What is Diet Culture?

Raise your hand if you’ve ever been personally victimized by diet culture.

Are all of our hands up yet? Yes, even you in the back? Good! Because if you’re an American, then you’re a victim of diet culture every day.

‘Diet culture’ has become a buzzword in today’s media-driven society. Lots of magazines use the phrase to preach about body positivity – meanwhile, they place starving models on their covers and edit the heck out of celebrities’ size two bodies.

Before I continue, I have to acknowledge my position of privilege. I’m writing this post as a size two, cis-gender female with an hourglass figure. I can walk into any store and find clothes that fit me. I’d probably even fit into most of those tiny sample sizes produced by designers these days.

I’m not fat by any means. But I have struggled with my weight and my relationship with my body. Like all of us, I’m sometimes uncomfortable in my own skin – and like many of us, I’ve frequently turned to diet culture, hoping it would bring me the skeletal body I felt so entitled to.

So, what is diet culture?

So glad you asked! Diet culture refers to a society where thinness is represented as mainstream, where our standards of beauty hinge on seeing the smallest possible number on a scale.

Thanks to diet culture, we perceive ‘fatness’ as an insult, as if being fat implies we lack self-discipline and morality. We group people into categories based on their BMIs (an arbitrary number anyways) and use terms like ‘overweight’ to marginalize those whose bodies depart from the so-called norm.

As a society, we’re also willing to spend exorbitant amounts of money on products to make us taller, thinner, prettier and leaner. In February 2019, Business Wire estimated the diet industry was worth over $72 billion. Do you know how many Paleo cookbooks and Jennie Craig shakes you’d have to buy to equal $72 billion?!

Diet culture in action….

We absorb diet culture’s insidious messaging every day of our lives – typically without even realizing it. Every anti-obesity program in our elementary schools, every time we pinch our tummies and call ourselves ‘fat’ when we’re feeling low, every fat character who happens to be the butt of a recurring joke on your favorite TV show….they all plant sneaky seeds in our brain, quietly teaching us that thin = good and fat = bad.

As humans, we love categories and labels. It’s why we’re so obsessed with ‘coming out’ as heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual or any of the trillions of shades of gray in-between. And it’s why we love to throw around the word ‘fat’ like it says something about our character.

It’s simply easier to group people into ‘fat’ and ‘not fat’ than it is to weigh all the pros and cons of a person’s personality. Only, the problem is that how much you weigh never has anything to do with how good you are as a person. Many of the kindest people I know are fat, while many of the meanest people I know are skinny as a rail. There’s no quick nutrition facts label to slap onto a human being.

Words and phrases embodying diet culture also slip into our vocabulary day after day. When’s the last time you heard someone say….

  • “I feel fat.” Repeat after me: FAT IS NOT A FEELING. FAT IS NOT A FEELING. FAT IS NOT A FEELING! Turn inward and identify what you’re actually insecure about, instead of using ‘fat’ as an all-encompassing identifier.
  • “Guilt-free” foods. Just as fat s not a feeling, guilt is not an ingredient. It’s not the secret sauce poured all over French fries and buffalo tenders. It’s just something that weighs on you, robbing you of your ability to actually savor and enjoy what you’re eating in the moment.
  • “You look great! Have you lost weight?” Are you saying I needed to lose weight, Karen?! Not only can this question deeply offend someone – it can also marginalize fat folks. It’s like saying to the person, ‘You’re only allowed to take up space after you lose 10 lbs. No more, no less.’ And in my opinion, that’s hella f**ked up.
  • “Clean-eating” and “cheat days.” Ah, the ‘eat clean’ movement! A long, long time ago, my own desire to eat ‘clean’ and protect my body from toxins in food led me down the dark, winding path toward orthorexia. And cheat days are no better: though the idea of eating what you want in moderation has merit, you shouldn’t have to ‘cheat’ on anyone or anything to eat a bowl of ice cream. Period!

How do I break free?

TL;DR: Intuitive eating. Intuitive, or ‘normal,’ eating is the antithesis of diet culture – here’s how to get started:

Rule #1: listen to your body. Whatever you’re craving, allow yourself to indulge in. You may crave lots of sweets one week, and lots of salads the next. The idea is that your cravings will eventually balance each other out, allowing you to maintain your ideal (set-point) weight.

Rule #2: nothing is off-limits. In order to truly practice intuitive or ‘normal’ eating, as it’s intended to be practiced, no food can be treated as bad or wrong. As I mentioned previously, your body knows what’s best for it – meaning you won’t crave sweets forever, even if you start to get a taste for things you’ve denied yourself of in the paste.

Rule #3: eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full. It really can be that simple! When you suffer from the effects of diet culture, you can train your brain to feel hungry when it’s not – or, you may eat emotionally, allowing yourself to eat even when you don’t feel hungry.

Listen to your body’s hunger cues – and eat just before you begin to feel starving, not after. Then, stop when you’re full, knowing you can always have more later. Even if it means throwing away leftovers or wasting money, you don’t have to treat your body like a garbage disposal for food waste.

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