When quarantine began, Diana, a 30-year-old who suffers from anxiety and OCD, went into peak panic mode and started experiencing weight loss. “Whenever my anxiety and obsessions are at their worst, my appetite is the first thing to go,” she explains. Since March, Diana has lost a significant amount of weight due to the stress and worry of COVID-19, and with her loss of appetite has come a range of symptoms, from heartburn to chronic fatigue. Alongside her mental and physical difficulties, she’s noticed a perplexing, yet not totally surprising pattern: an excess of compliments on her appearance.
“So many people have complimented me on how ‘amazing’ I look,” she says. “I don’t blame them, because I know they don’t know what’s going on inside my head and they probably just assume I’ve spent my quarantine on the Peloton trying to get fit. But these compliments are confusing. On one hand, I have to admit that sometimes in the moment they are nice to hear, but on the other, I know how dark and unhealthy this situation actually is.”
For many, lockdown has spurred a radical lifestyle shift, and it’s only natural for that to have an impact on our bodies. “Weight fluctuations during quarantine and COVID-19 are extremely normal,” says Emily Murray, a Tennessee-based nutritionist who specializes in eating disorders and body image concerns. “In fact, weight fluctuations throughout one’s lifespan are extremely normal. We all go through seasons where we are more or less active, where we put more or less time, thought, and energy into what we eat and how we move our bodies. There’s nothing about those fluctuations that is inherently unhealthy, and I’d argue that trying to micromanage your weight during a global pandemic is more unhealthy.” Moreover, Murray believes many of the weight fluctuations people are experiencing during COVID-19 have less to do with diet, and more to do with changes in movement patterns and increased stressors that accompany these challenging times. “Many are experiencing increased feelings of anxiety and depression, both of which can alter appetite and make it more difficult to stick to regular meals and snacks throughout the day,” she says.
Needless to say, for those who suffer or have suffered from an eating disorder such as anorexia, bulimia, or a binge-eating disorder, it can be an especially vulnerable time. “If the reduced availability of pleasant and enjoyable activities and social interactions was not stressful enough, these changes are happening against a backdrop of a terrifying virus that is killing thousands of people worldwide,” explains Kendra Becker, a psychologist at the Eating Disorder Clinical and Research Program at the Massachusetts General Hospital and an instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “Thus, individuals are using what coping skills they have and sometimes that includes unhealthy eating behaviors such as binge eating or high levels of dietary restriction.”
In general, commenting on someone’s weight, especially for a person with an eating disorder, can focus their self-worth on their weight or appearance and reaffirm problematic thoughts that their weight is of high importance in establishing their value as a person. “People with eating disorders have high levels of body dissatisfaction, and comments praising weight loss are essentially reinforcing unhealthy eating behaviors,” adds Becker.
With so much in flux, and many of our bodies changing in response to unprecedented levels of stress, it’s a lot to process on the body image front—and becomes all the more complicated and emotionally taxing because of how normalized discussing weight, shape, and appearance is in our society. One of the most nuanced and detrimental cultural occurrences is, of course, the inherently backhanded weight-loss compliment, particularly during this time of crisis. “At best, they say, ‘You look better than you did before,’ leaving those on the receiving end wondering, ‘I wonder what they thought I looked like before?’” says Murray. “The most harmful part about weight loss ‘compliments’ is that you never really know what you’re complimenting. Does that person have a chronic illness or an eating disorder? Are they experiencing grief? Were they even trying to lose the weight? You likely don’t know, which is why it’s best to stay away from any sort of weight-based ‘compliment.’”
If you’re on the other end of a weight loss compliment, it can be difficult to know how to respond, both internally and externally. According to Becker, a good place to start is by reframing why someone might feel this is an appropriate conversation topic. “It is a social norm for people to discuss weight in a diet-heavy culture,” explains Becker, noting the memes about weight gain that have been floating around social media during the pandemic and how they reflect negative attitudes towards weight gain, and fat-phobia. “Start by reminding yourself that weight comments may be less about you specifically and more about our culture and social norms.” In terms of responding directly to unwanted body commentary, she recommends starting by simply saying that you would prefer not to discuss weight or shape because there are so many other things you’d prefer to discuss right now, or even taking an irreverent approach, asking, “Why do you want to talk about weight? That is boring and always the same conversation.” If you feel comfortable, you can take it a step further by being honest about how those comments can affect you and may affect others. “Let them know that focusing on your weight can be triggering by inadvertently reinforcing [unhealthy] eating behaviors, and equates weight with all the other important changes in your life,” explains Becker.
If you are experiencing an increased or loss of appetite due to stress, warped views of food, or an eating disorder in this time, know that you’re not alone in what you’re feeling. “I’ve seen an influx of clients who are either seeking help for the first time or seeking support during a relapse due to COVID-19,” says Murray. “We are living in a tough time. It’s okay if you need some extra support.” What’s essential to keep in mind is that everyone is coping with the pandemic in different ways, and you never truly know what someone is going through. But as Murray notes, one thing is certain: “Asking friends and family how they are really doing in all of this is far more important than focusing on another person’s weight.”