Managing Body Image & Social Media Stress During Social Distancing

Everybody’s an online expert these days, huh? An expert on avoiding Covid-19; an expert on how to “get the most out of quarantine”; and an expert on how we should feel, move, eat, and look during social distancing. Each of us is a captive audience member at this terrible play that we never wanted to see. No “Cats” jokes! Ok, “Cats” jokes are fine. Times are tough. 

The first thing I learned in social work school was: “Meet the client where they’re at.” Meaning, don’t force your own goals or values, and understand why obstacles exist and what brought the client to you. I try to use that idea in all aspects of life. Which is why I worry about social media. I worry particularly about posts that instruct people to take a specific course of action. Help just doesn’t work that way. Oversimplifying anxiety, depression or trauma by giving generic advice is dangerous. I know that sounds judgmental. And I do believe people’s messages are generally well-intentioned. But, as Marshall McLuhan wrote, “The medium is the message.”

Many of us have encountered, in our recent online experience, people who are suddenly experts on topics they weren’t experts on a few weeks ago – education, social work, politics, medicine, international relations, mental health, commerce, economics, nutrition, exercise. Now, obviously, I don’t mean that they’ve actually gone through the appropriate training and experience to inhabit the “expert” role. I mean that we’re living almost exclusively in an online world, and credentials don’t matter much there. The medium (in this case, Facebook/ Instagram/ Twitter, etc.) is indeed the message. 

There are positives to our collective online communities. I’ve watched parents figure out the approaches to homeschooling that work best for them, while other people  adapt to caregiving for older relatives. Some individuals are cooking or gardening more, or rediscovering a hobby. There is great value in celebrating the mastery of a new skill or sharing a strategy that worked. We are all very vulnerable right now, and it’s in our best interest to stay connected. But we should also carefully consider sources of information and support. This is particularly true when it comes to a highly vulnerable, volatile topic – our bodies. 

I have heard many people in the plus community (and outside of it!) express frustration over the current increase in fatphobic dialogue and weight discussions online. The memes are familiar. The jokes are tired. Take your pick. There’s the one about bathing suit season being delayed because Quarantine and Easter candy sales coincided. Then the ones that show contrasting Before/After photos of some celebrity or animal (does it matter?)  to suggest how “fat” we’re all becoming by Social Distancing. And of course, there are the usual jokes about “fat clothes” or foodshaming snark about going to the fridge too much, or just general lazy fatbashing. It’s mostly done by people who are not fat, but lack the ability to address their body insecurities. They also have no apparent desire to recognize how much they’re hurting actual fat people or individuals in eating disorder recovery. Are they victims of Diet Culture? Yup. Does that make the abuse okay? Nope.

They’ve got plenty of defenses: “It’s just a joke! This is how I deal with stress! Humor is healthy! I was making fun of mySELF, not anybody else!“

None of that is acceptable to me. Those are not excuses for mocking and alienating people based on their weight. And yet, because fatphobia is so openly tolerated, and disordered eating and self-esteem issues are so rampant, we’ve decided as a society (particularly online) that body critique and weight shaming is…just how we talk to each other. No big deal!

I’ve tried in my personal life, beyond Bold, to point out how damaging this mentality is. I’ve posted heartfelt messages on social media, I’ve commented in strong terms on harmful articles. I’ve also had private conversations with people whose friendship I felt was worth salvaging. I’ve had some success, but not a lot. At the end of the day, it seems our society is not ready to let go of weight gain punchlines and bodyshaming laughs as methods of “socializing.”

For the most part, the “Corona Pounds” or “The Covid 15” jokes I see online are so immature that I struggle with whether or not to point out the toxicity to the purveyors. Maybe they genuinely can’t understand the effects of their actions. I often wonder what would get through to them. Would it work to show them a Before/After of an person in eating disorder recovery, reading weight gain jokes and disintegrating into self-shame and life-risking behaviors? Having recovered from an eating disorder myself, I can tell you that the hard work is done in therapy, but the harder work exists in the maintenance of a fragile hold on progress amidst exposure to diet chatter and weightshaming, not only from the media, but from the words of people you love. 

