The 'Quarantine 15' Is Something People Joke About, but as a Woman With an Eating Disorder, I'm Panicking
Last month, I received a perky email from a publicist asking if I’d be interested in covering a “fun” new calculator that measures “how much weight you can expect to gain” while self-quarantining. The email went on to warn that quarantine conditions could lead to a shocking weight gain of 10 pounds or more, before reassuring me that I could “escape that fate” through “exercise and healthy eating.”
This wasn’t the first time I’d heard of the harrowing dangers of the so-called quarantine 15. The phrase started popping up on social media in March, as people began to consider how quarantining at home might affect their eating and exercise habits. Like most things on social media, the quarantine 15 started largely as a joke. By now, it’s easy to roll your eyes at such outdated weight gain fear-mongering. But the case can be made that the quarantine 15 is triggering to people who have or have had an eating disorder—even though a few extra pounds should be the least of anyone’s concerns amid a global crisis.
As a lifelong disordered eater, I can’t pretend that the idea of the quarantine 15, of gaining weight because of the pandemic, wasn’t already in the back of my mind well before the internet ever gave it a cutesy name. I’m a 23-year-old writer living in Astoria, Queens, and I’ve struggled with disordered eating in some form or other for more than 10 years. From childhood binge-eating that led to bulimia and eventually morphed into a cycle of severe calorie restriction punctuated by episodes of binging and purging, I’ve experienced just about every food-related issue a person can have.
I’ve never been formally treated for my disordered eating. (The closest I came was being told by an exhausted college counselor and an understaffed campus mental health center my freshman year that my eating disorder was “maybe something we could talk about next semester.”) But I like to think I’ve found something resembling a middle ground: It’s a self-created sustainable system of controlled disordered eating. While it may help me maintain mental and physical comfort with my body, it doesn’t address the underlying issues that made me a disordered eater in the first place. This tends to mean that even when I am not actively practicing disordered eating, thoughts of weight gain or loss are never very far from mind.
“If you think I’m going to stock up on food instead of using a coronavirus quarantine as an excuse to starve myself, you’ve obviously never had to listen to me talk about my history of disordered eating after two drinks on a second date,” I tweeted in early March, when the idea of a pandemic-imposed quarantine was just something popping up in headlines. But as the quarantine became reality in the following days, I found myself rethinking my Twitter persona’s cavalier approach to self-starvation.
I’m no stranger to starving myself; I've gone through periods of subsisting on a severely calorie-restricted diet, sometimes consisting of nothing but coffee, gum and Diet Coke for days. Yet even in my most restrictive episodes, I always had access to food. Ultimately, enough invitations to join friends in the dining hall or dates for dinner after work always stood between me and any severe damage I could have done if I completely denied myself food. As an "all or nothing" kind of eater, this has always seemed like the “safest” option for staying in control of my body.
I began to wonder if I should leave the city and wait out quarantine at my parents’ house in rural Massachusetts. This posed its own set of problems. Along with all the other ethical concerns that needed to be taken into account — Is it safe to travel? Am I putting myself and others at risk?—I was also worried about my weight. That’s the thing about eating disorders and body dysmorphia. The world can literally be ending, and you’ll still be wondering if you’re skinny enough for the apocalypse.
The birthplace of much of my disordered eating behavior, my childhood home has always been a triggering environment. Like many parents, mine were not equipped to handle an eating disorder, and when they caught me in my first bulimic episode at 13, they defaulted to their go-to Catholic parenting technique: shame. Unfortunately, eating disorders already tend to come from a place of deep shame, so trying to fight shame with shame is a lot like trying to fight fire with fire.
As I entered adulthood, my disordered eating habits eventually became an open secret my parents were largely willing to ignore, but I still feel equally ashamed of both eating and not eating in my parents’ home. Unable to practice my system of controlled disordered eating under my parents’ watch, I have a tendency to spiral. Home is where the bad habits are, and throughout my adult life, visits to my parents’ place have almost invariably resulted in weight gain.
In college, after I lost rather than gained the freshman 15 only to gain it back during my first winter break home, I eventually accepted this cycle as inevitable. I’d gain weight whenever I went home on breaks, but no matter how many pounds I packed on thanks to home-cooked meals and late-night trips to my mom’s well-stocked pantry, I always managed to starve myself back down to my ideal state of thinness within a few weeks back on campus. By the time I graduated, it was easy for me to mentally divorce my home self and eating habits from my school self. As far as I was concerned, the thin body in which I strolled around on campus was the real me; the person who overate at home was just a relapse, a shadow of my chubby childhood self.
I knew that quarantining at my parents’ place would mark the longest amount of time I had spent in their home since college. Like many people trying to make crucial decisions amid the unknowns and uncertainty of the coronavirus outbreak, I was caught between two risky options. Option 1: Go home, gain weight, risk a bulimic and/or depressive relapse. Option 2: Stay in New York, starve. Pick your prison.
I found myself enticed, as I have been since childhood, by the idea of withering away to nothing in my apartment. Dramatic thinness has haunted my dreams from my earliest memories—a destructive desire I’ve never quite been able to shake. But this time I feared going too far. I remembered the night my freshman year of college, when, overcome with hunger after five days without food, I ate an entire bottle of biotin gummies.
I packed my bags, caught a train out of an emptier-than-usual Grand Central, and moved back into my childhood bedroom—with the plaques and medals from high school awards ceremonies and drawers full of old clothes that once fit a body I hoped I’d dieted out of for good.
I’ve been at my parents’ place for two months now, and in that time, I have, predictably, gained weight. But while I’ve fallen back into old habits, I’ve also fallen back into the old coping mechanisms I’ve developed around those habits. Faced with an expanding body I don’t want to accept, I’ve found myself reaching for the mind games I used to play with myself during periods of home weight gain in college to put distance between myself and that body. I know I can’t accept my body as it is right now, so it’s better to just not think about it at all.
In the meantime, I’ve found a helpful distraction from thinking about my body: surprising feelings of gratitude. I don’t think that a global crisis is ever going to magically fix the fraught relationship I have with food, and I don’t mean to suggest that overcoming mental illness is merely a matter of establishing the right gratitude practice. Not allowing myself to exist fully in my body makes the world feel blurry and subdued. Like my disordered eating system itself, it’s not perfect. It’s triage. But for the time being, it’s helping. But it’s had the unexpected benefit of helping me find some perspective outside my body.
I’m grateful that I still have a job that both pays the bills and provides a daily creative outlet. I’m grateful that I had the option to leave the city and got out when I did. I’m grateful that I have parents who may not agree with my choices but accept me anyway. And yes, sometimes I’m just grateful that I can stress-eat a few extra pounds without having to worry about how I’m going to look in my go-to date dress this weekend.
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.