If you use social media, the weight “jokes” shouldn’t be stranger to you at all. It has been one of the most talked conversations and topics during quarantine. If you are scared of getting fat, you might suffer fatphobia. And this is no joke, some people are more scared of getting fat than getting infected.
From memes, to videos on Tik Tok, the fatphobia is all over the place in the World Wide Web, in every language, shape and form.
How damaging can be for our mental health this conversation? How can our self-esteem be affected? Do you think influencers could help on this? Is there anything we can do? I asked all of this questions and another more to Florence Gillet, Certified Eating Psychology Coach who gave me the perfect guidance to this situation. If you feel affected by this issue in any way, this is for you.
THE INTERVIEW: FLORENCE GILLET
Why are people so concerned to get fat during the quarantine?
This is a side effect of the ‘Diet Culture’ we all evolve in. This system of beliefs that elevates thinness as the only way to happiness, health and success & turns being thin into a “moral” imperative for all. Diet culture dictates that thinness should be seen as a major life goal. It confuses thinness with health and oppresses everyone through weight stigma, also known as the fear to become fat (fatphobia). It affects us all, at different levels but regardless of our actual body weight.
How much (and how bad) the diet culture can influence on a situation like this one?
It just adds an unnecessary level of stress to the pandemic, which was already causing anxiety on so many levels (financial strain, health of family and friends, social distancing, isolation, etc.). As you know, high levels of stress and anxiety are quite damageable to our overall health and our nervous system.
Diet culture and the fear of weight gain can also force people into exercising more or forms of dieting or restrained eating (it could also be called a ‘lifestyle’ or ‘watching what you eat’), which we know, fails in 95% of cases. It may push former chronic dieters or disordered eaters into a relapse. It is also reinforcing discrimination of people living in a larger body, or with a disability, or any other condition that makes them appear ‘different’ than the unattainable beauty standard, which can be metabolized as trauma. Overall, it creates a true issue for public health.
How can we explain people the danger of jokes and comments on weight?
These jokes and comments reinforce weight stigma, which is at the root of many negative health outcomes including obesity, depression, anxiety but also eating disorders. Evidence shows that, more than the weight itself; it is this stigma that makes people in a larger body get sick. Indeed, people who experienced weight discrimination present worse health markers, regardless of their weight or size. Not only is fat shaming completely inefficient to decrease obesity levels (or everyone would be slim by now!), it is proven to lead to even MORE weight gain, MORE self-hate, MORE eating disorders and MORE health complications through the dangerous yo-yo effect of dieting & stress.
Beside the memes, inappropriate comments and jokes, is this going to get worst?
I know the US media started to circulate the idea that obesity was linked to more risks of Covid-19, but these were quickly debunked as unfounded. You can read more in this article.
How to deal with a fat phobic family member if we live with them, during quarantine?
I personally find that starting discussions & mentioning evidence about health and weight with truly fat phobic people is not only unproductive but also exhausting, because most of these beliefs have been internalized for years, or may give a certain amount of ‘privilege’ to the fat phobic person. More on this here.
So, the best response is to set boundaries. By establishing specific rules in our houses, we allow for everyone to find the space they need and to respect each other’s routines. The first boundary could be not to comment on bodies or appearance, in good or bad terms.
The second one could be not to label foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and refrain from commenting on someone’s food choices. When fat phobic comments are being made, we all have a choice not to enter the conversation and to keep everyone else at bay. Or we can shift the discussion back to more important health matters: how do we protect ourselves in this pandemic? How can we take care of our mental health needs and support our family members in times of confinement? How can we, as a society, support the most vulnerable, isolated community members, but also small businesses in times of financial distress? Anything that makes us all realize our common humanity, instead of discriminating others.
SOS HELP SOS!
What if someone is struggling with eating disorders? How can that person deal with them? How to deal with the mirror? and How to deal with toxic family members?
If someone struggles or suspects a loved one might have an ED or eating disorder, the first step is to find help close to them. The earlier, the higher chance of full recovery. In the Middle East, MEEDA (Middle East Eating Disorder Association) is doing a great job to support patients, raise awareness and set up prevention campaigns all over the region. Contacting their hotline is a great first step for someone struggling or feeling on the verge of a relapse, to find the help they need.
Other ways people with an eating disorder can support themselves during this confinement are:
- Staying on track with their treatment, since recovery is truly the best thing they can do to go through this stressful time. And reaching out to their health providers (even virtually) if they feel like their recovery plan is more challenging.
- Keeping a routine that’s as close as possible to ‘normal’ life, and especially choosing to do things that nurture joy and self-care, even if it is only making their bed in the morning.
- Limiting (social) media exposure if they find it triggering or stressful.
