diets · fat · feminism · normative bodies

Why diet culture harms us

Image description: bathroom scale showing “0” with an apple on it with a tape measure around the apple. Photo from The Times of India.

Diet culture. It’s not something I’ve thought about much lately. Indeed, it’s not something most of us think about much unless and until someone draws our attention to it (and even then, that drawing attention isn’t always welcome). It’s like that story about fish and water, memorably told by the brilliant, now deceased, writer David Foster Wallace in a 2005 commencement address entitled “This is water”:

“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

What’s the moral of this little story? When you are immersed in something, when it’s all around you, you might not even be aware of it. But that’s the only respect in which water is to fish as diet culture is to us. Because unlike water, which is life-sustaining to fish, diet culture is harmful to us.

When I first saw the article in Good Housekeeping, “The Unbearable Weight of Diet Culture,” I was set to rant. I wanted to rant about diet culture itself. How normalized and oppressive it is. How it individualizes our weight loss failures when in fact “98% of diets fail.” Think on that: 98%! How it promotes the idea that there is something wrong with a body that is not thin or lean. How it demonizes certain foods and moralizes ways of eating (like, desserts are “sinful” and we give into temptation when we eat them). How it stigmatizes people on the basis of body size.

There is space for ranting about all these things and more. I even wanted to rant about how Good Housekeeping, a mainstream women’s magazine, gives us this informative and insightful article about diet culture, while also having a whole section of their website, called “Diet and Nutrition,” devoted to endorsing diet culture with articles like: “The Best Diets of 2021,” “How to Find the Best Diet for You,” “Why Can’t I Lose Weight?” and “What J-Lo Eats in a Day to Look So Good.” [I’m not linking to that content but it’s easy enough to find}

Instead of faulting them for the contradiction, I actually want to applaud them for including any sort of counternarrative at all. The editors are well aware that they are walking tightrope. The diet culture article starts with the following qualifying statement:

Throughout 2021, Good Housekeeping will be exploring how we think about weight, the way we eat, and how we try to control or change our bodies in our quest to be happier and healthier. While GH also publishes weight loss content and endeavors to do so in a responsible, science-backed way, we think it’s important to present a broad perspective that allows for a fuller understanding of the complex thinking about health and body weight. Our goal here is not to tell you how to think, eat, or live — nor is to to pass judgment on how you choose to nourish your body — but rather to start a conversation about diet culture, its impact, and how we might challenge the messages we are given about what makes us attractive, successful, and healthy.

Where better to start a conversation about diet culture than in the very magazines that women flock to when they are seeking “solutions” to their “struggles” with weight? And the first question someone might ask, like the fish swimming in water, is “what is diet culture?” The article opens with rough account: “it’s a set of beliefs that worships thinness and equates it with health and moral virtue, according to anti-diet dietitian, Christy Harrison, M.P.H., R.D., C.D.N., author of Anti-Dietand host of the Food Psych podcast.” It is, says the article, “the lens through which most of us in this country view beauty, health, and our own bodies.” As such, it colours our judgments about ourselves and others, moralizing some food choices as more virtuous than others, causing people to praise others’ weight loss or adherence to restrictive diet regimes, and giving credence to such scientifically vacuous notions as “detoxing” and “clean eating.”

It’s also generated a billions of dollars industry where people seek a miracle. Why is it a miracle? Because, back to that alarming statistic: 98% of diets fail over time.

Here on the blog we have been critical of diet culture since the very start, while also being aware that we are immersed in it. We are critical of it because it is harmful, built on fat-phobia and self-loathing. From the GH article, here are some of the ways that it’s harmful (some already mentioned above):

  1. It promotes discrimination by normalizing fat phobia and promoting as normal the attitude that being overweight (or weight gain at all) is a sign of failure.
  2. It fuels a business designed to take your money.
  3. It’s a set-up for feeling like a failure.
  4. It distracts from larger social issues like walkable cities, wide availability of good quality foods, and other social inequities.
  5. It normalizes disordered eating.
  6. It’s self-perpetuating.

