"How are you?" I texted a friend a few weeks into the UK’s lockdown. When we last chatted, she (a social butterfly by nature) had been struggling with the start of self-isolation. "I’m okay," she responded within minutes. "Much better than last time we talked. Except I’m much heavier. Coping with the help of baked goods has done me no favours lol."
As a visibly fat woman, I’m not unfamiliar with casual fatphobia. Many people frame bodies like mine, and larger than mine, as their bona fide nightmare. I’m active on social media, which means that rarely a day goes by in which I don’t receive an "ew" comment on one of my Instagram pics, a "concerned" plea to "think of my children and lose weight before it’s too late" or a threat of violence because I have dared to exist happily in a body which I am told I should hate – a body which many people strive their entire lives to avoid.
After over 20 years of being fat IRL and 10 years of being fat on the internet, few comments truly surprise me. My friend’s did, though. Although thin herself, this is someone who has long supported my stance on fat acceptance. We’ve spent hours talking about body liberation and she’s read, and resonated with, many articles on allyship. In three years of friendship, I had never known her to talk about weight loss aspirations. Yet here she was, criticising her body for growing; condemning her figure for looking a little more like mine.
I began noticing quarantine-related fatphobia a lot more from that point on. Some of my relatives have 'joked' that they will be signing up for My 600-lb Life when this is all over. They seemingly never stop to think about what these jokes reiterate to the already fat people of the world who experience shaming and discrimination daily, or of their fat friends and family members who read these status updates and learn what their loved ones actually think of bodies like theirs.
A few folks I believed to be more accepting of larger bodies have even reposted Fedez’s photoshopped image of himself, his wife (Chiara Ferragni) and their son, in which he edited them all to look fat. It’s usually accompanied by a laughing emoji. Others have been waxing lyrical about how much they miss their gym – not because they yearn for the endorphins (I mean, we’re still allowed to go out for exercise or find at-home workout alternatives) but because they associate their gym-going with "staying fit, thin, and ripped", as an old acquaintance put it on Facebook. At this point, "the quarantine 15" and "the COVID 19" have been turned into too many memes to count, and people all over Twitter are berating Donald Trump not for his discriminatory ideologies or policies, many of which inspire violence, but for his "morbidly obese" body, dubbed so by Nancy Pelosi.
The reality is that it's easy to claim to accept all bodies if you've never had to worry about being in a marginalised one.
As plus-size blogger Nomali Cele explains, it’s not necessarily that there is more fatphobia online or IRL than there has always been. Fat folks have been dealing with prejudice since long before lockdown. Rather, it’s that a lot of people seem to be reckoning with their internalised fatphobia in ways they don’t typically have to. "What I have noticed are people who should know better, and people who wouldn't want to understand their fatphobic actions and thoughts as exactly that, coming to the fore," she tells Refinery29. "If I see one more caption about jeans being 'tight at the mo'!"
"Most people dress up the lengths they'll go to not to become fat as autonomy, which, fine, you're allowed to go for a walk," she adds. "But why aren't they thinking more critically about why they're terrified that their body might resemble mine? [Are you] afraid that people will think negatively of you and not want to hire or date you? That you won't be able to shop? That reality will remain for most of us because the culture is fatphobic."
Lockdown is undoubtedly pushing a lot of people – even those who might have once considered themselves accepting of all bodies – to confront their internalised fatphobia in the face of their own bodily changes (or the possibility of those changes). The reality is that it’s easy to claim to accept all bodies if you’ve never had to worry about being in a marginalised one. My friend who gained weight during isolation has always been thin but the changes to her lifestyle brought about by COVID-19 have made her gain weight for the first time in her adult life. She isn’t happy about it, likely because she knows what it means to be a fat person in our culture.
As Cele explained, even individuals who aren’t fat tend to have a base understanding of what it must be like to be fat. Most of us have watched fat people be ridiculed on television from the time we were children. We’ve sat through secondary school health lectures and seen the anti-obesity campaigns spearheaded by political leaders. We know fat bodies are thought of as inferior. We digest the message every time we come across a shop-bought Halloween fat suit or read yet another article praising Adele for the weight loss she herself has not chosen to speak about. As recently as last week, our prime minister announced that he was launching a "war on fat", as though fat people are an enemy to be defeated.
Plus-size blogger Nancy Whittington-Coates suspects that hyper-focusing on our bodies right now gives us a sense of familiarity amid the chaos. "We’re living through something pretty damn scary, so giving yourself an alternative ‘problem’ to worry about that isn’t as serious might actually be comforting to some," she tells Refinery29. "It’s also a well-known reaction to find others that have done the same as you to lessen your own feeling of guilt (for example, if you’ve eaten something you usually wouldn’t). Posting these things and having people sympathise or admit to the same is just another coping mechanism."
It’s perfectly natural that many of us miss our old routines when experiencing so much rapid change. Humans of all sizes deal with debilitating issues surrounding body image and disordered eating, and these can intensify when it feels like everything else has spun out of our control. It’s important to empathise with and hold compassion for such battles. Still, there are ways of talking about our struggles without further vilifying or humiliating fat bodies.
Lockdown has made it clear that there are still many among us who will try to pass off our fatphobia as 'concern for our health' rather than weight bias. Someone might say they want to go to the gym again because they miss their strength-training workouts and, in the next breath, joke about wanting to burn off the banana bread they have been baking since March, without interrogating why they’re so afraid of not burning it off.
Cele made a great point about this. "In South Africa [where I live], the sale of cigarettes has been banned for the duration of our over 50-day lockdown," she says. "People will share their fatphobic thoughts about wanting to ‘stay in shape’ for health while spending hours pining for cigarettes." The hypocrisy is very real and fat people aren’t blind to it.
Whittington-Coates has found it particularly difficult to hear heightened fatphobia from loved ones throughout the pandemic. "It’s one thing for a stranger to make a comment but when it’s someone close to you it definitely hurts more," she tells Refinery29. "[Even if these] posts aren’t done with the intent of hurting anyone, we have to take responsibility for our words and think how they will affect other people. I can’t tell someone their intent but I can make them aware of the effect it had on me and hope that they take it as the informative feedback it is and not get offended."
How we respond to quarantine fatphobia is up to us as individuals. When these remarks are coming from close friends, relatives or colleagues, we might try to have an open dialogue. We can explain how these comments make us feel and gently push people to interrogate their values. We can choose to ignore the remarks entirely if we don’t have the emotional energy or desire to unpack them. We can engage or disengage as and when we see fit. We can hit the block or mute button as needed.
Personally, I’ve chosen to hide many of my relatives’ Facebook feeds for the time being. I’ve deleted a few old acquaintances from all my channels. I’ve taken 24-hour (if not longer) social media breaks when things feel especially overwhelming. Whatever we choose to do is valid. Protecting ourselves always is.
For those who may be perpetuating fatphobia right now, Whittington-Coates has some final advice. "Someone letting you know that what you’ve said has made them feel bad isn’t an attack," she notes. "It’s an opportunity to learn, so you can avoid it in the future."