What are we supposed to do with our bodies now?

How the whiplash of the past year — from “Eat whatever you want!” to “Lose the COVID weight!”— can affect someone with binge eating disorder.

Photo by Lana Soosar on Unsplash

Note: Contains discussion of disordered eating behaviors.

The body panic began before March 2020 ended. Once it dawned on us that we’d be confined to our living rooms for more than a weekend — or a week, or two weeks — many of us feared not only that we might get sick, but that we might gain weight.

People memed about putting on “the quarantine 15” or “the COVID-19,” or that they were “fattening the curve.” Chain emails (inexplicably back on the scene) offered “lockdown jokes” like, “Will the producers of My 600-Lb Life come find me, or do I find them?”

Then came the blowback. People wrote that worrying about weight during a public health crisis was asinine or propagated body shaming. Some writers expressed outrage — “There’s a Global Pandemic and You Chucklefucks Are Still Being Fatphobic” — and other writers and tweeters tried to soothe: “Don’t Be Ashamed of Those Extra Pounds” or “Just logged on to say that pandemic weight gain looks good af on you!

During this pandemic, our daily habits and how they’ve changed became, for once, compelling conversation fodder. Naturally, then, much of the discourse has revolved around how and what we eat. An idea borne from that discourse has been evinced in booming sales of “junk food” and that restaurants all over the world pivoted to comfort food: We should just eat whatever we want.

“Just eat the damn pasta,” Cosmopolitan implored in March 2020. “Eat a homemade slice of bread or three.”

“Let’s stress-eat some chips together,” The New York Times Magazine nudged in January 2021. “A bag of chips is a way to defeat time.”

Celebrities — they’re just like us! — are on board, too: “Before all of this eating healthy made me feel good, and now I just eat whatever brings me joy,” Gabrielle Union told Katie Couric in May 2020.

It’s unsurprising and somewhat heartening that during this agonizing time, we’ve collectively scoffed, “Whatever, I’m getting cheese fries.” We’ve been Lucille Bluth eating a sheet cake with bare hands. For many of us, this shift toward more relaxed attitudes is constructive. That we might release ourselves from any guilt we usually harbor about food is a beautiful thing.

But while business boomed for “junk food” companies and comfort food-focused restaurants early in the pandemic, now “business has jumped for companies that sell plans to lose weight.” We’re bombarded once more with ads for weight loss services or “detox” programs. We’re seeing gyms and boutique fitness studios tout “Lose the Quarantine 15!” specials. We’re hearing people talk about getting their “post-vax beach body” with unprecedented fervor. As ever, we’re encountering a lot of noise about whatever we’re apparently supposed to be doing with our bodies, shouted at us by those who want to sell us something or who have decided that any one way to interact with your body is the “right,” “normal,” or “healthy” one.

I’m certainly not alone in having grown frustrated with the suggestions of what’s “right” to do with my body. For my whole life, these suggestions (or outright demands) have flown at me from family members, friends, doctors, and a culture that values thinness as next to godliness.

I’ve long been captive to the breakneck-speed changes of whatever I was “supposed” to be doing for “health,” for aesthetics, or to just be considered “normal” with regard to how I eat. Fat is bad; no, wait, fat is good, carbs are bad; no, hang on, carbs are fine but you have to eat only those that were consumed in the Paleolithic era; actually, just track your macronutrients and you can eat whatever so long as it “fits your macros”…Are you exercising? Running is the best way to get “in shape!” Actually, Pilates is; no, CrossFit is; no, Barry’s, no, Peloton…and on and on.

These things aren’t presented as mere options — because of marketing, general hype, some random study, or impassioned testimonials from your friend’s coworker’s friend, we’re led to believe that one way is “the best,” the new breakthrough way to eat or move that’s going to finally work. For anyone who just isn’t sure what’s best for them — and it requires a tremendous amount of time and attention to really figure that out — it’s easy to chase whatever the “it” thing is, without considering if that thing will work for your life, your experiences, your needs, and your sanity.

Following a certain prescribed diet doesn’t work for my life, experiences, needs, or sanity. Neither does only doing one type of exercise. But just as those don’t work for me, the directive to just eat “whatever I want” doesn’t either, because of my personal history with disordered eating.

For many years of my life, I was a habitual binge eater. My disordered relationship with food — how I routinely ate to the point of physical pain because it temporarily muted the anxiety, insecurity, and anger ravaging my mind — was eroding my overall well-being, and it wasn’t until I was in my mid-20s that I began to truly confront it and work to move past it. My experience with this kind of disordered eating, and what I’ve done to recover from it, has fundamentally changed how I interact with and think about food, what foods I want versus what foods I crave, and how what I eat and how I move affect my mind.

