Given all the things that have changed in the past two years of life under COVID, my body is almost certainly among the least important. But that it has changed is undeniable.
When I started to hear people talking about the “COVID 15,” referring to the widespread phenomenon of quarantine weight gain, I thought it was cute because I had already gained more like 40 pounds.
Now, two years into a pandemic that drastically changed everything about the way we live, I’m estimating that number is closer to 70. (I haven’t weighed myself to be sure, but my clothing is now four or five sizes larger than when we took our laptops home from the office in March 2020, assuming we’d be back in a few weeks.)
Pre-pandemic, I commuted to work every day. I used to walk to my subway stop, climb up and down multiple sets of stairs and then move around an office. Before or after work some days, I used to go to a gym, either the nearby chain I belong to, or the one conveniently located in the building where I worked. I used to go to spin classes in small dark rooms full of people sweating while breathing all over each other. Then I used to walk to another subway station and climb more stairs to get home.
When COVID first hit, the gyms shut down. By the time they reopened, the thought of breathing heavily in an enclosed space had become nerve-shattering. I’m someone who actually enjoys working out, and relies on it for mood management, but I was scared to go back except in rare times when the COVID rates would dip long enough for me to hit the elliptical.
I got into taking dance classes virtually, something I never would have done without the shield of distance, and clumsily channeled my inner Britney and Beyoncé in my living room (and eventually outdoors, when classes started to meet in the park). Getting out of my comfort zone with dance was a joyful pandemic surprise, and it got me sweating, but it didn’t compare to being an active everyday human.
My diet hasn’t changed significantly, but there are many days when I sit at home all day, barely moving from the one spot where I hunch over my laptop until it’s time to walk the two blocks to pick my son up from school. As a result of all that inactivity, my weight has slowly but steadily climbed.
I’ve got as much internalized fatphobia as the next gal, but I wasn’t initially too alarmed. My weight has always fluctuated, Oprah-style. I was a fat kid who lost 100 pounds in college, then maintained it ― not so much because I didn’t like my body before, but because I didn’t like the way I was treated in that body.
Walking to and from elementary school, people would yell at me out car windows and throw the occasional fountain drink at me. As I got older, strangers felt free to discuss my body, approaching me to to tell me about a diet that worked for their aunt’s cousin’s friend. While visiting a college as a high school senior, a cute guy asked for my phone number, but when he called he wanted to know how much I weighed because, he told me, he “likes a woman he can climb.”
Moving through our society in a fat body means constantly being confronted with others’ opinions of it when you’re just trying to exist. One benefit of having a “societally acceptable” body is that sometimes you’re allowed to forget about it. Nobody, not even Cardi B., gets to “fat in peace.”
Fat people face discrimination in every aspect of society. Weight discrimination plays a role in hiring, determining wages and firing. (Racism also intersects with fatphobia, with studies showing that fat Black women are discriminated against most in the workplace.) We are more likely to to experience medical bias and misdiagnosis, which can be deadly. I don’t like dating apps, but even if I did, I’m not sure I could stomach opening myself up to a volley of microaggressions alternating with fetishizing messages that turn immediately sexual.
“So much has changed ― fundamentally shifted ― during this pandemic and we’re watching to see how the world will resettle on its axis. No one is coming back the same as they were before.”
Simply trying to get by as a fat person in a society that hates fat people can be disempowering, painful and, frankly, exhausting.
When I first lost weight, I felt like a spy in my new body, witnessing the immediately evident ways in which I was being treated differently, as well as hearing right out loud the things that many people really think about fat people. They didn’t know I was only passing for thin. Inside, I was still on team F.A.T.
I still love fat people and fat bodies. More important, I believe fat people deserve to be treated equitably in every aspect of society. We should all be working to stamp out fatphobia and fight size discrimination.
But despite these convictions, I was exhausted, and existing in a smaller body was much, much easier.
In the two decades since that time, I have gained and lost, struggled with body image, and never have gone so far as to actually call myself thin. With the clarity of hindsight, however, I can see that I always remained within a range to reap the benefits of thinness.
And all it took was one global crisis to remind me how hard it can be on the other side.
