Hello, it’s another week, and that means there is yet another hand-wringing article making the rounds about “the other pandemic” lurking just underneath (or behind? the metaphors get quite mixed here; the Washington Post decided on “intertwined with”) the Covid-19 pandemic: Ob#sity.*
Per the Washington Post (you can Google, I’m not giving them clicks for this): “Obesity is the biggest story that’s not being talked about.” And it is very strange that their reporters and experts don’t read any other news, or I guess, listen when other people speak? Because I have seen this exact same story reported several times each on NPR and in the New York Times. It’s also plastered all across social media. Ob*sity is absolutely being talked about — in ways that perpetuate shame and stigma and improve nobody’s health.
One reason we’re talking about it again this week is that the American Psychological Association published some new findings from their ongoing online survey, “Stress in America.” Their researchers interviewed 3,013 Americans in February, and found that 42 percent of participants said they had gained “more weight than they intended” since the pandemic started; the average gain was 29 pounds, with 10 percent gaining 50 pounds or more. Cue the hand-wringing!
Except, here are a couple of things to know about this data:
First, self-reported weight gain is one of the most unreliable data points you can collect. (It’s right up there with self-reported food or alcohol intake.) Are these people all hopping on scales before they take an online survey, or are they just estimating based on how their pants fit? Probably the latter. Even if they did use scales, they didn’t all use the same, carefully calibrated one, and no researcher came to their house to ensure systematic data collection. But more likely, they’re guessing. And one person’s five pounds is another person’s twenty if we’re talking about the very subjective metric of how tight your jeans feel.
Next, let’s think about the phrase “more weight than they intended.” Pretty much nobody ever intends to gain weight, because we live in a culture that tells us it’s the worst thing we can do. Yes, I know, pregnant people, body builders, and various other folks may embrace (certain amounts of) weight gain—but it’s unlikely that they account for a large portion of this sample. So I think the bigger surprise about this data is that only 42 percent of subjects reported unintended weight gain. Most of us are taught from childhood that weight gain is always to be avoided, which means anytime our bodies get bigger, we feel betrayed by this unplanned change.
Last, I want to underscore that these estimations cannot tell us anything about what’s happening with our own bodies. Someone else gaining weight, intentionally or not, does not mean you did, or that if you did, that it’s a problem. They also can’t tell us what’s happening to weight in our country as a whole; for that we need to wait for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to release their biannual data, a lot of which they were unable to accurately collect during the pandemic. (Please note that the CDC’s 42 percent ob*sity rate that everyone cites is actually from 2018.)
But despite all of these data limitations, mainstream health reporters and ob*sity experts are off and running with the message that America needs a massive weight loss intervention. The only debate in their minds is how we achieve this goal. I appreciate Dr. William Dietz and others in the Washington Post story noting the existence of weight stigma, and framing high body weight as a societal problem, not an individual battle. Yes, great, let’s make healthy food more affordable and accessible and shore up our social safety nets and reimagine healthcare (because all of that will benefit people in lots of ways, regardless of whether they lose weight). But very quickly, the conversation turns to bariatric surgery and medication. And then because those are treatments that only “work” if you also make massive lifestyle shifts, we end up right back at dieting. Also known as an individual solution for a societal problem, and not an effective one, at that.
The very last thing we need right now is a diet. To protect and improve health, we need vaccines. We need safe in-person school. We need gun control.
We need to dismantle the system racism that allowed the police to kill yet another unarmed Black man this week.
We need to hug the loved ones we haven’t seen in so long.
We need to grieve for the people we can’t hug, and for all the other losses, large and small, that have stacked up during the past year.
If your body has changed, sure, it’s worth being curious about why that is, and whether it’s tied to a (perfectly valid) routine change that you’re looking forward to changing back as restrictions lift. Or it may be a symptom of an underlying issue you’d like to address, like depression or anxiety. Whatever the reason (and bodies also change without clear “reasons,” you don’t need to justify your size to anyone!), why not focus on that and leave body size out of it, as I wrote in more detail here.
It’s so much more important to have compassion for everything your body has gone through in the past year.
And maybe even pride, for everything your body has helped you survive.
*A Note On Language: I use “ob#sity” or “ob*sity” as much as I can here on my newsletter out of respect for the fact that this term is widely considered pejorative and stigmatizing. I do not change the spelling when I’m quoting someone else using the word unless they have asked that I do so, because that would mean inserting my own perspective into their quote. But when I’m writing in my own voice, I avoid using any “o words,” and prefer instead to say “person in a larger body” or, you know, plain old fat.