COVID-19 made me sick. I still am, even though I am now in my fifth month out of quarantine. It was unbelievably scary to be by myself while being forced to confront the weirdest sensations, both physical and emotional. Being unable to support my body weight meant having to propel myself by clawing my way along walls or crawling around my home just to cobble together enough food to feel full before falling asleep. I lost pockets of time. My legs were too weak to pull me up or to propel me forward; my feet moved in front of me of their own accord while an invisible weight at the front of my body immobilized me. Dizziness and sickness surrounded me. The pain in my chest and everywhere across my body was unlike anything I had ever experienced.
Testing negative got me out of quarantine, but the recalibration back to “full health” over the following weeks left me having to relearn basic functions while dealing with debilitating dizziness. I have not reached back to myself yet either. My doctor could not grasp what was wrong—despite the myriad of testing—yet I had to adapt everything I do: how to dress, how to prepare food, how to take care of myself. I didn’t write or type for weeks. No one talks about how anxious this makes you afterward. I felt unsafe in my body when trying to engage socially; that feeling has not fully gone away. When I tried to take three flights of stairs at speed, the little monologue voice inside me whispered, “This is how you die.”
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COVID Changed My Body and My Relationship With Food
I am still not well. But the most shocking and unpleasant thing I have to deal with now is the focus on my weight loss. Quarantine meant one small meal a day; I have lost all appetite since, and it is only slowly returning. Anything food-based feels so unbelievably wrong. It’s not a taste or smell issue, as mine remained intact. Preparing food was so overwhelming, tiring and often left me feeling nauseous. Eating would be fatiguing, but it made me feel worse internally while dealing with a physical battle. Emotionally, it could be upsetting, which I worked to hide; it sparked no joy, and the simple act of chewing could also contribute to painful symptoms flaring, sometimes for hours. In the aftermath of coming out of quarantine, I analyzed myself in the mirror, noting I could start to see my ribs, the concave of my hips, a more defined chin. I looked tired beyond belief. Trying to hide this has been futile.
I am trying my best to remain independent in dealing with the fallout of a COVID-19 infection, on top of my disability needs that already existed. But this often feels like it is too much to bear. Young people are allowed to be sick, and COVID-19 can disable us too. We are not failures for being the exception to the expectation we should “bounce back.”
Why is sickness deemed to be “sexy” when someone presents as having lost significant weight? It affords a sickening sexual currency in a patriarchal world. Older men have creepily commented that my apparent thinness has made me suddenly attractive. A female friend suggested I work to stay thin, as apparently I am now “beautiful”; this stung, as if to suggest my femininity was somehow enhanced by a disease that has left me struggling and could have contributed to an early grave. Work collaborators think it's appropriate to tell me, “We need to feed you up,” while pushing food toward me. I have worked hard to not need validation from external sources, but all of the comments opened up the chink in my armor. My post-quarantine body is not a compliment or a good thing and is not for the gaze of anyone to objectify or fetishize.
Heroin chic was fashionable not that long ago. Female icons who dominated the cultural landscape of my childhood were praised for their tiny frames. One of my parents worked to counteract this, instilling the need for a healthy body image and therefore a healthy relationship to food. They played me Alanis Morissette and P!nk and showed me how magazine images were airbrushed to seeming perfection. Sugary snacks were often limited, while we were allowed to explore the world of cosmetics freely.
I hated feeling cold all the time when just out of quarantine. I disliked the over-definition of my hips, my ribs; this is not healthy but has slowly improved since. It is indicative of a capitalist society that to be thin is to be attractive, to have a worth based on visual merit. Women’s worth is based on their body, and it is so often equated with money. The fetishization is profitable. But this is so inherently wrong, immoral. Feminist writers have documented how the insecurity is planted then later profited from. Sexism reigns supreme, from all involved.
The Obsession With My Post-COVID Body Is Sick
I have missed food, the pleasure of consuming a favorite meal, the sense of community this brings to the social fabric of our lives. Sickness is not attractive to me. Life is for living; my worth will not be defined by a body that has failed me or through the way it’s perceived by others. I have worked to recover. I still have so many steps left to work toward. The hamster wheel of appointments, follow-ups and letters is overwhelming. No medical professional seems to want to understand my situation. We set up healthcare on inherently ableist, sexist criteria. Navigating this has so often made me want to give up, but to be as healthy as possible is my ultimate aim in the end—healthy at an acceptable level to myself and myself only. My thinness is not problematic in a medical setting. Outside of that, it apparently suddenly makes me interesting, worth more. Patriarchal rape culture is a sore that has been allowed to fester in the pandemic, it seems.
I’ve tried not being angry about this, and it has been fruitless. I feel resentful that sharing food with anyone now always leads to comments about my lack of an appetite, how I look or even my dietary needs. It makes me self-conscious, as if I somehow have to ask permission to just enjoy myself. Innocuous conversations circle around to how attractive thinness is. The misogynistic messaging has been internalized; failure to question what we are taught, and unlearn harmful things, will be our downfall in the end. Examining the body of someone else is not appropriate.
Sickness is not attractive; when we see it that way, we fetishize. The sexism in this should be as unpalatable to everyone as it is to me. Being out of quarantine, only one person ever asks me how I am and how I am doing. To learn to be OK with yourself and deal with the murky perceptions of others is mind-boggling. I am tired.