How Quarantine Changed My Disordered Eating & Taught Me About Self-Love

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TW: Eating Disorders

It’s 2012: I return home from high school and lock myself away in my bedroom—the dark purple walls slathered with posters of all the pop-punk sweethearts—and scroll through the infinite catalogue of skinny indie it girls, #thinspo quotes on why I really need a thigh gap, and the self-deprecating text posts from my mutuals proliferating my Tumblr dashboard. Then I log everything I ate that day into the calorie tracker app on my iPod Touch. 

I didn’t really need the calorie counter because, for one thing, I only ate 500 calories a day at worst, 1000 calories a day at best. Sometimes, I wouldn’t eat a full meal for days. The number of calories in a medium 7” – 7 ⅞” long banana is seared into my brain, anyway. (It’s 105.) Half a cup of supermarket brand yogurt is 75 calories. 5 whole almonds are 34 calories. 

Obsessing over my weight didn’t start in high school: dieting was an old and sacred tradition I had initiated at age seven. And I didn’t stop until I started self-isolating in my little Tokyo apartment during the coronavirus pandemic. It was there that I finally realized that coding food as “good” or “bad,” restricting, and skipping meals is, in fact, disordered eating.

My mother says my birth prophesied my penchant for self-destruction: I ruminated for hours about whether or not I wanted to leave her womb until I was eventually ripped out and thrust into the world against my consent via c-section, choking while I cried. If I could, I would have crawled back into her belly and disappeared. I would spend the rest of my life wanting to die and finding little and large ways to try to do so. One of those ways was dieting.

I used food (or, rather, food restriction) as punishment. I felt like I didn’t deserve to eat. I was filled with shame and raging self-hatred if I ate “bad” food or went over my calorie limit. 

I am not sure if my self-hatred was something primal, coded into my DNA like a congenital defect. Or perhaps it was something I internalized from the normalization of disordered eating or the beauty standard at the time of being skinny, quite skinny, very skinny that was often espoused in magazines, advertisements, and on social media sites like Tumblr. Low self-esteem: maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s Maybelline. 

It is a sad but unsurprising fact that children as young as five have body image issues and more than half of girls aged 6-8 want a thinner body. By age 7, one in four children will have tried a diet. The recent pandemic has only heightened our obsession with weight and body image, and I can’t help but be reminded of the #thinspo culture I once submersed myself in. 

Almost everyone around me, both online and off, seems to be obsessed with the weight they gained or failed to lose during quarantine. Videos about unrealistic quarantine daily routines and dieting tips with thousands of likes pop up on my TikTok For You Page. They’re like animated versions of my calorie log (banana, almonds, yogurt…), aestheticized with filters, transitions, and lo-fi music. According to an article in The Walrus, diet companies have coopted the pandemic as a marketing technique; one diet app promises to be “your constant amidst the chaos.” Additionally, some parts of the UK have even suggested tracking children’s weight in response to weight gained during quarantine

It’s 2016: I come home from a long day at university, which I somehow survived without a proper breakfast or lunch, and begrudgingly attempt to cook dinner, often without success. I turn every kitchen disaster into a self-deprecating joke. I proclaim myself “a gourmet chef xoxo” when I burn my toast or accidentally create a noodle monstrosity that should be criminalized in at least ten countries. When I eat, I just want to get it over with; I don’t care if my cooking nourishes me, pleases me. I think my body is a horrible, beastly machine I’m chained to, and I’m cursed to feed it for the rest of my life. 

Drinking only coffee all day is hilarious, forgetting to eat is quirky and relatable. Joking about disordered eating habits hasn’t gone anywhere since my university days; I’ve seen an increasing amount of tweets and TikToks joking about things like only eating ramen noodles for breakfast or the guilt associated with eating a full meal. I recently came across a tweet that said “adulthood is realising everyone has a disordered eating pattern” which garnered 110, 000 likes and almost 800 replies. 

It’s May 2020: Japan has gone into lockdown, so I decide, on a whim, to try cooking (like, really cooking) a Japanese dish. I mean, I have nothing better to do. I decide on gyudon, a comfort food. I have the recipe memorized now. You need a pack of thinly sliced beef, one onion, three eggs, two green onions, two teaspoons of sugar, two tablespoons of sake, two tablespoons of mirin, and one tablespoon of soy sauce. Serve it with rice and pickled ginger. 

