Writing about food for The Columbian during the pandemic has entertained and delighted me. It’s resulted in heartwarming connections with readers. It’s brought me joy when I’ve re-created special dishes from the past, sparking fond memories of my childhood and reminders of lively meals with friends.
In short, it’s been a caloric year. As I watched the numbers on the scale tick upward, my emotions spiraled downward. I called my health care provider and asked to be paired with a therapist who specialized in weight issues. That would take time, I was told, because everyone with that expertise already had a full patient roster. I wasn’t the only one struggling with food, weight and self-concept during the pandemic.
According to the American Psychological Association’s recent “Stress in America” report, 61 percent of Americans have experienced weight fluctuations during the past year. Forty-two percent of those surveyed said they’ve gained weight since March 2020, putting on an average of 29 pounds. Ten percent said they gained more than 50 pounds.
Those statistics don’t surprise me, but I wanted to learn more about why the pandemic has had such a big effect on weight. I called Stacy Schilter-Pisano, site director for the South Sound Emily Program in Lacey, which offers residential treatment for those with eating disorders and related mental health issues.
Some people use food or exercise to manage intense experiences, Schilter-Pisano said. For those people, the pandemic’s perfect storm of loss, anxiety and grief may have “flipped a switch,” she said, pushing them into disordered eating – that is, a sustained preoccupation with food and weight that impairs regular activities.
Disordered eating can become an eating disorder, such as anorexia, bulimia, binge eating or compulsive overeating, something that requires clinical intervention.
“The difference between disordered eating and clinical disordered eating is if there’s a pattern, if there’s a preoccupation with food, shape and weight, or if there’s impairment in one’s life,” Schilter-Pisano said. “If I have a pattern of eating when I’m anxious, or when I feel big emotions, or to distract from a stressful day, that’s not atypical and it’s something that different people deal with. It can be disordered eating if it starts to cause complications in their life or if they’re thinking about it an abundant amount of time.”
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When I decided to seek one-on-one counseling over my weight issues, I wanted to explore whether it was possible for me to feel good about myself whether I was 20 pounds less or 20 pounds more.
At first, I was paired with a therapist who said things like “Why don’t you get a personal trainer?” and “Maybe you just need more self-discipline.” The focus became how to make my body smaller instead of how to be happier in a large body.
My body shame dates back four decades. I clearly remember the moment when I stopped thinking of my body as anything but a fantastic tool I could use for riding my bike or swimming or petting my cat.
I was 10 or 11 years old, walking back to my classroom after recess, when I heard a voice from behind me: “You have a really big butt.”
This was delivered in conversational tone, less a taunt than a fact. I don’t know who said it; I never looked back.
When I got home from school, I went into the bathroom, closed the door, and looked at my behind in the mirror. The kid was right. It was big. There was just so much more of it than my other friends had – in fact, there was more of every part me. That day at school, my body stopped feeling normal and started feeling shameful.
The shame followed me to high school, when kids called me “Moni-cow” and I daydreamed of liposuction. (“You’ll just gain it all back,” said my doctor at the time, jauntily poking me in the stomach as if I were the Pillsbury Doughboy.)
My failure to maintain a petite size has affected my relationships and soured my enjoyment of even the most mundane pleasures, from eating full-fat yogurt to wearing shorts. Thinking about food and weight takes up so much space in my brain that it crowds out more important, interesting thoughts.
I’ve still got my membership card to a well-known weight loss organization, having paid hundreds of dollars in monthly fees to attend support groups and read materials to help me meticulously track food intake and measure my worth by the pound. I told everyone that I was “eating healthy,” but really, I was maintaining a constant state of hunger. I sought – and received – abundant confirmation that a small body is always preferable to a large body.
In 2018, after two years of dieting, I panicked when my weight began creeping back up. I saw my doctor, who consulted a chart, said I should lose another 25 pounds and suggested the Keto diet. She reduced my entire personhood to a number on a scale.
I didn’t go back to the doctor’s office for the next two years.
