Disordered Eating in the Time of COVID-19

by Michele Amira / September 25, 2020

Content warning: Disordered eating

Eating in the Time of COVID-19

Feminist artist of color, Frida Kahlo once said, “I don’t paint dreams or nightmares, I paint my own reality.” Being on the autism spectrum, this idea of painting my own reality is very true. Especially now during the historic global crisis afflicted by COVID-19 restrictions. 

Lately, I’ve been painting my own reality. And in a period when the world appears so out of control, I’ve fallen back into the reality that makes me most happy. That is: getting skinnier, and cutting calories, which is basically disordered eating. First of all, I would like to say, I love having curves, but I have an eating disorder. So that means it’s a lifelong struggle whether or not I’m actively restricting my eating.   

When Restrictions Collide

Since the coronavirus guidelines around gathering with family and friends have become stricter, it has caused increased anxiety and calorie guilt around meals. I’m an extrovert by nature, so I find comfort in family parties and time with extended family. Intentional eating is essential for me. And the quarantine has made that very hard. I also battle a rare autoimmune disease, which means I am in the high-risk category when it comes to the coronavirus. 

For the last six months, I haven’t been able to see my aunts, uncles, cousins, and close friends who I look forward to distracting me from hyper-focusing on calories. Essentially, my autoimmune disease has been a trigger of my disordered eating especially in the time of COVID when I can’t have as much of the support of family as I’m used to. Since recovering from my eating disorder, I have the Betty Boop figure I had before my disordered eating became really bad. However, as the quarantine became stricter, so did my own rigidness. 

In our society, there’s status in being “thin.” In lieu of the many challenges that I personally face daily, combined with added stressors from the coronavirus, achieving a thin status helps me cope with the unknown. Eating less simply makes me feel less anxious.

History and Present Trauma

According to the article, Eating Disorders in the Jewish Community, “…the Holocaust, with its haunting images of skeletal victims, hovers over the Jewish anorectic’s self-induced starvation. One theory is that unconscious, collective identification with grandparents who survived or relatives who perished may underlie eating disorders in the Jewish community.” I can certainly relate to this idea that many Jews suffer from inherited trauma passed from one generation to the next. 

Many psychotherapists have wondered whether there is a higher rate of eating disorders in families of Holocaust survivors. In my case, this is true. Including myself, three of my first cousins (all descendants of my Bubbie and Zaydie, who were Holocaust survivors), have battled disordered eating and extreme calorie cutting.

The Beauty of Jewish Traditions & Ritual

Jewish rituals and festivities that are so intertwined. Traditional food and lavish celebrations with my family keep me from feeling guilty. But I’m void of distractions now. So, I can’t stop focusing on cutting calories. Although I’m not really starving myself, I’ve been doing intermediate fasting. A starving body produces endorphins to counteract a frozen metabolism; the heart rate slows; the body temperature lowers. This is a “high” unlike any other. It’s been a daily struggle not to weigh myself every couple of hours.

There’s something very freeing about not needing food. There’s a sense that the Holocaust is still shaping who we are, for better and for worse. Starving myself gives me a certain high. There’s a narrative I grew up with of survivors’ guilt and trauma passed on through generations. I need to remember that I will have distractions again someday. Once quarantine is over, I will be back to spending time with family and be happy as can be, instead of feeling anxious about calories. I’ll travel to Israel to visit with my cousins and eat falafel to my heart’s content.  

Self Care: Ruach, Chutzpah, and DevaCurl

In this time of restriction, I try to remind myself of the importance of self-care and that survival could be small and enjoyable, too. After all, music and dancing are an essential part of the Passover story. For example, Miriam led the Jewish women in a drum circle to celebrate the Israelites being saved from the Egyptian army. Spanish Rabbi Ibn Ezra of the Middle Ages once said, “Bitter is wine, but it sweetens all bitterness.” 

Now, more than ever, it is time to drink “l’chayim” (to life) and dance in celebration for the freedoms we enjoy today. So, I will dance. This High Holiday season lets us remember we have scars and they don’t make us any less worthy of love or healing. No matter how disordered my eating is, it doesn’t make me any less worthy of love. I am not anyone’s tragedy, nor am I “lesser than.” 

My Bubbie and Zadie’s survival story is one of starvation and escape. There is so much pain and suffering our people have endured. But we survived through our ruach (spirit) and chutzpah (temerity). That being said, give me my DevaCurl Cream and I will get my hair curly in the name of self-care while under this quarantine!


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