Nearly two months into the COVID-19 lockdown, chances are you’ve seen an increase in posts and memes about weight gain due to a general lack of exercise and an abundance of snacks.
“Quarantine 15,” “gaining the COVID 19,” or “fattening the curve” are all examples of a meme that relies on a collective fear of fatness as its punchline.
The underlying assumption of these kinds of posts is that gaining weight is always a bad thing, and that being fat is something to be ashamed of—but why? Why do we, as a society, fear gaining weight so much?
#Quarantine15 and Fatphobia
A decade ago, I was nineteen years old, rail-thin and absolutely miserable. My diet consisted of cigarettes, vodka and the occasional spoonful of peanut butter, and my time was spent scouring my body for any perceived flaw. In the intervening years, I’ve gained weight, lost weight and gained weight again, ultimately settling into a body that’s much larger and a lifestyle that’s much healthier.
Despite the work I’ve put into healing from my disordered body image and eating habits, it remains challenging to live in a society that seems to value thinness above all else. I know that I’m happier and healthier at my current size, but the flood of #quarantine15-related posts from friends, family, colleagues and celebrities I admire reminds me that society thinks I should fear fatness and be ashamed of gaining weight—activating some of my decade-old insecurities and fear.
And I know I’m not alone.
“Any time there’s an increase in stress or anxiety, disordered thinking and awareness of core body image may become heightened,” explains Isabel Foxen Duke, intuitive eating coach and creator of Stop Fighting Food. “The desire to get our diet and our bodies ‘under control’ is often a symptom of feeling like we’re not in control in other parts of our lives.”
In the time of COVID-19, all of us are experiencing increased stress, uncertainty and anxiety. As Foxen Duke explains, it’s natural for fears of all kinds to be heightened, and it’s natural to want to reach out to others and process through social media.
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But it’s important to remember that when you’re talking about your fear of gaining weight, you’re telling your fat friends that you are afraid of looking like them—reinforcing the fatphobic idea that bigger bodies are undesirable and worth less than thin bodies, and potentially putting the mental health of others at risk in the process.
Being afraid of gaining weight doesn’t make you a bad person. It’s a natural response to the fact that we’ve been brought up in a culture that shames fatness and idolizes thinness. But it is possible to confront your fears without harming others.
“Look beyond the statement: I’m afraid of getting fat,” Foxen Duke says. “Look under the hood of that fear. After an entire lifetime of living under the assumption that ‘thin is good’ and ‘fat is bad’ and never considering an alternative, beginning to question why weight gain is so scary is in itself growth.”
Health at Every Size
“I believe that all bodies are good bodies,” says Jenna Doak, personal trainer and founder of Body Positive Fitness. “A body that’s gained weight is just as valuable as a body that’s lost weight.”
After years of working in the fitness industry, Doak came to realize that having what others considered the “ideal” body wasn’t making her happy. Instead, the pursuit of “perfection” was making her angry, jealous, and insecure. Doak now grounds her work in the principles of Health at Every Size, a holistic definition of health that rejects the idea that thinness is wellness and fatness is sickness.
Instead of pursuing weight loss, Doak encourages clients to prioritize mental health and to work to accept themselves as they are. Doak often reminds clients that the purpose of exercise doesn’t need to be to change their appearance or size, but rather can be about simply finding joy in movement.
To begin the process of explaining the concept of Health at Every Size, Doak asks a hypothetical:
“Say I can give you an exact prescription to become healthier in all possible ways, but you’re going to gain 25 pounds in the process. Will you do it?”
Doak explains that people often struggle to answer the question, because it can be difficult to acknowledge that the desire to lose weight is often rooted in being afraid of judgment and the way that the world perceives fat people. It’s rarely about health.
Doak recommends educating yourself by reading fat liberation books and following fat activists, and surrounding yourself with a body-positive community online. As a start, Body Positive Fitness puts out a newsletter called BoPoKnow, which offers body-positive resources, and information on community gatherings. Additionally, the Health at Every Size movement has a community website and a resources page. And for even more in depth information, check out Body Respect by Lindo Bacon, PhD, and Lucy Aphramor, PhD, RD and Health At Every Size by Lindo Bacon, PhD.
Clean up your “media diet”
Foxen Duke suggests that anyone struggling with a negative self image as a result of #quarantine15-related posts take stock of the media that they consume.
“Take inventory of the accounts you’re following and ask yourself, are these people who encourage self love and compassion and will help me feel safe within myself? Remember that you’re allowed to delete, unfollow, block and remove.”
Doak adds that it’s also important to remember that it’s not your responsibility to call out every instance of fatphobia online. “If you have the energy, do challenge fatphobia online but take care of yourself and your own needs first. Sometimes the best thing you can do for yourself is click ‘unfollow.’”
The wounds that diet culture has inflicted on all of us are deep, even for those who don’t struggle with disordered eating. Anxiety around body image and weight loss is something that many of us have been struggling with our entire lives.
It is easy to say that we should simply all love ourselves and our bodies, but in practice, healing the relationship between our bodies and our minds requires unlearning years of prejudices and stereotypes about fat people, as well as the insecurities ingrained in us from years of watching female role models choke back chalky bottles of Slim Fast, from diligently counting Weight Watcher points, and from watching celebrities peddle waist trainers and diuretic teas on Instagram.
“I think it’s important to remember that 95% of [weight-loss] diets fail,” says Foxen Duke, “Do I want to spend my life failing over and over at something that makes me sick and miserable? Or are there other options? When we actively question what we’ve been led to believe about bodies and diets, and begin to research other perspectives and alternatives—that’s where the healing will come.”