Right now, people are staying home and practicing social distancing in attempts to “flatten the curve” and lessen the spread of COVID-19, the infectious disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Loneliness and isolation have been inordinately challenging for many folks — and could intensify as time goes on. Fortunately, the internet has produced many ways to find laughter amid the bleak new landscape we find ourselves in; yes, even the coronavirus has been turned into a meme or two. But between photos of cute pets or tweets about exes sliding into DMs, there’s one “joke” that people are making over and over that’s not really funny at all. In fact, it’s pretty harmful.
“The quarantine 15 is the new freshman 15.” “Gonna gain ‘The COVID 19’ after eating all my snacks.” You’ve probably seen some variation of this meme on your Twitter timeline, as many people have arrived at the same choice of words. Whether it contains a SpongeBob gif or a photo series of Keanu Reeves, the punchline of the joke is pretty much the same, and it goes something like this: “I have an abundance of food right now. I’m going to eat it all in a short amount of time. I’m going to gain weight.”
Laughter can be a great form of coping during difficult times; it’s why memes can thrive even during the most challenging situations. But it’s worth remembering that jokes like this are harmful to everyone as they contain underlying themes of fatphobia, and can be especially triggering to people with eating disorders, many of whom are already struggling with triggers in self-isolation.
Why might these jokes be so harmful right now?
The most obvious problem with jokes about the “quarantine 15” or “the COVID 19” is that gaining weight is framed as an inherently bad thing — an idea that’s steeped in fatphobia. While there have certainly been waves of progress in body positivity (as well as body neutrality, or the idea that it’s okay if you just feel neutral about your body) in recent years, society is still poisoned by the idea that being fat (or gaining weight) is “bad” and losing weight is “good.” It’s a message that many of us are taught from a young age, and is reinforced throughout our lives via the media and pop culture. That harmful idea is the driving force behind these memes, and it sends a dangerous message that certain bodies are undesirable — which is simply untrue.
For the 30 million people who deal with an eating disorder in the U.S., these types of jokes can also be incredibly triggering. “Someone with an eating disorder may struggle with binge eating, restricting food, and/or food anxiety,” Maria Rago, PhD, clinical psychologist and president of the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD), tells Allure. “Since they have strong conflicts about eating, it leaves them unsure that eating is okay…. [They] may find it difficult to decide what to eat and how much.”
This is perhaps especially true for folks dealing with binge eating disorder, which, according to one study reported by the National Association of Eating Disorders (NEDA), is three times more common than anorexia and bulimia combined. While someone without an eating disorder might be able to joke about having an abundance of snacks in their pantry, someone with an ED might find that circumstance incredibly stressful, and it can be a trigger for acting on symptoms. “They might think, ‘Oh my god, there’s food there that I wouldn’t normally let myself have,'” explains Melissa McCormick, a licensed mental health counselor with a specialization in eating disorders. “Then there might be obsessing and [compulsive thoughts]. ‘If I use eating disorder behavior, I will feel better. It will lessen the anxiety.'”
Ella, a 30-year-old New Yorker who has dealt with an eating disorder since the age of 12, isn’t a fan of these memes, either. “Everybody’s joking about eating all their quarantine snacks,” she says. “And sometimes that’s what people do. Sometimes people indulge a bit, and that’s normal; that’s part of moderation and how people eat. But I’m also fighting the battle of my binge tendencies and my tendency to be like, Oh, well, I already did one ‘bad’ thing, let me just blow it all to hell. How do you compute those two extremely similar parallel thoughts, and still keep them distant?”
While the abundance of food might produce one form of anxiety, the opposite end of the spectrum is also a trigger minefield. “[A fear of food scarcity] is very much part of having an eating disorder,” McCormick explains, noting that all of the panic-buying at grocery stores has created both real and perceived scarcity anxiety for everyone, which can be exacerbated for someone with an ED. “So this kind of joke makes a mockery of eating disorders,” McCormick adds. “It invalidates how brave everybody is being in this, if they’re experiencing this scarcity. Because for some people, it’s very real.”
