Experts explain why the idea of the "quarantine 15" can be so damaging for so many—and how to repair your body image if it's feeling fragile right now.
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It's now been months since the Coronavirus turned the world upside down and inside out. And as much of the country starts to reopen and people start to reemerge, there's more and more chatter online about the "quarantine 15" and lockdown-induced weight gain. A recent search on Instagram revealed more than 42,000 posts using the #quarantine15 hashtag. Many toss it around in jest, adopting a flippant attitude toward something that, actually, could be very damaging for many peoples' mental health.

Ahead, why this seemingly NBD phrase is actually an issue, why we need to quit it with this "quarantine 15" talk, and how you can reframe the concept if you're struggling with body changes these days.

Why This Body Obsession Is Happening Right Now

Let's start with the basics and unpack why everyone is so hyper-focused on their bodies right now.

A lot of it boils down to the fact that everyone's lives have been thrown into chaos, with a complete disruption of nearly all normal routines and activities. "When the world is out of control, the mind will look for any area where you can feel in control, and weight is typically one of those things," explains Alana Kessler, M.S., R.D., functional and holistic nutrition and wellness expert. "It might seem innocent and like it's coming from a good place, but there's an insidiousness to this idea that something needs to or can be fixed based on how much you weigh. Weight becomes easy to exploit amidst times of uncertainty."

Couple that with the way social media can turn anything into an omnipresent juggernaut (see other coronavirus-related examples such as banana bread baking and the tie-dye sweatsuit), and you can end up with a potentially major issue. "When we see that so many people are obsessing about the 'quarantine 15,' it normalizes it and creates a sense of community around this unhealthy belief," says Kessler. "It normalizes it and gives you this feeling that it's okay to be obsessed with it because everyone else is."

The silver lining here? People are speaking out about a topic that's often dealt with in isolation. The fear of weight gain is scary and there are many reasons why people don't talk about it, adds Kessler. Creating a situation where it can be discussed (and where you can relate to other people and realize you're not alone) can be helpful—though the constant emphasis on "quarantine weight gain=bad" can convince you it's an issue when otherwise you may not have cared.

Weight also becomes a place where you can earn a sort of sense of accomplishment. For many people, the feelings of productivity and like we're accomplishing something are few and far between these days; your mind tricks you into thinking that losing weight will give you this sense of doing something, but it's exploiting your self-worth in the process, says Kessler.

Not to mention, the constant weight-gain talk can be super triggering for those dealing with issues around food and body image, adds Tory Stroker, M.S., R.D., C.D.N., a certified intuitive eating counselor and dietitian in private practice, who focuses on empowering women to break free from food obsession and dieting. And that's no small group of people; 30 million people suffer from some type of eating disorder, she says. This type of "quarantine 15" messaging can instill a lot of fear and cause people who restrict eating to do so even more, as well as make people more likely to binge and purge because they feel helpless and are dealing with complicated emotions, says Kessler. (Related: Why Being Home with Food During Quarantine Is So Triggering for Me)

Let's keep in mind that it's not just the talk about weight gain that's increased, but overall stress levels too. And we know that stress is a trigger for many things, including an awakening of pre-existing issues and unhealthy patterns around food, notes clinical psychologist Ramani Durvasula, Ph.D., a Tone Networks expert.

Even if you went into this whole thing with no food-related issues, the constant talk about quarantine weight gain can start to make you feel panicked—you're getting subliminal messages that make you start to think about weight and food in an unhealthy way, adds Kessler. "Not only does all of this play into existing patterns of rumination people may have already had about weight and shape and food, but it can even create some new ideation around these topics," adds Durvasula. She also points out that it's not only the type of messaging but the sheer volume of it and time spent consuming it. People now have more than time than ever to be scrolling through social media or reading all about quarantine and weight gain and ultimately just not feeling great about themselves, she adds.

While, of course, everyone is entitled to their feelings about the way their body might be changing during quarantine, voicing those thoughts can also be extremely hurtful and damaging for those who are in larger bodies: "Diet culture is so rampant and fat-phobic that we don't think about how offensive it can be for those in larger bodies seeing people in smaller bodies complaining that they can't fit into their jeans," says Stroker. (Related: Can You Love Your Body and Still Want to Change It?)

The bottom line: The constant talk about the "quarantine 15" is NOT doing anyone's body (or mind) any good.

