The coronavirus, our bodies and ourselves

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While mindlessly scrolling through Twitter a few days ago, I stumbled upon a tweet so ludicrous that I had to read it again to confirm it was actually real. 

“Tested positive for having a fat ass.”

While laughably problematic and cringe-inducing, this seemingly trivial joke speaks to the growing trend of women seeking to fixate on their weights amid the coronavirus pandemic. While anyone is susceptible to suffering from body image issues, this article seeks to explore the unique pressures women are currently facing.  

The popular hashtag #COVID15, a play on the freshman 15, can be found in thousands of tweets, primarily from women, making self-deprecating jokes at the expense of their bodies. Even major news outlets have picked up the phrase, from Fox to Today, to Cosmopolitan, to The New York Times. Right alongside stories about government stimuli and updates on the disease, there are headlines urging us not to “Catch the ‘Corona-15.’ ” 

While this type of body-shaming rhetoric will inevitably always exist, a global health crisis has somehow given rise to it and allowed it to flourish, even in some of the most progressive and feminist circles. Yes, being stuck at home all day surrounded by snacks isn’t exactly a recipe for a healthy and active lifestyle, yet fretting about this during a global disaster seems almost laughable. 

What we spend the most time worrying and obsessing about are usually good indicators of what we value most, and sadly, this disease has illuminated how for many women, our appearances still trump all. 

Friends from home — cool, smart, funny, empowered women — have messaged me about how they are reverting back to old middle school behaviors of counting calories and unnecessarily weighing themselves every night. Referencing how Shakespeare wrote King Lear during an outbreak of the bubonic plague, one friend told me a new six-pack would be her Lear masterpiece. 

What we spend the most time worrying and obsessing about are usually good indicators of what we value most, and sadly, this disease has illuminated how for many women, our appearances still trump all. 

The concept of utilizing every free minute to be productive and achieve something is as American as smiling at strangers, prescription drug commercials, billboards for personal lawyers and a good drive-thru are. New Republic reporter Nick Martin, in an article titled “Against Productivity in a Pandemic,” describes the United States’ hustle culture, in which “every nanosecond of our lives must be commodified and pointed toward profit and self-improvement.” 

Gwyneth Paltrow wants us to learn a new language! Isaac Newton developed optic theory while in quarantine, so surely I can finish the short story I’ve had on the back burner for months! 

Yet, somehow, so much of what I’ve been seeing on the internet are at-home workout videos, keto baking recipes and tips on how to successfully intermittently fast. 

Some experts say the desire to internally obsess makes sense when the world feels unbearably chaotic. Melainie Rogers, executive director of Balance Eating Disorder Treatment Center, said in an interview with Insider that “when we feel external factors are out of control, we focus on things we think we can control such as exercise, weight and food.”  

While writing this article, I found myself guiltily looking at my own actions, wondering if I’ve fallen victim to the same behaviors I’ve devoted an entire article to critiquing.

Did I go on that 9-mile run because of my isolation-induced restlessness, or am I actually trying to counter the effects of all the baked goods I’ve been indulging in? Is baking vegan banana bread a fun challenge I’m partaking in, or am I subconsciously trying to avoid the “COVID-15” that some women’s magazines imply is as dangerous as COVID-19? 

No amount of dieting or exercise is going to make the pandemic feel less threatening. While we find ourselves with an obscenely abundant amount of time to self-reflect, it is worth observing how so many of our self-care coping mechanisms seem to revolve around physical beauty. Avocado hair treatments, Korean sheet masks and at-home manicures aren’t going to make the coronavirus go away either, even if they make you feel better.

For many women across the country, this is one of the only times in our lives, since childhood, when we find ourselves free from the constant gaze of men. Well, almost free — during my daily allotted exercise, I found myself honked at by a man driving by in his truck. I find it comforting to know that even amid a pandemic, some things truly never change. 

During my freshman year, one of my professors, when lecturing on art and aesthetics, said something that I’ve found myself constantly thinking about. She said she feels young women struggle to define what they find beautiful for themselves, not just internally but externally, because they are unwillingly targeted as objects of desire whether or not they consent to be.  

While our daily lives have been put on pause and the institutions upon which our country was built seem to be crumbling, we can look at all this destruction as a new opportunity. 

Currently, women dominate the workforce still standing. According to The New York Times, a third of jobs held by women have been deemed essential, changing our preconceptions about what the labor market looks like and where a woman’s place actually lies. Countries with female leaders empirically have fared far better than those without, illustrating women succeeding in positions of power. The commodification of the female body to sell products has been replaced by advertisements advocating national strength and unity in these trying times.  

In the coming months, as we begin to return to a semblance of our normal lives, let us look within ourselves to discover the things worth coming back to and to let go of the things that are not. We can use this time to cultivate one of the most important relationships we will have for the rest of our lives: the relationship between our bodies and ourselves.

Contact Zara Khan at [email protected].