By Claire Hubble
CONTENT WARNING: Discussion of weight loss, diet, and discussion of offensive weight loss based jokes.
Our relationships with our bodies have never been so fraught as they are in 2020. One minute we’re thanking our lucky stars that we feel like ourselves, and are not exhibiting symptoms of a virus that has ended and disrupted millions of lives. The next, we’re kicking ourselves for not utilising those extra hours freed up due to quarantine to self-optimise. For the first time, people living through a pandemic crisis are putting pressure on themselves not just to survive, but to thrive.
Unlike the Swine Flu, SARS and Zika Virus epidemics, there is a new societal expectation to use time in quarantine ‘productively,” ’ which, in many cases, translates to cutting down calories and increasing exercise. And so, the “Quarantine Glow-Up” – the pressure to lose weight, tone up or otherwise “improve” one’s appearance during the COVID-19 pandemic – was born.
We’ve heard a lot of chatter about the “Quarantine 15”, the alleged extra pounds gained during the national lockdown. If memes are an accurate barometer of priorities, people are more concerned about gaining weight than they are about contracting a deadly virus. One popular meme (above) features two images of a Barbie doll, with and without a double chin and wider waistline, accompanied by the caption:“ Me in Quarantine: Before and After. Another (below) features a “chubby” baby and includes a reference to eating too many snacks.
These memes do appear to reflect a general societal trend: Google searches for topics related to weight loss hit a five-year high in early May. As a result of heightened fatphobia, in tandem with gyms being closed, established at-home workout brands like Peleton and Dailyburn enjoyed a huge hike in downloads. Meanwhile, orders for kettlebells, dumbbells and treadmills saw a 55% increase in the second week of March.
Now, as lockdown measures begin to ease, we’re beginning to see the fruits of people’s labour. One only has to look as far as #QuarantineGlowUp on Instagram or TikTok to find hundreds of videos and images documenting the physical transformations people have gone through over the last four months. There’s no question about how great exercise is for your mental and physical health, from better brain function to a boosted immune system. But putting pressure on yourself to drastically alter your body during a short period of time ( like a quarantine) isn’t so great, particularly when we’re already under an unprecedented amount of stress. The threat of catching a deadly virus, an uncertain job market and navigating new situations like homeschooling and long-distance relationships for the first time have left many people feeling the strain. Data from the US Census Bureau indicated a third of all US citizens are now showing symptoms of clinical anxiety or depression.
For people already suffering from body image issues, the pressure to match up to ‘glow ups’ has been excruciating. Olivia Klugman, a Behavioural Therapist from Portland, shared that looking at quarantine Before and After videos made her feel inferior. “I think TikTok quarantine glow ups have influenced me,” she explained. “I see girls lose tonnes of weight and look completely different after quarantine, and it definitely makes me feel like, well what do I have to show for these four months?” After being furloughed from her job, Olivia found herself with more time to analyse her diet and exercise regime. “Back when I was working 40 hours a week, I didn’t have the time nor energy to scrutinize my body and eating habits. I think being in quarantine can make body dysmorphia worse because we have more open time to scrutinize our bodies, and more time to eat. It is also a really stressful, anxiety-provoking time that can easily lead me to eating emotionally instead of intuitively.” Olivia did lose some weight, but like 95% of dieters, she swiftly gained it back. “I lost about 10 pounds from extreme dieting and exercise out of fear that quarantine would lead to the Quarantine 15.’ I got tired and bored of doing that, and then gained a really significant amount of weight back,” she said. “Yo-yoing and focus on diet culture, in my opinion, comes from an emptiness and anxiety that was directly prompted by the pandemic.”
Fitness and body-positive blogger Casey Walker was outraged by the pro-diet sentiment of posts on social media. “I felt bombarded with memes about the Quarantine 15’ and posts saying things like, ‘There’s no excuse, so put down the snacks,” she said. “But in fact, there are plenty of ‘excuses’ – or rather, reasons – for this to not be the case. Budgets for each person have changed during quarantine. Your access to movement and gym routines have changed. General stress, anxiety, depression can cause you to eat differently, work out differently and live differently.”
Casey’s frustrations were shared by plus-size activist and fashion photographer Anastasia Garcia, who was inspired to push back against the pressure to lose weight in lockdown. “I received dozens of messages from women who felt like they were failing because they couldn’t maintain their normal routine, or were terrified of gaining additional weight,” she said. “When we teach people that being fat is a failure, it creates an atmosphere where people think they are flawed if they gain even the slightest amount of weight, even in a global pandemic.” Anastasia started #myquarantinebody, sharing a photo of her own figure in the hope it would inspire people to practice self-acceptance and focus on the bigger picture. As Anastasia put it, “We all have much bigger priorities right now.” Casey, along with over 400 others, jumped aboard the #myquarantinebody hashtag, sharing images celebrating their current shapes exactly as they were.
(You can read more from Casey at StreetsBeatsEats.com.)
Talk of quarantine weight gain and glow ups on Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok is unlikely to help the estimated 30 million in the US are living with eating disorders. In fact, in March and April, the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) saw a 78 % increase in people messaging its text line, compared to the same months in 2019. Similarly, the mental health support service Crisis Text Line saw a 75 % rise in contacts regarding eating disorders in the two months after March 16. The majority of those in contact were women, many of them below the age of 17.
Resources like these two helplines, along with virtual resources online and on social media are important tools for anyone triggered by the pressure to glow up during a national lockdown, but these alone are not enough – we all have a responsibility to reconsider the way we talk about our bodies. Eating disorders thrive on loneliness, which quarantine has provided aplenty, but they also feed off any indication of weight loss as a route to happiness. Not everyone dealing with or recovering from poor body image looks like the bed-bound skeletal anorexics of TV and film: the gap between dieting and disordered eating often isn’t that large at all. During a pandemic, it’s never been more important to cultivate appreciation for a healthy, functioning body.
As Anastasia acutely sums it up, “Seeing people joke and complain about potentially gaining weight while we are all literally trying to survive a global pandemic felt tone-deaf. Worrying about weight gain is such a privilege when people are literally just trying to breathe.”
Claire Hubble is a copywriter, content creator and journalist from London. Follow her at: