As a 17-year-old preparing to leave for college, I should’ve been worrying about which set of twin XL sheets would best match my dorm’s cinder block walls or what class would fulfill my math requirement with the fewest number of tears. Instead, I was most concerned with avoiding the ‘Freshman 15.’ If you’re lucky enough to be hearing this term for the first time, it describes the weight many people gain during their first year of college, when a new routine, an eat-whatever-you-want meal plan and the occasional game (or games) of beer pong lead to the number on the scale creeping upward.
Eleven years and five therapists later, I thought I had finally gotten my weight-gain anxiety under control until last spring, when the emails started popping up in my inbox: “Beat the Quarantine 15!” “Say No to the Quarantine 15 with These Easy At-Home Workouts!” “The Quarantine 15 Is No Match for This Clean-Eating Meal Plan!” In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, I and many people like me had a new buzzword to worry about.
At first, I was anxious: I was eating less mindfully and drinking more than I had before the pandemic, and I certainly wasn’t working out as much (or at all, for that matter). But then I realized: As long as I’m healthy, safe and as happy as I can be in a not-great situation, the number on the scale is just that: a number. Do I weigh more now than I did at the start of the pandemic? I sure do, though I have no idea by how much—I haven’t known my weight since freshman year of college. (I’m the girl who kindly asks her doctors not to say her weight out loud—it’s a mental health-preservation thing, and if you, too, have a tendency to get in your head about numbers, I've found that doctors are more than happy to keep that information to themselves if you ask.)
Now, I’m not suggesting abandoning your health-living practices altogether; I’m suggesting cutting yourself some slack. Holding yourself and your body to your pre-pandemic standards is not only unreasonable but it’s also incredibly harmful (especially if you, like me, have struggled with disordered eating in the past). COVID has upended our lives and routines and reacting to the trauma of the past 11 months by indulging a little more than usual is both normal and acceptable.
Despite what we’ve been conditioned to believe, gaining weight is neither a moral failing nor something to be ashamed of. Unlearning our society’s ingrained disdain for fatness is hard work (I highly recommended Marisa Meltzer’s This Is Big: How the Founders of Weight Watchers Changed the World—and Me and Roxane Gay’s Hunger). But being free—or at least freer—of this insatiable (pun intended) desire for thinness is liberating as hell. As writer Courtney Rubin put it in The New York Times in August, “Channel your energy into something more productive than obsessing about weight and exercise — like working to change diet culture, such as calling out thin-promoting or fat-shaming comments on your social networks.”
Back in July I spoke to Jason Woodrum, ACSW, a therapist at New Method Wellness, for his tips on dealing with re-entry anxiety. One thing he said stuck out to me, not just in terms of re-entry anxiety, but in terms of my feelings on the pandemic in general. “What a year for resilience,” Woodrum told me. “As a group and individually, we have shown ourselves to be adaptive in ways we never thought we would have to be over the course of 2020.” He recommended taking the time to look back on how far we’ve come, and the way we’ve made it through it during this challenging time, noting that we’ve shown a tremendous ability to roll with the punches and get through some really challenging times. Reminding ourselves of this, he told me, “creates a foundation of assurance that no matter what comes next, we’ll succeed and achieve throughout that as well.”
So if you’re feeling stressed about the chaos surrounding us at what seems like all times and you want to skip a workout or take comfort in half a box of full-fat Cheez-Its, do it. And please, for the love of god, let’s not continue to allow the Quarantine 15 to be a thing.