Eating Disorders & Fatphobia During COVID-19

As part of Boris Johnson's so-called ‘Better Health Strategy’, calorie counts must be added to restaurant menus in the UK. Designed to save the NHS time and money during the pandemic, the move simultaneously ignores the concerns of disability activists whilst further demonising fat people.

WORDS Ted Lavis Coward
ILLUSTRATION Yolande Mutale

Lockdown has seen a lot of people finally having the time to achieve that perfect summer body, with crash diets and workouts over Zoom dominating quarantine. At the same time, mental health services are stretched with people with eating disorders finding the endless talk of weight loss particularly difficult.

Boris’ announcement firmly places the blame back on the individual when the pandemic has highlighted that it is structural inequality that denies people the time to focus on what they are eating or denying them time to exercise. Whilst we know that nutritious food is more expensive and takes longer to prepare, and working class people are often short of money and time, the onus is on the individual person for their choices. Whilst it is vital to acknowledge the UK’s long-standing demonisation of the working class and neoliberal individualism, discussions on social media about money, food and exercise, still, demonise fatness. If everyone had more time and more money, people would still be fat. To dismantle fatphobia, we must stop viewing fat people as lesser, or as failed thin people, or more broadly as a strain on society.

To dismantle fatphobia, we must stop viewing fat people as lesser, or as failed thin people, or more broadly as a strain on society.

We’ve seen the statistics suggesting fat people are more likely to die from COVID-19, but how much of that is down to BMI and not medical fatphobia? Last year Cancer Research UK launched its campaign stating that obesity causes more types of cancer than smoking. Although this might be true, the tagline misleads the reader into thinking that if you are obese you are more likely to develop cancer than if you are a smoker. If obesity does increase your chances of developing cancer, why does it take obese people longer to get screened for breast and cervical cancer? How much is this delayed intervention responsible for the higher mortality of obese people with cancer? How much is the stigmatisation of fatness to blame for poor access to healthcare?

We know that BMI and therefore obesity are arbitrary. Tall people are more likely to be obese based on the metric. The BMI Index, created 200 years ago by a mathematician, is racist and transphobic, having been modelled on white cis bodies. So why is the metric still used? The BMI Index gained popularity as a way to sell life insurance and now it is used by medical professionals to deny fat people healthcare. This is particularly damning when you look at fat people with eating disorders. Whilst most of the studies on obesity and eating disorders centre binge eating disorders, those whose BMI is not in the underweight bracket are less likely to receive life-saving treatment for anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa. Both anorexia and bulimia go undiagnosed in people whose body weight is deemed ‘obese’ by the Index. Both anorexia and bulimia carry huge risks regardless of BMI.

A focus on the individual has distracted from structural fatphobia that disproportionately harms working class communities and is a key factor in the rise in eating disorders.

For decades ‘obese’ and ‘anorexic’ have been posited as opposite body types in a damaging false dichotomy. Governments continue to fail to tackle the relationship between eating disorders and fatphobia. The studies of the 2018 UK Sugar Tax focus on the lower consumption of sugary drinks to offset the alleged cost of obesity. These studies fail to consider the rise in eating disorders, which is convenient, given that mental health services have been gutted by austerity. Eating disorders must be included in the economic picture every time the government rolls out a campaign to tackle obesity to save some cash. But to focus on the economic picture distracts from the moral failings of years of neoliberal government. A focus on the individual has distracted from structural fatphobia that disproportionately harms working class communities and is a key factor in the rise in eating disorders.

As someone who has struggled with anorexia for the best part of a decade, it’s clear that we don’t just need better funded mental health services and to tackle mental health stigma – we must also challenge a society that deems fat bodies less desirable, in any and every way we can.

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