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The pandemic may continue, in some form, into the indefinite future. Many of the same conditions that triggered destructive patterns of eating or thinking still exist – and the longer these conditions continue, the harder it will be to get back to “normal.” How, then, can we help ourselves?
Some of Schilter-Pisano’s suggestions seem counterintuitive to someone (like me) who’s grown up thinking that thinner is always better and we must employ harsh self-discipline to maintain an attractively lithe body. Diets, however, may actually contribute to long-term weight gain.
“The research indicates 98 percent of diets fail, not because of the individual, but because dieting does not work for sustained weight loss,” Schilter-Pisano said. “One in four people who diet will go on to develop disordered eating tendencies or an eating disorder.”
She emphasized the importance of focusing on mental and emotional well-being as much as physical health goals. Thinking that we’re failures if we weigh more now than we did last year or that we don’t deserve love or happiness if we’re heavier could be as harmful as the extra weight itself.
“Additional research indicates that it’s worse on our bodies to feel fat than it is to actually be it,” Schilter-Pisano said. “Really, whatever size our bodies are in when we wake up each morning is the point that it’s important to practice accepting and being kind to yourself. That’s hard when we’re getting so many diet messages.”
“Diet messages” can come from all quarters – well-meaning friends, popular culture and most especially social media. Friends’ posts about weight loss journeys only serve to reinforce the idea that thinness is enviable or that hunger is healthy.
“When you think about people’s Facebook posts or Instagram posts, often it’s their highlight reel. They’re showing the good things, the things they’re proud of. They’re not necessarily revealing their authentic selves, so it’s not a fair comparison,” Schilter-Pisano said, noting that our emotional responses to such images may be even more pronounced during the pandemic. “Inevitably what happens is when people are in isolation and not surrounded by their support people, self-esteem and a sense of security can decrease. Looking at different platforms and making comparisons is just going to leave us feeling worse.”
To help reframe thinking about body size and food, Schilter-Pisano recommended “The Anti-Diet: Reclaim Your Time, Money and Happiness Through Intuitive Eating,” by registered dietician Christy Harrison, former editor of the now-defunct “Gourmet” magazine and host of the “Food Psych” podcast. The book targets “diet culture,” a destructive belief system (though lucrative for weight loss organizations) that equates slenderness not only with healthfulness but also moral virtue and higher social status.
“The Anti-Diet” posits, among other things, that thinner doesn’t always mean healthier and that a person’s body mass index doesn’t represent the whole picture. Furthermore, dieting can permanently lower your metabolism, resulting in a lifelong inability to eat within a “normal” caloric range. Perhaps the book’s most valuable point is that body size is neutral and unconnected to worth, moral goodness or the capacity to simply be happy.
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There’s one kind of diet that might actually help – a media diet.
I ended up finding a new therapist who suggested I try a mind-bending exercise: watching music videos by Lizzo, the pop culture icon who takes obvious delight in her norm-defying size. Next, I visited the Savage X Fenty website, a lingerie line founded by the pop star Rihanna that features models of all shapes, sizes and skin tones. After looking at the vast variety of bodies, I cried. It was the first time I’d ever seen women who look like me portrayed as desirable.
“It’s so necessary to expose ourselves to real photos of real bodies that celebrate size diversity rather than the 2 percent of bodies that exist in the ‘ideal.’ ” Schilter-Pisano said. “I actually heard a statistic that 68 percent of women in the U.S. are larger than size 14. Most of us are living in bodies that are considered larger. That’s the norm.” (This is true, according to a 2018 study by Plunkett Research.)
Again and again during our conversation, Schilter-Pisano highlighted the need to be kind to ourselves about weight changes over the past year.
“Self-compassion during this time is paramount and necessary,” Schilter-Pisano said. “We’re living in unprecedented times.”
Delving into this research has helped me see how much more joy my life can hold without constantly considering my weight, no matter what the scale says. I’m learning to think about my body more like I did before that fateful day on the playground: as a beautiful container for my mind and spirit, a wondrous gift that brings me so much joy, takes me so many places and allows me to create so many things. My posterior is just something to sit on while I write about it.