In the height of quarantine, I reverted to my teenage self: An essay by Hana Shafi

After a trip to see my grandparents in Dubai was cancelled—a wise decision by my mother—just days before Ontario went into a state of emergency, I opted to stay with my parents in Mississauga during quarantine instead of in my small one bedroom apartment in Toronto. In doing this, I found myself feeling sixteen-years-old again. Stuck in the house, nothing to do, unsure about everything, having to inform my parents of my whereabouts when I would go on solitary angsty bike rides just to get some me-time. I’d weave in and out of suburban neighbourhoods that all looked the same, and shrug when my parents casked how my bike ride was.Credit Dylan van den Berge


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And like my teenage years, I sort of went through a second puberty—in that I felt like my body, my mind, everything was changing. I think a lot of us felt this way during quarantine. We were all caterpillars cocooned, but without any promise of coming out the other end as butterflies. This was an uncertain metamorphosis, no final reveal to look forward to. Just lots of “we’ll do this when COVID is over, we’ll plan it when COVID is over,” while we all secretly knew that there wasn’t actually going to be an over, in the firm definite sense that many of us had become used to. Being housebound left me, and so many of us, feeling sluggish and tired. Part of the reason I even started riding my bike was to overcome the sense of fatigue that was taking me over. It was physical fatigue from the very sedentary lifestyle I had embraced, and emotional fatigue from not understanding what was happening in the world—plus a whole lot of rage when it came to people who refused to be responsible and instead dealt with the pandemic by becoming conspiracy theorists. I felt shame too, at how bored and upset I was getting about having to stay at home when, for many chronically ill and disabled people, this was just daily life. I felt guilty for indulging my free time with movies and naps, while frontline workers were facing the brunt of the pandemic.And there was no answer to these feelings but to remain a caterpillar in its endless cocoon—hence becoming a teenager again, going back into the comforting, mundane womb of adolescence. I put a Spotify playlist on of my moodiest music and scoffed  at all the perfectly tended to suburban homes in the hopes that my mind would forget about the pandemic and find something in the melancholy song lyrics to be sad about instead. Perhaps, for some of you, your body also changed in this way. Maybe you became a child again and decided to look for the simple joys of life instead. Maybe, like one of my friends joked, you became an elderly woman and spent your days crocheting. We all became whatever person we needed to be to survive a strange time, and we are still coping with this change.And yet, there was still so much pressure to remain the same. Pressure to have the same outlook on life. Pressure to be productive, whether you were employed or not. Pressure to force a feeling of normalcy to your day, when subconsciously you knew that nothing was “normal” anymore. And especially, pressure to keep the same pre-quarantine body.

“I’ve never been okay with our society’s obsession with diet culture and using thinness as a marker for health, and I feel especially not okay with it during a medical disaster.”

The “quarantine 15” memes started popping up everywhere—a play on the “freshman 15” idea that you’re always going to gain a lot of weight in your freshman year. Even my parents kept reminded me to get exercise in, stop eating junk, don’t let the quarantine make me get any fatter. I know they meant well—in their way—and I know that exercise and eating well is important blah blah, but the focus on weight during a pandemic felt so utterly stupid. I’ve never been okay with our society’s obsession with diet culture and using thinness as a marker for health, and I feel especially not okay with it during a medical disaster. For many of us, COVID-19 is unlike anything we’ve ever experienced. Sure, I grew up through SARS and Swine Flu, but it never got this bad and I don’t have any childhood memories of being in quarantine or a lockdown. This is new to a lot us, and so scary. And if the pandemic doesn’t scare you, surely something else in 2020 will: for example, the fact that climate change is, in the case of Australia and California, lighting the world on fire, so who the hell cares if you put on a bit of weight? Of course, so much of what is happening in 2020, which many have dubbed a “cursed year,” are really issues that have been problems for many years before this. We’re just all especially sensitive to the bad news right now. When you’re feeling sensitive and scared, food is a comfort. Sleep is comfort. Bundling in blankets and drinking hot chocolate is comfort. A fried egg sandwich is comfort. I’m not trying to insinuate that only food can bring you solace and peace—that’s simply not true. I only mean to point out that when I was feeling most scared about the state of the world, and my parents said we would be ordering pizza for dinner, I felt a little better. And my main concern was mentally surviving without losing hope. I don’t care about the quarantine 15, I care about staying compassionate, tender, and hopeful in these frightening times. After a month of quarantining with my parents, I craved my own space and went back to my apartment. I had to wave goodbye to the teenage persona I sunk into to find comfort, as I now had to go back to being an adult with my own apartment. Still, I don’t know that I’m a butterfly just yet. I still feel like a resting caterpillar—I’ve just put up some string lights in my cocoon, hooked up the wifi, made myself a cup of tea and am learning to call this new little world home. I am less concerned with emerging triumphantly, and more concerned with finding ways to be gentler and more empathetic to this struggling cocooned body. And I hope we will all learn ways to extend kindness into each others little bubbles, no matter what the state of the caterpillar inside looks like.

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Hana Shafi (a.k.a. Frizz Kid) is a writer and artist. Her visual art and writing frequently explores themes such as feminism, body politics, racism, and pop culture. Her first book, It Begins with the Body, was listed by CBC as one of the Best Poetry Books of 2018. A graduate of Ryerson University’s Journalism Program, she has published articles in The Walrus, Hazlitt, THIS Magazine, and Torontoist, and has been featured on Buzzfeed, CBC, and in Flare, Shameless, and The New York Times. Known on Instagram for her weekly affirmation series, Shafi is the recipient of the 2017 Women Who Inspire Award, from the Canadian Council for Muslim Women. Born in Dubai, Shafi immigrated with her family to Mississauga, Ontario, in 1996. She lives and works in Toronto.

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Small, Broke, and Kind of Dirty: Affirmations for the Real World is available for sale on All Lit Up.