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Diet Culture at the End of the World


The title of this month’s Two Fat Professors blogpost is a bit of an overstatement, but in many ways everything in my life has changed as a result of this global pandemic. Given my privilege, however, these changes are certainly manageable and some are even pleasurable (more pjs and more Netflix). Sometimes it feels like we’re all reading the same book right now, turning the pages at the same time, wondering about the ending, wishing we could skip ahead to the last chapter. And, in this historic moment we’re all also getting a good glimpse of some deeply-rooted American cultural values such as the fear of running out of toilet paper, the impossible (and dangerous) allure of spring break, and--unsurprisingly--diet culture.


Before I go any further, I want to emphasize how important it is in this moment to lead with kindness and compassion--not just for others, but for ourselves as well. Based on what I’m witnessing in the news and on social media, many of us are legitimately and justifiably freaked out. And, I don’t mind confessing that over the course of my life, in my most desperate, anxious, and freaked out moments, my default mode has been to find ways to hate or to be cruel to myself. The scenario generally goes like this: Life is fucked up? This means I’m worthless. The math has always been easy. Although, the older I get the longer it takes to get to this point. And, I’m guessing the math must be easy for others too--the number of posts that have popped up on my social media sites addressing fears about weight gain has been astounding. In the midst of a global pandemic, for many their greatest fear is gaining weight. Or, having too much food around. Or, not being able to exercise enough. Or, not having easy access to “healthy” food. Or, doing too much stress baking. Or, of being worthless. And on, and on, and on.


In addition to comments from people I know online, I’ve also noticed a sizable (no pun intended) uptick in the number of “funny” memes about weight gain during the Covid-19 crisis. These memes seemingly poke fun at diet culture and shame viewers for: not going to the gym, eating “too much,” for getting fat, and for not starving ourselves at the end of the world. The meme below is a fair representation of this kind of “humor” that reinforces diet culture.

@thepizzasnob13. “Little Debbie vs. Big Deborah.” Twitter, 1 April, 2020, https://twitter.com/thepizzasnob13/status/1244462408573353984/photo/1


This is not to dismiss how legitimately triggering this event has been for people with eating disorders. The fact of the matter is that at least 30 million Americans suffer from eating disorders and many, many more engage in disordered eating. According to a 2008 survey conducted by the University of North Carolina and SELF Magazine, “sixty-five percent of American women between the ages of 25 and 45 have disordered eating behaviors.” To simplify this even further, that’s 3 in 4 women who engage in disordered eating. Unsurprisingly, this statistic includes your Two Fat Professors as well. Despite our commitment to fat liberation, we’re living in the same world as the rest of you and, like you, have to diligently fight the pervasive messaging of a relentless diet culture.


Before everything became don’t-touch-your-face awful, Dr. Laurie and I started reading Anti-Diet by Christy Harrison--if you have some time on your hands, you might find Harrison’s sharp insights and thoughtful integration of research on diet culture, fat and weight phobias, and intuitive eating both comforting and compelling. Early in the book she notes,


Disordered-eating behaviors don’t exist in a vacuum. If you start eating to

soothe yourself after experiencing trauma, for example, you’re not doing that in

a culture of “Do what you gotta do to get through the day, and also let me help

you process your trauma.” No, you’re doing it in a culture of “OMG YOU’RE

EATING SO MUCH, YOU’RE GONNA GAIN WEIGHT AND THAT’S ABSOLUTELY

UNACCEPTABLE--YOU NEED TO LOSE WEIGHT, STAT! (And PS, trauma? What

are you even talking about? Just suck it up and move on!”) (pgs. 72-73)


I’m going to be blunt, we are living in traumatizing times. Your trauma is real. You do not need to suck it up. We need to seek solace and comfort where we can, and for some folx that solace and comfort will be in food. AND, THIS IS OKAY. It’s also okay, if you’re struggling and need help. Now is the time to connect with others and to support each other however we can (from a distance).


Unsurprisingly, other thoughtful folx are beginning to see the same patterns that we are about how unhelpful and unhealthy it is to continue to traumatize people who are already being traumatized with “advice” about how to avoid weight gain during a global public health disaster. De Elizabeth from Allure notes that,“The most obvious problem with jokes about the ‘quarantine 15’ or ‘the COVID 19’ is that gaining weight is framed as an inherently bad thing--an idea that’s steeped in fatphobia.” And, she’s absolutely right. To persist in promoting the idea that gaining weight is dangerous, bad, or something that we should be preoccupied with in this moment (or any moment) only feeds into a system of fatphobia that oppresses and abuses so many even in the best of times. Clarkisha from Intersectional Feminist Media also reminds us that “it would actually be productive if the conversation about ‘health’ during this COVID-19 outbreak was about surrounding [. . .] people with love, empathy, and understanding so we are all able to get through these next couple of months without losing our minds.” It’s difficult to disagree with this logic.


I know that in times of panic and anxiety we revert back to what we think we can control. For many of us, this is what we’re eating and how we’re moving. But, I’d like to offer an alternative. If you feel compelled to talk about your health, weight, food consumption, etc. to others--virtually or physically--maybe take one or two extra minutes to imagine how your “health talk” might contribute to someone else’s trauma and anxiety about food, health, and exercise. Because here’s the thing, we all know how repeated exposure to how dreadful everything is makes us feel terrible. Many of us are taking breaks from the news and social media, which on the one hand limits the relentless torrent of difficult-to-digest information. On the other hand, though, this move often isolates us even more--and many folx are already feeling the pain of social isolation. When we creep out of our shells to look at the Internet with one eye open, it would be wonderful to see signs of help, encouragement, nurturing, kindness, and generosity. As much as trauma and anxiety are contagious, I also believe that hope can be equally contagious. Let’s be hopeful. Let’s be kind. Let’s be the very best versions of ourselves that we can be as we face down what feels like the end of the world.


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