COVID-19 and the Eating Disorder Pandemic

Written by Jackie Schwartz.

 

When media outlets started reporting that toilet paper was flying off shelves, I laughed. “Who would have ever thought toilet paper would be worth more than gold? Maybe if I sell mine, I can finally get that 10k Japanese bidet I’ve always dreamed of,” I joked to my dad. A few days later when pictures of empty shelves at grocery stores started circulating, I went into a full Jessie Spano caffeine pill freakout. Since this situation was unprecedented, it triggered something I thought had long escaped my psyche: a food hoarding mentality. But, there it was: a strange, yet familiar feeling creeping up on me like an ex I thought I had kicked to the curb.

My experience with eating disorders started when I was 13 years old, after coming back from a summer at fat camp. For me, the experience of camp was always traumatizing, but add a cup of all day aerobics, a pinch of laxatives to meals, and one middle aged man watching you weigh-in weekly, you get a recipe for a lifetime supply of disordered eating. I came home to excessive praise for my smaller frame, something I both craved and resented with equal measure. 

 

Jackie at fat camp at age 13, with her father on Parents Day.

 

I played along for a while, eating small portions of decidedly healthy food and taking long walks around my neighborhood. But then fall rolled around and I snapped like a twig. I started collecting as much food as I could and hiding it under my bed, in my school locker, in closets in my basement I knew no one would open. After every meal, I’d disappear and angrily binge until I was sick. It was the only satisfaction I could find. I did this for years, even after I gained all the weight back and my mom found pizza boxes and hundreds of wrappers under my bed. 

In college and after moving to New York City, I lived with roommates where the same dynamic unfolded of me pretending to “diet” but secretly hoarding and binging. I was one more pizza box away from MTV picking me up for an episode of My Strange Addiction, when I found a therapist who led me to recovery. I thought being thin was the only way to beat my ED, but she helped dismantle my own belief system of what a healthy and recovered person literally looks like. 

 


Jackie a few years into recovery, at a body-positive event in NYC.

Turns out, that person is a size 28 with bouncy curls and five years of recovery under her belt…until a pandemic hits. In an instant of learning supermarkets were being sold out, it was like I lost all the tools my therapist taught me. A panicked need started filling my chest slowly all the way up to my throat. With no gas in my Manhattan building at the time and a kitchen made for a doll, I rarely had food in my home anymore. I was lucky enough to be able to survive on take out and dining-in like many New Yorkers. But, as rumors started circulating about Governor Cuomo shutting the city down, anxiety was like jet fuel that had me running to my local grocery store. I pushed and shoved through the crowds, flinging whatever food I could find into my cart. I didn’t care what it was, how I was going to cook it, or even if I had space. As long as I had an overabundance of food, I was safe.

In the days after my first big loot, I consumed as much food as I did the media. Every news briefing I watched (even those more reassuring ones with Daddy Cuomo), I felt a greater need rise in me for food. I was afraid to receive any delivery other than groceries, so I spent hours downloading and scouring every food service app. I checked them multiple times an hour, trying to understand their algorithm for opening up more times. I was determined to beat the system and make sure I had a delivery scheduled every week, sometimes twice. “Am I being selfish taking up slots for others?” I’d ask myself. Some people couldn’t even afford food and here I was, a single person living alone overbuying and then binging to make sure nothing went to waste. 

What also didn’t help was the constant fatphobic memes I was being bombarded with on social media. "Before and After" quarantine bodies flooded my Instagram feed. Photos of people in bathtubs full of donuts and candy with words like “my 2020 summer body is canceled,” were rampant. I couldn’t believe that even in the middle of a pandemic, weight gain was what people cared about. My ED was no laughing matter and my body is much more than just a before photo. 

And then, a week into quarantine something very unusual happened. I lost my appetite completely. At first I thought it was anxiety, but for my entire life anxiety caused me to binge, not stop eating. Suddenly it really felt like the apocalypse. I was forcing myself to eat, still completely obsessed with making sure those food deliveries were coming weekly. It was only a few days after, that I became congested, lost my sense of taste and smell, and developed a mild cough, along with a few strange body aches. 

I followed guidelines not to get tested as long as I was okay and recovering, but it was a slow process with new information coming out every day as to who was most at risk. In that group, alongside elderly folks, those with diabetes and other underlying conditions, was “obese” people. In my rational head, I knew this unhelpful information was broad, but of course it added to the perception that fat people are unhealthy. And admittedly, when I was alone and sick and suffering, the voices I listened to for many years about what beauty and health look like arose again.

I’m thankful I was one of the lucky ones who experienced mild symptoms of the virus and was able to prove those broad statistics wrong. But, I spent every day blocking people who posted those memes and staring at my reflection while repeating affirmations to myself that I was a warrior and slayer, along with reading a mirror decal featuring a pledge to be kind to my body. At first I repeated the affirmations to find strength in beating the sickness, but it soon became a mantra for my emotional state. Despite the fact that I was still confirming too many deliveries, I decided to be kind to myself however I needed to survive in the moment. 

When I explained to my cousin that the best time to get deliveries on Peapod is at 1am, Instacart at 4am or 2pm, and Amazon at midnight, she joked, “You should start a business." I laughed, wondering if there was something to that, but was really feeling scared that I went down a rabbit hole I couldn’t climb my way out of. 

My appetite soon returned and three weeks later my sense of smell. When I was making Charoset during Passover I realized the walnuts were burning and then was so excited I could smell again! I suddenly realized this was the most joie de vivre I had felt in over a month. I did a happy dance and hugged myself. I was okay! And I didn’t even have to rub lamb’s blood over my door to survive the plague. 


Photo of Jackie in quarantine, from a FaceTime photoshoot with Bruna Lacerda. 

 

In hugging myself, I took a moment to appreciate my body. That appreciation grew tenfold after I took the antibody COVID-19 test and it came back positive. This body that wakes me up every day, keeps my heart pumping, helped me overcome a deadly virus. I had spent nearly my entire life wishing I could unzip my fat and walk out a skinny person, but here I was alive and whole in the same body I had admonished. And I love it for loving me even when I couldn’t. 

As for the food deliveries, I am slowly figuring out what feels right to me. What’s ironic about taking a few steps backwards is that you realize perhaps you weren’t as ahead as you thought. I don’t think the answer to my recovery was having no food in the house at all, the solution for me is somewhere in the middle, something I haven’t discovered yet. I had a few dark days after the high I felt post receiving my antibody results, but like everyone at this time I am riding a wave of quarantine emotions. But I’m no longer afraid I’ll drown if I fall off my surfboard. And maybe that’s the secret to any type of recovery.

 

By Jackie Schwartz
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Jackie is a New Yorker, filmmaker, body-positive activist, and French fry enthusiast. Follow her on Instagram