How Covid has Exposed our Body Obsession
What did people do during the bubonic plague without memes? Without ways of connecting with others at distance about how we're feeling through a funny, catchy, heartfelt lens into other people's lives. The shared, isolated experience.
For the most part they're harmless and fun but there is one particular meme theme that I'm uneasy about. The 'We're all going to be soooooo fat when this is over' meme.
These seem on the face of it perhaps an absolutely fine and fun way to communicate a shared concern. It's also a very British form of self deprecating humour. I should also say that these images have been lifted from social media, people known to me - good, kind people, not intended to hurt in any way. I take no relish in making the point, but it is something that we need to start having conversations about.
During the filming of the upcoming Body Image Awareness course, I was joined on-screen by people from all walks of life including Dr Fiona Holland - Lecturer in Behaviour Change and Health Psychology at the University of Derby.
Fiona talked me through how "fat talk" (talking about our bodies and weight / size etc) can have some really poor results on both our mental and physical health. Increasing depression, lowering self-esteem and self-regard. This is backed up by the research from the Mental Health Foundation which shows that feeling bad about our bodies is a marker for increased stress, and incidence of self harm and even suicide. What the research shows is that these effects happen whether you are directly fat talking or if you are just over-hearing / seeing it. Maybe you can and maybe you can't relate to this. Either way, cutting back on communal fat talk might be a really healthy thing you can do, for yourself, your friends, your kids...
However further... in the gentlest, most supportive way I can say this (because I know it's just a lack of awareness, not intended to be cruel)... it's not just about you.
Some people are not putting on weight during lockdown. Some people are maintaining or slipping back into their eating disorder restriction patterns or guilt exercising on account of the stress and lack of control. The memes for them could provide a trigger. Anorexia is the mental illness accountable for the largest loss of life.
We also need to remember, some people already look like this. It reminds them to feel (fat) shame about their bodies. Even though their bodies may be a result of trauma, accident, disability, hormone imbalance or an eating disorder. While we're on it, this year's Mental Health Awareness theme is kindness. We are absorbing fantastic messages during this challenging time to #bekind. This isn't that.
It creates unnecessary stress. For me, right now, food is providing me with a light and shade I'm sorely missing from the rest of my life. I'm choosing things from the supermarket I wouldn't normally buy. It would be really helpful if that small luxury wasn't tinged with negativity and was just a source of pleasure.
On a wider scale, normalising messages like these are the reason no one plays with the fat kid at school. Kids absorb messages around bodies... from us. Every fat talk comment we might throwaway, forms realities in young minds. The statistic that 81% of ten year old girls are afraid of being fat, is one that I can't shake. This is a new thing, it wasn't the case when I was a kid for sure. What are we doing, socially to give kids this message? We are obsessed with bodies! We keep talking about bodies.
During our talks, Dr Fiona Holland pointed out that our social media feeds are unrepresentative of our lives, leaning much more in the favour of posts about bodies and food as opposed to other parts of our lives or interests. This can also be seen amplified during this Covid period. There aren't a plethora of posts clean-shaming our homes or cars or gardens. Even posts about helpful things like books or TV series that people are enoying aren't as apparent as the focus we're seeing on bodies and food.
**As I'm editing this piece, Michael Ball has just asked a caller on Radio 2 "Are you putting on loads of weight during this lockdown?" **
This is a really multi-layered subject and no one needs feel any shame. We have been sold a really simplistic view of superficial health. We can't know what we don't know. It's an awareness thing - hence body image awareness is a subject we can aspire to learn. This is not a message we have regularly received from the world around us. We have actually heavily received the opposite message in the name of commercialism, but you have to admit, it does make sense... to stop fat talking. This used to be a marginalised conversation, thought only to affect those on the periphery of society. And it's easy to make that mistake because it's an invisible problem, that we don't talk about. But it is a widespread, personal problem, an intelligent conversation, a thoughtful, forward-thinking one. Most importantly it is right. We need to change, if we actually care about our health and the health of others.