How to Deal with Quarantine Body Changes

So, what can you do if you are, in fact, feeling stressed about body changes as of late? First and foremost, now is the time to ease up on yourself. These are not normal times—we're in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic. Attempting to directly translate the goals and routines from pre-COVID life is simply not going to work.

Release the Pressure to Do All the Things

If you feel motivated to use this time to take up a new hobby, PR a 10K, or finally master a challenging yoga pose, go for it. But there's absolutely nothing—repeat, nothing—wrong with just doing what you need to do in order to get through each day.

And this really isn't the time for any kind of huge personal achievement: Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, a well-known psychological theory, establishes that human needs are structured as a pyramid, and we can only move upward after each previous level has been satisfied. At the moment, the base level—food, water, shelter—is hard to obtain for some people, and the next level—safety needs, including keeping your family healthy—is uniquely demanding now, says Durvasula. The next step—love and affiliation—is also being stymied for many people because you can't see loved ones or spend time with friends and family (or, ahem, date anyone). When these first steps are so much harder, it's much more challenging than usual to get to the pinnacle where you can start creating and achieving all kinds of personal goals. So chill out if you haven't yet color-coded your sock drawer.

"We're all forgetting that quarantine is a stressor, keeping families safe is a stressor, careers changing is a stressor," says Durvasula. "When we are under stress, we're more limited in reaching the self-actualizing level, the very top of the pyramid. Lower the bar. You don't need to write the great American novel or learn how to become an organic farmer. Just do you. Practice self-kindness. Be mindful. Be self-forgiving."

Check Your Media Input

As far as tangible actions go, doing a social media deep-clean is a good move. "Unfollow anyone who feels triggering, or is speaking negatively towards their body or others. Start following influencers and practitioners who speak more positively about bodies and also are in more diverse bodies," says Stroker, who suggests checking out this list of body-positive Instagrammers.

Reframe Your Feelings

You can also start to reframe this whole "quarantine 15" concept by asking yourself where the fear of your body shifting is coming from, adds Stroker. "Fat isn't a feeling, so this might be the time to dig a bit deeper," she says. Kessler agrees: "Acknowledge that you're having an emotional response to the idea of the quarantine 15, and then recognize that this response is a symptom of something else and feelings that might be hiding underneath the stress about weight gain." (Related: 12 Things You Can Do to Feel Good In Your Body Right Now)

Try developing a self-mantra to recite whenever these feelings do come up; it can be something as simple as taking three deep breaths and saying to yourself, 'I am enough,' she advises. Accepting the ebbs and flows of your body as a reflection of life is also a good way to reframe, adds Kessler.

Take a Look At Your Eating Habits

As it pertains to food and what you're eating, yes, you may want to dig a little deeper if your eating has changed significantly during this time, advises Stroker. "On the one hand, you do want to check in with yourself but remember, it's a pandemic. It's important to be flexible and kind and compassionate, and not punish yourself or feel guilty about what you're eating," she says.

Now may also be a good time to explore intuitive eating, which is NOT a diet or about weight loss, underscores Stroker, but rather about exploring your relationship with food from a self-care mindset. It's a complicated, non-linear process that will likely require the assistance of a dietitian and/or therapist, she adds, though there are some things you can start to explore if you're curious about the concept.

"Rate your hunger before a meal and your fullness after on scale of 1-10, then take note and see where you're landing, paying attention to any type of trends," she says. (She also recommends checking out the book Intuitive Eating, if the concept intrigues you.) But at the end of the day, this is all about becoming curious with yourself, not being judgemental, points out Stroker. And, if you don't feel like this is the right time to start exploring your relationship with food, backburner it until life is more stable and you do feel ready, she says.

Evaluate the Role of Exercise In Your Quarantine

The concept of the "quarantine 15" also is loaded with an emphasis on exercise, with external 'pressure' to work out more to make up for all the extra time spent not moving and/or eating more. Rather than thinking about exercise as a way to burn calories, focus on moving just to feel good.

As a starting point, "consider what type of movement you would do if there was no promise of a body shift such as weight loss, body composition, or strength," suggests Stroker. Another helpful practice? "Check in with yourself and think about how you feel during physical activity and how you feel after," she adds. "The goal is to find forms of movement that you love and feel good in your body."