Jokes about eating all the quarantine snacks, memes about gaining weight and tweets about the isolation “before and after”. Maybe it’s time we distance ourselves from the harmful messages that make us feel bad about our bodies.
“I don’t wear a mask to protect myself from the virus. I wear a mask so I don’t put in weight.” They say that you never forget your first time and that theory can very much be applied to the moment your eyes get caught in the kind of narrative that, put simply, tells us that gaining weight is as scary as contracting a virus. This meme may have been the first but is was far from being the last. Since the beginning of the public health crisis that we are still facing, variations of the same message have been showing up everywhere. “I’m 11 pounds away from being included as a roundabout on Google Maps.” “Stepped on my scale this morning and it said: Please use social distancing, one person at a time.” “Now that I’m getting rounder, the barrel devalues.” “Due to coronavirus my summer body will be postponed until 2021. Thank you for understanding.” “I have bad news everyone, someone has tested positive for Covid-19 in our apartment. Her name is scale and she has been quarantined in another room where no one can touch or use her for the next few months.” It doesn’t end there: these messages also involve images of Barbie “before and after” the quarantine (spoiler alert: the after involves a doll with what some may consider “a few pounds” more), GIFs of people who ate all the snacks in the pantry and a number of posts with the hashtag #quarantine15 – that is, the 15 pounds that people will gain during isolation. In the midst of a global pandemic, it’s quite hard not to feel a bitter taste when one of these “jokes” infiltrate our Instagram feed. In the midst of a global pandemic, it’s quite hard not to feel a bitter taste when someone says that we should watch out for the sweatpants, because the sweatpants lie. In the midst of a global pandemic, it’s quite hard not to feel a bitter taste when someone spreads the idea that, when all this is done and dusted, none of us will fit in their jeans.
Mafalda Gomes is a Portuguese plus size blogger and someone who, with the help of social media, has been having an open dialogue with her followers about all these ideas. Speaking to Vogue Portugal, she says that “the feedback has been unanimous” and that “many of them feel pressured by this growing diet culture talk during quarantine, either to practice exercise in order to avoid gaining weight or to be more cautious when it comes to food”. Regarding the narratives that spread the fear of gaining weight and the necessity to practice exercise in a frantic way, Mafalda says she has no doubt about the risks they impose. “Besides perpetuation fatphobia, because people not only show that they are afraid of gaining weight but also make scorn comments about heavier bodies and about those who have gained weight during quarantine, it creates a growing anxiety towards our body image, in a moment when that should be the least of our worries,” the blogger says. “With the world upside down, it’s quite worrying to see that one of our biggest problems as a society is our weight. In a way, I feel like people focus their attention on that because they believe it’s something that they can control but, on the other hand, it also reflects the unhealthy relation that many have with food. I think this pandemic is going to create space for problems related with earing disorders to grow, because there seems to be no in between: either food is viewed as an escape and something comforting, or as something that one should completely avoid, always accompanied by exercise and as a compensation or punishment.” Maria Inês Galvão, a clinical psychologist at Psinove, says that “the psychological need of control, of being able to influence what surrounds us and creating goals and the way to fulfill them” can help explain why, in a moment filled with uncertainty and unpredictability, some seem so “fixated” in weight and food. “Our body and the high levels of stress that we are feeling right now also explain that ‘fixation’. In situations where stress is higher, we try to regulate and appease unpleasant emotions that we may feel. Some people may find that same control by eating big quantities of food in a short period of time (binge eating) and others by restricting what they eat (or not eating at all) in an extreme attempt to have control over their selves and their surroundings”, the clinical psychologist explains, adding that social media can also have an impact in this situation. [Social media] can be a resource for constant comparison with others and for confrontation with the contents shared by them. Like social media content is permanently reinforcing our need to worry about our body, image and food. The availability bias tells us that we are more likely to attribute relevance and meaning to things that we can immediately remember, and these constant messages and ‘jokes’ about weight make this content more present and put us in a hypervigilant state.”
Self-love therapist Helena Morais Cardoso says that these messages and memes about gaining weight during quarantine also create a greater internal pressure, in a time where we need everything but that. “This is a moment of great uncertainty, and uncertainty brings a lack of control over our environment and our life, which causes anxiety,” Helena explains. “This is something that is already affecting all of us, emotionally and psychically, and I don’t see the point of adding yet another focus of worry, tension and internal pressure. It’s enough that we are in such an atypical situation, with so many things to worry about, we really don’t need to be thinking about how we’re going to leave this quarantine in physical terms and if we’re doing enough to take care of ourselves when it comes to our physique.” In Helena’s opinion, and bearing in mind the current situation we’re in, it’s also important that we establish our own priorities. “Even if I see a meme and find it funny, or send it someone else, I have to understand that that, in this moment, is not my priority. My priority is to be healthy, to take care of myself, to keep myself professionally active, or mentally active in another way.” “If we think about it, isn’t it a bit silly to be discussing this, right now? Wouldn’t it be better if we favored ourselves and took care of ourselves instead of worrying about this years’ beach body? It’s the same if we were discussing a masks’ design. Is that relevant right now? The importance is elsewhere. There are things that, naturally, should lose their significance. And that’s precisely the issue, is that they don’t.” And if they don’t, what does that say about us? “Society gives a rather big importance to appearance, creating this idea that accomplishing happiness, love, success and body image are preferable and dependent factors,” argues Cristina Sousa Ferreira, a psychologist at Oficina de Psicologia. “If this doesn’t happen, we may not be happy or qualified to do what we love at our best level, and much has been said about looks and their importance in successful careers. We enjoy the fact that people like us and we like to be pretty, because that creates an expectation that we will be liked. In a pandemic situation that is no exception.”
