Junior communication major Anna Rose McCarthy normally makes New Year’s resolutions to eat better and exercise more. Weddings and vacations scheduled for 2020 gave her further motivation to maintain and improve her fitness. However, as the year progressed and the coronavirus began to spread rapidly, these highly anticipated events were removed from her calendar.
“I didn’t feel like I had to look good for anything,” McCarthy said, explaining how she started feeling a mix of anxiety and apathy about the food she ate.
Lack of motivation combined with the absence of normal structures, such as spin classes at a local gym in Wheaton, exacerbated her pre-existing struggles with body image and self-esteem. And McCarthy is not alone.
This narrative is shared by other Wheaton women whose struggles with mental health and body image issues have been exacerbated by the pandemic. Some have contended with derailed wellness routines and others have grappled with insecurities stemming from solitude, anxiety and the unforgiving webcam.
Over the summer and during the extended holiday break, Elizabeth Mott, a sophomore anthropology major, found that a nearly empty schedule and quarantine’s extended solitude made it easier for her to fall into unhealthy habits such as skipping breakfast and spending too much time on social media.
“It’s much easier to lie in bed scrolling TikTok than it is to get up and go for a walk or start an art project or go make myself breakfast or try a new cookie recipe,” Mott said.
Because her family lives in Kazakhstan, Mott chose to stay with a friend in Urbana rather than risk traveling internationally when school was not in session. She stayed in a guest apartment and ended up spending much of her time alone. This solitude was a stark contrast to her experience on campus. During the school year, Mott found a supportive community in her dorm, where friends would compliment her appearance in small ways. When Mott no longer had community life to distract her, dormant thoughts and insecurities returned.
“[When I don’t have much to do] my brain wanders and I tend to get stuck on anxious, unhealthy and often self-deprecating thoughts,” Mott said.
Mott and McCarthy’s experiences are similar to others that Donna Aldridge, a staff therapist at the Counseling Center, has witnessed. Before the pandemic, Aldridge helped numerous clients with eating disorders and related issues. She has seen those specific problems worsen since the onset of COVID-19.
“A lot of the things that contribute to an eating disorder were heightened during this time,” Aldridge said, “both whether someone was at home or on campus and at the same point, some of the things that help with both treatment and protective factors were also lowered.” Aldridge said that eating disorders are closely tied to a desire for control, something that has been severely compromised by the pandemic. “That lack of control [and] the social isolation has contributed to mental health issues in general and for those struggling with an eating disorder.”
For other students, losing access to fitness facilities, and other places central to their routines, presented challenges. Living rooms replaced gyms. Yoga mats rolled out in odd corners of the house were the closest thing to an exercise class. Junior Rachel Wells, who is majoring in Spanish and psychology, tried to adapt her exercise schedule by running in her Wheaton neighborhood instead of going to the gym. However, when cold weather set in, she started to lose her desire to exercise.
“When people go to the gym, it’s not just about the workout,” Wells said, “it’s getting into a different headspace for the same reasons you would go to a library to study. I can work out at the house, but I’m not going to have the motivation to.”
These issues, combined with relocating from campus to home, reminded Wells of the years she spent struggling with an eating disorder in high school. Aldridge reported that this is not uncommon; the clients she sees on Wheaton’s campus are often experiencing intensified or relapsing eating disorder symptoms.
“It was this weird, perfect-storm kind of combination.” Aldridge said, emphasizing that nearly every aspect of the pandemic has been detrimental to mental health.
Limited physical interactions and activities have affected the lives of Wheaton women beyond the dinner table. For some, technology filled the newly formed void. According to a 2020 National Institute of Health study, social media use can increase mental health issues such as anxiety, which is a pattern Aldridge has seen in her conversations with students. She says that with increased media exposure during quarantine, people have more time to compare themselves to the images that they see, which can promote feelings of inadequacy.
“[As people are] looking at pictures and screens constantly there is added emphasis on beauty,” Aldridge said, “how we look on the outside and judging people by appearance instead of who they are and how we relate to them.”
Junior applied health science major Haley Bohannon said that when quarantine gave her more free time to scroll through social media feeds, she found herself more frequently tempted to compare herself to fitness influencers and other users.
“Some people did the Chloe Ting ab challenge, and they’re getting a six pack. Some people are just trying to make it through the day,” Bohannon said. “I follow a lot of fitness accounts on Instagram, but am I actually taking tips from them or am I comparing myself to them?”
Many influencers on media platforms promote body positivity, the philosophy of loving yourself and your body unconditionally. Wells said that it can be a helpful concept, but she cautioned that this message can also promote complacency. She saw well-meaning posts from influencers telling followers to accept their bodies and found herself tempted to use them as an excuse to not exercise.
Social interactions are not the only part of life that has taken place in virtual spaces during the last year. In the era of “Zoom University,” students are reduced to squares on a screen for their classes as well. This forces people to stare at themselves throughout hours of interactions that used to happen in person.
“I hated it,” Mott said. “I hated seeing my face all the time. It was distracting and uncomfortable.”
Bohannon emphasized how distracting it was to see herself on screen, making her “hyper aware” of her appearance. Other women also reported that being on camera made them feel self-conscious. Junior BITH major Emma Bodger said that while she has fought body image struggles to reach a point where she is satisfied with her appearance, spending long periods of time looking at her face prompted a relapse of insecurities.
“Over time [being on Zoom] transferred to evaluating what I look like in any mirror as well,” Bodger reflected, saying that she started to notice small things about her appearance that had not bothered her before, such as the circles beneath her eyes.
As the pandemic continues and many students transition back to in-person learning, some of these struggles remain. But the last months have also yielded a new perspective on health and a new understanding of how to practice self-care during strange times.
After Bohannon contracted COVID-19 in January, she reevaluated her expectations of herself and her body. She had planned to workout 300 days in 2021, but a simple yoga workout left her feeling exhausted. She was forced to toss away her ambitious goals to exercise every day and instead nursed her body back to health. She learned to be flexible, focus on health over appearance and give herself grace when her daily goals were not met.
“There’s so much pressure to continue habits from before COVID, but our lives are so different,” Bohannon said. “My mindset has changed to respect my body more, knowing it needs to be healthy enough to fight the coronavirus — it’s not about what I look like.”
Bodger has found that very practical things help her cope with negative emotions associated with seeing herself on Zoom. She says that simple things such as establishing a consistent location for virtual meetings, where the lighting is good, helps her not worry about her appearance so much. Being on campus and spending less time on Zoom also helps.
Wells has been using her extra time to journal, a self-care habit she has practiced since middle school. She also finds that coffee dates with friends and long walks help her cope with mental challenges caused by the pandemic.
During this time, Mott has focused on giving herself a more structured routine by finding things to do with other people. “This semester I’m trying to combat [unhealthy thoughts and habits] by finding things for me to do by having planned times at least once a week where I call this person or I do that [activity],” she said.
McCarthy is also happy to be back on campus, where her roommate and other close friends provide extra support and encouragement. Even just having people her own age around provides motivation. “Going out and seeing people, that gives you a little bit more motivation to want to stay healthy. Having that community of people around you is helpful.”
Stores, gyms and social events have slowly begun opening back up to the general public, yet the effect the pandemic has had on eating disorders and body image for women on Wheaton’s campus lingers.
Aldridge stressed the importance of finding healthy coping strategies during these times. She encouraged students to establish a routine for themselves that includes meals, exercise — outside if possible — and in-person social interactions. Most of all, she encouraged people who are struggling in silence to confide in a therapist or trusted friends.
Wheaton College, IL