eating or a strict workout routine can help with short term stress relief, or give the illusion of control, but you need to make sure you’re doing these activities for the right reasons, not the wrong ones.
Sage is a 16 year old junior in Howard County, MD. She spends her time drawing, painting, and participating in her community through protests, and fighting what she believes is right. She’s very passionate about art and writing, and believes that it can bring communities together, impact people into learning new things, and can change peoples opinions towards a better future.