That lockdown weight gain meme isn’t the hilarious joke you first thought

Since Augustine wrote on the story of the Garden of Eden in the 5th century, his views about women and food have stayed with us. The woman who eats the forbidden fruit brings down the whole of humanity. Now it’s the same if we eat too many Bounties

Katie Edwards
Monday 11 May 2020 18:40
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Lockdown is a terrifying time – and for some, the prospect of eased restrictions possibly more so – but there have been some moments of sunshine, both literal and metaphorical, during this period of self isolation. The buzz around Adele’s birthday photos was not one of them.

As the UK experiences ever-increasing levels of food poverty, the singer’s recent social media birthday snaps, sharing the results of her eight stone weight loss, went viral. There was no mention of dieting, weight or body image in her Instagram post; she thanked fans for their birthday wishes and gave a shout out to frontline and essential workers for their service during the coronavirus pandemic. It was the accompanying photo of Adele in minidress and heels that caused the commotion. Commentators hailed her slimmer figure as a “resounding success”, or castigated those complimenting the singer because “beauty comes from within”.

True beauty may reside in the soul, but you’ll be hard pushed to get over 10 million likes on Instagram for having a drop dead gorgeous spirit. Our society measures women’s value and success by their appearance – even when they’re one of the most acclaimed singers of our time.

Adele’s changed body shape may already be yesterday’s news, but the insidious notion that women’s bodies should reflect their internal emotional and spiritual fortitude has been around for centuries. It’s in our cultural DNA to glorify women who make socially acceptable choices. And the “correct” choices for women are inevitably those that publicly demonstrate self-control and a willingness to attend constantly to cosmetic improvement: core tenets of ideal femininity.

Dr Hannah Bacon, author of Feminist Theology and Contemporary Dieting Culture, argues that such noxious assumptions have a long history. You may never have read Augustine, maybe you’ve never even heard of him, but his ideas about Eve’s transgression in the Garden of Eden have set the tone for the control and regulation of women’s bodies since the fifth century, particularly around eating. The woman who chooses to eat the forbidden fruit brings down the whole of humanity – and now it’s the same if we eat too many Bounties.

Augustine’s misogynist ideas have remained astonishingly influential and we still connect women’s appetite with carnality, shame, desire, temptation and lack of self-control. Thinness, on the other hand, represents spiritual, emotional and physical strength. Abstinence and self-deprivation demonstrate discipline, moral character and propriety.

In our cultural consciousness, fatness is associated with moral weakness. Think of the seven deadly sins: how is gluttony most often characterised? As a super rich, tax-dodging billionaire? No; it’s usually a fat person eating. We blame fat people for displaying their weakness, their deficiency, on their bodies while glorifying the models and celebrities who wear their abstinence and discipline as flat stomachs, snatched waists and taut, cellulite-free thighs.

The traditional Christian narrative about gluttony – that it’s bad because a fat person takes food away from the starving – hasn’t aged well now that obesity is closely linked with poverty, and dieting with more prosperous sectors in society. But never let evidence get in the way of a good meta narrative.

Fat signifies abjection in our culture and we despise it even while levels of obesity continue to rise. We’re especially repulsed by fat, working class women who, from Waynetta Slob to Vicky Pollard, are deemed worthy of public mockery but not respect. Fatness as a signifier of moral weakness is a stubborn trope to shift.

Yet, gluttony isn’t just about eating; it’s also about over-indulgence, over-consumption of wealth and the over-valuing of status symbols. If we started to address consumerism, however, we’d have to make fundamental changes to our own lifestyles. Who can be bothered with that? It’s so much easier and more satisfying to label the perceived deficiency of others than to reflect too deeply about the problems in our own behaviour. We get to keep the pleasures of mass consumerism while focusing our judgement on a very particular scapegoat, a group that’s easily identified and has little power to retaliate: poor women.

We don’t need to worry about our own complicity in consumerism and its consequences if we transform the narrative of gluttony into one of individual will power and self-control. Our appetite for the fantasies of Instagram – where even the influencers don’t look like themselves – grows alongside the use of foodbanks as extreme poverty re-emerges in the UK.

We’re making sure that we can have our cake and eat it by deflecting our responsibility elsewhere to those already shouldering the weight of society’s disdain. Suddenly those “hilarious” lockdown weight gain memes of fat women don’t seem quite so benign.

Dr Katie Edwards is a lecturer in the Bible and contemporary culture at the University of Sheffield. She is the presenter of BBC Radio 4’s ‘Beyond Belief’

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