In Defense Of The Quarantine 15

Close up of feet in slippers on bathroom scale. (Getty Images)
Close up of feet in slippers on bathroom scale. (Getty Images)

According to a Twitter ad, if I enter my weight into a calculator, it’ll tell me how long I need to fast in order to lose my COVID pounds. The Internet abounds with “quarantine-15” weight-loss strategies.

According to a news report, over 40% of Americans gained weight during the pandemic. I’m one of them, and here’s a dirty little secret — I’m okay with it.

For most of my life, I’ve waged a battle with the scale. I was a chubby kid who was allergic to exercise — the technical term for this is asthma — and chocolate and cake were and still are my best friends. Unfortunately, society has a way of letting you know really early on what it thinks of your body. Well-meaning family and not-so-well-meaning classmates drummed it into my head that I was chubby. Think light thoughts, my classmates, told me when they had to lift me in gym class.

The author in June. (Courtesy Usheer Kanjee)
The author in June. (Courtesy Usheer Kanjee)

At heart, I’m a people pleaser, and I cave easily to peer pressure. My solution had been to weigh myself each morning, panic about my weight and wail, and then — because people pleasing also means pleasing yourself — have some chocolate to soothe the panic. Unsurprisingly, my body stayed roughly the same: pear-shaped, some belly, some chicken-wing style underarm fat. (Who doesn’t love chicken wings?)

Losing weight seemed impossible. Then, when I was 24, I moved to Malaysia on a Fulbright grant and discovered a secret: I can lose weight. I just have to be an emotional wreck.

In Malaysia, I fell in love with one of my fellow grantees with a crash and a bang. At the end of the year, we decided to continue dating, but my boyfriend went back to Boston to continue his Ph.D. and I stayed in Southeast Asia.

We did not do long distance well. My boyfriend was having family issues, I was abroad without a support system, and we fought constantly. My solution was to pine. Food lost its flavor. Everything lost is flavor.

Every day when I got to work, I’d lock myself in the janitor’s closet and cry for half an hour. On the weekends when I was running errands, I’d start sobbing in public for seemingly no reason whatsoever. At one point, I cried so hard I ended up with a nose bleed. On the weekends, when all of my parents and friends were asleep in the U.S., I’d sit and stare at the clock, lost in a whirlwind of panic, waiting until I could finally call someone.

My new favorite activity was visiting the Chinese temple next to my apartment and praying for peace of mind, which mostly worked — until I left the temple. Then I’d burst into tears.

The pining whittled me down until my weight hovered close to double digits. I was abjectly miserable. However, in the eyes of the world, I’d achieved something everyone else wanted: I’d become slender. Clothes looked great; I no longer had to strategically shop for flared skirts and A-line dresses with sleeves to balance out my hips and hide the chicken wings. Strangers stopped me on the street to compliment my body. Coworkers wanted to know what I ate for dinner.

The honest answer would have been a boiled egg and a carrot salted with my tears, but I didn’t have the chutzpah to say that. Instead, I mumbled something about vegetables.

Before I’d left for Malaysia, I was in the best shape of my life. I ran and did yoga three or four times a week. I ate well and tried to avoid sugar. Yet, I was very far off from what society would have considered an ideal body. I’d never gotten the kind of attention I was getting in Malaysia.


And yet, the irony was I was in the worst shape of my life. I didn’t have the energy to work out. Before, I had been able to run for an hour, and now ten minutes left me sick and dry heaving. Sweeping my room made me dizzy. When I returned home, my parents took me to the doctor. As the nurse put me through a check-up, she patted me on the back.

“Most asthmatics can’t breathe because they are so fat their lungs don’t move,” she said. “But I can tell that’s not your problem. You’re very physically fit.”

“Oh, I got problems,” I reassured her, but I could tell she didn’t believe me. A few years ago, I would have been like her too. How could I have problems? I’d discovered the Holy Grail: I was skinny.

I’m the heaviest I’ve been in my entire life. I’m also — surprise! — the happiest I’ve ever been.

It’s been nearly a decade since I returned from Malaysia. In the interim, I’ve gone to grad school, changed jobs, started dating someone new and gained all of the weight back.

When the pandemic hit, I got absurdly lucky. My loved ones were able to work from home. I had job security. Pre-Covid, my partner had a job with long hours that often took him around the world, so I didn’t get to spend much time with him. During the pandemic, that changed. We came up with an exercise routine, explored the neighborhood and baked: a huge upgrade from sitting alone in a janitor’s closet in Malaysia bawling.

I also got a mental health diagnosis. The isolation of the pandemic made it very clear that the anxiety attacks and spiraling depression that I’d long blamed on external sources — a bad relationship, being far from family and friends — weren’t just external. It turns out it wasn’t “normal” to pine that much when I was in Malaysia.

A doctor put me on meds that made me gain more weight (and to be honest I did my share of COVID snacking and baking). But the meds made the panic and anxiety and despair I took for granted most of my life, go away. They gave me a new normal, one where I’m in control of my mood instead of vice versa.

The result is I’m the heaviest I’ve been in my entire life. I’m also — surprise! — the happiest I’ve ever been. I know that, because food tastes wonderful and I wake up every morning with an appetite for life.

In this new normal, I’m taking up more space and I’m doing just fine.

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Headshot of Shalene Gupta

Shalene Gupta Cognoscenti contributor
Shalene Gupta is the author of The Cycle: Confronting the Pain of Periods and PMDD and is the co-author of The Power of Trust.



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