By Elizabeth Christman
The Pandemic Diet: How to Lose the Quarantine 15, declares one headline; Battling the Quarantine 15 says another; What to Do About Weight Gain During the Pandemic. A simple search, or even a brief stroll through your social media timeline, reveals article after article telling you not only that weight gain during a pandemic is bad, but that it is something that you should care about deeply.
These headlines aren’t from vanity publications, either. These are pulled directly from ABC News, WebMD, and even Yale Medicine. These are places where people go for facts, for assistance with their health, and for current events. These are the places currently shouting at you to lose some weight. As if fifteen pounds is the thing that you should be concerned about during a pandemic that has killed nearly 500,000 Americans.
For those who have been fat their entire lives, such as myself, this isn’t novel. We are constantly reminded that our bodies are an “epidemic,” even as a literal plague sweeps the globe. The pressure isn’t just applied to us, though. The threat of weight gain (and the socially-inflicted punishments that follow) looms above all our heads, especially for women and femmes, who have been targeted most aggressively by diet companies and beauty marketers for decades. And lifelong fatties will be very familiar with how fixated health professionals can be on your weight. Artur Viana, clinical director of the Yale Metabolic Health & Weight Loss Program, says of COVID-19 weight gain: “In fact, COVID-19 has created a perfect storm for people who struggle with weight…Life has been disrupted in a major way.”
That line stuck with me. “Life has been disrupted in a major way.” While obviously true, it feels shallow when the topic at hand is gaining weight, as opposed to the many other issues people are now facing daily. The article touches on increased stress levels, but only to point out eating as a coping mechanism. It talks about the importance of losing weight rather than the importance of managing our increasing stress levels. This is commonplace for quarantine weight loss rhetoric, and it reeks of privilege. While most of us are simply trying to survive, there are those who have the luxury to fret over the Quarantine 15.
What of the essential workers who have had to work full time on the front lines, many without hazard pay, while dealing with anti-maskers and daily harassment and degradation? What of the parents who suddenly find themselves working overtime to make sure their children are learning from home? What of the disabled communities who have been shrieking into the void since last March, begging people to take COVID-19 seriously, only to be met with silence? And of course, what of the half a million dead Americans? What of the people who contracted coronavirus, survived, and now have to deal with the often permanent repercussions to their health?
Instead of seeing stress eating as a problem, why aren’t doctors seeing it as a desperate solution that people are grasping at in an attempt to alleviate an iota of their increasing stress? Again, those with fat bodies will probably already be familiar with the answer: no matter the circumstances, our fat bodies are always punishable.
We have so little control over this pandemic. Psychologists have noted that many people have been living in a numb, “survival” state for many months now, some comparing it to trauma response. The World Health Organization states on their site that “added to the fear of contracting the virus…are the significant changes to our daily lives as our movements are restricted in support of efforts to contain and slow down the spread of the virus. Faces with new realities of working from home, temporary unemployment, home-schooling of children, and lack of physical contact…it is important that we look after our mental, as well as our physical, health.” And with quarantine still in full swing (even if many people are still not taking it seriously), most of our coping mechanisms are either unavailable to us or unaffordable.
Fifteen pounds suddenly doesn’t feel quite so heavy.
So, how can we mitigate our stress without further harassing our bodies? The solution isn’t as easy as simply taking care of ourselves. With the pandemic still in full swing, many stress relief options are still unavailable to us, either due to safety restrictions or financial problems that have been further aggravated by COVID-19. But one thing is clear: weight loss isn’t the answer. Weight gain is completely normal, especially during high-stress situations like a global pandemic.
But weight gain is also stressful, both emotionally and mentally. And new research correlates long quarantine with PTSD symptoms, with symptoms being expressed in as few as 10 days. As we approach a full year of on and off again lockdown, here are some healthy ways to cope with the anxiety:
- Create a daily routine. If you’re languishing in lockdown, creating some kind of structure can help mitigate some of the stress. Something as simple as waking up at the same time and keeping regular mealtimes can make a big difference.
- Stay connected. The world is a lonely place at the moment. While everyone is drained emotionally, something as simple as a meme chain between friends can help you feel less isolated.
- Have de-stress time. Avoid news right before bed. Heightened anxiety will affect your sleep.
- Learn to love your body. Easier said than done, right? Still, there are numerous exercises you can do to help improve the way you feel.
- Documenting your authentic feelings, both the positive and the negative, can help you process them. Journaling before bed can help clear your mind as well.
- As strange as it may sound, taking “unflattering” pictures of yourself can help you become reacquainted with your body. Think belly shots, double chins, and stretch marks (all very normal but deeply stigmatized).
Most importantly, remember: your body size doesn’t have a moral value. You don’t owe anyone thinness or performative weight loss.
by Izzy Christman