Those ‘COVID-19’ weight gain jokes reveal the toxic power of diet culture

Those 'COVID-19' weight gain jokes reveal the toxic power of diet culture

It only takes a few minutes of scrolling online to see one: a meme lamenting the possibility of gaining weight during the quarantine. “I need to socially distance myself from the kitchen,” one reads. “Gaining weight in college was the freshman 15. This time it’ll be the quarantine 15,” reads another. And, of course, there are the “before and after” caricatures.

Yes, now that 1 in 4 Americans are under strict orders to stay home in an attempt to quell the spread of COVID-19, our lives are likely becoming more sedentary — and arguably more stressful — than before. Access to fresh foods may have been replaced by nonperishable or frozen items, to say nothing of the looming sense of fear and uncertainty that can make even the most user-friendly at-home workouts feel impossible. Add to that potentially crippling anxiety, ableism issues or a lack of access to a safe place to be outside, and we are left with a cornucopia of food-related challenges. But as we all attempt to cope with this new “normal,” sharing fatphobic memes that do nothing more than highlight how diet culture has permeated every facet of our society is in dangerously poor taste.

“Weight-gain memes and comments are damaging to all of us, and particularly to people who are personally affected by eating disorders,” Claire Mysko, CEO of the National Eating Disorders Association, notes. “This is a period of heightened anxiety, when our community is working to find new ways of staying connected. Negative body talk and weight gain jokes have long been default modes of commiseration in our culture. But, in fact, these messages don’t bring us closer together — they stoke fear, they keep us from exploring health from a holistic perspective, and they are outright harmful.”

An estimated 30 million Americans suffer from an eating disorder, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD), which also estimates one person dies from an eating disorder every 62 minutes. The National Institute of Mental Health states that anorexia is the mental illness with the highest mortality rate. While eating disorders often stem from extreme dieting and exercise, they can quickly become coping mechanisms to mitigate a person’s anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), or other underlying issues, such as past abuse and lingering trauma. What is dismissed as vanity or a lack of self control is really a sophisticated way to manage complicated emotions.

The isolation, fear, loss of rituals and routine and uncertainty that embody this ongoing public health crisis represent a serious challenge for anyone with an eating disorder or disordered eating tendencies. The coronavirus has already led to a rise in alcohol and drug relapses across the country. And just like memes about constant drinking during quarantine are potentially damaging for those in alcohol recovery, a “joke” about not being able to fit into your pre-quarantine jeans can harm those who’re trying to maintain healthy eating habits in the midst of so much anxiety.

“For people with eating disorders, this is a complete nightmare,” Jennifer Rollin, a therapist who specializes in eating disorders, says. “I work almost exclusively with individuals who have eating disorders and eating disorder recovery, and there are a ton of triggers right now: food scarcity, gyms being closed. Times like these provoke feelings of anxiety and eating disorders love times like these. Their worst fear is being reinforced by society and heralded as funny.”

It’s not just about eating disorders, however. The cultural messaging of such memes undermines the efforts of activists who have spent years trying to push society toward a more progressive idea of health and body image.

Mia O’Malley, a plus-size activist,has come across many fatphobic memes as the pandemic has spread and more people are staying home, and is particularly hurt by those that are accompanied by images. “I think the visuals are the most harmful,” she says. “That is somebody whose body looks like mine, and you are stating that a body like mine is the worst possible scenario.” But she’s also not surprised — these tropes, in a culture guided by an unattainable and often unhealthy beauty standard, are nothing new.

“It’s so old fashioned,” she explains. “It’s so ingrained in a patriarchal society to be like ‘keep me away from those donuts!’ It’s misogynistic and fatphobic. People think it’s OK to hate themselves for gaining weight — and they think it doesn’t affect people around them. But it does.”

And this lingering misogyny and fatphobia has real consequences. Just ask Bethany C. Meyers, the founder of the be.come project, a body-neutral fitness site. “I’ve been so anxious that my stomach is tight and it’s harder to eat right now,” Meyers says. “I’m trying not to slip into past behaviors of starvation. I’ve had to do a lot of self-talk about food, and childhood cravings seem to be coming at me hard.”

Meyers acknowledges that people are afraid as a result of the coronavirus and believes that fear is being expressed via the parallel and deep-seated fear people have of their bodies. At a time when we are not around others, and therefore shielded from outside judgment, we’re still, collectively, thinking about how our bodies will be perceived once we leave our homes.

What will my eating habits during quarantine say about me as a person? What will my body tell others about the time I spent sheltering in place? Diet culture is so ingrained in how we view ourselves and others that even when we’re alone, with no one to “impress,” we are measuring our bodies, our food intake, our size and shape and weight, and considering what those measurements say about us.

“I think that body fears run so deep, they’re deeper than most people can even recognize or acknowledge,” Meyers says. “It’s in every commercial that we hear; every person we see in the media; the way we heard our parents talk about their bodies. I don’t even know that people are recognizing it.”

If you are feeling particularly triggered by scrolling past these memes, take time to acknowledge those feelings, Rollin says. “It’s okay to feel however you’re feeling,” she says. “Allow yourself to process those feelings, whether through journaling, seeking therapy, or talking to someone who is aligned with your viewpoints. And then, I would highly recommend filtering who you’re following online — and unfollow any accounts posting fatphobic content.”

The truth is, we are all doing our best to mitigate the stress, anxiety and the shared trauma of our current reality. But our best can be, and should be, better than relying on tropes that only cause additional harm. It’s important that now, of all times, we be a little kinder to ourselves about our habits, choices and our bodies.

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