The directives to eat whatever we want assumes that what we all want is the same, that we’re all constantly holding ourselves back from eating ice cream for dinner but the pandemic has given us carte blanche to do so. Of course, there are people who regularly hold themselves back from eating what they truly want to eat for any number of reasons — not least of them the fear of gaining weight, no matter how potentially destructive that fear might be.

But there’s a growing assumption in our culture that if a person isn’t eating what they really want at any given moment — a foundational concept in intuitive eating, which has become increasingly popular over the years — it’s because they’re miserably restricting themselves, dieting, or have an eating disorder. This is an oversimplification, a misunderstanding of how eating disorders can be for those who have them, and for me, feels like the same kind of food surveillance and judgment levied against me when I was a bigger person and a teenager developing her eating disorder. It was a problem when I ate “too much,” now it’s a problem that I don’t eat in the “right way.” The fingers point in different directions, but the finger-pointing is stressful all the same.

***

Lately on Twitter and other social media communities, I’ve seen proclamations that the following are disordered: Eating a bowl of fruit for breakfast. The concept of “eating in moderation.” Waking up early to run before work.

Any of these things could be driven by a harmful preoccupation or obsession with forcing one’s body into thinness or “fitness”; they could be habits that cause a person distress and affect their physical, psychological and social function; they could be the behaviors and habits of someone with an eating disorder. Or, they could not be.

If someone eats only three strawberries for breakfast and starves themselves for the rest of the day, that’s one issue. But someone could eat only a fruit salad for breakfast — because that’s what they want to eat, i.e., they’re eating intuitively — then go on to eat multiple more meals full of protein, fat, and carbohydrates, never feeling starved or deprived. We cannot and should not make diagnoses based on only the smallest snapshot of a person’s overall lifestyle and habits, but I understand why we do: We’re on high alert for any behaviors that strike us as suggestive of a problem, because the most restrictive or insidious elements of what we call diet culture (the grapefruit diets; the relentless number tracking and counting, and guilt if we exceed the “right” numbers; the compensatory cardio) have maintained a vice grip around our necks. As many of us work to call attention to that suffocation or start to break free of it altogether, we’re compelled to point at the starvation diets, the exercise-as-punishment-for-eating, and say: “This? We don’t have to — and probably shouldn’t — do this.”

That urge is not a bad thing. Many of us, including me, aim to advocate for a way of living that doesn’t require us to offer penance in the kitchen and gym. I believe these call-outs are well-intentioned, but they far too often are accusatory, generalized, and lacking a full understanding of how another person lives. We’re not going to “solve” eating disorders or erode diet culture by suggesting that people are victim to these issues if they aren’t eating or moving in a way we decide is right or “healthy” for everyone. As with all things body and mind, how people reach a state of personal harmony with their bodies is just more complicated and nuanced than that.

Like so much else, eating disorders got worse during the pandemic. More than 60% of Americans with anorexia had worse symptoms since the pandemic began. Almost a third of people with binge eating disorder (BED) had an increase in episodes, and BED is three times more common than anorexia and bulimia combined. Eating disorders in general are widely misunderstood, and BED might be most misunderstood of all — it was only included as a formal diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the DSM) in 2013; anorexia made it into the DSM in 1952, and bulimia in 1980.

BED goes beyond some of the pandemic eating behaviors many people (including me) have engaged in, like eating more than usual or adding a host of favorite snacks to the shopping cart. It goes beyond “emotional eating,” beyond kicking back with ice cream and wine after a bad day. People with BED frantically eat to the point of great discomfort even when they’re not hungry, usually alone because of shame and embarrassment, and feel utterly anguished afterward. They feel as though they’ve lost control during these binges, which happen at least weekly.

At age 32, I can say this: from around eighth grade through my early 20s, the way I ate fit this criteria. At some points I’d binge several times a week. I gained weight quickly. During my sophomore year of college, I also had recurring anxiety and panic attacks; my heart randomly raced out of control and I had to wear a heart monitor overnight for several months. My bingeing (an anxiety coping mechanism) was at its worst then. I had also become pre-diabetic and pre-hypertensive before my 21st birthday.

