Why are We Obsessed with Women Gaining Weight During a Pandemic? | Opinion

Last month, journalist Emma Gray tweeted a screenshot from a controversial New York Times article about diet companies and "pandemic pounds."

Gray wrote, "why is the NYT so obsessed with shaming women who gained weight during the pandemic," in response to the article.

Beyond ignoring the fact that we are all experiencing isolation, loss and severe mental health issues during a global pandemic—the article chose to highlight women who weren't working hard enough to maintain their pre-pandemic bodies.

Behind masks and the safety of their homes (if they were privileged enough to stay home during the pandemic), women were still body shamed and confronted with new buzzwords such as "the COVID 15," creating even more pressure not only from society but the storytellers we often look to for advice.

I became aware of the article because of Gray's tweet. I liked the tweet and scrolled through the comments to find other women agreeing with Gray, many of them questioning why yet again, the focus on women's changing and growing bodies was at the forefront of the piece.

I thought of myself and what happened to me in the last year. Graduating college, moving to a new city and starting a master's program—and then the not-so-great things—increased depression and anxiety, loneliness, away from all of the people that mean the world to me that I haven't seen in over a year.

Regardless of these feelings, according to many news outlets, my focus should be on maintaining the body figure I had when the pandemic began. Between losses, successes and agony—the most interesting thing about me is whether or not I was the woman excessively exercising on an over-priced indoor bicycle or if I coped the best I could with situations out of my control, while apparently munching on Cheetos in between.

According to the NYT article and others, the worst thing that could happen to someone during a pandemic is gaining weight. For people who live in fat bodies, it was a reminder that their appearance remained a top fear, one that was emphasized even more than contracting COVID-19 or dying from it.

Fatphobia, or anti-fat bias, is discriminatory behavior toward fat people and fatness itself—and systemic issues that make it more difficult for fat bodies to exist because said systems were not made with them in mind.

A woman films with her mobile phone
A woman films with her mobile phone on a street in Shibuya district of Tokyo on April 9, 2021. PHILIP FONG/AFP via Getty Images

Weight stigma hurts everyone. It only proves our fascination with toxic diet culture and self-projection, especially during a period where many of our worst fears were coming true.

From March 1, 2020, to May 31, 2020, The New York Times was filled with news about weight gain. Phrases like "intermittent fasting," "stress-eating," "couch potato" and "pandemic pounds" appeared. Although a few articles discuss disordered eating and fat liberation—it was clear that weight loss was the priority.

Medical fatphobia only increased during the pandemic. A reality many fat people face while going to the doctor to get equitable care was turned into weight-loss articles and never-ending commercials for Noom, WW and Nutrisystem—all promising to help someone "keep off the weight" with yo-yo dieting models.

The Times wasn't the only publication to lean into fatphobic and body-shaming content. Outlets such as MarketWatch, CBS, The Boston Globe, American Psychological Association, U.S. News & World Report and others highlighted COVID-19 weight gain as a startling problem.

To counterbalance what I was reading, I came across Samhita Mukhopadhyay's article in NBC about loving one's body and having "a hot (fat) girl summer."

In her article, Mukhopadhyay gives credit where it is due to women surviving the pandemic, with or without gaining weight.

"And now that those of us left have managed to live through one of the most harrowing moments in global history—a pandemic that took over half a million lives from us in the United States and millions globally—now that we are seemingly lucky enough, if we are in the United States, to have made it through to the other side of this nightmare, there seems to be less of a shortage of PPE and more a shortage of kindness and common sense," she wrote.

While the news media leaves us no shortage of a fatphobic narrative as we struggle toward what is hopefully the end of a global pandemic, Mukhopadhyay reminds us that we made it out on the other end and our bodies helped us do that, regardless of the way we may feel about them or how they look.

As summer approaches, I hope women will stumble upon Mukhopadhyay's article like I did and cherish their pre and post-pandemic bodies for everything they survived through.

Sam Stroozas is a freelance journalist and graduate student at Northwestern University studying social justice and investigative reporting. She was born and raised in Hudson, Wisconsin, but currently calls Chicago home.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.