Eat, Sleep, Repeat: Body Image and Food in Quarantine with @models.that.eat
In four separate rooms, in four separate states four women sit down to eat: a familiar tableau filtered through the soft glow of laptop screens and the slight lag of Zoom, like something from a surrealist painting. It feels that way too, the way most things since Coronavirus do: once removed from normal. There is a grounding reality to the act of eating, but something too smooth in the brushstrokes—the pixels on our faces—and something dreamlike, or nightmarish, in the pandemic stricken world we inhabit. We inhale, exhale, bite, swallow, and let eating become a small comfort in a chaotic landscape, as it has for many. COVID19 has created new fears for the global population: fears which are not always seen, but are deeply felt, much like the learned fears of disordered eating. Disordered eating teaches fear of hunger, fear of fullness, and now, in a world more mercurial than the mind of someone struggling with body image, disordered eating teaches fear of change.
When I first reached out to Pojo, I was panting. Just a few months into my recovery from over a year of disordered eating, the world was thrown into a pandemic and I was forced to confront my mind and body in ways I had been avoiding. During the worst of my disordered eating and body dysmorphia, I spent most of my time inside, fueled by the belief that my body was somehow wrong, misshapen or undeserving of embrace in the outside world. If I could just stay inside, I thought, no one will see me changing. Now I am inside, where no one can see me and I am changing. In quarantine, I have lost weight, I have gained it. I have eaten thoughtful and nutritious meals some days. I have eaten an entire bag of jellybeans and absolutely nothing else other days. Being trapped inside with nothing but my body has forced me to confront the ways I had come to I fear it.
To people struggling with eating disorders and body dysmorphia, the act of eating becomes desperately lonely. The projections of psyche onto self are more salient in silence, in isolation. Even as the world opens anew, an unmistakable shift has occurred in the conversations around eating and body image. Worldwide, people have openly voiced fear of their changing bodies, whether in the cavalier jokes about gaining weight in Quarantine, or in the surge of fitness and diet culture focused on using this time to make your body “better.” We have seen the helplessness in the face of this pandemic lead people to hold a vice grip on the things within their control: their bodies. We have not seen enough space being held to inhale with appreciation for our healthy bodies and exhale in surrender, letting them lead the way.
Phoebe Joseph, 20, known as Pojo to her friends and followers, started @models.that.eat as an Instagram page in 2016 as a way for her and her friends to share their experiences with food in the fashion industry. The name stems from the assumption that models don’t eat, to which @models.that.eat responds, actually, they do. The platform has since grown into a website and YouTube channel. Pojo has created waves in the conversations surrounding models’ diets, bodies, and relationships with food, and earned herself recognition among the ranks of the 2020 Dazed 100.
She responded to my email within a week and welcomed me with the understanding and enthusiasm of someone driven by a higher purpose. She also connected me with two other models that eat, Djouliet Amara (24) and Kate Nelson (26), each of whom brought a new awareness to the conversation and a new beacon on my horizon. Djouliet, a dancer, model and actress, experienced an eating disorder for roughly two years during her time within the competitive dance world. She came to recovery on her own, as many of us do, and now brings an ease as graceful as her dancing to the act of eating. After a ten year battle with disordered eating, Kate entered treatment and continues to work as a model, using her platform and podcast “Take the Cake,” to create healthy conversations around eating in the industry.
What has been your go to snack in quarantine?
Pojo: I’ve been eating [plantain chips] religiously, like it’s not even funny. I think I realized that I was okay with the Trader Joe’s plantain chips when I saw there was a recycling symbol on the back so now, my sustainable self is like “Bless!” I’m going to have like six bags a day. Can’t stop eating them. I just finished eating prior to this. I couldn’t help myself. I’m sorry, I had a whole plate of leftover rice that I stir fried and I put on some little corn tortillas. But you know your girls digging into the plantain chips right now so that’ll be my snack of choice right now.
Djouliet: My favorite snack in quarantine right now is either Twizzlers or popcorn or both of them together. I wish I had them here right now, but I already ate my Twizzlers today. I felt bad too because I couldn’t help myself before and I was like, “Ah, I can’t wait!”
Kate: Right now I’ve been really loving oranges and blueberries. It’s kind of weird, because I am not a fruit person, but I think because it’s so hot in L.A., I just need something like that. I made a peanut butter and jelly bagel with some almonds on it. So that’s like my meal. It’s more of a snack, but whatever.
Making a conscious effort to avoid the culture around model diets and “what I eat in a day” content, what have your eating habits been?
