Free Doughnuts Were Never the Problem

The intensity of fatphobia in the late pandemic has increased, but it has so much more to do with our healthcare system than with Krispy Kreme.

a variety of doughnuts
Photo: Scott Grummett / Getty Images

Last month the internet freaked out about free doughnuts. Krispy Kreme announced that it was offering a free doughnut every day for a year with proof of COVID-19 vaccination. It also turned out you could receive a free doughnut and a coffee without a vaccine every Monday through May, but no matter—the storm had begun.

On Twitter, Dr. Leana Wen, the former head of Planned Parenthood and now a CNN medical analyst who has over 158,000 followers, warned that consuming a doughnut every day in 2021 with no changes to diet or exercise would lead to weight gain. It's not that she's wrong on the calorie math, it's just that the vast majority of humans do not significantly alter their behavior for the sake of a chain restaurant's promotional deal, and acting as if it would is needlessly alarmist.

The Krispy Kreme backlash (and backlash to the backlash) was the latest salvo in the decades-long battle about fatness, anti-fat bias, and whether fat Americans realize that doughnuts do not have the same nutritional value as raw carrot sticks. If that sounds like a familiar dance, it is. If that sounds patronizing, well, buddy, it is.

Doughnuts are a shibboleth for fatness and fat people (thank you, Homer Simpson), no matter what the actual food intake of a fat person might look like. Your actual relationship with doughnuts may vary, but one of the things that anti-fat bias does for everyone is leach the joy out of eating. If you think of doughnuts as inherently threatening, then it feeds into a larger structure of seeing a dinner plate as a battlefield to be won each day, rather than a source of community and happiness that is as much a part of food as its caloric content.

Assuming that getting a free doughnut once or twice—the most likely outcome of the Krispy Kreme situation—is a one-way ticket to weight gain isn't true or fair. It serves to stigmatize the millions of Americans who are already fat, and whose fatness is regularly weaponized against them. Over and over again, studies show that weight bias leads to fat people getting worse healthcare than people whose thinner bodies are perceived as healthier, even though that may not be the case at all.

Is there a size limit to human dignity? Apparently some people think so.

I'm not trying to pick on Dr. Wen, who often offers level-headed advice on COVID-19. It's not an easy time to be in public health, and she wasn't the only voice decrying free doughnuts. But as a fat person, I have watched in distress and anger as acquaintances posted memes about gaining weight in quarantine. I have ingested the collective absolute dread and horror of maybe looking... like me? Is there a size limit to human dignity? Apparently some people think so. My inbox was regularly deluged by experts offering fitness tips to stave off the real enemy which, apparently, is fatness, and not the rampage of a disease that has killed, to date, over 556,000 Americans. Anti-fat bias is a systemic problem, not a personal one, but it sure as hell feels personal when you run into a friend of a friend on Instagram comparing their still quite slim late-pandemic body to a hippo.

Maybe I shouldn't be surprised that in the unprecedented situation that all of us find ourselves in, the script around the size of our bodies hasn't shifted much. During the past 13 months, the pandemic altered how almost everyone on earth lives and exacted a gruesome, horrific cost on the American population. You might think that our understanding of human bodies might have also shifted. Illness or injury come for us all sooner or later. Your health is only in your control to a certain degree. Those of us who preserved ours against communicable diseases during the past year did so thanks largely to luck and the privilege of being able to stay in lockdown in our homes with very little support from the government.

And yet rather than shifting toward being more compassionate over the toll on our mental and physical health, and perhaps an understanding that all our bodies are guaranteed to fail us one day, no matter how much ashwagandha and yoga we put into them, Americans turned to a failsafe: freaking out about gaining weight. That many fat people live happily while staying fat doesn't play into the freak-out at all, nor does the fact that sustained weight loss is incredibly difficult and diets very often do not work. (Smart, dedicated researchers and fat activists have worked a long time to dislodge the perception that fatness is inherently unhealthy, or that fat bodies are less worthy of care. For more info on that, may I suggest the work of Aubrey Gordon and Sabrina Strings.) In fact, it seems that as vaccination rates increase, the number of emails in my inbox touting diet and exercise plans has gone up commensurately. How, when the most immediate threat to public health is so incredibly obvious, did we end up worrying about the "quarantine 15" and cellulite, and go back to the same place of hurtful, played out fat jokes?

You know the saying that everything looks like a nail if all you have is a hammer? In the United States, diet culture—which now often masquerades under the cover of "wellness"—is that hammer. Sarah Kelly, an integrative nutritionist based in Philadelphia, explained over the phone that the uptick in diet talk in the late pandemic isn't surprising.

