A recent study about body image and eating behaviors of almost 900 young adults in the U.S. conducted by the Center for Body Image Research and Policy at the University of Missouri concluded that “40% of women and 46% of men agreed that it would be worse to gain 25 pounds during social distancing than to become infected with COVID-19.” From this follows that weight gain through less movement and more emotional eating due to stay-at-home regulations is currently seen as more life-threatening than the Coronavirus by a large portion of individuals because of the ways body size determines social survival and cultural acceptance.

Diet Culture in 2020: COVID-19 and Instagram Trends

In the early months of 2020, social media platforms have been especially invested in reminding their users of the dangers of weight gain through an abundance of free live body workouts and healthy cooking sessions. Instagram, for example, launched new guidelines to its standalone video application IGTV, in anticipation of an increase of livestreams during the current pandemic. Instructions for wellness businesses, beauty brands, and health influencers include ways to boost their pages and engage viewers in making the most of their time during quarantine in terms of “staying fit” or “getting fit,” and not putting on what has become known as the #corona15.

Tracing the arc back to the aforementioned study conducted at the University of Missouri, this idea is derived from #freshman15, a narrative that indicates that all students in the U.S. supposedly gain fifteen pounds during their first year of college. One of the most prevalent hashtags on Instagram and Twitter during the last few months, many content creators have issued warnings in their posts about “catching” the #corona15. This suggests a threatening correlation between the ways body weight fluctuates with changing circumstances and the potentially deadly consequences of a highly contagious virus. These damaging messages are also echoed in a wide range of recent online articles and videos, resulting in the fact that the meaning of “flattening the curve” has, at least in part, transformed from practices keeping the number of COVID-19 infections at bay to yet another appeal supporting the high-functioning need to avoid weight-gain, curviness, and fatness.

Additionally, Instagram is seeing an increasing number of anti-fat memes trying to sell the discriminatory practices of diet culture through thin-to-fat jokes and photoshopped images of bodies before-and-after quarantine in anxious anticipation of the #corona15. The suggested need to self-optimize by making use of quarantine circumstances, regardless of mental health, ability, or financial precarity, upholds oppressions that further support the fear and loathing of fat bodies. Internalized fatphobia promoted by the omnipresence of diet culture practices, as well as its externalized manifestations on social media thus currently expose the anticipated shame of being an undesirable body through failing to uphold the thin, fit, or toned physical ideal heralded in movies, commercials, magazines, and across social media.

These current developments testify to the toxicity of diet mentality and the overall pervasiveness of diet culture, a system of beliefs that encourages self-optimization through weight loss, as well as body training, and thus ascribes positive values of health and aesthetics to thinner body types. Studies show that diet failure rates come in at about 95%, with dieters regaining what they lost and more within one to three years, and the 5% who keep the weight off devoting the rest of their lives to staying at their goal weight.  Body manipulation through food restriction programs, exercise regimes, and weight-loss drugs allows dieters to avoid being complicit with what medical businesses with stakes in this industry are calling – in generalized and unsubstantiated terms – “the obesity epidemic.” The increasing use of this panic-inducing slogan across social media platforms during the current crisis is rooted in opportunities to profit from safety-regulated lockdowns put in place to combat the further spread of the Coronavirus, fueling many individuals’ fears of becoming fat. Current examples of diet culture behaviors thus further support systemic fatphobia that shames non-conforming bodies into states of mental and physical deprivation by suggesting radical exercise and food restriction as punishment for not being thin and, thus, unacceptable or even despicable.

#LoseHateNotWeight and #RiotsNotDiets: In Pursuit of Body Liberation

In a recent interview, author and fat activist Virgie Tovar spoke to the fact that many people are presently using their anxieties about weight gain as bonding mechanisms, “trying to relate to others through a shared experience, […] even if it’s through a lens that paints fatness as ugly or immoral.” Physical distancing is thus amplifying human needs for connection because of the lack of social interaction. This leads individuals susceptible to diet talk to engage in even more severe ways of body manipulation and discrimination—both against themselves and others. 

Tovar and other advocators of anti-diet movements such as fat acceptance, intuitive eating, and health at every size continue to be hard at work to stop body discrimination. They educate former dieters and anti-fat proponents about the harmful effects of disordered eating behaviors, weight obsession, and body favoring rooted in systemic fatphobia. More and more registered anti-diet dieticians, body acceptance coaches, and fat-positive therapists, such as Veronica GarnettRachel Millner, and Kristina Bruce are using their Instagram platforms to dismantle ideas about food restriction and exercise regimes as punishment. They point out the amounts of energy, time, and, in fact, health that go into upholding harmful body standards and make-believe ideologies about “good” and “bad” bodies.

Virgie Tovar’s podcast “Rebel Eaters Club,” Sonya Renee Taylor’s body empowerment foundation “The Body Is Not An Apology,” as well as Becky Young’s and Hari Rose’s community project “Anti Diet Riot Club” are also among the many efforts contributing to the readjustments of people’s outlooks on body respect across categories of gender, race, age, or ability. Their support of prompts to #losehatenotweight in favor of radical self-love and radical inclusivity is especially important in the digital age when platforms such as Instagram and Twitter threaten to overwhelm users with diet content and anti-fat initiatives such as #corona15.

What these movements remind us of, especially during the current circumstances, is that learning to respect and value all bodies because of their different sizes, shapes, or weight is the most powerful means to undoing beliefs and practices of fatphobia at the core of diet culture. It is also the most straightforward way to seeing that there is no need to fix our bodies because they were never broken in the first place. Riot, don’t diet.

About the Author

Alexandra Hauke


Alexandra Hauke is currently a lecturer in American Studies at the University of Passau, Germany, where she is working towards a PhD in indigenous studies. Her research and teaching focus on North American literatures, American film and TV, folk horror, ecofeminism, and digital cultures. Her critical work on disenfranchised groups, minority cultures, and colonial legacies in the U.S. has resulted in a particular interest in the connections between race/gender/disability and body politics as well as in the representation of these intersections, both on social media platforms and in American fiction.

» More articles by Alexandra Hauke

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