Content Advisor: This article provides a detailed description of eating disorders and other mental health issues.
It was a sunny June day when 19-year-old Parker Rosay-Miller had a familiar feeling of dizziness. As he got up to get out of his car, a wave of dizziness that felt like static TV rolled over him. His head was pounding.
The feeling started during a 15 minute drive to his girlfriend’s house. He felt weak in the car, but the dizziness didn’t hit him until he stood up. It continued throughout the day whenever he stood and sat.
Rosay-Miller remembers promising herself that she wouldn’t eat until dinner. She thought that hunger and fainting were promising, a sign that she was on the right track to achieving her weight loss goals.
That June visit was the first time she had seen her boyfriend’s father in months. He and Rosay-Miller were very close. He calls her the daughter he never had, and he wishes her a happy Father’s Day. When he saw how much his body had changed, he was worried.
“She kept commenting on how thin I was. I’ve never seen her worry,” she said. “It made me realize there was a problem.”
His physical appearance shocked him because, unlike his close family and friends, he didn’t see him every day. The day was a major indicator for Rosay-Miller that she finally needed help.
University of Oregon sophomore student Rosay-Miller is one of millions of people struggling with eating disorders today. The stress and external isolation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has caused it, and many others, to relapse into unsafe behavior and irregular eating.
The increased stress during the pandemic has made eating disorders nationwide worse. The International Eating Disorder Journal conducted a study that found 62% of people with anorexia had an increased fear of food since the pandemic began. Nearly a third of people who have bulimia or an overeating disorder also experience an increase in symptoms. The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Related Disorders reports that 28.8 million Americans will experience an eating disorder in their lifetime.
According to the National Eating Disorders Association, people who face a lot of external stress sometimes use food as a coping mechanism because it offers a feeling of comfort and control.
Rosay-Miller first noticed a change in her mental state in March 2020 during the first wave of infection. She said she was dealing with an abusive emotional relationship with her boyfriend at the time, and that she was also one of the many freshmen who got discharged from the spring boarding school. Being away from friends makes it difficult to find support when relationships start to deteriorate. For Rosay-Miller, part of her pandemic stress stems from her inability to get out or do anything to distract from the chaos that is going on around her.
“At those points, I definitely turn to eating disorders for coping skills. I just think it’s the only thing that can really help, “he said.” It was very traumatic and unsanitary. “
Situations that exacerbate stress often exacerbate irregular eating behavior, according to Nichole Kelly, an assistant professor at the UO College of Education who studies eating behavior and body image. Kelly says that feelings of stress, anxiety, or chronic stress can be linked to irregular eating patterns. Not much research has been done on how the COVID-19 pandemic affects eating disorders. However, Kelly knows, based on data from previous research, that stress and eating disorder behavior are directly correlated.
“Feelings that we don’t like, are uncomfortable with and that stress us out are major risk factors for eating disorders,” he said. “There’s no reason not to think that living through something like this will worsen an irregular eating pattern.”
The stress that accompanies the pandemic has only fueled the problems Rosay-Miller has been dealing with since childhood. His past with bodily insecurities resurfaced during the start of the pandemic.
The first time he said he felt he realized how his body should look when he was nine years old, walking back from the lunch room. She wore leggings and a crop top, which emphasized her figure. He placed his hand on his stomach and felt it bulge. Her stomach was distended after lunch, a natural reaction after eating. Rosay-Miller attracts and manipulates her body so that she doesn’t attract attention to herself.
“I feel like people are just looking at me,” he said. “And I feel I need to continue my standard of performance which has always been like this.”
Rosay-Miller says she has always been aware that she thinks about her food and body differently from other children her age. She was often told that her body was beautiful and perfect growing up. This was difficult for Rosay-Miller because it convinced her that beauty was the most important thing about her. It was a constant thought that ran through her mind from childhood to college. The compliment brings a lot of social pressure.
“I never talked about it to anyone. I don’t think it’s a big deal because I’m not emaciated,” he said. “People are constantly commenting on my appearance. And I think I internalized it as the only thing that matters to me.”
Her eating disorder behavior during quarantine started innocently. He wanted to go a few runs here and there after not exercising much during the face-to-face education. But then it got a little out of control.
“It was almost unconscious at first,” he said. “I started tracking my weight with the scales. I started to realize what I was getting into, but I still couldn’t stop.”
In less than two months, Rosay-Miller lost 20 pounds.
She said that part of the reason why she started developing unhealthy behaviors was from the online pressure of being thin. Headlines such as, “Tips for Staying Fit During COVID-19” and “The Pandemic Diet: How to Lose ‘Quarantine 15” have increased their circulation on the internet recently. Headlines like these or social media posts about “inspiration” are a major contributor to bodily insecurity, according to Project Know, a national directory of addiction resources created by the American Addiction Center. The website says that while social media itself does not cause eating disorders in a person, the platform can facilitate comparisons and competition.
“It’s like something else above everyone telling me to look good,” said Rosay-Miller. That pressure got worse during the pandemic. “Take the terrible piece of social media and increase its frequency and intensity by a million.”
Maddy Niese, a 20-year-old Oregon State University student, struggles with weight loss culture on social media. She uses her Instagram, @maddysrecoveryjourney, to show the intimate part of her recovery from an eating disorder so that others won’t feel alone. Niese started the account in September 2020. He said he wanted to use his account to keep himself inspired in times of doubt. Niese also wanted to strike up a conversation about eating disorders in general and let others see the slippery world of healing.
“Diet culture is everywhere,” he said. “I don’t want to log on and see someone post about a calorie or a healthy version of a drink or something. Curating my diet to be body-positive is really important.”
Like Rosay-Miller, Niese has a long history of eating disorder behavior. He’s been in and out of recovery for over nine years. Her past experiences are reinforced by pandemic-related stress and social pressure. The transition to online schooling is one of the biggest hurdles for Niese. He called it “insurmountable stress.”
The treatment for Niese and Rosay-Miller are two very similar processes. Both include online outpatient care, which consists of virtual Zoom meetings where patients will eat together every day. Rosay-Miller says the best thing about an outpatient program is the structure it provides.
For Niese, the inpatient program process was difficult due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For a while, he had to go to a health facility because of his severe condition. He said many people live in the same house, which makes it difficult to enforce proper social distancing and COVID-19 prevention protocols.
“There’s also a big waiting list,” he said. “There are so many people grabbing that resource.”
He urged others who had fought a similar battle with an eating disorder for help. Even if someone is not diagnosed with an eating disorder, Niese said, many people may struggle with unhealthy habits without realizing it.
“I feel a lot of people, even though they don’t have an eating disorder, have an unhealthy relationship with food or exercise,” he said. “I want to share what recovery is like. It’s not about eating your food. It’s more about finding your identity as a human being.”
People of all ages, races, gender identities, sexual orientations, and backgrounds are subject to unhealthy eating disorder behavior, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders.
Niese said eating disorders, similar to other mental illnesses, were not an option. However, he also said those who are struggling always have the option of choosing recovery.
“People don’t need to worry about their weight now. We are in a global pandemic,” he said. “I almost wanted to say this to my old self: It’s possible. Living in freedom is possible.”