If you’re not familiar with the idea of diet culture, here’s a little introduction.
Dietitian Christy Harrison describes the concept perfectly on her website here – she calls it ‘The Life Thief’, and says diet culture is a system of beliefs that:
…Worships thinness and equates it to health and moral virtue, which means you can spend your whole life thinking you’re irreparably broken just because you don’t look like the impossibly thin “ideal.”
…Promotes weight loss as a means of attaining higher status, which means you feel compelled to spend a massive amount of time, energy, and money trying to shrink your body, even though the research is very clear that intentional weight loss fails more than 95% of the time.
…Demonizes certain ways of eating while elevating others, which means you’re forced to be hyper-vigilant about your eating, ashamed of making certain food choices, and distracted from your pleasure, your purpose, and your power.”
It’s the implication that we should all be striving towards the thin ideal to be valuable, and that those who fall outside of that are less so – and it’s the reinforcement of all these things through the media, advertising, prejudice, and all kinds of other things.
This is a term I had never even heard of until maybe 6 months ago. It was only when I discovered things online like Megan Crabbe’s @bodyposipanda Instagram account and podcasts like Christy Harrison’s Food Psych and Laura Thomas’s Don’t Salt My Game that I realised society has been fucking us over in a major way, and that stepping outside of that to reach recovery from my disordered eating was a bigger mountain to climb than I’d ever previously thought.
So, now you’re aware of what diet culture is, here’s 9 key things I’ve learned about it:
1. It’s pervasive
The top layer of diet culture is so blatantly obvious, it’s easy to spot. It’s the understood notion across our society that losing weight is good, being fat is bad, and that we should all (but mostly women) be spending our time doing what it takes to be thin.
But diet culture has so many layers, and is so deeply ingrained in our society, that the way it seeps into our everyday lives can also be extremely subtle and pervasive.
This includes stuff like:
Fat jokes in films or TV shows
Negative bias towards people in bigger bodies in healthcare, at job interviews, etc.
Lack of representation of various body types
The size of seats on a plane, or in a cinema
The lack of options in plus size clothing
The idea that only thin people are ‘healthy’
Describing your eating habits as ‘off the wagon’ or ‘being good’ or ‘clean eating’
Transformation pictures after weight loss, which imply the before (aka. bigger) body is bad, and the after (aka. smaller) body is good
Diet culture is frigging everywhere. It’s in restaurants, it’s in your office, it’s in your supermarket. It’s in the clothes you wear, the books you read, the things you say. It’s pretty much everywhere you look.
2. It’s a constant battle to reject it
Because diet culture creeps into our lives in so many ways, it makes it extremely hard to live your life without being affected by it – even when you’re aware of it, and can call it out.
It’s so pervasive and so present in the majority of the stuff we see, that even if you’re fully informed about diet culture and are choosing to live free of the diet mentality, there are occasions where something will fool you.
And for people trying to recover from disordered eating, body image issues or yo-yo dieting, this can be an absolute nightmare – because you might be ready to make peace with food and your body, but you have to do so living in a world that will do everything in its power to prevent that from happening.
3. It can’t be unseen
This may seem contradictory to the previous point, and in a way it is, but when you realise the diet culture we’ve been submerged in all our lives, it becomes impossible to go about your day without somehow seeing it in action.
You start to notice the sheer volume of shit around us telling us to lose weight, to eat clean, that it’s a ‘lifestyle change’, that big is bad. And you think – how did I fall for this before?
4. You fall for it, because it’s gets even the best of us
You don’t have to be a bad person to perpetuate diet culture. This thing is so ingrained in most of us from birth, through childhood and adolescence, and into our adult lives, that it’s hardly surprising we fall for it. We take it in. We agree with it. We judge others for their size or their eating habits, even though we consider ourselves good people – because being fat is the only thing that it’s still okay to make fun of.
Your mum, your boyfriend, your best friends, your teachers – chances are, they’re in the majority of people who’ve been sucked into diet culture their whole lives and haven’t been exposed to the possibility of rejecting it. And so, they pass it on. To you, to other people – and so it goes until the whole world is infected.
Just remember, even if you see diet culture for what it is, the people around you might not. And that doesn’t make them bad people, it makes them part of the majority. The only thing we can do is hold our space in our rejection of diet culture, spread the word, and hope to open their eyes to it one day too.
5. It affects every other part of your life
One of the many problems with diet culture is that it doesn’t just affect what we eat. It affects our confidence, our self-esteem and sense of self-worth, our mental and physical health, and our overall happiness. And when those things are damaged, that can lead to things like our sex life, relationships, career, home life, and just about everything else being affected too.
If you’re stuck in a cycle of disordered eating, feeling shite about your body and absorbing this message that you’re worthless unless you’re thin, it’s going to affect your decision making.
Just a few examples:
You might not apply for your dream job because you don’t think you’re worthy of it – or apply but not get it because of our bias against fat people.
You might not pursue the creative endeavours you’ve dreamed of for so long because you don’t want to be seen in the world.
You might find yourself in abusive or damaging romantic relationships because you don’t believe you deserve anything better.
You might repress your sexuality or desire because you can’t bear for someone else to see your body without clothes on.
All of this stems, in part, from diet culture.
6. It keeps women distracted
Diet culture is primarily targeted at women and femmes; yes, men feel some of the effects too, but it’s undeniable that women-identifying humans are traditionally valued for their appearance over everything else, and the majority of the stuff we see around losing weight and going on diets has women in it’s crosshairs.
