Zoë Bell is a Canadian journalist based in the U.K., where she is currently completing a master’s degree in International Journalism at City, University of London.
More than one million Canadians suffer from a diagnosed eating disorder, a situation made worse by enduring day-to-day triggers. Those can come in the form of stress, change and representations in the media and online. A loss of routine, being separated from friends and family who can support you, and being stuck in toxic environments all pose deep threats to those in recovery.
In short, the very issues that have come with the COVID-19 pandemic.
For those with eating disorders, the lockdown has piled up triggers and inflamed their effects to the extreme. A noxious diet culture has surged in recent months, from the influx of home workouts on social and mainstream media to constant jokes about gaining the “Quarantine 15." Being stuck at home during the coronavirus pandemic isn’t just a battle against boredom – it’s become downright dangerous for so many Canadians.
Recall that when fears over the pandemic first began, reports of panic buying at the grocery store were rampant. This broader pressure to stockpile food in order to reduce trips to the store, amid anxieties around food security and the supply chain, was a risk for disordered eating behaviour, according to Canada’s National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC). The organization reports that their helpline has seen at least a 30-per-cent increase in demand since physical-distancing measures began.
And then, of course, there’s the isolation. According to NEDIC, many in-hospital programs for eating disorder treatment have been suspended, leaving people to work on their recovery at home, alone. While online support groups are available, physical distancing makes it much easier to hide unhealthy eating habits – especially for those who live solo.
For many, isolation has driven us to social-media networks. But with gyms closed around the country, fitness centres, personal trainers and social-media influencers quickly moved their workout programs online. There is nothing wrong with promoting fitness in itself: Exercise has huge benefits for one’s mental and physical well-being. But the language used in fitness content tends to connect our actions during lockdown – sitting more, eating more, possibly even drinking more – with the potential to gain weight.
It has reinforced how people often frame exercise as something related to the food we eat. Motivational workout slogans often insinuate that we “earn” good food and that we can counteract “indulging” with hard exercise. The language for fitness is often negative: we “blast” fat, “crush” calories, “destroy” abs – perpetuating the idea that exercise, as healthy as it can be, is a kind of self-punishment.
Although typically created with good intentions, workout videos and tag-your-friends fitness challenges have come to dominate Instagram streams, even more so during this pandemic, which has made social media – a lifeline for many folks enduring this crisis – a minefield for those with tendencies toward over-exercising, an eating-disorder symptom. Alarmingly, TikTok has even seen an increase in “pro-ana” – pro-anorexia content – since the lockdown started, in which users discuss dangerous weight loss techniques.
A couple pounds gained during a global pandemic should be peanuts compared to surviving it. Yet, as a society, our mindset around food, exercise and weight continues to put thinness at the forefront of health, even though the two are not always linked and it is only one determinant of health.
Social determinants of health, including environmental factors – access to green space, for example – health care and income levels, are as important to consider, especially in the context of the coronavirus pandemic.
Though I do not personally have an eating disorder, I often find myself struggling with body image concerns, and I can be extremely critical of my eating and exercising habits – and that feeling has only been amplified during the lockdown. I have found myself connecting my lack of social life and cancelled plans with unsustainable fitness goals. I catch myself thinking, “If I’m not having fun, I might as well get fit.” Thinking about fitness and food offers an escape from worrying about the virus, and helps me convince myself that I’m “achieving” something during lockdown.
But as we stare down a summer full of restrictions, it is crucial to break this link between fitness, weight and the coronavirus lockdown. During the most stressful and uncertain period in most of our lives, we owe it to ourselves to treat our bodies with kindness.
As a journalist, I realize I must watch the language I use when writing about fitness, food and weight to avoid contributing to a culture that pathologizes bigger bodies – but as a person who struggles with my own body image issues, I know I also need to watch the stories I tell myself about my fitness habits.
The media – including those of us who use social media or produce online videos – must reflect this, too, by framing exercise as a positive choice, rather than a punishing obligation. Social-media users also must be mindful of how seemingly harmless jokes can trigger others.
Fears about the virus are normal, but fears about weight gain should not be. During this time of extreme vulnerability, compassion – for others and for ourselves – is key, as we work to internalize what the writer Damian Barr tweeted: “We are not all in the same boat. But we are in the same storm.”
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