We Are All Fragile Creatures

The Manufactured Moral Panic of a Free Krispy Kreme Doughnut

In an effort to encourage people to get vaccinated, Krispy Kreme, whose doughnuts are delicious, made a tantalizing offer. Starting on March 22nd, they would give a free glazed doughnut to anyone with a COVID-19 vaccination card. “Be sweet to your community,” was the tagline. The offer is good for the rest of 2021; an ambitious doughnut lover can have a free doughnut every single day for the rest of the year. It’s a relatively harmless bit of promotion that amplifies the Krispy Kreme brand and encourages people to inoculate themselves against a deadly virus. It gives people a sweet treat after a terrible year where more than 550,000 people have died, and we have experienced wild political upheaval. Things are a mess. It’s understandable that some people might want to eat their feelings. It may not be the best coping mechanism, but it certainly isn’t the worst.

People place a lot of value judgments on food. There is good food and bad food. There is “clean” food and, I suppose, dirty food. There are countless “jokes” about certain extravagant foods as a heart attacks in waiting. People have all kinds of opinions of the kinds of foods people eat, what they drink, and it’s all so hypocritical. For example, soda is evil, but happy hour is holy. The logic surrounding food as a moral issue seems to be that if you lead with judgment, you get it out of the way; you clear a path for indulgence or moral superiority or who the hell knows.

Disordered eating is shrouded in tightly controlled, restrictive eating regiments and we call it living a healthy lifestyle. Every year there is some new diet craze adherents swear is the one and true way of eating—keto, intermittent fasting, paleo, low carb, low fat, high fat, the Mediterranean diet, Whole 30, juice fasts, the Nordic diet. One can hardly keep up. It was, probably, inevitable, that a lot of people would lose their collective shit about the idea of free doughnuts. The moment the incentive was announced, the fatphobic corners of the internet, which is to say, most of the internet, clutched their dietary pearls.

Dr. Leana Wen, the former head of Planned Parenthood, took it upon herself to publicly chastise Krispy Kreme. “Hey, Krispy Kreme, she wrote, “I love that you want to thank people for getting the #covid19 #vaccine! Every incentive helps & free donuts may help move the needle. However, donuts are a treat that’s not good for health if eaten every day.” She went on to talk about how if the average person took Krispy Kreme up on this offer, they would gain fifteen pounds in a year which is not how weight works, at all. She then suggested giving vaccinated people a box of donuts they could donate to the organization of their choice. It was a mystifying suggestion, that reeked of classism, and suggested that there are some people who she doesn’t care about at all and who can eat the “not good for health doughnuts.” And then there are the good people who should stay as far away from doughnuts as possible. “As a public health expert, I can’t endorse a diet of daily donuts,” Wen said in closing, as if there were people waiting around for her endorsement, as if this incentive required anyone’s endorsement.

Wen was by no means the only health professional who felt the need to comment and condemn. People beyond the medical profession also had a whole lot to say, loudly proclaiming how terrible doughnuts are, how fat Americans are, how unhealthy fat is, and on and on. It’s a familiar song. For at least two days on social media, people had a whole lot to say about the outrageousness of the Krispy Kreme campaign. It was the absolute worst thing that could happen to humanity. The anger was palpable, with people making all sorts of half-assed, escalating conjectures about how it was so very inappropriate to respond to one health crisis by creating another. It was all quite unhinged and disheartening and familiar. It was the worst kind of virtue signaling, making a clear demarcation between the good people who never eat doughnuts or anything “bad” and the bad people who do. And if many of those people were being honest with themselves, it was a safe way to be gleefully cruel without consequence. There are few things people revel in more than fat shaming.

People love to make a scripted set of rhetorical moves when it comes to discussions of bodies and food and fatness. We place a lot of value judgments on food but we also place a lot of value judgments on the bodies we live in and how we live in those bodies. Thinness and fitness are a moral good. Fatness is a moral failure. Fat activists have done a lot of work to divest bodies and eating from value judgment but fatphobia is so culturally embedded that not nearly enough people are willing or even able to change their attitudes. They have such certitude about what is right and wrong when it comes to eating, that there is no room for fallibility and there is certainly no room for just letting people live how they choose to live without labeling those choices as success or failures.

