The memes are rather prolific on social media these days: In one example, a thin man is shown peering into a refrigerator with the caption “Quarantine: Day 1,” and in the next image, the same man, now heftier, peers into the fridge with the caption “Quarantine: Day 30.”
They may be attempts at lighthearted fun, but in reality, there’s nothing funny about the message, says Dr. Jenny Copeland, a psychologist with Joplin’s Ozark Center, the behavioral health services arm of Freeman Health System.
“These kinds of memes have been floating around since (the pandemic) started. People make light of these situations, but the reality is that with weight stigma, we’re talking about people’s lives here,” she said. “This has very real consequences for people.”
Friday wrapped up Weight Stigma Awareness Week, and officials with Ozark Center spent the week educating the public about eating disorders and showing how weight stigma can contribute to eating disorders in people of all sizes. Weight stigma is a discrimination or stereotyping based on a person’s weight, and it’s a leading risk factor in the development of eating disorders such as binge eating.
Research has shown that larger men and women face discrimination each day, whether it’s facing more difficulty landing a job, maintaining a happy and healthy relationship or even getting elected to public office.
And humans, Americans in particular, are stress eaters.
“If you think about American culture, food is associated with everything we do — whether it’s the movie theaters, or weddings, etc. — it’s there for everything,” Copeland said.
Weight stigma can also force people to avoid going to the doctor because, for example, they fear weighing in front of others or they dread a weight loss lecture from their doctor, she said. And some women avoid potentially lifesaving medical appointments, such as their annual cancer screenings, because their doctor’s office might not have the properly sized gowns for them to wear or because they can’t deal with the potential embarrassment of wearing a smaller gown.
Because of the overwhelming stress brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic — it’s been nearly seven months since the nationwide shutdown in March — more people are turning to food for comfort. It’s where the term “quarantine 15” comes from — gaining 15 pounds during these troubled times.
The pandemic “is a collective trauma; we’re all living through it together, and we have our ways to cope with it, and that’s what the eating disorder does,” Copeland said.
According to a study at the University of Connecticut Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, people who faced a social stigma about being overweight before COVID-19 had higher levels of depressive symptoms, stress and eating as a coping strategy than those who had not. There is also a higher risk of binge eating for those who have been teased for their weight than those who received no teasing. And 62% of people suffering from anorexia are seeing worse symptoms than ever.
“Since this pandemic … we’ve seen a 70% to 80% increase in calls to disorder hotlines across the nation,” along with an equal uptick in calls made locally, Copeland said. “We’re seeing people who have been in recovery for a long time that have relapsed or the illnesses are now much more severe because of the pandemic — it’s the perfect setup. We’ve lost that structure; we’ve lost that social support. Our lives have been turned upside down.”
If people find themselves slipping back into bad habits, stay connected with friends and family members — that “social connection,” Copeland said.
“If we’re used to going out and grabbing a cup of coffee with a friend, we have to find a different way to do that … and to meet that need,” she said. “It just takes a little bit of time to change our connections and find new ways of meeting those needs.”