COVID-19 fat-shaming jokes are not funny
Fear, sadness and uncertainty have consumed many of us, as memories of what ‘normal’ looks like begins to fade. Immersed in the uncertainty of COVID-19 outcomes, many of us are looking for topics to joke and laugh at. In 2020, this is understandable, as we need something to distract us from the horror of the suffering we see on our TV or smart technology every day.
We need something to give us a boost, to give us something to smile and feel good about. But when I read some of the comments, I feel a strong sense of anger and self-doubt (am I increasing my curve?). Some so-called jokes about body size on social media are crossing the line into a highly sensitive and potentially deadly area:
“I need to socially distance myself from the fridge…. So, I can flatten my curve” (Facebook meme) I wish people would think twice before speaking or publishing words that can hurt others. A tendency for some people, during the virus lockdown, to gain weight and eat in excess has become the target of many distasteful jokes. If you have not had an ED, this may seem harsh or oversensitive and maybe you think I need to grow a sense of humor. To this, I say tough, my stance remains unchanged. I have a lot of personal experience with EDs. Not only have I had my own battle with an ED, I also watched my mother battle with the illness while I was growing up. There’s nothing positive about an ED. Regardless of how I may come across in these blogs, every day is a hard-fought battle to feel okay. ED recovery isn’t a quick fix but rather a long and tedious road filled with ups and probably more downs. It’s exhaustingly hard work. Distasteful jokes only make it harder.
Therefore, I know my message is valid. Jokes about getting fat and eating too much or the wrong foods during isolation are disturbing and potentially harmful. Lockdown is difficult enough without additional pressure to emerge looking our absolute best. I feel curious as to how body shape, food and weight have come to be at the forefront of some people’s thinking. Why are people so interested in the growing size of one’s butt or how big a person might become during time in isolation? How has this come to be such a big deal? It angers me and it’s time for a serious reality check.
The issue goes deeper than many who engage in such banter may realize. I suspect most people engaging in such nonsense, do so as a distraction from their own demons that isolation has brought to the forefront. ‘Harmlessly’ poking fun at others is preferable to them, after all: If I think about other people getting fat, I don’t need to focus on the real issues affecting my world.
We’re stuck in the cruelest battle many of us are ever likely to witness; the world against an unseen perpetrator, the pandemic, COVID-19. Thousands of people have lost loved ones, others are hooked up to ventilators in an effort to save their lives, their families hoping for a miracle. Crucially, many people are focused on positive pursuits. Consider our health care workers, putting their own lives at risk every day, our politicians working hard to find a solution and the rest of us who are confining ourselves to our homes in order to do the right thing for the greater good.
Against all this positive work, it seems senseless that some people are infecting others with pointless and harming topics of discussion. Cold-hearted banter can and does hurt many people.
At a time when grief for many is at an all-time high, we have been reduced to a society where fat shaming jokes give us something other than the virus to think about and to laugh about. The true colors of many deeply ingrained thoughts and beliefs are coming to the surface; ‘thin’ is to be celebrated whereas ‘fat’ is undesirable. The dangers of diets and weight discussions are pushed aside.
Perhaps more disturbingly (particularly for children), I have seen pictures of super (unrealistically) lean pre-COVID Barbie dolls followed by an overly inflated post-COVID Barbie with reference to her food intake during isolation. This meme is disturbing and potentially damaging to people who have a history with EDs. The intent is obvious, chubby post COVID-19 Barbie has no self-control around food, she’s spending her days eating so-called bad food, resulting in considerable weight gain. This is apparently funny. Have these people thought about more children being online for the purpose of home schooling? Our children have a greater chance of being exposed to these so-called jokes. How will such images affect them?
