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Why the ‘quarantine 15’ conversation can be so harmful

All of us have a different relationship with our refrigerators and pantries, as well as the food in them (CW: disordered eating). And during a pandemic, this paradigm can be scrutinized more than ever, depending on your relationship with food… especially when there’s an explosion of “quarantine 15” memes along with discussion about how much weight we’ve all gained lately and how we feel about it.

When a person has an eating disorder in the midst of a pandemic, every trip to the fridge or pantry and every bite of food that consumed can come with a host of mental warnings: We can’t eat too much. We can’t allow ourselves to gain weight. We can probably skip a meal or two because there’s no fresh produce anyway so nothing is healthy. We’ve consumed enough calories to power you through the day, or the gym is closed so there is no place to burn the calories. And the fears may become more amplified when those of us with eating disorders see an explosion of weight gain-related “quarantine 15” memes, and hear about studies that link obesity with a higher coronavirus mortality rate (via WE Forum). 

Anxiety created by the pandemic is allowing eating disorders to thrive

The pandemic has created the perfect storm for eating disorders to emerge because anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorders are all rooted in anxiety — and we’d be lying if we said we weren’t (excessively?) worried about our health, families, and financial security, particularly at this point in time. “As anxiety increases, which is increasing for everyone, it can be risky for people who don’t have a neutral relationship with food,” eating disorder expert Melainie Rogers, told Insider. “When we feel that external factors are out of control, we focus on things we think we can control such as exercise, weight, and food.”

Those with eating disorders would agree. “It’s an anxious time for everyone, but when I get anxious, I have the tendency to be like, ‘What can I control? Oh, I can control what I’m eating,'” a recovering bulimia and exercise addiction sufferer told Cosmopolitan. Research published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders has also found that food insecurity, which happens when we have limited access to food, is a trigger for binge-eating disorder. This is when you eat large amounts of food and are unable to stop, even when you aren’t full or hungry, and then you feel guilty and depressed about it (via Mayo Clinic). Of course, food insecurity has played a large part in pandemic anxieties, and those are all reasons why “quarantine 15” jokes are harmful.

We need to understand why people are creating these memes, too

We can’t get everyone who might have decided it would be a good idea to make “quarantine 15” jokes and memes to stop, though — after all it may be their own way of coping with the high levels of anxiety that COVID-19 is creating in their lives. “There are valid heightened concerns because people are stressed and care about their wellbeing and health,” dietitian and author Rebecca Scritchfield tpold Insider. “There’s important and valuable role humor plays in coping with trauma. That’s not to defend the memes, but to help make sense of them. To help everyone do less harm.”

But it’s okay to have strong feelings about this content. This is not to say these memes shouldn’t be making some people feel bad, because, as registered dietitian Rachael Hartley tells Insider, “There’s a subtext that you’re out of control with eating, or you have no willpower, or you’re being ‘bad.'”

A good social media detox will help

There are ways for those of us who suffer from an eating disorder to cope with whatever is going on outside; the most important of which is to clean up our social media feeds, and get rid of any unhealthy messages. Staying connected may be important at this time, but as Deborah Glasofer, a psychology expert at the Columbia Center for Eating Disorders warns Cosmopolitan, who and what you follow can make your eating disorder symptoms worse. We aren’t just talking about :quarantine 15″ memes and jokes, either. You might find that having social media feeds full of advice on how to eat, stay fit, and exercise when you’re in quarantine might also tempt you to fall back into old ways, because they make you feel more anxious about your eating habits in quarantine. 

As Kayla Kibbe, who suffers from an eating disorder, writes for Health: “Living with body dysmorphia means I often feel a little quarantined inside my own body. All I can do, like everyone else in various kinds of lockdown both mental and physical right now, is take it one day at a time.”

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