‘Quarantine 15’ weight gain jokes aren’t just harmless self-depreciation, they’re fatphobic

People are emerging from self-isolation a little squishier than before, and they’re joking about it all over the internet. But are they thinking twice about the serious effects this messaging may be having on the body image of the people around them?  (Image source: SELF)

By Nikita Skuse | @nikita_skuse

The old ‘freshman 15’ jokes about gaining weight in the first year of university have recently evolved to suit the current global climate, as comedy naturally does. No longer are people worried about stress-eating their way through their degree, they’re worried about comfort-eating their way through self-isolation – and they’re getting a lot of laughs out of it in the process.

Memes seem to be the millennial’s coping mechanism of choice during the pandemic with ‘quarantine 15’ gags scattered throughout newsfeeds on every platform. But would they still find fat jokes just as amusing if they realised the effect they were having on some of their nearest and dearest? 

Sarah McMahon is a psychologist and director for BodyMatters Australasia, an organisation that provides counselling and treatment for body image issues, eating and dieting disorders and problematic exercise. Ms McMahon has nearly 20 years’ experience in the field of body image and is concerned about the effects this messaging is having on individuals.

“The memes and jokes around ‘COVID kilos’ and ‘quarantine 15’ highlight the extent to which weight is on our mind. Even in the midst of a public health and economic disaster the thing that matters most to so many of us is our weight,” she said.

“It perpetuates a ‘thinness at any cost’ mindset. It seems that if you survive COVID and lose weight in the process you have ‘won’, it doesn’t matter what other parts of your life COVID has destroyed. This disturbing messaging highlights dominant societal discourse regarding the thin ideal.”

She said the impact these messages have on body image is ‘profound’.

“It is another ‘drop’ in the ‘drip, drip, drip’ messaging that thinness is everything.”

Ms McMahon stated that although thinness and health have long been seen as synonymous, we need to remember that they are not, which is especially important to consider amidst all the negative perceptions of self-isolation weight gain we are being exposed to through these jokes.

“There are many people who are thin who are actually engaging in very unhealthy practices to maintain a low body weight,” Ms McMahon said.  

“Given so many of our clients have this as their history we really try to separate weight and health.

“We [BodyMatters] focus on promoting behaviour that promotes health regardless of where someone’s weight actually sits. This means that they can enjoy a lifelong pursuit of health regardless of where their weight falls.”

Dr Cat Pausé is a fat studies scholar from New Zealand whose work specifically focuses on the impact of fat stigma on the health and well-being of fat people. She explained fat stigma is a term that encapsulates all the negative attitudes people hold about fatness and fat people, as well as the assumptions people make about fatness and project onto fat people. She explained that this stigma can then lead to the discrimination and oppression of fat people in society.

Dr Pausé is not a fan of the COVID-19 weight gain memes circulating the internet as she says they perpetuate this fat stigma.

“Unfortunately, you can’t really avoid them,” she laughed, managing to find some humour behind what she finds some very distasteful jokes.

“I mean, unfortunately … we live in a fat-hating society. It’s not surprising that there are people around the world who have decided one way for them to process the COVID-19 pandemic, and their experience in it, is to process that through their fatphobia.”

She said there is something to be said about the co-construction of knowledge in the age of social media where not only is the average person consuming this content, they can create and produce it as well. 

“It isn’t just that I’m exposed to all these memes every day, but if I’m clever enough, I could actually start making my own anti-fat attitude memes and so I’m now co-constructing that knowledge which brings it to another deeper kind of level,” she said.

However, when people are making these jokes about weight they may not necessarily think about the fat people in their lives they are hurting, Dr Pausé said.

“Every fat person that is a friend—or if this is in the social media space then every fat person that follows you—they’re seeing that and it absolutely is hurting them because it reinforces that oppression and fat stigma,” she said.

“It probably makes them wonder what kinds of things you said about them without them being aware of it.

“There’s really no reason for individuals to do that, especially for something as silly as a laugh. Good comedy punches up, not down.”

Ms McMahon believes action needs to be taken, stating that we need a collective voice to stand up and recognise these messages as harmful to ourselves and others.

Dr Pausé agrees, suggesting social media platforms need to be accountable and stick to their terms of service by flagging and removing content that perpetuates these stigmas.

She also said it would be ‘incredible’ to have allies of the fat community stand up and help in fighting back against fat stigmas. She hopes in the future more non-fat people will call out others for making these kinds of jokes.

“Just like it’s the responsibility of white people to tear down white supremacy, it’s the responsibility of non-fat people to tear down that,” she said.

Your jokes may seem like a harmless, self-depreciating stab at your own weight gain, but both Dr Pausé and Ms McMahon believe you could be doing damage to the people in your life without even realising. By taking a dig at yourself, you are taking a dig at the fat community as a whole. So, with all this in mind, will you think twice before making that fat joke now?

If you, or anyone you know, is struggling, contact The Butterfly Foundation, Headspace or Beyond Blue.

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