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Unhealthy Obsessions and Powerful Healing: Body Image in a Pandemic

BHS students open up about their struggles and progress with body image, eating, and exercise during quarantine.

For many teenagers, finding confidence with one’s body can be deeply difficult. An environment like high school certainly feeds this problem, as students are surrounded by peers to which they constantly compare themselves. However, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, students were suddenly pulled out of this potentially toxic atmosphere. With much more time spent alone and indoors, quarantine has undeniably affected the body image, eating habits, and exercise routines of many teenagers. At Berkeley High School (BHS), quarantine has influenced students and their body confidence in both positive and negative ways. 

Loren Breidenbach, a senior in Academic Choice (AC) and co-President of the BHS Body Positivity Club, shared, “In quarantine, I feel like I’ve really been able to explore and listen to myself.” Breidenbach has struggled with a diagnosed eating disorder since middle school, and was launched into the challenging recovery process as she entered ninth grade. “It’s definitely been a journey, and it’s evolved so much over the years,” she said. With the COVID-19 pandemic, Breidenbach struggled to adjust to the new environment – especially the closing of gyms – but found she was able to settle into a comfortable routine after a few weeks. She explained, “I’ve always noticed that summer vacation is when I feel I make the most progress with myself, and I think that has a lot to do with the fact that there’s less peer judgement and school stress.” Breidenbach also found that she was able to develop a new, healthier relationship with exercise. “I’ve been able to explore different types of movement, and that’s been really empowering for me because I feel like I’ve turned [exercise] into something that feels like less of a chore and more of a celebration of myself.” 

Breidenbach also finds support in the Body Positivity Club, a group she took over in her junior year and revived with the help of her close friend, AC senior, Bisbee Hall. The club has become “an amazing community of really supportive individuals, where we can talk about anything and everything, without judgement,” said Breidenbach. She hopes that anyone who is struggling with body image and eating during this uniquely difficult time will try attending a meeting. The Body Positivity Club meets on Zoom every Wednesday from 11-11:45 AM. 

Within this community, Breidenbach has noticed a trend in terms of mental health during the pandemic. “For a lot of people already in recovery, quarantine has been a really great thing, but I’m also seeing a lot of people that I never expected to struggle with these sort of things, begin to struggle.” She has noticed a pattern in those who have already been through the darkest parts of their journeys with body image, eating, exercise, and have already begun the recovery process; they have found the complexities of quarantine to be supportive of their healing. However, the isolation and massive environmental changes have also led to the development of eating and exercise disorders in teens who haven’t contended with these issues in the past.

Erick Barrera-Yoc, a senior in AC, experienced this new struggle with eating and exercise habits as quarantine started. “Previous to COVID, I didn’t really pay much attention to food and body image,” he said. However, when school and sports were shut down, Barrera-Yoc turned to strength training to fill the time, and quickly became consumed. He explained, “In early quarantine, I was just bored, and I got really into working out and focusing on my physical appearance, and it grew into an unhealthy obsession.” He voiced that social media fueled this obsession until he reached a point where he constantly compared himself to fitness influencers, allowing that comparison to dictate his eating and exercise habits. “I would watch everything I ate, use calories counters…. I was treating my body like an experiment, ignoring my natural hunger and focusing on numbers and timing instead,” he explained. 

For Barrera-Yoc, it was easiest to fill the empty time and isolation of quarantine with these unhealthy eating and exercise habits – until it became too much. “Over time, it was too exhausting to be in such a confined space, to be constantly consumed by what the next meal or workout was going to be,” he said. After a few months, Barrera-Yoc was able to find a healthier balance with his exercise. “[I was] working out to relieve stress and feel strong rather than to look a certain way,” he explained. He implored teens who are still struggling with confidence and health issues sparked by the pandemic to separate appearance and exercise. “Working out is great for relieving stress and building strength, but don’t let it consume your daily life,” he urged.

While Breidenbach and Barrera-Yoc have both been able to find a comfortable eating and exercise routine within quarantine, there are still many teens who are struggling to do so. A student in Universal Ninth Grade (U9) at BHS, who agreed to be interviewed anonymously, shared, “Quarantine has had a negative impact on my mental health in general, and it’s definitely exacerbated the issues I have around eating and exercise.” The student, who has contended with an eating disorder since fifth grade, explained, “It’s not always about body image for me — it’s also about taking control.” 

Speaking about life before the pandemic, the anonymous student said, “I used to go out and eat with my friends a lot, and they would be a really big help in getting me to eat… it’s hard for me to be motivated to eat on my own when I’m at home.” As a result, the student’s mother has been much more vigilant with ensuring that she eats. “[This] is helpful, but also hard to deal with sometimes,” she admitted. On her journey to a healthier relationship with food and exercise, the student has found that placing oneself in a healthy environment is essential. “Surround yourself with people who not only understand, but want you to get better,” she said. “If you’re in an unhealthy environment, there’s no way you’re going to succeed or get better.” 

Ultraviolet Schneider Dwyer, a senior in Independent Studies (IS), understands the importance of one’s environment in both the development of eating and/or exercise disorders, and during recovery. Schneider Dwyer has struggled with an eating disorder since fifth grade, something that was fueled by her deep involvement in the dance community. “As someone who was a dancer, I was always focused on what diet would come next,” she explained. However, in line with Breidenbach’s observation of those already in recovery, Schneider Dwyer shared, “I’ve gained a lot more clarity in my eating disorder recovery during the COVID pandemic because I’m able to take care of myself in ways that I didn’t take time for before.” 

Schneider Dwyer has been in recovery for the past four years, but she found that the pandemic created complications in the process. “When COVID hit and the lockdown started, it was really hard to grab onto a schedule or structure in terms of eating and exercising,” she explained. “I had to seek a lot of support in terms of planning out my food, because the kitchen is right there and it’s really easy for me to want to go to the kitchen if I’m feeling stressed out or bored or if there’s nothing better to do.” Although Schneider Dwyer has found an eating and exercise rhythm that works for her, she still finds that it’s difficult to maintain that structure without the format of a school day. “The pandemic definitely has a combination of positive and negative effects for people with eating disorders and body image issues,” she asserted.

Many teens have found both relief and setbacks with their body image during quarantine. The isolation and unstructured time can lead to powerful healing, but also opens up more space for unhealthy obsessions. However, as Breidenbach, Barrera-Yoc, and Schneider Dwyer all expressed: we are more than our bodies. “Yes, you want to love your body, but you’re also so much more than that,” said Breidenbach. She encouraged fellow teens to find activities that make them feel strong and empowered, but aren’t necessarily centered around their bodies – like biking, cooking, and art. Breidenbach shared a final message, “You have so much more to give to the world than just what you look like.”

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