In the face of the coronavirus and fears about loved ones’ health, the status of our jobs, our 401(k)s and the uncertainty of when life will return to status quo — as well as many other things — it’s natural to seek ways to lighten the mood and have a laugh.
“We are all in a highly stressful and anxiety-inducing situation; really, it’s traumatic. What we’ve all thought of as normal life suddenly and rapidly shifted,” says Rebecca Scritchfield, RDN, an exercise physiologist and author of Body Kindness. “What happens is, people start to cope with this stressful situation, and one way is through humor.”
For some, that’s toilet paper memes and jokes comparing sitting on the couch to being called to war. For others, it’s quips about the “quarantine 15.” Basically, because many of us around the globe have been advised to stay indoors as much as possible, some imagine themselves stressed or bored, and in turn eating their feelings. Add in the fact that we can’t go to the gym, and it’s easy to see how someone came up with this spin on the freshman 15.
However, the concept of the quarantine 15 can be harmful.
THE DOWNSIDE OF DIET CULTURE
“I’m not attacking the idea of a joke,” says Scritchfield, who — along with many other Health at Every Size (HAES)-informed professionals, treatment providers who work with patients who have eating disorders and others who understand the problems of weight stigma and diet culture — is speaking out about the term. “The people who find ‘quarantine 15’ funny are the least likely to suffer from the consequences of that term,” she says.
Fueled by diet culture, it feeds into the idea that the shape and size of our bodies are our most valuable assets — even at a time when people are dying from a pandemic. “They are trying to evoke your fear response, which is already heightened because of coronavirus,” Scritchfield explains. “Diet culture says, ‘All bodies are put on a hierarchy. Thinner bodies are more valuable than bigger bodies, and it’s bad to gain weight or have a higher weight.’” And this is obviously manipulative and wrong.
Seeing content about ways to avoid gaining weight or shaming others for eating “unclean” packaged foods can feel triggering not only to people with eating disorders or a history of disordered eating. Anyone who’s restricted their eating for any period of time or who has feelings of shame or punishment related to eating may struggle with the emotions this term stirs.
Beyond being out of touch, this idea is also somewhat unrealistic. “People with a good sense of attunement are getting adequate sleep and exercise to help manage any anxiety,” Scritchfield says. “In this case, even if you eat more desserts than you typically do, you are likely to regulate your food intake. You are not spiraling out of control.”
FINDING HEALTHY WAYS TO COPE
It all comes down to managing anxiety — something this hashtag often increases. In today’s environment, we may need different ways to cope. One could be moving your body in ways you don’t normally, such as taking a walk with your kids or trying a dance cardio class online. Another might be finally downloading a meditation app or limiting social media exposure to 15 minutes a day.
And guess what? Food can help with anxiety, too. “Emotional eating can be a bonding activity,” Scritchfield says. “We use food to heal after a death and to connect with new neighbors. It helps us relieve stress because it’s something we can control.”
If thoughts of the “quarantine 15” trigger you, take this time to be curious about if you are living with food rules, perhaps making certain foods or food groups off-limits. “Because of the pandemic-enhancing anxiety, you could feel more urge to control yourself around food. But the real problem is the rules you have around food. You don’t yet have the skills of trusting food, your body and its signals,” Scritchfield explains.
Ask yourself: What are my values? What matters to me? What do I need for my personal well-being? What makes me feel calm, happy and peaceful? Chances are, you care more about things like the health of your family and if you’ll keep your job than about how much you weigh. Use that as your guide to figure out the best ways to manage your mental and physical health.
“Our expectations have changed, and suddenly these things we think are important on a daily basis have become less so,” Scritchfield says. “If we are lucky enough to have our physical health and our family’s health, to get groceries and to get through each day, we are doing good in place of a global pandemic. We are expressing gratitude that we have food to eat tonight as opposed to worrying, ‘How clean is this meal?’”
If, once the quarantine is over, your body has changed, be kind with yourself. “It’s not likely to be detrimental to your health, because you were coping with elevated stress and anxiety by taking care of your mental health during the pandemic,” Scritchfield explains. It’s what your mind and body needed.
“We act as if any weight gain is permanent and bad,” Scritchfield adds. “I’m not saying nobody will gain. I’m not saying the goal should be not to gain. I’m saying weight should be irrelevant. Well-being should be the top priority, so focus on things to manage anxiety like sleep, movement and connecting with others. Times like this are supposed to teach us there’s more to humanity than weight and bodies.”
Lastly, if you find “quarantine 15” funny or helpful, Scritchfield says to consider those who are more marginalized and harmed and consider not sharing any posts. “Now that you know it’s harmful, have a laugh, but don’t perpetuate the stigma and harm others by sharing.”
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