Looking In

The COVID-19 pandemic took a large toll on mental health overall. People were trapped inside their homes, some with abusive family members or perhaps even stuck in countries across the world with no way to get home. Completely isolated; at least physically. Personal devices, already important before, now served as the only gateway to the rest of the world. While parents were either out of a job, struggling to provide for their families, or essential workers who were risking their lives so that they could pay the bills, their kids were left to their own volition. At this stage in their lives, kids were supposed to be experiencing life. But instead of learning how to regulate their emotions, build social skills, and navigate relationships, they were sitting in front of a laptop screen for virtual learning, FaceTiming their friends, or scrolling through social media, feeling afraid and completely alone. However, there was one emotional tool that a lot of them used to cope, and that was food. In fact, the NEDA (National Eating Disorder Association) hotline reported a 54% increase in calls for advice and resources to treat illnesses such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia, and binge eating during the pandemic. 

Perhaps the most significant cause of the spike in eating disorder cases was the drastic increase in screen time. “They’re (students) basically staring at their face on screen for eight hours a day,” Dr. Cody, an adolescent medicine specialist explains. “And prior to this, no one spends eight hours a day staring in a mirror. And so suddenly they’re confronted with their face and that’s causing them to have body-image issues.” The constant bombardment of weight loss ads and Instagram models didn’t help either. 

In fact, results from an online survey suggest that five out of seven students from this school alone struggled with body image or disordered eating during the pandemic. It’s hard not to put a lot of stock in appearances when society is so shallow and we’re glorifying these celebrities, models, and bodybuilders. But the truth is most of them don’t look anything like their online presence, and maybe even went under the knife. The Kardashians are the most common example of plastic surgery. Not to mention filters. According to www.sciencedaily.com and numerous other sources, 90% of young women edit their photos or use a filter before posting, and a lot of bodybuilders actually use a tactic called “drying out” before competitions that involves dehydrating themselves so that their muscles appear more pronounced. The “perfect” body is unattainable.

Yet another important factor was stress. Dawn Dillion, a therapist in Fort Worth who has specialized in eating disorders for over 20 years, says that disordered eating can come from the instinct to take action during times of uncertainty and fear. Remember when everyone was emptying all of the shelves of toilet paper? The same instinct can apply to food and body image. Eating disorders can develop out of misplaced attempts to manage overwhelming feelings of being stuck or trapped. 

 Some physical symptoms of an eating disorder may be noticeable fluctuations in weight (up or down), hair loss, dizziness or fainting, gastrointestinal issues, menstrual irregularities, problems sleeping, and discoloration of teeth or cavities (from vomiting). Behaviors include eating alone more frequently, food rituals such as excessive chewing or not allowing food to touch, skipping meals or eating very small portions of food, extreme mood swings, or even complete withdrawal from their usual friends and activities. You or somebody you know might have an eating disorder and not  even know it. But whatever the underlying cause, it could be deadly. From 2018 to 2019, 3,110 individuals died from binge eating disorders while another 3,430 people died from other specified eating disorders. 

So instead of comparing looks, look deeper than the surface and realize that the human body is a truly unique and remarkable thing. People should go on morning runs to be prepared if a bear or a serial killer chases them in the woods, not because they want to lower the number on the scale. Everyone is worth so much more than some stupid number. While excessively eating out feelings or not eating at all may seem like a short-term fix for tough situations, it will only hurt later on. People should take care of themselves, because being healthy should be the only beauty standard.