Djouliet: Eating for me has been kind of weird in quarantine, because I feel like I’m eating more than I usually do. I feel like I am someone who also eats when she’s bored. Which, you know, there’s nothing wrong. It’s not like I’m overeating in a way that is disordered, but I feel like I’m eating more than I typically would and I’m exercising less than I usually would. I’ve been eating, for breakfast, like, oatmeal or a bagel with something on it. Then, I really like mushroom pasta with some spinach and olive oil, or stir fry’s. Stuff that’s easy to make. I think I’ve been eating a lot of carbs, not a lot of protein. But I’ve just been eating food that makes me feel good…because I’m just trying to stay sane by, whenever I’m hungry, eating whatever I want, because that’s what makes me happy.
Kate: I kind of need structure, because of my history with disordered eating, I need a little bit of structure. So I’ve been actually implementing routine, like before 10 o’clock I have to have breakfast, or it’s going to seep into lunch and then I get weird about it. So that is something I would recommend only to people that that would be helpful for, but for me, that’s been really helpful. Just to have some sort of structure around eating, that way I know I’m eating three meals a day and not grazing all day, because that doesn’t really make me feel good, personally. I’ve also been eating a lot of carbs, a lot of oatmeal, bagels and a lot of easy meals and sometimes trying to go out and support small businesses. Trying to keep it interesting by getting, like, at least one new thing at the grocery store when I do go.
Pojo: This has just been a continuation of my journey with intuitive eating I think. Right now I’m feeling really grateful for how my work with Models That Eat hits home…. So I’m feeling more at peace. And, yeah, lots of carbs. Lots of trying to get creative with what I do find at the supermarket, because is what it is right now. But you know, just going with it, I guess.
Do you have any routines, exercise or otherwise, that have been helping you stay in touch with yourself?
Djouliet: I’m really, really bad at having exercise routines. And there was a point in quarantine where I was doing ballet class on Instagram Live a few times a week. But then I found myself putting too much pressure on it and then I found it getting to the point where I was waking up not wanting to do it, rather than waking up and seeing what I felt like doing. So I kind of stopped doing that for a little bit because I wanted to get my energy together. But for me, the one routine I really stick to is doing my skincare routine every night, every morning, just because it makes me feel fresh to do, and it makes me feel good, and it makes me feel like I’m taking care of myself. I really actually struggle to do exercise in quarantine, because a lot of the time I feel too lethargic and a little bit sad.
Pojo: I’ve gone through the “I’m gonna work out” phase, but it’s like, okay, no we’re not. We’re really not going to train like that, sis, we both know. My goals now consist of having crow pose. That’s on my moodboard.
Kate: Yeah, I have been doing a lot of skin care focused routines. It’s taking me twice as long to do my nightly skincare. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of Gua Sha, I just got into it.
Pojo: I’m obsessed. It’s a lost art that I didn’t know I needed..it feels like self love—the epitome of it—because you’re just dedicating every angle of [your] face to it. It’s going to take like 10 seconds in every spot. I love it. It’s awesome.
Kate: I am a routine person… I’ve been trying to wake up before 9:15 a.m., specifically, but I feel like I could sleep for literally like 11 hours. I’m such a sleeper. I’m not ashamed of it. I have a lot of time to focus on my YouTube-Instagram-podcast-self. So I’ve been trying to do one thing, even if it’s sending that one email, I just do something related to that. And then I’ve also been learning how to skateboard. So that’s been my thing right now. I kind of feel like a badass, because I made my thumb bleed… and then I got a pair of white sneakers and, anyways, it’s a very skateboard thing to do, but you’re supposed to put your blood on your sneakers.
How have you been grounding yourself?
Djouliet: I think that what’s been grounding me physically is definitely dancing, but also getting in a daily walk. Putting my little headphones in and just walking around the block for a solid half hour and just feeling at least a little bit one with outside. Obviously putting a mask on, but it’s just so weird you guys. So I think having some connection to the outside world is very helpful in a time like this.
Kate: I’ve been getting off Instagram because comparing myself to even, larger people in larger bodies is just as bad. So I’ve just been trying to stay off Instagram when I feel that way. And pray and meditate and have also been taking some walks. It’s been nice having Millie, my dog, because then I have to go for a walk everyday.
Pojo: My journal has been my homebase. I wake up everyday to it and I go to bed to it and I always just let my feelings out. I usually get a page out morning and night. I didn’t really know if I was going to be able to make that routine, but then it became just pure necessity for that moment of clarity. Astrology has been keeping me grounded. Those little things have just reminded me that we’re all chugging forward. Productivity right now isn’t really measurable and that’s important to understand, so learning to stop measuring metaphorically, physically, all of it.
