I shudder when I think about the Fuscos. Last year in March, seven members of the overweight New Jersey family contracted the coronavirus, and four of them died. Facebook commenters zeroed in on the photograph, cruelly pointing out their heft and blaming it for their demise. It made me wonder: Would people dismiss my death this way?
In January 2020, two months before we all entered lockdown, I decided to lose weight. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t think I was fat — or at least was aware of how some bodies were bigger and rounder than others. After spending most of my life feeling bad about my weight, I wanted to lose it, especially because I was about to graduate with my bachelor’s degree. I would start job interviews soon, and I feared hiring managers would think I was lazy, gross, undisciplined. Every fat stereotype was the stuff of my nightmares.
These appearance-based fears are a major part of my fatphobia. I never really considered it in terms of my health. My doctor visits usually ended in lectures about losing weight, but they couldn’t tell me that it was making me sick. However, they made sure to point out that I may be okay now, but eventually, I wouldn’t be. It made me feel like a ticking time bomb.
Then the pandemic hit, and it ushered in a new type of anxiety. That ticking bomb got louder, and my sense of time felt both finite and endless. Time was running out, yet I had so many more hours to dwell on what was wrong with me. I started to see myself in a harsher light, reliving past bullying incidents and internalizing that hatred.
After a year of staying home, not losing weight and socializing mostly from the shoulders up on Zoom, the prospect of going “back to normal” is daunting. As I now finish grad school, I am again facing a more difficult job market. And I don’t feel that much better about myself, no thanks to the flagrant waves of fatphobia — both external and internal — that the pandemic perpetuated.
The story of the Fuscos was just one of the stories flooding my feed that elicited fatphobic responses this past year. Although they made me sad, I also hate to admit that I didn’t immediately disagree with the commenters. All of my life, I was convinced that being fat was a problem, something that needed to be fixed. No one had ever told me it was acceptable. Certainly not doctors; not even my family members. Growing up, my mom gifted me clothing that was two sizes too small as incentive to lose weight. Not long ago, my uncle told my dad I was wasting the prime of my life by being fat. It’s nearly impossible to not internalize fatphobia when it’s packaged in ways that tell you this is what’s best for you, that you’re missing out because of it.
These are the types of messages I remember reading, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and medical experts on news shows punctuating the covid risks obese people face, to articles suggesting ways to lose the “Quarantine 15.” Masks also presented a minor, embarrassing issue. When I ran up the stairs while wearing a mask, it took me twice as long to catch my breath. Even when I went outside on walks, my tread was slower. I trailed behind the people I was walking with because if I kept up with their pace, I would start breathing too hard. In pre-pandemic life, I was more active, but lockdown meant sitting around or lying down at home most days.
But it was while lying down and scrolling through social media that I found displays of fat solidarity. On TikTok, users openly discussed their weight gain or tried on year-old clothes that no longer fit. I also saw more plus-size influencers on other social media feeds — they, too, were being more vocal about weight bias in fashion and other industries. One friend tweeted about learning to love her belly fat. While these small but meaningful messages have made me feel less alone, I still found it hard to openly accept myself as fat. That is, until it came time to get the coronavirus vaccine.
As a few people on TikTok or Twitter said, it was “fat privilege” that allowed me to get the vaccine this past March. I was eligible because I said I was obese. When I made my appointment, I worried: How do I prove that I have obesity as a chronic disease? Do I just point to my body? Do I need a doctor’s note? It didn’t matter in the end. I did write on the paperwork that I was obese. My mom skipped that question. We were both vaccinated with no questions asked. I felt surprisingly liberated by this small moment of self-acceptance. But I also felt so relieved that I didn’t realize how scared I was of the virus — how it had the potential to hurt me more than others — until it became less of a threat.
Years ago, someone called me a spare tire for how I carry my weight around my middle. For a long time, I thought of my spare tire as weighing me down, anchoring me to the ground and stopping me from going anywhere. But spare tires get you out of a jam. They keep you moving when you hit a rough patch and are stuck on the side of the road. By helping me get vaccinated, this spare tire gave me a chance to move forward.
While I still have a long way to go in achieving unabashed self-acceptance, I feel more open to it than ever before.