- Incorporating mindfulness and self-compassion in their everyday routine. A great resource for this is www.self-compassion.org
THE ROLE OF MEDIA
Do you think the media has influence even more in all these issues during the pandemic?
Definitely. On their tone of voice but also on checking their sources, on truly reading scientific evidence properly and on avoiding fear mongering on food and health and weight discrimination.
A lot of media will report on (lower) weight being a prerequisite for health, but what evidence shows is that the link between weight and health is one of correlation, not causation. To give you another example, there is also a correlation between yellow teeth and lung cancer. But we all understand that cancer is not CAUSED by yellow teeth and won’t be fixed if teeth are whitened, because it is likely caused by something else, in this case, smoking for example.
In fact, there is growing evidence that size is even a factor of better health, yet it is rarely mentioned in the media, also because of the powerful weight loss industry ads budgets.
Luckily, we, the media users, have the ability to regulate how much and what media we consume. And this is also valid for people we follow on social media. If listening to some media feels draining to you, a good way to self-care is to limit the amount of time spent listening/reading or to select a very specific set of media that you know will report adequately on all issues. I curated my social media feed to be body positive and full of diversity years ago, and it has a huge impact on my mood.
WHAT ABOUT AFTER COVID?
When all of this is over, there is going to be a massive reaction with body image issues. How do you think we should handle this?
I think it is important we all do what we can, right now, to keep communicating and alerting people on the dangers of dieting, on removing the stigma linked to size and mental health, on supporting them as much as possible in their recovery. I am truly passionate about this, and I think for a lot of my fellow Health At Every Size practitioners, they are doing this at all times, whether or not there is a pandemic going on… We will be there for people ready to do this work of body acceptance, meeting them where they’re at.
LOVE YOUR BODY ALWAYS
Are there any tips or exercises we can practice during the quarantine to strength our self-esteem?
Body Image is the #1 factor of self-esteem. So, things you can do to nurture a positive body image are:
- Ditch your scale/ fitbit. Give priority to how you feel, instead how many kilos you weigh, calories you’ve burned or steps you’ve made.
- Reconnect to food for well being and stop obsessing over nutrition.
- Avoid making appearance-based comments to yourself or others.
- Avoid labeling foods as ‘healthy/good’ or ‘junk/bad’. Food has no moral value.
- Re-evaluate your (social) media exposure and presence to be more size- and body-diverse.
FATPHOBIA: A MENTAL PROBLEM IN TWO DIRECTIONS
How much can influence the fatphobia on mental health during this quarantine time?
At any given time, fatphobia is proven to lead to:
- higher risks of depression and anxiety,
- lower self-esteem,
- weight gain and obesity. If the fatphobia is channeled through attempts at weight loss – which in 95% of cases doesn’t last more than 2 to 5 years + 1 out of 4 dieters will go on to develop an eating disorder.
- poor quality of life (because fatphobia can prevent us from social interactions)
- dangerous behaviors (like fasting, smoking, purging, etc)
- even suicide.
This quarantine (and the anxiety associated with a pandemic) is likely to magnify these effects. It might be even more complicated for people with a story of weight stigma, depression, disordered eating to have access to their usual self-care routines or to face-to-face interaction, including with mental health experts, to counteract the triggers they might encounter.
Also, isolation might enable more disordered behaviors around food and exercise that usually wouldn’t go unnoticed. So, it is important for all of us to be extra mindful of comments we might make about bodies, food, size, weight, in this ‘crisis’ context. I have also listed many free resources for people in recovery here. And I am personally hoping to support anyone wishing to make peace with food and their bodies, in person in Dubai or virtually.
BODY POSITIVE MOVEMENT
How could be the role of the body positive movement on this issue?
The aim of all body liberation movements, whether they speak of body love, or simply body neutrality and acceptance, is to reclaim how we conceive health (as more than just food and exercise), to practice self-care (and self-compassion), to cultivate an intuitive relationship to food and movement and to recognize there is diversity in the world.
I personally encourage clients to aim for body acceptance or body neutrality. I believe one can truly improve their self-esteem and body image issues without having to LOVE their body first. Because it can seem like a massive jump if people come from years of self-hate.
Practicing body respect, recognizing the incredible work our bodies are doing to support our everyday movements, choices, experiences, whatever our appearance or size, is a great first step. We need to be aware and help liberate people from the constant pressure of a specific aesthetic. We are so much more than a body.
Today, we are yet to find a truly safe, durable way for humans to drastically reduce their body size and keep it there. But it doesn’t mean health is out of reach. The best proven way to cultivate better health is by implementing simple practices, rather than focusing on a number on the scale or aim for drastic changes. Things like accepting oneself, moving more, sleeping better, reducing anxiety, all have a powerful effect on health, regardless of size.
For more info, visit her site:
Florence Gillet, Certified Eating Psychology Coach
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