Has your body changed at all in quarantine? If so, how has that made you feel?
Djouliet: My body has changed in quarantine, and I’m learning to feel okay with that. My body has become more soft, more supple. In a way it’s beautiful. I collaborated with an Italian photographer for a FaceTime shoot, and he told me my body was like a Renaissance painting. That made me feel beautiful, like I belong in a museum that people visit solely to adore me. Whenever I find myself feeling uncomfortable in my body, I remind myself that I am art. That makes me smile.
Kate: While I am not entirely sure if my body has actually changed, I feel like it has. Perhaps it’s all those „hilarious“ memes featuring before and after quarantine bodies? Either way, most days I like the idea of embracing a change in my body, but there are a couple days or so a month when change still feels scary.
Pojo: I don’t know if my body has changed in the way that it appears, and I think when I was younger, I would typically judge off of the way that it had changed appearance wise, but in terms of feeling it’s definitely changed. I feel like I’m almost a little more cozy in my body, as a feeling, which is kind of funny. Physically, though, I think I feel different when I work out and I make time for it. I definitely feel stronger, which is something that I strive to feel, whether that’s, emotionally stronger, as well. I’m clearly trying to find my balance with fitness to provoke that feeling, but I think feeling strong in my body in an optimistic way is big, so, everyday I try to trigger that feeling.
What sort of dialogues have you been having with your body in quarantine?
Pojo: I think I had a really weird moment when I was sick and I was struggling with my body image conversation in terms of being too small. I went into this mentality of “you need to eat more” and I realized how uncomfortable it was making me, not only physically, but emotionally and mentally. I really wasn’t handling that dialogue well. If I really want to work on something like that it has to be at a sustainable pace. And it’s not about overnight success.
Kate: I’m definitely questioning a lot right now if my body is the right size. I’m like, ‘should I be bigger? Like, am I okay?’ It’s very weird. I haven’t had this sort of dialogue for a long time.
Pojo: I’ve been treating my menstrual cycles like a thank you from the universe. I’m so grateful that right now I’m nourished and my body is responding in a natural way. It’s been really nice to have that check in. So I think all the little cues have been good for me personally.
Djouliet: That’s awesome. It’s funny that you mentioned periods because I found that during this quarantine, for one of the first times in my life, my period has been extremely irregular. And I’m trying to figure out what that’s because of. I know it has nothing to do with my eating. I think it’s just because of the stress of this pandemic.
How is the anxiety surrounding COVID19 similar, if at all, to that of an Eating Disorder?
Pojo: It’s so easy to fall into a fear based mentality all the time. We already had a ton of things going on regarding body image and health that we’re all focusing on and then this happens. For people going through recovery…there’s just so much more you’re working through. You’re going to be put in complete isolation, and what does that mean for your recovery journey? I think a lot of people got pushed off course, but there’s always going to be that battle with those hills. For me, it’s weird, acting normal has helped. Acting like things are normal and normalizing being home has helped me shift out of this, “I’m going to get sick and then I’m going to be stuck here” mentality.
Kate: I can almost put myself back, like if I was really struggling with my eating disorder. I can imagine how difficult this time would be and it seems impossible. I feel so much empathy towards people who are really in the thick of it right now, because it’s really bad timing, unfortunately. But, I kind of like changing my narrative to: this is what’s happening right now. I need to be strong enough in my recovery to be prepared [and realizing] I need to get through today and make a very tangible list of goals. Maybe that means getting telehealth or doing more therapy or getting medications. I’m just trying to ask myself what I need every day and remember this is a reality and for me.
Djouliet: I think just the act of being alive in this pandemic is extremely overwhelming. I’ve tried to make my goals a little bit smaller and make them pertain more to my mental health and what will make Djouliet be able to have a good day and survive in a way that feels good. But, one of the things that’s really been annoying me lately is the feeling of people trying to come out of quarantine better than before and changing their bodies…going on like 200 mile runs and competing for quarantine. It’s like, What is going on? This is obviously a very, very difficult time for people who are struggling. There’s just a lot of triggering content out there right now and I really feel for people who are in the thick of it because it’s even triggering to me. People being like, “now’s the time to like change your body. When this is over, it looks better or is better.” This is such a hard time for everyone.
Kate: If you like running, for example, if it’s feeding you, then that’s great. But would you still be running everyday if you weren’t going to post it on Instagram? If you’re like “no I would still be doing all this stuff if I wasn’t able to share it,” then are you competing against yourself and is that healthy? I think there’s a line. I think you can have self competition and be healthy about it. That’s setting goals. But if you are like “I hate myself because I didn’t run that extra mile,” … is that healthy?