If I mentioned my weight gain around my smaller girlfriends, they’d counter by insisting that they have also gained weight during the pandemic. What they didn’t always understand is that going from a size four to an eight is not the same experience as moving into a marginalized body.
Given the extreme level of invasive fatphobia we are all being pummeled with, I don’t doubt that their weight gain was uncomfortable, even painful. But they still retained their essential privilege as thin people.
My weight gain changed the way I am likely to be treated by the world.
That said, the world was still a largely hypothetical concept. Social distancing protocols kept me operating primarily from my home, or socializing with one deeply loved friend at a time ― people in whose presence I felt accepted no matter what.
In the privacy of my apartment, with no one to see me, it was easy to slip into brain-in-a-jar mode. But as restrictions begin to ease (whether wisely or unwisely), the world and its opinions about the way I look are about to come flooding back in.
This got real when my company announced our return-to-office date last week. For the first time in years, I was going to sit under fluorescent lights and be perceived. I was going to walk farther than from my bed to my couch in open terrain. I was going to be confronted with a reflection that contrasted with my mental image of myself in the office’s full-length bathroom mirror.
While I had noticed my weight gain when working from home, I wasn’t aware of it on a minute-by-minute basis, and I certainly didn’t have to worry about what anyone else thought about it.
Not to mention, what was I going to wear? My closets were full of clothes that didn’t fit me anymore and my New York apartment was starting to reach capacity for how many differently sized wardrobes it could hold.
Nervous about seeing co-workers who hadn’t seen me since I was much smaller, I perhaps counterintuitively started shopping for something fabulous and distinctive to wear my first day back, ultimately selecting an attention-grabbing pink suit, something that would be totally over-the-top in our casual office. I couldn’t hide out while wearing neon Barbie pink ― feeling like my extra, stylish self was the best way I knew to bolster my confidence and signal to anyone who might have something to say that I am happy with who I am, and deserving of respect at any size.
When the day finally came, I did feel self-conscious. But I felt that way about everything associated with remembering how to be a human again. When it was time to hand my ID to the woman at the front desk, I felt fumbly and nervous like I had forgotten how to do basic tasks associated with being in public. Talking to maskless co-workers was surreal. Ultimately, commuting in heels felt weirder than the fact that I’ve gained weight.
And compared to my experience 20 years ago, things do seem slightly better, at least in my bubble. Nobody said anything rude or back-handed to me. I’m an adult now and there are fewer bullies to hurl fountain drinks at my head. Everybody raved over my pink power suit, which I wouldn’t even have been able to wear 20 years ago because hardly anybody sold plus-size clothing.
By writing this, I know I’m opening myself up to be reminded of just how many people are still out there dying to share their shitty criticism and hot takes on my body, which let me be very clear, I DO NOT WANT.
But I know I’m not the only one struggling with returning to the world with a very different body, and I want everyone else navigating this experience to know that they are not alone, and they are not any less valuable than they were before they gained weight.
A girlfriend recently told me that every time she sees someone she hasn’t seen since before the pandemic, she finds herself wondering, “Are they thinking about my body?”
And they might be, fleetingly, if it’s changed in obvious ways. But so much has changed ― fundamentally shifted ― during this pandemic and we’re watching to see how the world will resettle on its axis. No one is coming back the same as they were before.
When we are finally able to climb out of survival mode after this traumatic, globe-changing event, I’m hoping most people will be far more concerned about how to acclimate back into their long-abandoned routines, how to fortify their depleted mental health, how to honor those we have lost by relearning the little things we didn’t know were what added up to make us human. I hope it’s soul stuff we’ll be focused on, not bodies.
I do want to get back to a more active lifestyle, because, well, movement feels good. But whether I eventually lose the weight I gained or not (and if I do, I will miss you, massive boobs!), I have to do my best to accept my body where it is every step of the way. Because honestly, what’s the alternative? Stewing in self-hate? Accepting the fucked up messages we’re fed our whole lives and feeling the way they want me to feel about my body?
It’s been a long two years. I simply refuse to waste any more time.
Emily McCombs is the Deputy Editor of HuffPost Personal. She writes and edits first-person essays in all topic areas including identity (race, gender, sexuality, etc.), love and relationships, sex, parenting and family, addiction and mental health, and body politics. She is based in New York.