I hadn’t even entered my brief, early-pandemic bread baking phase when other people’s fears about “pandemic weight gain” became unavoidable. I have been fat for my entire life, and as a fat person who does not diet I have become very skilled at avoiding conversations about other people’s fear of weight gain that might cause them to inhabit a body like mine. The annual cycles of very public body-size obsession in spring and summer, followed by the exaggerated guilt and performative eating of the fall and winter, are as familiar to me as the cycles of planting and harvesting were to my agrarian ancestors. But in 2020, when I resurfaced from a few months of teaching virtual sex education classes and figuring out how to run a congregation primarily from my living room, the new cultural fear of added pounds was so loud it began permeating the well-curated digital walls I’ve long counted on to keep the normal rounds of weight-obsession at bay.
Professionally, I am a Unitarian Universalist minister and a community-based sex educator. I am also a person who inhabits both of those roles and the world as a fat, transgender, queer person. I spend a lot of my time thinking, feeling, and working at the intersection of the body and morality, both because I find that intersection fascinating and because I have deep, personal knowledge of how damaging – life-threatening, even – it is to be inundated with messages about “good” bodies, which invariably are unlike mine. I grew up in a world of fear-based abstinence-only sex education, which clearly defined good (as, in moral) sex as always and only between married cisgender heterosexuals.
I also grew up in a world of diet culture, a nearly abstinence-only approach to the vital function of eating in which you replace “bad” foods with “good” ones and are rewarded only when your body shows evidence of your restraint. Both abstinence-only sex education and diet culture frame pleasure as suspicious and negative health outcomes, from STIs to diabetes, as deserved punishments for immoral behavior. Both prioritize control over the body and focus on a rigid set of not only “correct” behaviors, but “correct” or “moral” ways to inhabit a body. To simply exist. Neither asks people to consider where this definition of morality is coming from, or if it even makes sense.
As public narratives and shared fears about COVID-19 have shifted, fear of “pandemic weight gain” remains. It has blurred into the resurfacing yearly cycles and merged with calls to get “back to normal,” calls that rely on a long legacy of eugenics and explicit anti-fatness used in US public health policy to justify – and encourage – the deaths of people assigned lower value in our society. Though the exact shape of the concern shifts – worries about individual body size one day, condemnations of fat and “unhealthy” people the next – public and personal fatphobia during a global health pandemic is an obvious outgrowth of US society’s general approach to the intertwined concepts of health and body size.
Bodies are fundamentally unruly, fallible. We may know some things about how to treat and even cure some illnesses, but our bodies remain impossible to completely control. Illnesses happen. A body is always eventually going to die. Centuries of Christian theologies find the body and its sensations unworthy of trust, assigning the body to the “worldly” or “animal” nature in each of us. This bodily nature was traditionally understood to be not only separate from but in opposition to God. Many Protestants, including the Puritans who were notable early colonizers on Turtle Island, and the Calvinists who came to dominate much of US theology, leaned heavily into a form of not only individual but cultural asceticism, answering harsh conditions with the belief that suffering is fundamentally good and that a person’s suffering might be rewarded not only with eternal life but with signs in this world that you were in some form Elect.
In time, with alienation from agrarian labor and eventually from most forms of factory labor (among other things), these ascetic impulses and capitalism have merged into a culture obsessed with performing suffering as a way to indicate “goodness” or, often, “health.” Along the way, a surface-level secularization of US society has removed even the promise of heaven and replaced it with an illusory sense that one can be, and must strive to be, healthy enough to avoid death. For many Americans it is not enough to exercise; they must be seen exercising through social media posts. It’s not enough to limit their own food intake; they must discuss it during their workplace lunch breaks. It’s not enough to lose weight; they must be complimented on it. When illness and death come – with little to no concern for whose gym selfies got the most likes or who avoided being “bad” when there was cake in the office – family members, friends, and the public at large are shocked if they believe the person was “healthy” but can seem smug and ready to pass blame if the person was fat.
A global health pandemic brings the reality of death to the forefront. In the early days of our experience of COVID-19, public narratives made clear that this was an illness that could and would take down anyone. The constructive narratives much our society runs on – meritocracy, individual responsibility, “health” – could not tolerate this for long. Instead of sitting with the reality of death and the fundamental unpredictability of the universe, individuals pushed to avoid “pandemic weight gain” at the expense of public health procedures because they believe that their own adherence to the performance of “health” will save their lives. Sports leagues pushed the idea that “very healthy” athletes would be just fine if they contracted the virus, and, predictably, policy turned toward blaming unruly bodies for negative health outcomes.
What, though, if we did something different? How might we construct a world in which we don’t understand fat and disabled bodies as evidence of flawed moral character? What would public health look like if we thought pleasure was good and everyone deserved it? We might leave behind our restriction-oriented approach to bodies and embrace the possibilities of pleasure. Maybe discussions with individual doctors and public health professionals at large would be less concerned with forcing every body into the narrowly constructed confines of normalcy, accept that there is in fact a wide range of normality, and focus on helping people have the tools they need to live the lives they want to live. Instead of punishing people for a lack of “health,” we might instead work to remove the structural barriers to full participation in society faced by people whose bodies are currently considered too “unruly” to be deserving of care. If we hope to have a society that is truly supportive of its population, which does not create an abundance of unnecessary harm, we need to take these questions and imaginings seriously. In doing so, we must also make more peace with uncertainty – more peace with death – than popular and public secular Christian theology allow. We must think and feel and dream beyond what we have been told is possible, break the borders of socially constructed normalcy, and learn to live and love in awe and respect for the true multitudes contained within and among us.