This article originally appeared on VICE Italy.
The coronavirus pandemic has changed the way we experience the world and commandeered every conversation you've had over the last couple of weeks. Unfortunately, while it might be the biggest problem we're currently facing, it hasn't cancelled out all the other problems we face on a day-to-day basis. For people with eating disorders, the world we're now living in can trigger harmful behaviours and dismantle the habits they rely on for their safety.
Eating disorders affect 3 million people in Italy, where I'm from, 96 percent of them women. But in mid-March, as Italy's health services almost buckled under the weight of the coronavirus crisis, the country's National Eating Disorders Awareness Day passed without the attention it might usually receive.
That same day, Italian rapper Fedez posted a slideshow of images to his 9.5 million followers, showing him and his wife, influencer and designer Chiara Ferragni, photoshopped to look about 25 kilos heavier – the joke being quarantine is going to make them fat. Hundreds of people found it hilarious, but just as many people were outraged. Fedez defended himself to the latter, calling the joke a bit of "self-deprecation".
Unfortunately, fat-phobic jokes have been rife these past few weeks. Social media is full of photos of hyper-caloric food and chat about how people are worried they "can't stay away from the fridge". More often than not there's no malice behind these posts, but they also serve as proof that even during a global pandemic, people are worried about getting fat.
Feminist dietician and eating disorder specialist Veronica Bignetti says our fear of putting on weight is linked to internalised stereotypes of fat people as greedy or lazy. "We need to return to a more neutral meaning of the word 'fat'," she explains, "and above all understand that, when we talk about weight, it's not a matter of will and habit: context and genetics play a huge role."
As someone who has experienced anorexia, I can tell you that these kinds of jokes don't make things any easier for people already struggling with their eating habits. Continually seeing posts on social media about how we're all "doomed" to become fat made me feel not only uncomfortable, but scared. It seemed like everyone found the jokes funny except me.
When I found out about the lockdown, I immediately deleted my step-counting app. Normally I walk everywhere, and take great satisfaction in hitting 15,000 steps. I'd become attached to that number, and knew it would hurt not to see it at the end of each day. The first few days were hard: I was locked in with my boyfriend, whose eating habits are very different to mine. He eats regular meals, including pasta nearly every day and beers almost every night. In short, he has a balanced relationship with food that he doesn't overthink.
After four days, I broke down. I didn't recognise myself in the mirror – I saw someone fat, flabby and puffy-faced. I constantly thought about food, calories and how to keep it all under control. People with a history of eating disorders know how scary and destabilising a sudden change in exercise or eating habits can be, and that it can trigger familiar spirals.
Luckily, I'm with someone who knows how to support me through these situations, knows how to pull me back to reality and won't let me fall back into obsessive habits. I'm trying to keep myself feeling good – physically and mentally – by doing some exercise every day. I'm also trying to let myself enjoy this time I have with my boyfriend, treating ourselves to good dinners, bottles of wine and the odd takeaway meal. But not everyone can do that.
"People with eating disorders, especially binge-eating or bulimia nervosa, are struggling," says Bignetti. Her first tip for people with eating disorders in lockdown is to continue with any therapy they've been receiving online, via video call or on the phone. "And don't give in to the temptation of starting a new diet just because you have time," she adds. "Dysfunctional relationships with food are a pendulum that oscillates between restriction and loss of control." In her work with clients, Bignetti follows an anti-diet approach, which focuses on mindful eating, normalising the pleasure of food and reconnecting with your body.
Bignetti reminds me that "health" isn't reflected by just the number on the scales – and it's not only problematic, but incorrect, to assume that fat people have health problems simply because they are fat. "Health is a broad and multifaceted concept," she says. "And even if a person is leading an 'unhealthy' lifestyle, it doesn't entitle us to make fun of their body."
Maybe we can use our time in lockdown to work on our empathy, rather than making jokes that compound the problem for people already grappling with size-related issues. But we can also use this time to look after ourselves. To not feel guilty if we change our eating habits, and cook food that tastes good and makes us feel good. After all, when we finally get to hug our friends and family again, they're not going to care if we've put on weight.