People responsible for sharing such jokes are failing to consider the contextual background in the case of Barbie, maybe she simply hasn’t had access to, or can’t afford good quality whole foods, maybe she lost her job and is eating a lot of tinned and processed foods. Maybe she’s decided to totally self-isolate and has reduced her exercise? That takes a strong person. Regardless of why, the reality is that people have had to adapt to a very different way of eating and lifestyle; it’s not an option. This doesn’t mean we need to gorge on cakes and chips all day long but rather we need to focus on doing what needs to be done to survive this pandemic. Why are we laughing? Nothing about fat-shaming jokes is funny.
The harsh reality is that this form of mockery never stops. Every day you’re sure to find some new joke about weight gain and COVID-19. The message for vulnerable people is that, aside from virus concerns, now we must worry about how we are going to look physically when we emerge from the confines of isolation. Why do we add unnecessary pressure to the high levels of anxiety we are already experiencing?
These memes reinforce the troubling narrative that gaining weight during a pandemic is almost as terrifying as the virus itself.
Such memes can be triggering for anyone, not just to those who have an ED, after all, we all want to be liked. However, for someone with an existing eating disorder or who is in recovery, this constant influx of thin is good and fat is bad can be enough to trigger eating disordered thoughts, paving the way for them to send those with this illness down a dark and dangerous path. Yes, it’s true, eating disorders often emerge as a result of extreme dieting and exercise however, such behaviors soon become the mechanism for dealing with internal anxiety, stress, depression or other underlying issues such as abuse. The beginning of a diet that leads to an ED has nothing to do with vanity but more with managing strong internal emotions. For someone with an ED, the sudden onset of isolation and loss of important routines is a concern, because previously used coping tools may no longer be effective. Add to that these so-called funny jokes about weight and size, and the potential for severe relapse increases.
As someone with a disordered eating history, I am constantly judging my appearance. I hate mirrors and windows that highlight my reflection. Even in isolation this is true, despite seeing very few people, the introduction of Zoom meetings has heightened this self-criticism. Seeing myself on the screen of a computer is sheer torture. So, what’s my message here? We don’t need the pressure of thoughtless and insensitive jokes about wobbly bellies and jeans that don’t fit. It’s time to move on from being fatphobic, it’s time to stop valuing one body type over the other and it’s time to accept that there are many different shapes, and all are okay. It is time to stop the posting about post-COVID-19 weight loss, diets and exercise program. They’re not helpful.
So, what is helpful?
Members of my medical team have emphasized during my ongoing treatment (particularly in relation to increased weight related anxiety) that slight weight gain may happen, maybe it won’t. The important message to remember is that our bodies are smart. Once we get back to a somewhat normal way of life, a lifestyle our bodies are more accustomed to, the routines and experiences we regularly engage in and the food we normally eat, things will change. The likely scenario is that our bodies are smart enough to know the right size or shape and will settle back to where we were pre-COVID. We each will return to a weight that is right for our unique genetic make-up.
Take Home Messages
Many people are guilty of participating in these post-COVID-19 fat phobic jokes. I hope this article will make them think twice because I know how damaging fat-shaming joking can be to someone with real body image and disordered eating tendencies. It is not pretty.
If, like me, you are in recovery or still in the grips of your ED monster, my advice is firstly to turn off the social media devices or block the sources where these messages are coming from. If you are strong enough, just scroll straight past them, and know that much like me, you don’t need to see these horrible messages.
Next, act with kindness and compassion towards yourself. Making a mistake, not following your recovery plan to the word, is not a disaster. In fact, it is to be expected during a time of such intense emotional distress.
Don’t beat yourself up if you slip a little in abstaining from ED behaviors; just move on, aim to improve and find someone you can talk to. When I am feeling less than great, I usually call my mentor, June. I know she cannot solve my problems, but she can help put them into perspective and encourage me to do something that is self-caring.
When restrictions do start being revised, get outside, enjoy the fresh air and sun and remember never to take it for granted again.
Lastly, if you haven’t already, find something you love doing and do it just for you. Find something other than weight and food to become passionate about. It will change your life in beautiful and meaningful ways, this I can promise.