It was the start of the fall 2020 semester. I was attending one of those remote meetings that I imagine were the lot of most college teachers at that point in history. . One of them concerned the precariousness and superfluity of our function. During the next, we were to discuss the ways in which we could help the students to manage their psychic malaise.
A presenter from the orientation center gave us information about various services: “We can help students who are struggling with anxiety or depression, she explained. We can teach them to manage their time. We can help them come up with a plan to lose the weight they gained during the lockdown.” And she added with a laugh: “That’s their own Covid-19.”
I leaned forward and turned off my computer’s video camera. I couldn’t hide my look of disapproval. “Instead of shaming students who put on a few pounds during a global health crisis, you could worry about everyone who develops eating disorders to cope”I mumbled.
Eating Disorders and the Pandemic
I started going to therapy because I myself suffered from such disorders shortly before the start of the pandemic. That year, I had given birth to my second child. I rowed. The postpartum period had coincided with health problems in the family. My eldest was jealous of the youngest. I was struggling to balance work and personal life, I was sending emails while falling asleep while breastfeeding my son, and I admit that I have more than once happened to drop the phone on his head .
But I found the line! It was the only thing in my life that seemed to work: weight loss. People complimented me on it. It was nice. Sometimes it was only pleasant thing.
So I invested my energy in what worked: more exercise, and a diet rich in nutritious foods. Nothing to complain about so far. I always exercised several days a week, but soon I switched to everyday. Then twice a day. Sometimes more.
I ate more vegetables. I started replacing pasta with zucchini, rice with cauliflower. My baby was crying at night. I told myself that it was probably due to the yogurt that I ate for breakfast, to the cream that I added to my coffee. So I also eliminated dairy products.
I started to feel less and less well. In the morning, when I woke up, I had pain all over. I was terribly depressed. At home, I would pick on everyone when something interfered with my workouts. I would come in and throw things against the wall every time I found myself in a situation where I had to eat food that I hadn’t planned to eat. My behavior could have been alarming, but as I slimmed down, the compliments poured in like never before.
I understood what was happening. I had indeed suffered from eating disorders as a teenager. I thought it was behind me. But it turns out that certain pivotal moments in life can promote these disorders. Like having a baby. Or go to college. Or survive a pandemic.
I ended up asking for help. I was bad. Clearly, I was not living up to my demands as a parent. Confiding my problems to my shrink was embarrassing. “Depression”, “anxiety”, these were words that I could use without problem. But talking about this problem seemed to me out of place, immature, awkward.
In our appearance-focused world, many of us, though intelligent and seemingly mature, tend to pick on our own bodies when we’re in trouble. When the pandemic hit, I spent time on social media to stay connected with my fellow human beings. I viewed pictures that showed how others were coping in this new world. Days spent in front of Netflix. Homemade sourdough bread making. Exercise sessions at home to combat the effects of confinement and untimely snacking. It was surreal to see how many people were busy losing fat when we were threatened by a virus that could have our skin.
Soon enough, I asked myself the following question: how many people will learn to cope with this impossible world by developing an eating disorder?
Apparently not bad. The number of teenagers seen in the emergency room for bulimia or anorexia has doubled during the pandemic. Many reasons have been cited for this increase, including unstructured days, food insecurity, and fearmongering about weight gain during lockdown. Instagram’s parent company is currently on trial for knowingly posting images with “harmful effects on people’s perception of their bodies and mental health”.
Breaking the myths
First-year students took most of their classes virtually; even after the first confinement, the appearance of new variants led to the resumption of classes on Zoom, or sparse university benches. For days on end, the students spent their time viewing and comparing images lined up in little boxes on the screen.
Their social media life was filtered and photoshopped. Isolated within their four walls, they heard about the worrying problem of weight gain – and even doctors encouraged them to lose weight on the pretext that it could protect against serious forms of Covid-19 – while they themselves went through a phase of their development where the weight is not yet stabilized.
This is why it is so important to put an end to this rhetoric of “freshman 15(the idea that students gain 15 pounds, or 7 kilos, during their freshman year of college). Leave the students alone, they have enough problems as it is.
Moreover, these fateful 7 kilos are not even a reality, but a myth. On average, new students gain about 1.5 kg.
Some would say that warning students about this risk encourages them to adopt a healthier diet. Or it could be, as I have observed as a teacher and former student, that one gets the following effect: students skipping lunch and dinner to “save” calories so they can consume alcohol; boys skipping class to spend more hours in the gym; girls in the cafeteria who only dare to eat a portion of salad with salsa sauce (because plain lettuce is totally tasteless, but the vinaigrette is too high in calories).
Teenagers who became adults during this global health crisis had to stay locked up in their homes for long periods of time. It is therefore not surprising that they have refocused on themselves, and therefore on their physical appearance. They were fed rules about movement and authorized contact – and it is logical that they tried to create a zone of autonomy for themselves by creating their own rules, which would allow them to be good citizens while rebelling, rules related to what they put into their own mouths.
In a recent essay for The New York Times Magazine, Sam Anderson writes that “the culture of the regime translates a fear of death disguised as a desire for transformation”. Covid-19 has claimed more than a million lives in the United States. Suffice to say that for young people entering university this year, the fragility of life and health are words that have meaning. My hope is that they can have a fulfilling social life this year and look forward to a future full of possibilities – a future that they understand isn’t going to be knocked over by a few extra pounds.