Rage Against The (Diet) Machine

As the end of the pandemic nears, I just want to feel relief. Instead, the pressure on women to emerge thinner than ever only seems to be ratcheting up.

While I was reporting out a piece for The Washington Post about how the pandemic has impacted women’s relationship to beauty rituals, one thing came up again and again in my interviews: weight.

“[I feel] a pressure to appear unchanged,” Sara, 32, told me. “Make sure you didn't gain weight. Make sure you still look like you're in your 20s.”

These women, who spanned ages and races and body types and localities, were anxious because they had gained weight. They were anxious because they knew they were expected to emerge from a year of trauma and loss with their fuckability intact. They were anxious because they had gotten used to their bodies being (blessedly) talked about less and they knew it wouldn’t last. They were anxious because they knew someone was going to bring up the ways in which their bodies had or had not changed, and that either way it would feel like a punch to the gut.

Enter The New York Times.

On Tuesday, the paper of record published a shockingly tone-deaf-verging-on-irresponsible piece about the financial gains diet companies have made in the wake of the pandemic. The article purported to be about all people, but you didn’t have to be discerning to understand that it was really speaking to and about women.

Every person interviewed for the story was a woman. And they were all determined to lose those “pandemic pounds.”

I knew the article would be bad when I scanned it and realized the only “critique” of the predatory, $61 billion-dollar diet industry was a doctor who objected to the short-lived results. (She, it turned out, was hawking her own weight loss program.) But it was when I reached this stunning paragraph that my eyes fully glazed over with rage:

While some spent the year of the pandemic creating healthy meals or riding their Pelotons for hours, many others managed their anxiety and boredom through less healthy means. They spent the pandemic sitting on their couches, wearing baggy sweatsuits, drinking chardonnay and munching on Cheetos.

No time to find joy in reuniting with friends and family when what you really should be focusing on is your proximity to thinness.

Never mind that weight is not in fact a great indicator of health, or that one can exercise AND cook AND drink wine AND eat Cheetos. (Women contain multitudes!) Never mind that fat people have always existed. Never mind that anti-fatness does incalculable harm. Never mind all the trauma and illness and grief and loss of the last year. Never mind the magic (and privilege) of living in a body that literally kept you alive while 900,000 died.

Since at least the 1980s — thanks, Reagan! — the U.S. has formally framed fatness as an enemy of the people; something we must all be engaged in constant battle against. In 2004, U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona made this goal explicit: “As we look to the future and where childhood obesity will be in 20 years…it is every bit as threatening to us as is the terrorist threat we face today. It is the threat from within.”

This attitude has led to a consistent moral panic around fatness; one that has material, negative impacts on fat people. Americans have been enlisted as the ardent foot soldiers of this fake war, waging unwinnable battles on their own bodies and the bodies of those around them.

And if we are the soldiers, diet companies provide the shoddy, costly artillery. Instead of guns, we are armed with calorie-counting apps and shakes and juice cleanses and point systems and pills. Over the last decade, as fat activists have made some cultural strides, these (wildly profitable) companies have pivoted from diet talk to wellness talk.

It’s not even about your weight, they’ll coo in your ear as you type in your credit card number. It’s just about health. About feeling good. But the subtext comes through loud and clear: You look “healthy” if you look thin. You “feel good” if you look thin.

Before the pandemic, I had spent the previous ~2 years at the thinnest I’d been in my adult life. After a breakup triggered a debilitating depressive episode and spurred me to start a daily workout regimen to aid my mental health, along with a shiny new Zoloft prescription, I lost a not-insignificant amount of weight. It wasn’t intentional — it was literally incited by a mental health crisis — but it did elicit an outsize amount of praise. Before my weight loss, I had moved through the world with a good deal of thin privilege. Getting thinner felt like being let into the VIP room on the other side of a velvet rope.

“You’re so tiny!” “You look amazing!” “Tell me your secret!” Even my boss’s boss told me in a private meeting that she had noticed my weight loss and that I looked great. (I ended up rambling about how it was caused by depression, because I’m fun!)

There is something particularly confusing about being told you look your best after you’ve spent months feeling your worst. If your depression weight means more praise than you’ve ever gotten in your life for how you look, what does it mean when the praise stops? And what must you do to ensure it doesn’t?

Along with countless other (extremely lucky) white-collar workers, during the pandemic my mobility drastically decreased as I hunkered down at home. I still exercised from my living room, though not on a Peloton. I cooked more than I had in years. I also drank orange wine and sour beer and tequila. I watched old movies and binged on reality television. I ate mini marshmallows sometimes. I cried. A lot. And I gained some weight.

I wish I didn’t care, but it’s exhausting trying to undo years of damage anti-fatness has wrought on your psyche. While I continue to do that work — I can only assume it lasts a lifetime — I might be on my couch in sweatpants snacking on Cheetos. But don’t worry, New York Times. You’ll never catch me guzzling Chardonnay.