What is an exception, however, is the moment we’re all facing – and it’s important to understand that each of us is going to deal with it differently, and that each of us is going to see a different in those memes about getting in the scale and weighting for two. “Even though diet culture is not new on social media, it becomes more impacting when associated to the additional triggers of isolation and uncertainty that we are seeing with this pandemic,” says Cristina Sousa Ferreira. “While some people are able to use this time home to reorganize, eat healthy and have some extra time to exercise, for others – in particular for those with or recovering from eating disorders – these constant messages can lead them to fall in harmful habits. The symptoms of an eating disorder also include obsessive thoughts about food, weight and exercise.” As Maria Inês Galvão says, “we need to remember that humor can be a trigger for us to feel bad about our own bodies” and that “a toxic or unproportioned focus (either individual or in a group) on weight and on ‘jokes’ about it can be challenging for those who have a hard time accepting and loving themselves and their bodies.” Besides that, the psychologist adds, “for those who suffer from eating disorders (ED), messages that suggest that gaining weight is one of the worst things that can happen during quarantine can be read and interpreted as if those who don’t have a type of body, the ‘ideal body’, have a body that can be made fun of. Even when the narrative is about the persons’ body you don’t anticipate that it can trigger similar feelings in others, especially those who suffer from ED.” Adding to those stances, Helena Morais Cardoso says, these ‘jokes’ can lead to feelings of insufficiency and create even more pressure systems for those who already deal with issues like this.
When in doubt, the best remedy really is empathy. An act that, as Mafalda reflects, is not always administrated in the right dose. “There has always been very little empathy when it comes to weight related issues, even in big feminist groups, where subjects like fatphobia and eating disorders are not taken that serious, not to mention in society and other groups that are not as aware of these issues that mostly affect women and non-binary people,” the plus size blogger says. “From Christmas memes saying, ‘You’re all very happy, have you been to the scale yet?’ to the pressure of working on your beach body until Summer comes, there are a number of behaviors that show the lack of empathy towards those who suffer from eating disorders, who are recovering or who are simply in the path to accepting their bodies. What I didn’t expect was to see people focusing on ‘keeping fit’ or demonizing food in such a dark time.” When it comes to this, Mafalda admits, “there is a lack of consideration to put ourselves in someone else’s’ shoes, to try to understand their story and why these kind of behaviors are troubling and should be mitigated.” Even so, Mafalda Gomes believes that learning is possible. “I understand that for someone that fits the beauty model, a lot of this issues doesn’t even come to mind, but I feel like, today, there are a lot of personal stories and a number of other ways for us to educate ourselves on these issues.” When in doubt, the best remedy really is empathy. An act that, today and always, should be from us to other, as well as from us to us. “People of all shapes and sizes are dealing with the challenges that this atypical period brings. Moments of great emotional stimulation, without is knowing how to handle it, can ‘reopen’ psychological scars in ourselves as much as in others,” explains Maria Inês Galvão. “Accepting and being gentle with ourselves and with others (that are with us in real life or on social media), with our bodies and other people’s bodies allows us to not intensify our psychological suffering and not feel overwhelmed by it.”
Just like Cristina Sousa Ferreira, who sees compassion as a way to take care and protect ourselves, Helena Morais Cardoso says that it’s extremely important to be gentle with ourselves. “I think that one of the most damaging messages out there is the idea that we need to have a productive quarantine, that we need to do the most. That you need to exercise, to bake cakes, to work, to be the best mother. For those of us who are receiving these messages, they enhance insufficiency. You’re being requested for a number of things that, again, increase the pressure,” the self-love therapist says. “What I say is: be a little kinder and understanding with yourself, be it with food, exercise or work. Remember, this is a quarantine because there is a public health issue. Our reality is different. And if our reality is different, it’s normal that I feel different, too. This is not to say that we should indulge in extremes and put our physical and mental heath at risk, that’s not at all the point, but it’s important not to exaggerate in this pressure, in this efficiency, in this request to make the most of our quarantine.” As Helena Morais Cardoso points out, kindness and compassion start with self-respect and being acceptant. “If I’m in a state of vital energy where I can’t exercise as much, maybe I should respect myself a little bit more, knowing that this is a fragile moment for me. This is such an atypical situation that maybe I should counter that impulse of forcing myself to do something just for the sake of checking done, and respect and accept what’s happening to me,” the self-love therapist says, reinforcing the need to establish priorities. “Right now, it’s important that you choose yourself as a priority. It’s as simple as that. In my professional opinion, it’s important that you choose yourself, rather than some external approval. Instead of being worried about what the outside is asking, ask yourself what your priority is.” For those whose priority is to live a quarantine free of memes and toxic messages about their bodies and what they weight, Mafalda Gomes shares a few suggestions. “My biggest advice for those who want to be online without losing their sanity is to stop following social media accounts that spread triggering messages or that aren’t in line with your mindset,” the blogger says, urging people to look for more information about movements like body neutrality and positivity, as well as reading a good book, if possible. “My suggestions are two great books: ‘Beyond Beautiful’, a book to make peace with your body, and ‘Train Happy’, for those who want to exercise out of a pleasure and love for wellbeing, without the pressure of the weight scale, and to debunk a few fitness myths while their at it.” And she finishes, of course, with kind regards: “We are going through a very peculiar moment. We have to be kind with ourselves, accept those days that are not so good, create a set of mechanisms to deal with all this and choose whatever makes sense for us. (…) It’s ok if our weight fluctuates. Our value as a person is not determined by gaining or losing quarantine pounds, and our levels of productivity during these dark days don’t determine who we are as individuals. There are no winners, we are all trying to survive.”