I would add a few of my own here:

  1. It makes way for people to use restrictive food plans to “virtue signal” by posting about their strict adherence to the latest food fad (e.g. no carbs, no sugar, keto, paleo, “cleanses” and “detoxes,” blood type diet, mediterranean diet and all the diets from the 80s and 90s named after doctors — Scarsdale, Atkins — or fruits — banana, grapefruit — and then of course the diets promoted by celebrities like Suzanne Sommers, Oprah, Adele…). It is amazing how much applause is dished out when someone posts a photo of their brown rice and steamed kale bowl.
  2. It infantalizes adults by encouraging the view that, left to our own devices, we will always make poor choices.
  3. It saps the joy out of health and fitness activities because if those are your only goals, and if the healthy choices don’t lead to weight loss, they’re not worth doing. But they are worth doing. We can get fitter and healthier without getting thinner and lighter.
  4. It creates obsession around food. Ever since the Minnesota starvation studies after World War II we have known that food deprivation generates food obsession.
  5. It also makes it almost impossible to have a pure, mindful eating experience that is unmediated by thoughts of “is this a ‘good’ choice?” “Should I be eating this?” “Is this on my plan?”

The article offers a couple of ways to work your way out of diet culture. One of their suggestions is to consider intuitive eating, which is an approach designed to combat diet culture, challenge the food police, and let your hunger be your guide. I like that approach myself, but it doesn’t work for everyone. We have had some discussions of it over the years on the blog, as champions and detractors.

It also suggests becoming informed about Health at Every Size (HAES), “a movement that recognizes “that health outcomes are primarily driven by social, economic, and environmental factors,” not weight, to encourage the pursuit of health without a focus on weight loss.”

I’ll add to this my own suggestion, which is not to applaud people for their diets and weight loss, and not to talk to people about their weight or weight loss efforts. I know that a lot of people are very public about their desire to lose weight (that’s diet culture for you! Making it normal to talk about something that really is no one’s business and, if you think about it, most people don’t care much what you’re up to in that department unless they’re judging you). I’ve often heard people say that they only compliment or comment when they know that’s what their friend is actively attempting. That’s endorsing diet culture, and diet culture is harmful. So I don’t do it even if my friend would like me to notice and compliment their weight loss. I like and love my friends regardless of their size or their food choices.

That said, I also try my best not to “get into it” with people who don’t want to hear it. I don’t always succeed in this. I have friends lately who are all in the “sugar is evil” trend. I have been through that one myself, and it caused an uproar that resulted in talking me off that particular ledge (not in the most pleasant way, but I still feel grateful as I look back), so I know how easy it is to rationalize this or that plan to dump sugar. All this to say that I dipped my toe in the water of asking questions, which I thought were gentle questions, about a friend’s quest to stop eating sugar, and it turns out that I had to learn the “it’s none of my business” lesson again. I’m public about being an anti-diet feminist fitness blogger. Friends know where to find me if they want that perspective. I need to learn to leave it at that and put my thoughts into a blog post once in awhile. Hence this!

Even if Good Housekeeping is sending contradictory messages when they write articles about diet culture and its harms, on the one hand, and provide ample information to those who wish to partake in it, on the other hand, I like their 2021 commitment to raising awareness. If no one points it out, we’ll never know we’re swimming in it.

Are you aware of diet culture?

3 thoughts on “Why diet culture harms us

  1. Admittedly with covid restrictions away from restaurants and places outside of home, I’m thinking less about “diet”. More about trying to eat healthy as norm for….past few decades.

    I’m not preparing anything special or different about how I’ve been eating all long.
    And the need to be interested in fashion which might prompt some people to look/long for stuff that they can fit.. I’ve lost interest about “looking” to please someone else. More on just remaining healthy.

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