In the deepest throes of my disordered eating routine, I’d eat — in secret, always in secret — to the point of physical pain and emotional catastrophe. I’d hurriedly eat a McDonald’s drive-through meal (extra fries, milkshake) in my car on the way to CVS where I’d buy multiple packaged sugary things and a whole family-sized box of cereal I’d eat for dessert. Eat whatever you want if it makes you happy and feels good, I say, but these foods did not make me happy. I barely even tasted them, and so my binge foods didn’t have to be tasty. I’d eat a package of cold, dry sandwich wraps or sleeves of plain Saltines if that’s all I had. I ate not for pleasure or enjoyment, but to anesthetize myself. I’d be in a kind of blackout, a single-minded vortex where the volume of food served only to snuff out my anxiety. It wasn’t emotional eating. It was obliteration eating.

There are foods I associate with my bingeing state of mind that can be triggers for me now. When I lived alone a block away from a jumbo-slice pizza place, I’d often get three torso-sized pieces to hurriedly eat before falling into a post-binge stupor. Pizza is still hard for me, because for years I never felt OK in body and mind after I ate it. I’ve had to re-train my brain to understand that this and other foods can be neutral or delightful, not a means of self-destruction.

Some trigger foods are curiously specific because they’re foods that were in my parents’ house when I was younger and my disordered eating was taking shape. While my mom was usually on some diet or another, her grocery haul included the foods my brother and dad would eat freely: Pop-Tarts (brown sugar cinnamon), Breyers mint chocolate chip ice cream (my dad’s weird favorite, it has to be Breyers), Triscuits (I’d eat an entire box in one sitting, causing my mom to yell that she “Just bought the fucking things, what happened?”), rubbery white American cheese slices specifically from the Acme supermarket deli. How I think of these foods recalls the way my dad, a recovering alcoholic nearly two decades sober, has described a nice pour of whiskey: “Damn, that’s good stuff. I just can’t have it. I can’t only have Just. That. One.”

I’ve sometimes felt like people assume that the way I eat is an unspoken pronouncement of how a person should eat, that I’m judging their food choices by making my own. Someone’s eyed my lunch and sneered, “Oh, are you being good?” or “You’re making me feel bad!” I want to shake them and hiss: I don’t give a shit what you eat. You shouldn’t feel bad! I’m just not in the frame of mind right now where I can eat certain things without fearing I’ll harm myself.

If I’m not in the right frame of mind to enjoy — to truly savor and delight in — the kinds of foods I know are not “bad,” but that I have been taught are, and if my mind is not feeling calm and just OK enough to interact with the kinds of foods I used to binge on, I will harm myself with food.

Now, I have to consider what I’m about to eat, remind myself that there’s nothing wrong with it, and focus on the fact that I’m eating it because I want to enjoy food and it’s OK to enjoy food. I certainly wish this kind of thinking was second-nature, but old habits die hard — I grew up in a home with dozens of diet books on the shelves; with a mother who nudged me into doing Atkins with her in eighth grade; around a grandmother who constantly told me that she prayed that I’d lose weight; in a culture where I saw in a teen magazine that Britney Spears does 1,000 crunches a day, right next to an “Eat This, Not That” spread.

***

No surprise: I had increased binge eating episodes during the pandemic. Like everyone, I was often distressed, despondent, and overwhelmed — the perfect conditions for disordered eating to rear its head.

Within the past year, my partner and I decided to get takeout from a place nearby that serves great Southeast Asian food. The meal we wanted felt special because it included things we wouldn’t make for ourselves or eat often: fragrant bowls of pho, pillowy fried curry puffs, sweet taro milk tea. If I was feeling calm about this meal, I’d look forward to eating it and being satisfied by it; I’d have no guilt about it, because I shouldn’t.

But due to a thousand worries large and small, I was agitated and anxious when I offered to go pick up this meal. It feels impossible when I’m in this state to shake off the indoctrination of food guilt, that I was about to go eat bad things, and so the wheels came off the bus. Why not really go ham? I felt myself sucked into that vortex, looking desperately for a volume of food that would soothe the anxiety about everything else and that I was about to eat the pho, the puffs, the tea. It makes no sense, but I had to eat more to deal with the stress I was feeling about letting myself eat something it’s been taught to me is “bad.”

So I ran into the market next door first and bought a mini single-serving cheesecake and also a slice of cake for us to share (he only knew about this slice of cake I bought back, I ate everything else in secret). I got a pack of sushi I ate in the car with my fingers like a madwoman. I got a container of mozzarella cheese balls. I got chips and rammed them down in berserk handfuls. I felt panicked about getting the right amount of the right things: my binge had to include something sweet, something savory, things that felt especially egregious. I was about to do something “bad,” I thought, and so I had to punish myself. That’s what’s so twisted about this disorder: food can be at once a coping mechanism, a stupefacient, and a punitive measure.

