The Toxic Truth Behind Diet Culture
What is diet culture?
Many of us have unconsciously or consciously participated in diet culture, with images we consume every day making us question our worth and reanalysing our perception of ourselves and the world. Dieting is the objective of losing weight or attaining a particular body we perceive to be ideal. At times we adopt this way of thinking more frequently than others, for instance, when summer approaches or around the holidays and significant life celebrations.
Author and anti-diet registered dietitian Christy Harrison defines diet culture as 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.” She also aligns this culture as one that “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.”
Diet culture is something most, if not all, individuals participate in, and it has become a norm in our society. Something worth noting about the culture we have created around dieting is that we have accepted that we never cross off our list. Is there a finish line to it? Somehow there is always something more to do, another image we want to work towards. When you begin one diet, you often hear about a new and improved version of another regime to adopt next, another program to enroll in, and membership to join. Many promises are made; in every diet, there is a guarantee that we will feel a certain way by its end. However, do we end up achieving our intended goal, and at what cost? Is there an end to all the restrictions we place upon ourselves? Or does following one diet only lead to consuming more diets and believing more of these promises? Often this culture leads to obsessive behaviour; we became so determined to reach a goal that the outside world becomes a blur. We often inflict more harm on ourselves to get to a desired weight, and we become oblivious to it because we are convinced that is what we are supposed to be doing.
Examples of diet culture?
Diet culture stems from promises and statements made that fuel one’s desire and urge to transform their appearance. Some examples of these statements include:
- “If I were thinner, then I’d want to go to the gym regularly.”
- “I used to dance, but I’m too ____ to now, maybe if I was ____.”
- “Oh man, if I ate like that every day I’d be ____.”
- “They’d like me more if my body was ___.”
- “Well, in high school, I weighed X but haven’t been able to get back to that since.”
The toxic nature of diet culture.
It is argued that diet culture harms everyone to an extent, particularly those considered to have larger bodies. What is often dismissed is that healthy bodies come in various sizes and shapes; no individual body image applies to everyone. Opportunities and experiences now rely heavily on an individual’s size and weight. This is a result of the increasing hold of diet culture on industries. The illusion this culture has created around the ideal shape affects bodies of all forms; those who are thin often feel as though they are not thin enough in the right places, and those who appear to be larger are shamed and deemed unhealthy. This idealised perception of body image has become all-consuming to reach age demographics across the spectrum. We all fall into the everyday traps of diet culture from the images of barbie we see as children, the notion of cheat days, shapewear, and the endless filters which morph our face and bodies into something that is not a reflection of who we are. If diet culture’s intention was indeed to promote healthier living, why does adopting healthy habits require consuming products and services? Why does it come at a cost? The manipulation of our insecurities is what sustains these programs and organisations. Remember, there is one of you, and there is nobody like you. Nurture yourself and look after your health in the way that works for you; there is no one correct way to go about this.
Racism needs to be addressed when discussing the toxicity of diet culture.
Often dismissed from the conversation around diet culture is racism; it is very much alive in this culture around body image. Body positivity initially emerged as a response to diet culture and allowed marginalized people to feel represented. Body positivity is meant to include bodies of color, bodies of all shapes and sizes, and orientations. However, body positivity is being clouded by one image of the image. The image of privilege! This movement is now being co-opted by people who were never intended to be the center of the conversation. Sabrina Strings discusses in her book Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia; how people of color have historically and intentionally been linked with fatness dating back to the 19th century.
Additionally, mainstream nutritionists leave out BIPOC communities when discussing nutrition. Ultimately, diet culture is rooted in racism from the ways mainstream dietitians deems certain foods bad without considering cultural ramifications. The advice given is often centered on whiteness without considering the alignments with racism, white supremacy, and capitalism, which all play a role in the accessibility of food. Systematic racism is very much entrenched in diet culture and how we consume the image of the ideal body. Therefore, to truly dismantle diet culture, we must address the inequalities in every aspect, which begins with addressing racism.