Megan Crabbe writes about this in her incredible book, Body Positive Power (go buy it!). Talking about Naomi Wolf’s book ‘The Beauty Myth’, she says:
“Wolf charts the rise in women’s social, economic and political power with the increasing pressure of the rules of beauty, showing how connected the two are. In other words, the extreme thinness that became the ideal body type at that time isn’t accidental, it’s an effective method of keeping women hungry, preoccupied, and without enough energy to fight for real equality.
On the surface it’s about looks, but underneath it’s about controlling what a woman can be. As Wolf famously writes, ‘a cultural fixation on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty but an obsession about female obedience.”
In other words, the whole fucking notion of diet culture was created and perpetuated to keep women (aka. the most glorious beings on the planet) down.
Imagine the time you’ve spent worrying about your body, your looks, what you’re eating – imagine what you could have done with all that time.
If women are busy with getting thin (or dying trying), then they’re not doing stuff like challenging the patriarchy, fighting for equality, and bringing more representation into this world.
I, for one, am not going to let diet culture keep me quiet, keep me occupied, or keep me distracted from stepping into my power any longer. Hopefully, you aren’t either.
7. It feeds into other prejudices
Because diet culture is so heavily targeted at women, it’s easy to see how it feeds into sexist thoughts and attitudes, but the insidious nature of diet culture means that it can also perpetuate other kinds of stigma too.
Every time thinness is associated with health, it ignores the experiences of the disabled, or those suffering with chronic or invisible illnesses – and to make people feel bad for not pursuing ‘health’ through restrictive eating or other diets is to essentially promote ableism, because there are some people who cannot attain complete ‘health’ through no fault of their own.
And those who fall at the intersections of the prejudice that diet culture enforces feel the biggest impact, particularly women of colour.
Racism, homophobia, misogyny – diet culture serves them all, and it’s important to remember our intersections and privilege when fighting against it.
8. It’s setting us up to fail
You might be thinking – what’s the harm? If people want to try and lose weight then why stop them?
Well, they can try; but for most people, losing weight intentionally and keeping it off is impossible.
Diet culture likes to tell us that losing weight is just a matter of ‘calories in, calories out’ (god I hate that phrase), but in reality it’s just not that simple. Whilst that will no doubt see the pounds fall off, the chances of you sustaining that weight loss in the long term is actually incredibly slim (pun fully intended).
Studies that actually bother to follow participants for more than 5 years tend to find that 95% – yes, 95 fucking percent – of people who diet will eventually regain the weight they’ve lost, if not more. In some cases, that number rises to 98%. Would doctors be prescribing a drug if it had a 98% failure rate? I don’t think so. But yet diet culture and fatphobia allows us to keep on forcing weight loss down people’s throats as a viable option when it’s simply not true.
And if your first thought is – well, I’m in the 5%! I’m one of those lucky few who can keep the weight off! Yes, this does happen in some cases, but it’s thought a lot of are those people have developed some kind of disordered eating to maintain that weight loss, whether it’s obsessively counting calories, tracking macros or excessively exercising.
When you see those figures, it’s easy to realise how if you’ve dieted in the past, you were being set up to fail, aiming for something that was just not achievable. The problem is that diet culture feeds us this thin ideal, and when we can’t achieve it, it makes us think that it’s OUR fault. So we punish and berate ourselves, and then try again. And so the cycle continues.
If you want to find out more about the studies I’m talking about from someone more qualified, check out this FAQ episode of the Food Psych podcast from Christy Harrison, a registered dietitian and expert in this area.
9. The worst thing of all? People are profiting from it.
And here it is. The cherry on the fucking low-carb-low-calorie-no-syn cake.
All that pain we go through – all that self-loathing and weight stigma and disordered eating and mental health issues and loneliness and calorie counting – all that pain is putting money in other people’s pockets.
Diet pills, beauty products, 30 day challenges, clean eating cookbooks – diet culture presents us with a problem and then handily provides what we believe to be the magic solution, as long as we cough up.
Take Slimming World, something I previously worshipped as my saviour but now recognise to be the fucking devil. The whole concept of Slimming World, and I mean their entire business plan, is to keep you coming back and paying your £5 per week, buying your shitty hi-fi snack bars, stocking up on their ready meals.
If weight loss was really possible and their method for it really worked – then why would you need to come back? If they really had your best interests at heart, why would they keep taking your money from you for something that’s been proven to be almost impossible?
Businesses like Slimming World, Jenny Craig, Weight Watchers – they make money from you feeling terrible about yourself. They profit from you hating your body. They get bonuses and go on holidays on the back of you calorie counting your way to an eating disorder.
We think that this stuff – diet pills, milkshake meal replacements, weight loss group memberships – is there to help us, but it couldn’t be further from the truth.
After all, it’s far harder to squeeze money out of someone at peace with food, their body and their lives, isn’t it?
Once I realised my trauma and pain was literally putting money into other people’s bank accounts – that’s when I got really fucking angry. That’s when I refused to let companies, the media or anyone else profit from my insecurities.
So what can we do?
There’s no one answer or easy method to let go of diet culture – it takes a lot of work to undo the havoc it’s already wreaked on your body and mind.
But here’s a good first step – to take a deeper dive into learning about diet culture and how to start rejecting it, have a listen/read to the things previously mentioned in this post:
‘Body Positive Power’ by Megan Crabbe
‘Food Psych’ podcast with Christy Harrison
‘Don’t Salt My Game’ podcast with Laura Thomas
I hope you’ve found this post helpful. If there’s one thing I want you to take from it, it’s that you are enough. Just as you are, you’re enough. And you are free to be you without having to conform to what diet culture tells you to be.
If you want to carry on the conversation, you can find me on Twitter and Instagram @sophiefbutcher – I’d love to talk to you!