It’s all unhinged, deranged, sad, not to mention grotesquely privileged and wasteful. Who blows like $40 on a bunch of stuff to eat in a clandestine fit, and not even enjoy, in addition to a full takeout meal? I would have felt fine, happy, satisfied if I’d just eaten the takeout — because there’s nothing fucking wrong with eating takeout. But since I bookended that meal with almost two more meals, I felt nauseated, ashamed, and sick in so, so many ways.

***

By going to therapy, painfully excavating the emotions behind my binges, and discovering how exercise helped soothe my anxiety and panic attacks, I cultivated different eating and moving habits and lost a significant amount of weight over a couple years. I won’t share the specific numbers associated with my body here, as I know that can be harmful to people with eating disorders. I’ll say this: At my largest, I experienced random harassment because of my size (men have screamed “You’re fat!” at me from across the street and in a bar); now, people ask me questions about exercise and I don’t expect my doctors will bring up my weight at every visit. Simply: My body has changed enough to completely alter my lived experience.

My aforementioned health problems also resolved themselves when I lost weight, but that’s not a result of only weight loss itself. Someone could lose a lot of weight very quickly by various means and still be the most distressed, hypertensive, hyperglycemic person in the room. Many people who aren’t fat have health problems, and many people who are fat don’t. I lost body mass, yes, but everything else about how I live and think — my true, whole health — changed too.

Weight loss for weight loss’ sake does not matter to me. I don’t see a simple reduction of poundage as my greatest accomplishment, even though some people treat it that way. It’s what’s behind the change — that I confronted my eating issue and sought to fix it, that I learned more about myself in the process, that I discovered new things that bring me peace — that’s meaningful. The way I changed how I live, and so in turn lost weight, is inextricably connected to my recovery from habitual disordered eating. It has also affected what kinds of foods I want versus what kinds of foods I crave.

I’ve learned that there are foods I don’t want to eat most of the time at this point in my life, because they are binge triggers or simply make my body physically feel unwell. If I don’t usually eat foods with a ton of sodium and then I do, I’ll get a headache. If I don’t usually eat foods that have a lot of added sugar and then I do, I’ll soon feel a hangover-like crash. Pointing out these personal realities isn’t a condemnation of eating salt and sugar. Some foods just have side effects. This is the case for lots of foods, not just “junk” food — I used to be able to eat chickpeas, for instance, and now they tear my guts up (truly a bummer for me). The microbiome is complex and weird. I’ve spent a great deal of time familiarizing myself, for better or worse, with how food affects me. That doesn’t mean I get a gold star. I just had to do it, because the way I used to eat was ruining my life — not because I was a bigger person, but because I was punishing and abusing myself with food.

In tandem with how I was starting to rewire my brain, I stopped eating, I don’t know, five or six thousand calories a day a few times a week. I replaced the foods and food sensations — incredibly salty, incredibly sugary — that I knew triggered me with other foods that literally nourished me. So I lost weight as a result. I broke myself from what felt like an addiction to certain foods and food sensations. That doesn’t mean I’ll never eat pizza again, or anything incredibly sugary again. It just means I don’t relentlessly crave these things all the time.

I crave foods because I’m stressed and want comfort, or because I’m tired or dehydrated, or accidentally went too long without eating and so any food you could name sounds delicious, or am in a certain context (like my parents’ house, where I find myself longing for the Triscuits et al). But giving in to these cravings absolutely any time I have them isn’t what I want for myself, because for too long food ruled my life in the sense that I’d immediately eat what I craved plus a dozen other things anytime I felt emotionally overwhelmed, which was almost all the time.

This association, that a craving will necessarily equal a binge, is one I’m still trying to break. In the meantime, I’ve come to want food differently. Ultimately what I want from food is to feel satisfied, or delighted, or fueled, or simply like I’ve treated myself well by eating that food, whatever “well” means to me. Sometimes I can treat myself well by going out and ordering a huge plate of ravioli (another longtime trigger, pasta). Sometimes I can’t. If these foods I crave don’t actually satisfy what I ultimately want, I might choose not to eat them.

I know how it all sounds — take to the internet to explain that you don’t even really want junk food most of the time, and everyone thinks you’re a smug asshole. It’s like saying you don’t own a TV and spend your evenings reading Proust. I get it. I hesitate to admit what I usually eat because I’m certain I’ll come off like a rigid health-scold — or just a delusional liar. Oh yes, what I crave most is steamed kale, you might imagine me saying as your eyes roll right out of your head. There’s nothing quite like unwinding with a skinless chicken breast, you might think I’m suggesting.