Pojo: We keep competing for a day that keeps getting pushed back…that’s like the body image shit all over again. Like “I’m going to get here, and I’m going to book a job and then it’s going to be worth it,” but then what do you fight after it? You can’t just pretend that you’re going to outrun people when the reality is everyone’s at home. Everyone is coping with different situations, so it’s kind of gross how it’s been converted into “where do you fall on the spectrum of productivity?” Just make sure you’re aligned with what your higher self is needing to do right now to stay sane and stay comfortable and hopefully some sort of happiness is provoked.
What resources would you recommend to someone starting or continuing recovery right now?
Kate: NEDA has some truly amazing resources. They literally have an entire page of resources specific to COVID-19. I also would recommend having a journal to jot feelings down, or some other sort of creative outlet to externalize the roller coaster of feelings that surface during recovery like dancing, drawing, singing, meditating, etc.
Djouliet: NEDA has plenty of awesome resources. But my favorite is obviously modelsthateat.
Pojo: NEDA, obviously, is amazing. I know it’s a broken record to say NEDA, but it really is important—I can’t stress enough—having resources like that. They exist solely for the sake of helping people thrive around food, so I think that’s really important. I also think a lot of people right now would benefit from an eating disorder recovery coach, if that’s something accessible to someone. The Carolyn Costin Institute is considered one of the more reputable coaching institutes when it comes to eating disorder recovery. That’s not necessarily someone who’s a nutritionist, or a dietician, or psychologist, but it’s someone to be a friend…someone you can trust to lean on during your recovery journey. I think that’s a great resource. And, of course, I love to think that Dine and Dashes can help, but sometimes that content isn’t for everyone, so if people watch it and they find it’s comforting, and it helps them too, then that’s all I can really hope for with my content.
What have goals looked like for you in quarantine?
Djouliet: I think, for me, I definitely take it day by day. I’m very very blessed right now, because I am an actor, and a dancer, and model sometimes, but I’ve been focusing on acting. With COVID, I didn’t think I’d be getting many opportunities for jobs, because nothing can film right now, but I’m getting more self tapes than usual, because casting offices are still working…I’ve been getting an influx of those, however, some days I feel like I can’t do it. I wake up and I’m like I can’t even facetime my friends, I can’t even text back, how can I get a self tape in by 5 p.m. So I’ve been taking it day by day and setting one goal. I like to prioritize the things that make me feel good first to get me into the day and then add work that I need to get to on top of that.
Pojo: I feel like for me it’s been about like small business things that make me feel like I’m investing this time to myself, and not in a toxic way and not in an over indulgent way… I feel like [Models that Eat] is becoming more of an integrated thing, and I’m constantly thinking about the platform.
Do you have any mantras that you use to ground yourself when your thought patterns feel unhealthy?
Pojo: I’m big on affirmations and I really love, this is going to be really annoying, I’m sorry, but in “7 Rings”, Ariana Grande says “I want it, I got it” and so whenever I have a moment of desire, I really take a tab on it and then I surrender it. I pass it on to a greater power and it’s not my problem anymore, and, honestly, my energy shifts monumentally.
Kate: I just keep trying to remind myself that my body, and my mind, and my soul have wisdom that are so much smarter than my in-the-now-brain. My body has wisdom that I probably will never understand, and so does my mind. So, just trying to let go of the expectations I have of myself, and what I think I should be; how I think I should be doing it; why—whatever—and just being like “you got the wisdom, girl, just let it happen.”
Djouliet: I think a lot of the time when I’m feeling down and need to pick myself up, I just remind myself to live in light. I try to do my very best just to spread light and live in light and live in love and just share that. Because, I feel like, if you share that with the world, then it ultimately comes back to you, and it comes back to me, so I think it works.
In the light of my computer screen, I feel it working. We exchange movie recommendations and virtual hugs and log off the call one by one. We settle back into our four separate rooms. I let my screen go dark with my room. Light moves from the wall to the floor, with the warmth of one body pressing against another in embrace—an act for which I’d become fearful during my eating disorder. Now, I relish in the desire to be noticed and embraced: to be understood by a body outside of my own. And though there was no warmth passed between the tips of our fingers, no arms wrapped around the whole of my body, I still feel light in mine. A satiety in the pit of my stomach and a buzzing between my eyes, expelling light with each breath. We inhaled, we exhaled, we understood ourselves and each other a little better than before. And, most importantly, we ate.
Text/Interview: Kenna McCafferty