Flaca o gorda: My struggle with pandemic weight gain

My journey dealing with the effects of weight gain due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

An exploration of the impact a global pandemic can have on ones body and self-image. (Illustration by Natalie Olaya/natalieolaya.com)

Natalie Olaya

An exploration of the impact a global pandemic can have on one’s body and self-image. (Illustration by Natalie Olaya/natalieolaya.com)

By Lorraine Olaya, Copy Chief

Content warning: This piece discusses weight gain and body image issues.

I stand in front of the mirror, my hands on the jeans bunched up around my thighs. They refuse to be pulled up any higher. My fingers struggle, but I am determined to wear the size 00 jeans that used to fit me perfectly a year ago. Finally, after enough tugging, they work their way up. 

The pandemic forced me to stay at home, where home-cooked meals and snacks were available in steaming pots and cupboards when I was hungry. I spent my quarantine days lying or sitting down. And with the belief that I didn’t need to work out since I was still underweight, I began gaining a significant amount of weight, which had never happened to me before.

“I just have a fast metabolism,” was my answer to how I stayed thin. I was the kid who’d hear “you’re so skinny,” “you should eat more” and “are you sure you’re not anorexic?” all the time. Thumbs and middle fingers wrapped around my wrists, and pointer fingers pointed at my ribs.

I was always 80 to 90 pounds of bony elbows and knees. It bothered me when I had to spend hours looking for clothes small enough to fit and drinking nutritional shakes to put on pounds. But aside from wanting to gain weight, I never took issue with mine — and I didn’t expect that finally gaining some would change my self-image. After a year of the pandemic, and still lacking the motivation to start working out, I’m unsure and insecure about my weight, even though I shouldn’t be.

Staring down at the numbers on the scale in June 2020 was the first time I saw how much weight I gained since the start of the pandemic — 104 pounds. I’d surpassed the 100-pound mark, which I’d never accomplished before. “I’m finally a normal weight,” I beamed. 

My curves grew in, stretch marks sprouted, stomach rolls packed on like stacked hot dog buns.

But then I barely fit into my shorts. The grey ones that used to be so big on me that I needed a belt were now tight around my waist. Sitting down was a new nightmare, with the hems digging into my thighs.

In June 2021, the numbers on the scale said 114 pounds. 

Some days I long for the flat stomach I used to have, others I feel happy in my skin. My weight gain has invaded my thoughts, haunting me now and then. The clothes and bathing suits that don’t fit me anymore are stuffed in a box under my bed along with the hope that I’ll be able to fit into them again one day. When I’m hungry and haven’t eaten in a while, I sometimes let myself wallow in hunger pangs for a couple more hours. I don’t prevent myself from eating, but rather just put it off, in the hope of eating less. And since I never felt like I had to work out before, I struggle to make exercise a habit. I know this isn’t healthy. It’s dangerous. I’ve never worried about my weight this much.

Gaining weight in a way that I had never experienced before impacted my mental health. In the Latine community, weight is a frequent topic of conversation, and the bodies of Latin American women are commented on by everyone. Families, friends, even strangers make remarks like “estás muy flaca, porque no comes mas,” or “estás gordita, deja de comer.” We are constantly sexualized and objectified because of our curves and how we look. I know I’m not the only Latinx woman who has been told not to walk around older men in revealing clothing. It’s clear that being too skinny or being too fat is deemed undesirable by society. But in reality, weight fluctuation is human. 

Commuting on foot was something that I lost while in quarantine; as a New Yorker, it had been my sole form of daily exercise. Now, I’m making small changes to my diet and doing light physical activity. It’s minimal progress, even when combined with learning to love my body and change my self-perception — but it’s helping me feel more comfortable and beautiful in my skin.

I should love my body; I’m at a healthy weight, but sometimes I feel much chubbier than I look. I’m not alone. According to the American Psychological Association report “Stress in America,” 42% of U.S. adults have reported unintentional weight gain. Among these adults, women, Gen Z and Hispanics have reported more undesired weight gain than their counterparts. The report found that 52% of Gen Z adults (ages 18-24), 46% of Hispanic adults and 45% of women reported inadvertent weight gain — each a category I find myself in, as a 19-year-old Latine woman. 

While it’s a constant struggle coming to terms with my rapid and unfamiliar weight gain, knowing that others are also dealing with similar repercussions in a post-pandemic world gives me some comfort. Hopefully, returning to campus and pre-pandemic routines will help us feel a bit more comfortable in our skin.

A version of this article appears in the Monday, August 30, 2021, e-print edition.

Contact Lorraine Olaya at [email protected]