More than 20 years later, I can still remember my grandmother handing me the silver diet book with the cartoon cover and the sense that I needed to do something. I was probably around 13; the specifics have mercifully faded with time, but the cover and the feeling are burned into my brain. And so it was with a special kind of remembered dread and baggage that I read a recent NPR headline: “How Parents Can Address Kids’ Pandemic Weight Gain.” Children have had their lives upended over the last year, isolated from their friends and shut out from so many spaces and activities; so many of them have lost grandparents, parents, and other people they cared about. Why is the weight the thing that matters? Of course, it’s always the weight that matters, looming large in American culture as an obsession, a scapegoat, a gravitational force that warps discussions about fitness, about food, about bodies. Not just in American culture, but for those of us who are in fact fat.
The accelerated vaccine rollout has prompted a flood of lifestyle content, but one storyline rises above the others: the weight and what to do about it. One New York Times headline delivered the bad news: “How Much Weight Did We Gain During Lockdowns? 2 Pounds a Month, Study Hints.” The piece covered a study published in March in JAMA Network Open; Good Morning America picked up the same study and advised its audience “How to work out safely at the gym amid coronavirus pandemic.” The longtime Personal Health columnist for the Times, Jane E. Brody, opted for a more actively shaming stance in her mid-March piece. She wrote:
The country was suddenly faced with a shortage of flour and yeast as millions of Americans “stuck” at home went on a baking frenzy. While I understood their need to relieve stress, feel productive and perhaps help others less able or so inclined, bread, muffins and cookies were not the most wholesome products that might have emerged from pandemic kitchens.
This was a motif throughout the pandemic, one taken up by Whole Foods founder John Mackey in an interview where he stressed a link between covid and obesity and proclaimed: “People have got to become wiser about their food choices.” Even when media wasn’t cutting it dangerously close to blaming people for dying of covid, the concern about “packing on” pounds has persisted throughout the pandemic. The Times also picked up on a study by weight-loss brand Nutrisystem in October (“Using the Pandemic as an Opportunity to Lose Weight and Get in Shape”) and one in the journal Obesity in December (“Yes, Many of Us Are Stress-Eating and Gaining Weight in the Pandemic”).
Not even a corporate initiative to encourage vaccination escaped the concern; when Krispy Kreme announced a free donut promotion for those who’d gotten the jab, a professor of public health took it upon herself to criticize the promotion; “As a public health expert, I can’t endorse a diet of daily donuts,” she wrote.
It’s not like anybody is surprised to hear they’ve gained 20 pounds in the pandemic; people know whether their pants fit or don’t fit. It’s not a shock that a year of stress would result in some weight gain, and much of America has spent the last year with much, much bigger problems than an additional 10 pounds. And, too, many Americans have been more concerned about having enough to eat, as evidenced by long lines at food pantries across the country.
But the proliferation is also part of a decades-long pattern in the way America talks about weight that just isn’t helping. If it were, the percentages wouldn’t have kept creeping up, up, up; clearly, there are structural factors at work that far outweigh any individual’s calorie-counting. And yet, that’s what these narratives always come back to. The discussion of personal health, over and over again, is framed in terms of weight, rather than centering the practices that are good for all bodies—exercise and healthy eating—regardless of size. And, too, the obsession with personal responsibility obscures the possibilities for structural solutions.
What’s more, it just makes heavier people fucking miserable.
I don’t remember how old I was when I first became aware that I was fat, or at least inclined to chubbiness, which suggests it was early in grade school or even before. I know I was well aware of the shame by fourth grade, because I remember the sinking feeling when some “about you” worksheet required writing out your weight. (I’m pretty sure I fudged the numbers.) When my grandmother handed me that diet book, at the time, shaving off whatever number stood between me and normal really did seem almost achievable if I simply put my mind to it. All it would take was the right combination of grapefruit, cottage cheese, and willpower. It probably wasn’t the first time we’d have a similar conversation, and it wasn’t the last.
