I first started getting emails about “fighting the COVID-15,” or pandemic weight gain, more than a year ago, at the beginning of May 2020. God, how I hoped it would be a fleeting buzzword, but the “quarantine 15” content kept coming. Companies like Pepperidge Farm and Prego were seeing higher sales, and people were absolutely losing their shit about the consumption of so-called “unwholesome” processed foods. In my eyes, these messages were harmful — and there were bigger (Gold)fish to fry — particularly amid the first wave of a pandemic that would go on to infect millions and kill more than 583,000 people in the U.S and 24,948 in Canada.
The messaging about end-of-pandemic weight loss isn’t just coming from ads, but also memes and mainstream media. Articles that shame folks for gaining weight over what was the worst and most stressful year of many people’s lives have been common lately. “While some spent the year of the pandemic creating healthy meals or riding their Pelotons for hours, many others managed their anxiety and boredom through less healthy means,” The New York Times wrote this week. “They spent the pandemic sitting on their couches, wearing baggy sweatsuits, drinking chardonnay and munching on Cheetos.” Not only did this create a binary where there needn’t be one (you can obviously enjoy Peloton and drinking wine and eating Cheetos; or you can do both at the same time! People contain multitudes, as folks on Twitter pointed out), it also perpetuated a culture that judges people, women specifically, for their weight and snack choices. (The journalist who wrote the article hasn’t responded to Refinery29’s request for comment.)
“My reaction to the COVID-15 is, ‘Oh, here we go again,’” says Joy Cox, PhD, a body acceptance advocate, program development analyst at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, and co-founder of the fitness app Jabbie. “This is a new iteration of an old thing, which is rooted in unrealistic beauty standards and diet culture… Particularly among women, how you look makes a big difference, culturally, and it’s attached to your body. We value smaller, thinner bodies more, is what this is saying.”
“People have been navigating life as best they can, and it seems so unimportant to place the emphasis on weight gain during these unprecedented times,” says Chelsea M. Kronengold, MA, associate director of communications at the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA). In fact, doing so is harmful even in non-pandemic times, she adds. And the more we drill down on weight loss as we head into “hot vax summer,” the more our anxiety about reemerging post-vaccine may morph into body-related concerns. This may prompt people to try crash diets, and in some cases could lead to more disordered eating, which we already know thrives in isolation, Kronengold says.
Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RD, a dietitian from Cleveland Clinic, isn’t necessarily against the phrase, though. She says some patients may feel reassured by the term. “They have had a ‘See, I’m not the only one who gained weight’ approach,” she says. But many of the other experts I spoke with stressed that the term's capacity to cause harm surpasses any possible advantages.
The pandemic has accelerated fatphobia and fat-shaming, especially once reports began to draw links between weight and COVID-19 complications. Terms like “quarantine 15” are inherently shaming, and “you absolutely cannot shame anyone into losing weight… and weight isn’t necessarily an indicator of health anyway,” Kronengold says.
“I’m curious how experiencing weight stigma — which we know leads to healthcare avoidance, fewer preventative and diagnostic tests, poorer quality of healthcare, and weight-cycling history, which leads to a variety of adverse health outcomes — influences that perceived risk [of more severe COVID-19],” notes Kimmie Singh, MS, RD.
Experts also told me that the quarantine 15 rhetoric drives an unhelpful narrative about the body. “Not only is it fatphobic and implies that having a fat body is something to be actively avoided… but it also implies that trying to control your body size is a worthy goal, when, in reality, we know that focusing on weight loss tends to lead to weight regain and disordered eating,” Singh says. “We know diets fail, and when you put that much pressure to lose weight on a group of people after this trauma?” Her question is rhetorical, but her point is clear: It can lead to serious struggle.
“There are biological, genetic, and environmental factors that are all at play that may influence someone to develop an eating disorder or to relapse, and some are more likely than other people [to develop disordered eating] when they come across this type of messaging and cultural pressure,” Kronengold adds. “For many people who have, are susceptible to, or are recovering from an eating disorder, they’re already having an internal dialogue with themselves about the fact that they need to lose weight, and all of these cultural pressures that we always hear but have been extra loud during this time, these external voices are confirming what the eating disorder is telling them, and it’s extra harmful.”
All this comes at a time when eating disorder behaviours are already on the rise. NEDA’s helpline has seen a 54% increase in volume throughout the pandemic, Kronengold says. She expects that as more posts and news come out about losing weight gained in quarantine, more people will suffer.
While we wish everyone would just let the idea of the quarantine 15 die out already, it may not. If you feel mentally capable of calling out messaging like this when you see it, it can be beneficial, but choose your battles and assess your bandwidth before you do, Dr. Cox says. And if it brings up difficult or triggering emotions, it’s important to protect yourself first.
Dr. Cox recommends editing your social media feed to avoid messaging like this. “Be mindful of what you allow on your newsfeed,” she says. Facebook has a function that lets you “hide all ads” from specific advertisers, and Instagram lets you “hide” and report ads. If people you follow are posting about weight loss or constantly tossing up before and after photos, it’s okay to unfollow them, or at least hide their posts.
She also recommends when you hear this messaging or begin feeling body-related anxiety, to “reframe your focus, and not home in on the idea of ‘image’ as ‘function.’ Remember that your body has brought you through this pandemic.” In other words: Try to focus on being grateful for what your body has done for you, and more broadly for the new experiences we’re able to have again. “I have a younger and older sister, we all live in different states,” Dr. Cox says. “After being separated for so long, the last thing I was concerned about was how wide my hips had become. I was just excited to see them. When you begin to focus on things that have a bit more substance and value, that’s helpful.”
In the end, Dr. Cox says that during this time of transformation and change, it’s important to practice self-compassion, and remember that you're a force for making it through the past year. “Whether you’ve gained or lost weight during COVID, you are enough the way that you are,” she says. “Our bodies, they make up just one piece of who we are as individuals. We bring so much to the table, whether that be our intelligence or capabilities. My hope is that people [won’t] limit themselves just based on their image, how they present in the world, or based on a standard that somebody else has set as to how you should show up in the world. We’re so much more than what we see in the mirror, and that’s something to reflect on as we’re transitioning back into our daily lives post-pandemic.”
If you are struggling with an eating disorder and are in need of support, please call the National Eating Disorder Information Centre hotline at 1-866-633-4220.