And now, on social media, there’s the online personalities who will take the weight gain hysteria a bit further and exploit the hell out of it. They’ll tell you it’s about wellness. They want you to join their “Wellness Journey” during quarantine because they want to see you confident, happy and healthy! They use phrases like “better yourself” or “transformation.” Listen. Listen closely to what they’re saying to you: YOU ARE NOT GOOD ENOUGH. WE MUST TRANSFORM YOU.

Tempting as it may be to tune into a “coaching” program led by an angry woman from high school who believes that Friday is the only day you can eat pizza, and who preys upon your body insecurities- reconsider. Explore what is happening in your mind. There are many teletherapy options that can help you get in touch with what you actually need, not what social media says you need. It’s also okay to think about what your body can do comfortably. If increasing movement is a goal, there are options and apps, approved by certified professionals. They are designed and regulated by individuals who care about helping others, not shaming them. You and your body are worth a careful evaluation about what you’re embarking on. Anyone who’s offering to “train” you over Zoom, knowing nothing about you and lacking the capacity to assess your emotional and physical ability to follow their “program”, is irresponsible and opportunistic. We may be removed from each other at this time, but not from logic and ethics. 

Since I am frequently misrepresented as a fat person who “condemns exercise”, I’ll do what I always have to do and be clear that I believe that many options for remote group fitness activities are facilitated by responsible, empathetic, educated, qualified individuals. I am friends with people who participate in such programs- and a few who host them. I respect their work. But questions are essential, as are gut feelings. 

What’s motivating you? Better question: What’s upsetting you? Why are you listening to damaged voices that are taking advantage of a pandemic and gleefully using it as a way to spread fatphobic abuse? Deep inside, when you see Before & After photos, do you believe that the thinner person is “better”, “improved” or has “changed their life?”  If so, it might be time to evaluate some hard questions about human value and prejudice. It’s work we all encounter, but it’s hitting us hard right now.. And I don’t claim to have the answers that feel good for you. 

That’s my point. I can’t give you a meme or a How To “Listicle” to get through this. But I can point you back to where you’re at- which is with yourself. In your body. That’s where you’ll always be. We’ll be here with you.

We at Bold wanted to share some resources that may be of help during this time. They range from mental health hotlines to individual sites devoted to ensuring that you and your loved ones feel safe and supported. They are listed below.

I began this piece by exploring “the medium and the message.” Bold, as part of the media, prides itself on providing healthy content and a safe online experience. But we are aware that there are many negative, even threatening, environments online. As we all spend more time in social media conversation over the next few weeks, we may find ourselves in debates or conflicts. Bullying and harassment may increase as frustrations grow stronger. We’re here for you. 

Bold’s CEO, Dr. Christopher Salute, recently wrote about the issue of online abuse. As a follow-up to his piece, we have also included sites devoted to online harassment. They cover everything from state laws defining harassment; tools for self-care; and, for extreme cases, instructions on making a report to the police or FBI. 

We value you. We hope some of this helps. Stay safe, stay you, and stay BOLD!

NEDA National Eating Disorders Association helpline is 1-800-931-2237; for 24/7 crisis support, text “NEDA” to 741741.

NEDA  Instagram @Covid19eatingsupport

Daily support/hourly live chats for meals/snacks 

SAMHSA’s National Helpline for individuals and families facing mental health and/or substance use disorders

(800) 662-HELP (4357)

Comprehensive site with an extensive list of resources and approaches to understanding online harassment – includes support groups, victim advocates  for making reports to the police, helplines.

FBI website for reporting online threats. 

For handling cases involving kids, a state by state explanation of bullying laws

Fantastic site devoted to rejection of diet culture, talking to kids about body image, and general self-care