With the benefit of adult hindsight, I can see that my grandmother was coming from a place of concern, and a place of anxiety about her own body. (She was forever fad dieting, and her mobility was limited because of a car accident years before.) That’s the point, though: the stuff that’s kindly meant still hurts. And it wasn’t just her; I grew up in the South in the ’80s and ’90s and to the degree that there were any women forthrightly comfortable in their bodies, well, they were thin on the ground. Nor did popular culture offer any alternative visions: The messages were everywhere. And so at the impressionable period of my life where I might have been forming a comfortable relationship with vegetables and exercise, instead I was beginning to conceive of myself as a person who would always exist in an uneasy tension with her own body. That sense of myself threw my relationship to the foods I ate and the physical activities I chose into complete disorder.
When New York expanded vaccine availability to the clinically overweight—anybody with a BMI of 30 or above—I’ll admit I felt weird about it. Not guilty, exactly; it’s not “cheating” to make an appointment when the authorities say it’s time to make an appointment. It was more an echo of the discomfort, shame, and guilt I’ve carried for years about my body, which is so often framed as a problem. It’s more that I’m accustomed to the lack of accommodation—the clothing that doesn’t fit, the chairs that are too small—and move through the world accordingly. I expect a lecture on every trip to the doctor’s office; I went through an entire pregnancy with “COMPLICATIONS: MORBID OBESITY” emblazoned on the various forms I carried around my OB/GYN’s office. It felt unreal that my cursed BMI might “benefit” me in some way—though, of course, it wasn’t a “benefit” at all, but a simple public health judgment about risk.
So much comes to rest on a fat body—so much symbolism for oneself, for others, for society. That, to me, is the true weight, the weight that puts the wear and tear on my body and my spirit. I remember, too, the moment I knew that my grandmother’s ovarian cancer was going to kill her: After a doctor’s appointment, I watched her order a milkshake without so much as hemming or hawing. I knew, too, that I had to find a way to live that didn’t revolve around endlessly struggling with my own body.
The irony is, working from home for a year has been good for my eating habits. I started eating green smoothies for breakfast; I experimented with my dinner menus and I developed opinions about specific varieties of lettuce. Desperate for covid-safe entertainment with my stuck-at-home toddler, we began frequenting nearby farm stands and discovered the glories of late-summer New York peaches. I had an epiphany: I actually like salad. It’s not a punishment food, or a grim requirement for a narrow view of beauty, or a chore; it’s something that I quite genuinely enjoy eating. I’d never realized this because even after I decided to quit worrying about the numbers on the scale, my relationship with food was still so fraught. It took years and years of exposure to fat acceptance and life experience to reach this point; no smug article about public health has done anything to help the process. I sometimes think about the friendly resident tutor in college who brought over a small side salad after assessing the contents of my tray and deciding it didn’t have enough vegetables. A lifetime of moments like that just made me associate healthy food with humiliation and shame for a very, very long time.
Much to my immense surprise—in contravention of every stereotype about fat people—I also find myself doing exactly what all these articles presumably want me to be doing and fantasize constantly about going back to the gym, previously a space I associated with being conspicuous and out-of-place. Shortly before the pandemic, I finally forked over the money for somewhere with a lap pool, because if there’s one childhood physical activity of which I have nothing but the fondest possible memories, it’s swimming. Swimming has always been movement for the sake of movement, for the sake of fun, untainted by the pressure to shrink the number on the scale. For a month, I routinely sank into the blue water and stroked my way down and back, down and back. Another realization: I actually do get those exercise endorphins.
I imagine sliding back into the water and gliding along at eye-level, pulling myself along. Maybe I’ll take up open-water swimming, I imagine. Maybe I’ll become one of those people who takes long weekend hikes in nature. Maybe I’ll get into kayaking, cutting through the open water, still heavy but nevertheless weightless. Hope, they say, springs eternal.