If you look up the meaning of ‘diet culture’, some of the most common definitions are “a set of beliefs that values thinness and body shape over health and well-being.” Diet culture isn’t about following a particular diet but has more to do with dieting for the sole goal of weight loss. Restricting calories, negative perceptions of the body, distinguishing foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – these are all part of the diet culture. It can be disorienting recognising diet culture in a society that is drowning in it. It is so intertwined into our thoughts and talks in our lives that we do not even think for a second how unhealthy it really is. We hardly even notice it anymore because it’s ‘normal’. It takes “you are what you eat” to a completely different level – it tells you that you need to ‘earn’ eating and that you should consciously spend time and resources trying to make your body smaller or a particular shape. Diet culture tells us that this ‘correct’ body is attainable with the proper determination and willpower. But the truth is, there is no ‘right’ body shape.
There have been so many instances where I’ve heard friends or family members take up resolutions during the New Year to lose weight or become thinner. Not once have I heard them say, “I want to be healthier”. Perhaps it is because the end goal of diets is not to be healthy but rather to accommodate the expectations upheld in society.
We are conditioned to believe that being thin equates to good health; that even the pursuit of conforming to a particular body shape is ideal and morally superior. We are constantly told that skinny is better and attractive. Diet culture encourages negative self-talk and criticism of the body to the extent that eating disorders are normalised and of no major concern. Be it binge eating, or serious medical conditions like anorexia nervosa and bulimia; often these go unnoticed because they have ‘perfect’ bodies. I remember the different reactions I received when I recently put on some weight – most family members suggested I lose it by eating less and telling me that if I didn’t lose it quickly, I wouldn’t lose it at all; a few friends congratulated me and told me how cute and happy I looked. These are responses to the exact change, yet somehow one of them is highly toxic. I still have thin privilege, even though I gained a little weight. Yet, somehow even the idea of putting on a few pounds was just unacceptable, and I was ridiculed and shamed.
“You need to rid yourself of all your bad food choices.” This is a common statement. The language and tone imply that we’re killing ourselves for indulging in our favourites once in a while; that if we aren’t starting our days with smoothies and protein bars or having salads for dinner, we are ‘lazy’ and not trying hard enough. That we are responsible for eating bad foods and need to ‘fix’ our habits. We ascribe value when choosing to opt for low-carbs and low calories but punish ourselves for even thinking about indulging in our comfort food or our cravings. We even call them ‘cheat days’. True, eating junk food every day is not the way to go, but neither is constantly counting the calories of every meal or drink you have every day.
Diet culture can also be very classist – only men and women who have the luxury of going to gyms and working out, eating certain foods that are more expensive, buy the supplements and other resources to ensure that the body remains in ‘shape’ can practice diet culture; someone who cannot afford these luxuries and does not conform to the ideal size is simply shamed. This toxic culture throws out even simple movements and exercises out the window and attributes them as rigorous methods to manipulate body sizes. Fatphobia is so ingrained in our communities that even health professionals attribute our weight to many unrelated medical issues instead of an actual diagnosis. Thin people with the same problems are given evidence-based treatments without anyone ever suggesting that they drastically change their lifestyle.
Social media and other forms of media play a huge role in propagating the ideal body image. They portray unnaturally thin models – be it through forced dieting or editing out flaws. It convinces viewers to aspire to those bodies, leading to them starving themselves away to look “perfect”. It convinces both men and women that these almost physically unattainable bodies are the only attractive bodies. Media has chiefly portrayed unflattering images of larger bodies to a point where we believe we cannot be considered beautiful if we do not weigh only so little. We grow up looking at these images and constantly berate ourselves for having anything other than what we see on our screens, leading to increased dissatisfaction with our bodies and anxiety, as well as lower self-esteem.
However, let’s look at the facts. Almost 95% of diets fail. Yet, we all believe that we are that 5% who will succeed. What’s more, those who eventually lose weight gain it back – and more – in a few years. Those who diet are just doing what we’ve been told for years is the best thing for our health, and by implication, our appearance. We blame ourselves and not the diet that didn’t work out for us. This constant monitoring of what to eat and what not to has only left us unsatisfied and hungry.
The ultimate goal of the diet industry is to make money, profiting from the likes of people who will do anything to achieve the ‘ideal’ body. Companies constantly push out “clean eating” or “wellness foods”, when in fact, they are foods that orchestrate how we view our eating habits and our appearances. At the end of the day, it is this system of controlling how we see our bodies that is truly toxic, not people who want to go on diets or lose weight or want to take care of their bodies.
Questioning and rejecting diet culture are the primary purposes of the anti-diet movement, and the Health at Every Size (HAES) approaches that are gradually gaining ground. The anti-diet campaign aims to raise awareness of fatphobia and the discrimination against those with bodies that are anything but the ‘ideal’ one. The HAES approach dissolves the importance given to weight loss. It attempts to reduce the stigma towards people who are overweight or obese while also celebrating body diversity. We need to stop the constant policing of our bodies every waking hour. Instead, we can consider intuitive eating – it recognises your body’s hunger and honours how you eat according to your needs.
It’s time we stop putting others and ourselves down for not being thin. That we recognise that being thin does not equal attractiveness, but rather how we treat those around us. In a society that demonises fatness, let’s detox ourselves and learn to love ourselves and recognise that we can be healthy regardless of what the scales tell us. Let’s truly be healthier and happier.
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