Growing up, I viewed every summer break as a challenge. I would sit down during that first week off in May or June and break down, step by step, exactly how I would go back to school in a few months as a different version of myself. I would vow this would be the summer I’d finally stop biting my nails or I’d actually commit to practicing basketball every day. And always, no matter what, there was one underlying goal that trumped everything: to get thinner, at any cost. Some summers this meant tracking every calorie I consumed on an app, while others it meant vowing to give up bread for 90 days. Sometimes it meant trying to not eat at all. The idea of a set, controlled period of time where I could focus on myself and nothing else—no school, no major responsibilities—always felt like my opportunity to change myself. And in my mind there was no version of change that was rewarding unless it involved weighing less than I did at the start of the summer.
When you’ve spent years telling yourself (and being told by society) there is nothing worse than gaining weight, the fear of five pounds, or 10 pounds, or 15 pounds overshadow everything—even in a pandemic.
It took until my mid-20s, but after years of being exhausted by diet culture and weight loss obsession, I’ve finally found myself in a healthier, balanced place. I have a newfound love of exercise attached to stress relief and strength rather than weight loss, and I’ve sworn off diet culture altogether. But that same, society-enforced desire to always be shrinking still exists somewhere in my psyche, as I’m sure it does for most women. This is exactly why, when COVID-19 happened and we all realized we would likely be spending months in a highly controlled environment, part of me knew what was coming next. Sure enough, seemingly overnight, the “quarantine diet” memes, tweets, and jokes started to pop up left and right. But under all the jokes about gaining the “quarantine 15” was a feeling I knew very well from all my summers growing up: fear. When you’ve spent years telling yourself (and being told by society) there is nothing worse than gaining weight, the fear of five pounds, or 10 pounds, or 15 pounds overshadow everything—even in a pandemic.
So when I saw the steady stream of “quarantine body” jokes, it didn’t surprise me that what followed seemed to be the same impulse that I had had at the beginning of every summer. All those years growing up, I had stared at the three months of empty calendar before me each summer and seen it as the perfect opportunity to finally take control. I had three months where I could control my days, my food, and my exercise. I spent so much time both consciously and unconsciously fearing weight gain and worshipping weight loss that those three months felt like total control. So, even in a world as unsure and stressful as today’s, the fact that I now see constant advertisements for fad diets and messaging that “this is the perfect time to finally focus on losing those 15 pounds” doesn’t surprise me, either. There’s more fear to go around than ever, and diet culture lives on fear. It requires it.
There’s more fear to go around than ever, and diet culture lives on fear. It requires it.
But as much as I hate it, part of me recognizes that amidst all the chaos of COVID-19, I have an impulse to go back to old habits, too—to find control in restriction, calorie counting, and deprivation. Part of this is because, as someone who thought that way for more than a decade, those thoughts will likely always stick with me in one way or another. But part of this is also because of the constant stream of weight gain jokes and diet ads. Part of it is because people’s greatest fear is to survive this pandemic only to look like me on the other side. The word for all of this that some people might use is triggering, but most days I’m able to look at all of these thoughts I have and stop them dead in their tracks. It’s taken years of practice, but it’s the practice of stopping the thoughts—the routine of it, really—that has allowed me to find a sense of balance and peace today. The truth is that roughly the same amount of effort goes into fighting the urge to restrict, calorie count, and deprive as goes into giving into it and letting shame and fear fuel you. The result, though, is much different.
But not everyone is there yet. Not everyone is able to fight all those thoughts and emerge stronger on the other side, and that’s exactly why the coronavirus-inspired memes and jokes and weight loss “inspo” need to stop. If I had to guess, I’d bet that right now, all over the world, there are 12 and 13-year-old girls sitting at their kitchen tables, writing out their COVID-19 diet and exercise plans the same way I did each and every summer, desperately searching for control amidst all the fear. Maybe they’re scared of gaining weight because of a meme they saw. Maybe they just listened to their mom talk about how she’s “using this time to finally get the body she wants.” There’s a long, long list of things that girl, and all of us, should be realistically scared about now. But gaining weight? It sure is hell isn’t one of them.