My phone buzzed. A message popped on the WhatsApp group of parents of students at my son’s school. This chat group had become super active since April, the first weeks of a large-scale social restriction in the Greater Jakarta to curb the spread of the corona virus.
It was a joke sent by one of the parents: “When things return to normal and we meet later, let’s avoid asking the question ‘Have you put on weight?’ It is important to maintain national harmony.”
Some parents responded with laughing emojis. Another suggested jokingly that people should keep their face mask on inside the house to prevent them from eating all the time.
Since the start of the outbreak, gaining weight has become as popular a topic as the pandemic itself. Jokes and memes about getting fat have exploded while nearly all people around the globe are in some sort of self-quarantine. One such joke that I came across on Instagram shows a large-bodied woman on scale. It says: “Social distancing is easy, maintaining your weight is difficult.”
Fat jokes are never funny in any situation, but it’s even more disturbing during the pandemic. Some people may use the humor as a coping mechanism to ease stress , as the has andemic turned our life upside down, but for those, like me, who struggle with eating disorders, weight, and body image issues, fat jokes trigger unnecessary anxieties.
“‘Do I have to eat just once a day? Should ditch all carbs altogether? What exercise should I do to maintain my weight? Should I order special diet meal catering?”
All these questions filled my head as I grappled to maintain my sanity between juggling my office and domestic works, making sure my son did his homework, and dealing with his teenage angst, all while trying not to get infected by Covid-19.
As if that’s not stressful enough, weight loss during quarantine has become an Olympic race. The social media was abuzz with the term “Quarantine 15” to refer to how many pounds a person has gained during the quarantine.
Even without the pandemic, losing weight has always been a struggle for me. I have been on and off different diets. The pandemic created a perfect combination for me to gain weight, and l have gained several kgs during the three months quarantine. I’m probably at my heaviest weight in my life. Reading the fat jokes and then seeing rolls forming in my stomach, I couldn’t help feeling frustrated
It’s not so much about the size of my waistline that makes me anxious, but the stigma against larger-bodied people. All our life, we are used to thinking that a smaller body is associated with a healthy and happy life, while a larger body equates being ugly, lazy, unattractive, and in poor health.
I knew that some people would think that I had stuffed my mouth with food and spent the whole day in bed all this time when they saw me. Like when I bumped into my neighbour during my morning walk routine recently. She asked how many times in a week I did my morning walk. When I told her I walked almost every morning, she frowned and said quizzically, “How come you haven’t lost weight? You still eat fatty food and dairy products, don’t you?”
After six months in a lockdown, I finally had the opportunity to visit my parents who live in another city. They were excited to see me – but only for the first 15 minutes. The entire three days after that, they wouldn’t stop commenting about how big my arms were or about my stomach rolls.
What is more damaging about these fat jokes is that it makes self-care even harder for many of us, when it is our only lifeline to stay sane during these unprecedented times.
One of the mothers in my school parents group said she did not want to take a nap during quarantine because she was afraid that she would get fat. What she said broke my heart. This is a woman who has a full-time job and an autistic teenage son to care for. I can’t imagine how she copes working from home, doing chores, and taking care of her son. And yet, she denies herself a much-needed self-care for fear of gaining weight.
Yes, it’s important to stay healthy and active as much as possible while staying at home. But fearmongering and shaming about weight gain during the quarantine could be more harmful to some people than the weight gain itself.
If you want to post about your nutritious meal plans or workouts during quarantine, please do. Share about how eating nutritious food gives you energy and improves your mood while staying at home. Share the fun exercises you can do at home to keep you energize. But not about how many kilograms you’ve lost from eating certain foods or doing exercise.
The pandemic is going to stay for a long time. No one knows when it will be over. More than ever, now is the time when we need to be kinder and to show some empathy. Help each other try our best to survive this crazy time.
We never know whether or not that fat meme or unsolicited diet advice that we post can trigger friends who are silently struggling with eating disorder, or make another feel more isolated and out of place because she has gained weight while in quarantine. Maybe these friends does seek comfort in eating chocolate chips or taking a long naps to keep them sane. We should be allowed to take care of ourselves without being stigmatized and ridiculed.