“People are going to be so fat when all this is over.”
Predictably, my friend spat the word “fat.” Most describe fat bodies as epidemic—so for many, the panic must literally feel like one tragedy is actively breeding another.
So many coping strategies are possible under duress. Most of us are familiar with our favorites. In this time when people are either isolated in private or endangered in public, overworked by changing expectations or impoverished by lack of work, fear is rampant.
We’re also in a time of social upheaval—hopefully leading toward positive, lasting change and the dismantling of white supremacy. Many non-Black people are in a steep learning curve regarding the depth of racism’s roots, and many Black people are feeling extra-exhausted from focusing on Black trauma and navigating long-term cultural apathy.
Regarding the increase in sales for her book, “So You Want to Talk About Race,” author Ijeoma Oluo recently said: “Okay, so people are able to focus on these issues, but it takes something really terrible for it to happen. Hmm.” Grief, anger and fear are a national cocktail right now—differently mixed for different people and different reasons.
We need coping strategies—and sure, some are healthier than others. Culturally constructed notions of right and wrong (often driven by consumerism) help us to decide which strategies are good and bad. It’s almost as though soothing and survival are secondary. Since the economy is struggling along with us, now’s an excellent time to return home to the sensations in our bodies and our presence of mind with curiosity and humility.
I join others in the view that keeping a schedule and getting regular exercise are positive coping strategies during a difficult time—though it should be acknowledged that these strategies can also become addictive. If “keeping a schedule” equates productivity rather than simply adding structure, it might be a trap. The expectation that “extra time” means “doing more” can lead us further from our feelings and the instructive sensations of our bodies.
It’s time to admit that our widespread fascination with dieting—despite the 95 percent failure rate of diets—has led to a population that strategizes what and when to eat more often than it responds to cues for hunger and comfort.
That’s right; I said comfort.
Eating is one form of human comfort and we need to acknowledge that in difficult times, seeking comfort makes sense. Excessively using drugs and alcohol can also comfort us, but may lead to additional behaviors that endanger those around us. We can also comfort ourselves by exerting power over others, for instance. It feels good to do that in powerless situations. That behavior is also likely to lead to physical or emotional abuse of others.
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If it didn’t cause such extreme fear of weight gain, eating extra food and participating in passive entertainment (like television and Netflix) are not such a terrible idea—particularly if active recreation (like a game of soccer or cards) is not so easily available to us.
So why are we so freaked out about gaining weight?
The health risks are actually far less dire than the social risks of fatness. We maintain a cultural hatred of fat people that is so strong, fat workers are likely to be paid less, fat people are likely to be dismissed on dating apps and fat people are less likely to receive quality medical care. In that last regard, with an epidemic blooming, being fat might take you out of the queue for the ventilator, but it’s not likely to give you an immediate aneurism—despite the viewpoints diet sellers and moral panic push.
Sure, in a perfect world, we’d all have access to high quality food, a wide range of choices and time to prepare meals, but I’m discussing comparisons—because this is far from the perfect world. It’s possible that if you don’t comfort yourself with cake, your anger and powerlessness may ooze out in other ways.
Self-comforting through food should not be a locus of self-flagellation, as though eating “feelings” means that self-restraint is dead and the overeater is a repulsive degenerate.
As my friend who experiences both alcoholism and a binge/diet eating disorder once explained to me, one is clearly more dangerous to her than the other. She had never eaten too much candy and tried to walk into traffic. She’d never had one too many bowls of cereal and woken up in a stranger’s apartment. She’d never had a second quesadilla and become so belligerent with people on the street that a fight broke out.
She had done all of these things when drinking.
And yet, becoming “too fat”—in quotes because it’s a culturally constructed notion—seems to be our national measure for debauchery.
Many forget eating for comfort is actually anchored in our brain development. Feeling your body lying against your parent’s body while you ate (whether from breast or bottle) was a profoundly formative comfort. It’s how your body learned to relax and to sleep well. It helped your brain to form associations with nurturing.
Babies who do not receive comfort—even if they get nutrients—do not develop well. Many of us also know from our own experiences that fear and pain are heightened when we can’t access comfort and security.
Food and physical closeness are not the only ways to do this—but when other tools are scarce and food is plentiful, it’s actually wise to use what you have. Eat some more ice cream if it’ll help you feel comforted enough to get a good night’s sleep. Your body and your nervous system need rest.
The quest for self-restraint when it comes to food is a distracting obsession. It speaks volumes about where we place value as a culture. Most people would not say that appearance conformity tops the list of their life’s goals, but our behaviors and daily priorities say otherwise. Look at current social media to see how women in particular are discussing getting fatter, not plucking chin hair, not wearing a bra, not putting on makeup or nice clothes.