What kinds of triggers are people with eating disorders facing during the COVID-19 pandemic?
The combination of isolation, lack of structure, and either abundance or scarcity of food has been a triggering set of circumstances for folks with eating disorders. Heather Senior Monroe, LCSW, director of program development at Newport Academy, a series of centers for adolescents and families struggling with mental health issues, tells Allure that eating disorder behaviors are often coping mechanisms to deal with outside stressors in a person’s life. “During this uncertain time globally, some people with ED histories could relapse as a means to cope with the ever-present stress of the unknown,” she adds.
For Ruth, a 16-year-old living in Ireland, staying home has greatly exacerbated her ED symptoms. “There’s so much time to think about things, pick out all the ‘flaws,’ and obsess over food,” she says, adding that she feels “imprisoned” by her thoughts. “I can’t escape them. The isolation has put me in a bad place, mentally.”
Even without the backdrop of a pandemic, eating disorders can be incredibly isolating conditions. With so much secrecy involved, EDs have a way of infiltrating friendships and relationships, and might cause someone to feel completely alone. “When someone has an eating disorder, eating socially is no longer fun, since managing food takes up such a great deal of time and energy,” Rago says. “As people recover, they are able to connect better with people they care about. But as social isolation is encouraged or enforced, people can tap back into some of the desperate and lonely feelings that are part of the eating disorder.”
For those in recovery, managing known triggers and implementing coping strategies is key. But lately, some people are finding it difficult to stay on a positive track simply because those tactics are no longer an option. Ella says that being out of her normal routine has been “somewhat jarring,” adding that she has grown accustomed to having meals at specific times during her workday, which has helped her maintain healthy habits. But now, that routine has been completely halted. “Being at home, I’ve noticed some things started to creep in. Like, forgetting to eat breakfast until noon and then hearing that voice in my head that would tell me to act on a symptom, or to act on bad habits that I’ve fought for so many years,” she says.
Anna, a 26-year-old who has been battling bulimia for almost a decade, also finds that recent circumstances have interfered with her recovery. “As a general practice, I try not to have a lot of food in the house to avoid binging on it,” she says. “I usually only shop for a few days at a time, but I had to stockpile a lot more last week.” Like Ella, she reports the emergence of dangerous thoughts, adding: “I’m still fighting my ED triggers every single day.”
How can people with eating disorders cope?
The most important thing to remember if you’re struggling with ED triggers is that you’re not alone. If you have a therapist, consider arranging regular sessions over the phone or video chat, or reach out to trusted friends and family members. “If you have someone to share with so you can check in, it will help you be aware of triggers and not act on them,” Rago says.
There are also a host of online resources available. Both ANAD and NEDA provide hotlines for encouragement and support. If you’re more comfortable texting, you can get in touch with Crisis Text Line by texting “NEDA” to 741741. NEDA is also planning on moving its upcoming NEDA Walk event to a virtual experience, allowing people all over the country to connect from their homes. “These virtual walks will provide much-needed comfort and support while maintaining the health and safety of our community, particularly those who are most vulnerable to the virus’ serious complications,” Jessica Hickman, NEDA’s National Walks Director, adds in a statement to Allure.
And though it’s difficult, as things change constantly and there can be an urge to stay updated, it’s also essential to monitor your intake of news surrounding COVID-19. “Stick to one trusted news source like the CDC,” Monroe suggests. She acknowledges that while it’s important to stay informed, it’s also valuable to prioritize your own mental health. “Turn off the news, and turn to self-care. Spend time looking after your physical and emotional well-being.”
And finally remember that you are strong, capable, and resilient. McCormick suggests a series of positive affirmations to help cope with daily triggers: “I have survived before. I can do it again. That was then, this is now. I can do hard things.”
Article originally published on Allure