The act of putting effort into a healthy meal for myself to enjoy is revolutionary and addictive, and my meals get more and more advanced every day. I cook chicken curry, custard French toast, omurice, poke, loco moco, maple soy tofu…. for the first time in my life, I feel proud of my cooking. I’m filled with a new sense of purpose, with self-worth, with the very basic confidence of knowing that I’m capable of taking care of myself and that I deserve to be taken care of. 

When I cook, I feel like I am providing for my younger self. Adding seaweed whiskers and ears to a ball of rice, splurging on extra fresh unagi and imported maple syrup, cutting my carrots into flowers are all radical acts of self-love. I tell my five-year-old self, “Eat. You are safe, you are loved.” I tell my twelve-year-old self, “Eat. You are good, you are worthy.” I tell my twenty-one-year-old self, “Eat. You are smart, you are capable.” I tell my twenty-three-and-a-half-year-old self, “Eat, eat, eat. It’s for you, it’s all for you.”  

With every breakfast, lunch, and dinner, I slowly, finally see myself beyond the aesthetics of my body for the first time in my life. Now, it seems reductive, ridiculous, and blasphemous to view my body as an object to be consumed, perceived, or criticized (by both myself and others). My body’s purpose is not to be visually pleasing or weigh an arbitrary number or have the latest proportions we’ve all decided are good: its purpose is simply to keep me alive and allow me to have human experiences. I can stir a sauce or crack an egg just by thinking it, my stomach digests full meals without me thinking about it. How does it do that?! That’s magic! 

At the time, I didn’t realize I had stopped dieting. (Not having a scale in my apartment probably helped.) I don’t remember deleting my calorie counting app; it kind of just happened. I’ve definitely gained weight since the Before Times. But I, miraculously, haven’t self-flagellated or lamented about my eating habits. I’m at peace with the way my body intuitively fluctuates and changes. Maybe I’ll be bigger in a few months, maybe I’ll be smaller. When I eat another serving of pasta or decide to get dessert after dinner, I think, So what? I don’t care, I don’t care, my god, I don’t care anymore. My body isn’t a burden or a curse for me to weaponize against myself. 

It’s the fall of 2020: life returned to normal in Japan over the summer and has since accelerated at a pace that seems unreasonably quick. Am I really expected to commute for one hour and work for ten hours? Why is it that after I use cups and dishes, I have to wash them? Has the garbage always needed to be taken out this often? You mean to tell me I need to shower and get dressed every day? Is life nothing but an endless cycle of laundry? 

When I have the mental and physical stamina, I cook myself easy comfort foods like shogayaki, miso pork and eggplant stir-fry, and, of course, gyudon. But there are days when I’m so busy that I need to eat “struggle meals”—spaghetti with sauce from a bag, cheese curry cup ramen, konbini onigiri. I find myself slinking back to feelings of shame: I am not productive enough, not efficient enough, not fit enough. I’m a fraud for even writing this essay. And then I panic: am I regressing? What if I never stop feeling this way?

It’s the winter 2020: I celebrate Christmas the Japanese way (with fried chicken, cake, and potatoes in various forms) with none of the guilt I usually feel around the holidays. I’m going to an onsen for the new year, which entails being naked in public in broad daylight. In the past, I always crash dieted or drank tea with senna leaf if I knew I had to be in a bathing suit. More and more posts about losing weight for the new year start to crop up in my feed, and I briefly want to buy a scale and start skipping breakfast again.

I’ve come to terms with the fact that recovery isn’t linear nor is happiness a constant state. I’m miraculously and exhaustingly human. My body will never be “perfect,” my diet will never be completely “healthy,” and my thoughts will never be positive 24/7. The body positivity movements of the past—the idea that one must love the way their body looks every second of everyday and shout it from the rooftops—never resonated with me, and I’m not alone in this thinking. 

I recently learned about the “body neutrality” movement, which first emerged in 2015. While the “body positivity” movement touted that all bodies, regardless of size, are beautiful, the body neutrality movement promotes the idea that we should care about what our bodies do for us, rather than how they look. The movement encourages us to eat and exercise intuitively: eat when we are hungry and stop when our bodies tell us to. 

I think self-love and confidence are shown in small, peaceful acts of functionality. They are gained and strengthened through quiet, brave decisions in favour of self-compassion and authenticity. If I am hungry, I will eat. If I am tired, I’ll go for takeout and cook when I have the energy. If I feel guilty or insecure, I will accept how I feel and start over again the next day until the good days overwhelm the bad. My body will continue to shapeshift, my eating habits will continue to change, and my thoughts may not always be positive, but I try to accept these different versions of myself with grace and love.  

It’s 2021: my belly is full, I take off my clothes, jump into the water.

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