While people of all genders worry about appearance conformity, women must do it in order to have basic credibility. That’s why these statements about not wearing a bra or letting one’s hairstyle go are either framed as a sign of depression, or as a badass assertion of rebellion.
Appearance non-conformity is not a neutral act. It is profoundly counter-cultural.
Self-restraint is important, especially in a crisis. Staying inside, rather than gathering with others, involves self-restraint. Speaking unkindly to another person, shows a lack of self-restraint. Hoarding rather than sharing a surplus that someone else needs, consuming hours and hours of social media and news, rather than being present to those around us, punishing others simply because we’re entitled to do so (as with children or work subordinates, or aging parents)—all of these things show a lack of self-restraint. These actions have a far greater negative effect on others than eating another serving of lasagna when you’re already full.
I’m in favor of keeping structure and exercising regularly in these times of great fear, grief and upheaval. I think there’s an important third component to this wellness strategy though, and that’s self-awareness.
Self-awareness (also known as mindfulness) involves gently interviewing oneself about everyday activities and unusual urges; it includes inner dialogue and outward behavior. It’s about witnessing the feelings beneath the urge. It can be difficult, but with so many of our usual activities disrupted, we have an opportunity.
So, if you drank the whole bottle of wine last night, rather than your usual glass with dinner, the first step—maybe the next day—is to notice that’s what you chose to do. Don’t judge the choice, but ask yourself what was happening there. And yes, there’s an easy answer: “We’re shut in! It’s a pandemic! Social upheaval! WTF am I supposed to do?!”
But what’s underneath that? What was happening inside your emotions, brain and body, when you made that choice? How else might one express or handle fear?
Maybe you notice that you’ve not responded to three texts from friends who are asking how you are—or you’ve responded with chirpy “gratitude” posts, when you really feel anger or anxiety. What do you think will happen if you connect with a friend in a meaningful way? What might happen if you feel vulnerable?
Perhaps you yelled at your kid for not keeping his schoolwork schedule, when really, you’re finding it hard to focus on work too.
The purpose here is to:
- be able to discern when your behavior is harming others so that you can choose again,
- forgive yourself more quickly for behavior you may dislike, but that is harming no one, and
- become aware of what actually works to soothe your fear, worry, anger and stress during these times.
Baking with the family and eating cake for lunch on a Tuesday—which you might not usually do—can turn out to be a really smart coping strategy under our current circumstances. It’s an act of creation that fosters communication and comfort.
There’s no need to roll your eyes about stress baking and talk for days about getting fat. That’s the behavior that shows a lack of self-restraint because it’s anxiety-producing in yourself and others.
If your body is fatter at the end of this epidemic, congratulations. You survived. You have a body type that is capable of conserving energy, which could serve you if you became ill or were in an accident. Some bodies put on weight easily and others don’t. I realize it’s a counter-cultural view, but the idea that any weight gain is a terrible thing is socially constructed nonsense.
Our Cultural Obsession with Being Thin
Our cultural obsession with thinness—begun long before we were born—keeps us from seeing the logic in survival strategies that nurture, while avoiding harming others. It seems “natural” to hate fat, but it’s not always been that way.
In North America, fear of fat has everything to do with slavery and westward migration of white settlers (See Sabrina Strings’ book “Fearing the Black Body” or Amy Farrell’s book “Fat Shame” for a further history lesson).
Eugenicists used science to justify slavery, maltreatment and the entitlement to murder and steal. When women sought the right to vote, their strategies entrenched this image of “acceptable” femininity even further as lily-white and waif-like. The hatred of fat bodies fueled the fear that poorer Americans had of recent immigrants, indigenous people and former slaves. These fears, and the habit of marking some bodies as inferior based on size and appearance persist today.
Add in the desire to affiliate with a powerful group and the rush of consumer products to promise results. Suddenly, as if by natural order, we arrive in a time when the diet industry earns billions and most of us—in some way or another—pay money to ensure our own conformity with popular appearance standards.
There is no question that COVID-19 and the various strategies to contain it are going to change how North American culture moves forward. It’s an excellent time to remember that we are creating the world, even as it creates us. We have the power to steer the culture away from the normalcy of eating disorders—precisely because we can use food, sensibly, as comfort.
We can reignite our relationship with food, rather than simply controlling our intake. Self-soothing without harming others is good, and so is survival.
Once we’re back in relationship with our emotions, fears and desires, we can make better decisions day-by-day, moment by moment. We become more capable of handling fear and anxiety, which is great, because life will always hand us new challenges.
We may also be less likely to submit to the social control of consumer forces because we’ll have been practicing our own sovereignty in the meantime.