But I don’t think the opposite of “junk food” is “diet food.” I don’t think the opposite of “eat whatever you want” is “restrict your food intake in accordance with whatever diet plan is scamming the most Americans out of their money, and if you’re miserable, it’s working!” I think there’s another place to live and I think it’s difficult to reach, let alone describe to other people. I think this place is called something like “the thing that makes you truly feel neutral, OK, or even great most of the time, because of a million specific, personal reasons and after a lot of trial and error.” How gauche. How unmarketable. But there it is.

I don’t think people should only eat steamed kale and chicken. That’s not, in fact, how I eat. I don’t “diet.” I eat a lot. I’m a weight lifter and cycling instructor and easily eat more than 2,000 calories (I don’t actually know) every day to sustain the movement I do. I basically eat every two or three hours and rarely feel hungry. That’s how I eat intuitively.

I’ve said it before: Being taught that some foods are “bad” and others “good,” and internalizing that having an appetite was a personality flaw and gaining weight was a moral failing has damaged me in ways I’ll be unpacking forever. I hope other people find ways to push back against these ideas. Many already have, and so that push has given way to movements and philosophies like fat acceptance, Health at Any Size, or intuitive eating, which are positive for so many people. I’m only wary of any suggestion that if you don’t fully give yourself over to every element of these movements or philosophies, you are problematic or disordered. People have their reasons, besides fatphobia or an unrelenting desire to be as thin as possible, for being unable or unwilling to fully lean into them — just as people have always had their reasons for being unable or unwilling to participate in diet culture.

***

I’ve spent years working to understand why I binge. Part of the reason is that I have control freak tendencies and can be very rigid, single-minded, and obsessive; if I’ve in the past (like when I was younger, trying to diet) set my mind to eating only food I’ve deemed “healthy” — a loaded, vague term — I’ll eat that way without fail for a while, then inevitably feel too restricted and “lash out” with a binge. If eating only “healthy” meals has felt punishing and sucked any potential joy from the experience of eating food, I seek the thrill (it’s not joy, but it’s drama) of a kind of food bender. The binge also feels like a rip-roaring act of rebellion against the idea that I’m not supposed to eat something; I regress to the 13-year-old me whose food intake was constantly sized up, remarked upon, and condemned for being too much.

I have to think about some meals entirely differently now: I plan to have them, I eat them in contexts where I can pay attention to their taste and savor them. I’ve had to practice, for years, being OK with food, and I still haven’t perfected this and probably never will. This all sounds tedious, I know. The mental gymnastics required to simply allow myself to eat food are borne from a lifetime of feeling like I could not. I wish sometimes I could just eat the pizza without making it a whole thing in my head. The whole thing is goddamn exhausting sometimes, but it exhausts me far less than my binge eating and emotional repression did.

Many of us seem to be continually on a quest to find a way of being in our bodies and a way of relating to them that is simply not exhausting. Some of us are exhausted by the suggestion that we should always love our bodies, and choose to focus on “body neutrality” instead. Some of us are exhausted by the idea of “meal prepping” or a ClassPass membership, while others relish in structure and accountability. Any option is utterly fine so long as it’s undertaken because of a genuine belief that it makes your life easier, more joyful, better.

We’ve had perhaps the most emotionally exhausting past year of our lives, and the pandemic is still not over. We’ve thought relentlessly about the body: how to protect it, where to put it, how to move it through a suddenly more threatening world safely, what was happening to it as we kept it home. There will be no reprieve — as businesses open up, more people get vaccinated, employers call us back to the office to operate at the height of our productivity — we’re expected back out in the world where it feels like perfection is demanded, especially when it comes to our physical selves. Out in that world, we might be trying to offer grace to bodies that have changed while simultaneously being told it’s time to put down the COVID snacks, slap our step trackers back on, and hit the gym.

I try to remember that perfection is not, in fact, mandatory or attainable in the post-vaccination era or ever. I’m not perfectly recovered from my disordered eating behaviors and my eating and moving strategies aren’t the best. They’re merely better for me now than what I did before. We need to create a conversation around bodies in which no one presumes to know what’s best for anyone else. I don’t see “eat whatever you want all the time” as the answer for me any more than I see “eat 1,300 calories a day and follow this diet forever, which is essentially impossible” as the answer for me. Somewhere in the middle, there should be room for people to figure something else out, to find harmony with their bodies and habits however they might, without their choices being lambasted for not hewing to a standard someone else has set. If we all ultimately seek to feel free in our bodies, what could be more freeing than that?

Freelancer in: The Atlantic, New York Times, New York Mag’s The Cut, Washington Post’s The Lily. In progress: essay collection on body image. mikalajamison.com