By Kylah Thompson
The impact of the pandemic on our society can be measured in a variety of ways that are not limited only to the number of deaths and illnesses resulting from Covid-19. As the pandemic has progressed throughout the past year, countries such as the United States have seen increases in alcohol consumption, substance abuse and reports of mental illness due to pandemic-related stress.
But one issue that has not been as widely discussed is how people with eating disorders are coping with the stress and isolation they are feeling as a result of the pandemic.
According to a recent study published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, 79 percent of people with eating disorders who were surveyed in the United States were concerned about a worsening of their eating disorder due to a lack of structure during the pandemic. Also, 58 percent of respondents were concerned about worsening of the eating disorder due to being in a triggering environment and 59 percent cited a lack of social support. Also, 23 percent reported regular binge eating on stockpiled food.
Kaitlyn Chana, a Patient Access Representative at Baptist Health in Jacksonville, Fla., and founder of the non-profit organization “Reel Stories, Real People,” struggled with three different eating disorders from the time she was in middle school through her college years. She said that the pandemic has introduced an atmosphere where individuals have been required to adapt to a lack of control in their everyday environments. This dynamic can be especially challenging for individuals who struggle with disordered eating.
“Eating disorders don’t discriminate,” said Chana. “You can’t look at someone and say ‘hey they have an eating disorder,’ it doesn’t work like that. A lot of things in their personal life are changing, so one thing they can control is their food intake, which can be the extreme of binging, or not eating at all.”
Chana also explained that the pandemic is equally difficult for people who have struggled for years and those who are just now seeking control by limiting or expanding their food intake.
“When you have an eating disorder it’s really your best friend and your worst enemy,” said Chana. “Even for myself who has recovered from my eating disorders, I have to actively engage in positive choices and behaviors to make sure I’m listening to myself and working through stressful emotions appropriately.”
Chana is currently working on a film project titled “Empty” to inform and equip those in education to identify eating disorders within their circles so students can get the help they need.
Miseducation on the issue of eating disorders through pop-culture portrayals and Lifetime movies can do more harm than good for young people. Jesi Taylor Cruz, a 30-year-old from Kalamazoo, Mich., described when she was first introduced to the concept of an eating disorder.
“I was around six when I first saw the Lifetime movie ‘A Secret Between Friends,’” Cruz said. “When I think back to my first thoughts about the character with an eating disorder, the main thing I remember is just thinking, ‘wow that person found a way to deal with everything going on in their lives.’”
Cruz was 11 years old when her eating disorder began, but it didn’t spiral out of her control until she became a serious athlete at the age of 14. At this time she was purging four times a day, but no one close to her ever caught on to her illness. Like many young people today, when Cruz realized she had a problem she turned to internet forums for help.
“They gave all the eating disorders nicknames,” Cruz said. “ Some people in those forums were there because they legitimately wanted support and they wanted help. But some people were on there to do other things, and for a long time, I got caught up with those who weren’t looking to help.”
Cruz also explained her experience as a black girl with an eating disorder, and the ways her life juxtaposed with the friends she first met in the forums and ultimately in person.
“It was so hard to talk to them about anything other than eating disorders because it was the only thing we had in common,” Cruz said. “It was difficult to maintain a friendship, but it just ended up making me realize, ‘Yeah, I really am alone in this.’”
Now as an adult who is 8 years into her recovery, Cruz described her relationship with food as much healthier, and “almost spiritual.” However, the urge to fall into old habits is still something she faces daily, and acknowledges may never fully go away.
“It’s not just about food, and it’s not just about body image,” Cruz said. “Therefore, I don’t think it’s as simple as “could there be a cure. I think it’s more like “will we ever live in a time when the systems that we’re forced to navigate are not only aimed at harming us?”
Mariah L. Stevens, 29, explained that racism was a significant trigger in the development of her eating disorder. As a biracial child adopted by a white family while growing up in a racist town, the stress was enough to push her to begin binging at 9 years old. At the age of 18, Her parents’ divorce, as well as sexual trauma triggered her struggles with bulimia.
“When I finally went to treatment, it was horrible,” Stevens said. “I think we need more Black medical professionals who specialize in eating disorders. All of my doctors were white and didn’t understand my trauma at all.”
When she sought help from those close to her, the responsibility was placed on her to recover because she was of legal adult age. Unfortunately, she was forced to advocate for herself to receive the proper healthcare, which required an extreme threat on her own life to be taken seriously.
“I am Black and had to go through 5 different doctors before one took my bulimia seriously and got me a referral,” Stevens said. “There are doctors who believe Black people are incapable of developing any disorder other than Binge Eating Disorder. This systemic racism trickles into the Black community by causing our relatives to consider eating disorders a “white” illness, which in turn causes Black individuals to be more likely to die from bulimia and anorexia.”
As a survivor of sexual assault and racial trauma, Stevens turned to writing as both an outlet and to contribute to closing the gap of black representation in society. As the author of two novels that comprise the “Apricity Series,” Stevens credits this project for helping her heal.
“It’s [recovery] been a gradual shift that has gotten stronger and stronger with every year that passes,” Stevens said. “When I published the first Apricity novel, it solidified it for me. That I can actually save lives and help people the way no one helped me. That alone inspires me to recover.”