I live in a fat body and while that body may not be as fat as it once was, I am still fat. I’m on a “weight loss journey,” but I am incredibly ambivalent about it. I am doing it because I feel like I have to, that it’s what is expected of me, because I want to be left alone and yes, because I want to feel better in my body. I actually do. I cannot deny it. I am doing things I never thought I would. I get to wear nicer clothes. People are nicer to me. Living in a shrinking body is as great as it is infuriating.  

But I work, every day, to believe I have a right to take up space and hold my head high. I have to remind myself that I have a right to leave my house and hold my head high and move with confidence. I have a right to take care of myself by cooking. I have a right to hate exercise even though I grudgingly do it. I remind myself that I am strong and capable and healthy. I remind myself that I have a right to feel attractive. I have a right to be loved. And then a family member tells me, over and over, that it looks like I’ve gained weight, or a man in the airport tells me to “move, fat ass,” or I notice someone staring at me with thinly veiled contempt, or a Google alert accidentally takes me to an online forum dedicated to insulting my body and my personality and my writing but mostly my body.

I have not yet found a consistent way of resisting fatphobia. It doesn’t take much for my carefully constructed emotional scaffolding to collapse. When it all falls down, I shatter. I forget everything I am constantly telling myself to get through a day or a minute or an hour. Self-loathing consumes me and then, somehow, I have to find the strength to build myself back up. There are days when I am not sure I can. It’s a brutal cycle from which I worry there is no escape. This is not how I want to spend my time or energy. I am more than my body, but, also, I am not.

As I watched the Krispy Kreme discourse play out, I was incredulous that this is what people were spending so much furious energy on. Despite everything happening in the world, a free glazed doughnut was the villain of the week. I thought, “Who even has the time to go to Krispy Kreme every day?” I felt an unbearable urge to make clear that I haven’t even had one of their doughnuts in at least a decade so I might seem like a “good” fat person who knows better. And then I was angry at myself and ashamed for feeling like I needed to apologize for my body, for feeling like I needed to disavow doughnuts. It’s all so absurd. It does not matter if someone eats one free doughnut or a year’s worth. It just doesn’t, no matter how righteous people want to get about the evils of foods of which they disapprove.

Here we are, dealing with a doughnut discourse, which will soon be followed by an excruciating discourse about the weight people gained during the pandemic. Major hospital systems already have articles up about “pandemic weight gain.” The American Psychological Association has weighed in. (Yes. Pun intended.) The New York Times is on it. Time Magazine has it covered, as does nearly every major publication not only in the United States, but around the world. Most of this coverage makes it seem like the weight people have gained after an incredibly stressful, sedentary year indoors is worse than the global pandemic that contributed to whatever weight gain.

The public obsession with bodies is pathological. It is nearly impossible to talk about this because so many people are so deeply invested in demonizing fatness and fat people. They will trot out tired statistics and make broad assumptions and completely abandon nuance or compassion. They 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. 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.

The one thing we all have in common is that one day, our bodies will fail. We will be in a car accident or we will trip on a hiking path or we will get lung cancer after a lifetime of “clean living,” or we will get a coronavirus or a blood clot or, if we are very lucky, we will simply age. When our bodies fail, we will need help, but unfortunately not all of us can trust that the help we need will be available to us.

The real health crisis this country is facing is not fatness or free doughnuts or pandemic weight gain or any such nonsense. The real crisis is that we live in a country where tens of millions of people politicized wearing face masks, and made surviving a modern plague a matter of the survival of the fittest and sheer luck. Our elected leaders, despite a pandemic, refuse to make universal healthcare a reality. Healthcare remains a privilege for the people we decide are worthy of it. It is all so grotesque. Those of us in our all too human, unruly bodies, are abandoned, discarded, derided, while social media physicians and Instagram fitness influencers and those lucky people whose bodies have not yet failed them, preen in their cruelty, peacocking for public approval of their physiological rectitude while the rest of us are subjected to their fear and loathing. We are all fragile creatures but only some of us are able to understand our fragilities as the strengths they actually are.