"We're being cooped up in our home and stressed all the time, and there's an absolute failure of our government to take care of us in any real way," Kelly said. "A lot of people aren't feeling their best physically. The only messaging our society has for that situation is, 'Oh I need to lose weight.'"

Lots of people have found their bodies change over this year of relentless stress and enforced sedentary behavior, but the problem is not people's bodies. Staying at home while a very transmissible virus runs rampant through the population is an act of public good. Now, with vaccination numbers rising and what looks like the end of the pandemic on the horizon (fingers crossed), a lot of the weight loss talk has the same flavor as annual bikini body messaging. "I think for a lot of people it's about, 'Now I have to deal with other people seeing me,'" Kelly said. "Some of it is about clothes fitting. Replacing a wardrobe because you've gained weight is a problem if you can't afford to do that. That's a genuine thing."

But the anti-doughnut messaging is not really helping anyone trying to replace their wardrobe. "It's heartbreaking to see people who genuinely care about public health being taught this myopic view that prevents systemic change," Kelly said. "You're not just harming individual fat people, you're encouraging unhealthy ways of eating."

Repeatedly during the pandemic, individuals have been asked to shoulder the responsibility of keeping businesses open and curbing the spread of COVID-19. It's true that individual actions have an effect, but it's not true that any one of us could single-handedly rescue the restaurant industry or stop the novel coronavirus in its tracks. That's the responsibility of the people we elect in government, and asking individuals to take charge of either of those tasks is a tautological impossibility. As New Yorker writer Helen Rosner pointed out in her piece on opening indoor dining in New York City: "The more chaotic and unreliable the systemic narrative, the more vital individual vigilance starts to feel—we're left with a pervasive sense that, in the face of government mismanagement and indifference, it is up to each of us to save what those in power are allowing to die: if the businesses we love close down, it's our own fault; if the people they employ are out of work, it's our own fault."

The doughnut debate operates on similar logic. Individual choices have visible limits within a larger context. It's easy to turn criticism inwards about body size rather than keep the larger structures in perspective. A year of terror, grief, frustration, and staying indoors have, pretty understandably, had extensive public health implications, both mentally and physically. The widespread problem of a radically broken healthcare system, one that failed us repeatedly and dramatically during the past year of terror and boredom, cannot be solved by avoiding or partaking of free doughnuts. Fatness is often used as a measure of poor health outcomes, but the reality is much more nuanced and individual. Being healthy can look a lot of different ways.

That isn't to say that you shouldn't take care of yourself, or that health isn't something to keep in mind. It's that illness is not a personal failing, and neither is the size of your body. Health looks different on everyone. Sarah Kelly encourages clients to figure out what makes sense in terms of their own wellbeing. "Perfectionism is part of the problem. No one does body positivity or healthfulness perfectly," Kelly said. Nor is it helpful to think that all of your efforts are useless if they're not part of systemic change. "You want to keep in mind sometimes meditation helps, or maybe eating fiber will help your digestive system so you can keep on fighting the good fight comfortably,"

Anti-fat bias, which is often veiled in concern for fat people's wellbeing and health, effectively does nothing to advance the health of fat people, and indeed actively harms them. In fact, researchers found that the stress of fat-shaming contributes to weight gain and makes fat people more susceptible to depression and anxiety. It's easier to concentrate on individual actions and shame people for them because larger structures feel impossible to dismantle. But just as sniping at runners on Twitter about their mask-wearing isn't going to have the same effect as a state mandate to require masks indoors, focusing on a free doughnut takes the focus off the real problem, which is the scarcity and expense of decent healthcare, the difficulty of accessing affordable foods, and the ongoing, crushing stress of working under capitalism.

Clutching pearls over the nation going up a couple pants sizes because they were reacting reasonably to a catastrophic situation is a great way to make people feel bad about their bodies, but a terrible way to promote public health. What we actually need is accessible healthcare for everyone.

"[People] will suggest that fat people are a drain on the healthcare system when the reality is that we are all a drain on the healthcare system," Roxane Gay wrote in her newsletter about the Krispy Kreme kerfuffle. "That is how it works. The healthcare system is not a precious resource we should never use. It is not something we should keep in glass we only break in case of emergency. Healthcare should not be a privilege reserved for certain kinds of people in certain bodies."

It was never about the doughnuts. As Kelly pointed out, "It's great that Krispy Kreme wanted to promote vaccination, but if they really cared about public health outcomes, they could, for example, add an extra week of parental leave for all employees or add paid sick days." It's easier to focus on a fast food chain's marketing campaign than figuring out our broken foodways, or working towards more comprehensive, inclusive medical care. It's crucial to keep the larger societal architecture in mind so that we can change it.

In the meantime, eat a doughnut if you want to. They're delicious.

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