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Diet Culture, Eating Disorders and the Body Positivity Movement

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at GA Tech chapter.

The myth that being thin equates to being healthy is slowly being challenged by the body positivity movement. However, it’s had a grip on our society for far too long and it’s constantly perpetuated by direct and indirect messaging in almost every aspect of our lives.


Diet culture is just one facet of this messaging but it is very powerful. From Nutrisystem advertisements to viral weight loss posts, we’ve thoroughly established gaining weight as bad and losing weight as good.


But this is not the truth. There are healthy and unhealthy people of all sizes and whether someone is gaining or losing weight cannot inherently be classified as good or bad. But it can be hard to convince the masses of this truth when there is a wealth of misinformation swirling around on social media.


Take Instagram for example. The site has become overrun by models and influencers sharing their thin and often photoshopped bodies along with the diet, detox tea or fasting method that allegedly got them there. Because of fatphobia, there is far less representation and acceptance for fat people displaying their eating habits on social media. If you are mindlessly scrolling through Instagram every day, it’s easy to become convinced that health is reserved for thin people who eat to stay thin.


According to Dr. Deb Burgard, one of the most harmful consequences of diet culture is how we prescribe diets to fat people that we would diagnose as disordered eating in thin people. It becomes more obvious the closer you look at these diets. Consider the household name fad diets like Whole 30, paleo, Atkins, Keto.


These diets eliminate entire food groups that have necessary nutrients for the human body in hopes of hacking one’s physiology to burn more fat or not produce it at all. And consider the “food rules” diets gaining popularity, like intermittent fasting. These diets encourage following external rules about what, when and how much to eat which are considered red flags of disordered eating and usually fail at manipulating body size long-term. If one isn’t careful, diet culture will sell you an eating disorder disguised as a diet.


Whether we like it or not, most of us have the implicit bias that people are somehow more or less good, moral or worthy based on their body size. A clear example of this is the stigma surrounding the word “fat”. For years we’ve been told that it is impolite, rude or an insult to call someone fat.


This directly stems from fatphobia and believing that there is something wrong with people who are fat, whether it is laziness or gluttony or what have you. But today, people are working to reclaim the word fat as a neutral descriptor of themselves. Ashleigh Shackelford explained to Teen Vogue that, “No matter how people use it, fat is not a bad word. Fat is not an indication of value, health, beauty or performance. Fat is a descriptor in the same way that black and queer are descriptors.”


We’re lucky to have writers like Ashleigh Shackelford as well as other social media influencers who are facilitating the rise of the body positivity movement. More and more people are being exposed to severall of the movement’s cornerstones like “all bodies are good bodies” and “Food is nourishment, celebratory and emotional – not a tool to manipulate body size.” We’re also starting to see a lot more representation for fat bodies in entertainment and in fashion.


But things are far from perfect, so doctors are investigating another way to fight against the pull towards disordered eating called social media literacy. General media literacy is the application of critical thinking and skepticism about media to reduce its persuasive influence. Social media literacy places this in the context of social media and combines it with consideration for peer interactions.


This entails understanding the motivations a friend or celebrity might have to make a post or modify an image of themselves to present their “best” self. A study was done in adolescent girls to determine if social media literacy can be used as an intervention to reduce risk factors for eating disorders. The results of the study were positive, showing that the girls experienced significant increases in body esteem associated with weight and dietary restraint against disordered eating.


This shows that it is helpful to remain skeptical of what we see online, understand that what works for someone else may not work for us and to dig deeper into the science behind a trendy diet before trying it out.




  1. http://www.bodypositive.com/
  2. https://twitter.com/BodyPositivePhD
  3. https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/blog/recognizing-and-resisting-diet-culture
  4. https://www.teenvogue.com/story/ask-a-fat-girl-its-ok-to-say-the-word-fat
  5. https://www.teenvogue.com/story/fat-is-not-a-bad-word
  6. https://www.vogue.in/wellness/content/body-positivity-fat-acceptance-movement-still-has-a-long-way-to-go
  7. https://flipscreened.com/2020/02/21/five-plus-size-heroines-from-the-last-decade/
  8. https://www.glamour.com/story/rihanna-savage-fenty-2020-show-plus-size
  9. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1359105316678668
  10. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/eat.22708
Ozi (Oh-zee) is a fourth year majoring in biomedical engineering and minoring in public policy at Georgia Tech. She is Nigerian-American and grew up in Houston, Texas. She loves good books, staying up to date, and watching all the Oscar-bait movies.