Damn Diet Culture & Everything It’s Taught Us

This time of year, I can’t help but think a lot about food. Thanksgiving is right around the corner, then we have Christmas, and then my favorite of all, New Year’s Eve. Thanksgiving revolves around food, Christmas Eve is spent at my grandmother’s house feasting, and Christmas day is when my family comes to my house for a casual Christmas dinner. For New Year’s Eve, we make a bunch of snacks and finger foods, and the holiday leftovers usually carry us a couple days. While I’m super excited for the holidays, to spend time with my family, and eat some good food, this time of year is always difficult for me. I don’t have a “perfect” body, and by perfect, I mean by Cosmo’s standards. I have a perfectly functional body that loves food and rocks stretch marks (I’ve always thought they looked like tiger marks). I have a belly I could lose if I wanted to and thighs that jiggle when I walk and spread out when I sit down. I love my body, and I love feeding it good food. But sometimes, and especially around the holidays, I get self-conscious.

Over the summer, I went to LA to visit Alexandra. We went to a bunch of trendy places to eat or snack, and since I had never been to many of them before, I was excited to feast. Every time we entered a restaurant, though, I would see signs all over the place telling me, “Forget your diet!” “Leave your diet at the door!” “This is an anti-diet space!” The absolutely last thing on my mind was a diet, but after entering the ice cream parlor, or donut store, or wherever it was we went and seeing all those reminders, I suddenly felt guilty ordering anything at all. When you Google “diet,” the first definition to come up is, “the kinds of food that a person, animal, or community habitually eats.” Literally every single person has a diet, but we’ve twisted it to mean something toxic. People become obsessed with diets, obsessed with their weight, obsessed with their appearance, and sometimes this leads to an eating disorder or an unhealthy relationship with food. When you feel guilty about what you’re eating because you’re thinking about what you “should” be eating, there’s a problem. But that problem isn’t us, it’s our culture and the way our culture has brainwashed us to think.

About 8% (26,325,193 people) of the United States population have an eating disorder. Eating disorders are largely associated with women, but they can and do impact people of all genders. Eating disorders primarily affect people in their teens and twenties, but are not exclusive to this age range. Body dysmorphia is a serious issue that often accompanies eating disorders but may also be a stand-alone condition. About 2% (6,581,298 people) of the population has body dysmorphia, and of that 2%, 70% of people develop it before they turn eighteen.

The holiday season can be an incredibly difficult time for people with an eating disorder or an unhealthy relationship with food. It’s common for people to gain weight during the holiday season, and the thought can be terrifying. I lost a lot of weight because of my anxiety earlier this year; the last time I saw my doctor she mentioned she was really proud of me for gaining “a substantial amount of weight” since February because it shows I’m in recovery. That’s the only time I’ve ever been happy to gain weight, and I’m really glad she phrased it in that way rather than ending with the comment that I’ve gained weight. But now that I know she’s watching out for my weight, I’m terrified that the next time I see her she’s going to tell me I’ve gained too much.

Of course, healthy eating is important. I love fruits and vegetables, and I would take fresh strawberries or peaches over candy any day. I also love running and challenging my body to see how much I can lift or how far I can go. I rarely work out, though, because it feels like a competition. Going to the gym never feels like an enjoyable thing I’m doing for myself, it always becomes “Everyone is going to stare at me, they’re going to see my stomach and then see how little I can lift and then judge me and laugh at me and never forget my face and I’ll be the weak idiot at the gym.” This anxiety always prevents me from going to the gym and often leads to me walking aimlessly and hoping it counts as exercise, or staring at my body and picking out every flaw I can find until I have a full blown anxiety attack. This isn’t healthy! And what’s worse is, I know I’m not the only one. Diet culture has created a perfect body, and anything that doesn’t look like that body is considered ugly. It took me years to feel comfortable in my own skin, but every once in a while, I teeter on the brink of returning to an unhealthy relationship with food.

I decided to talk to Annie Gordon from the Office of Wellness and Health Promotion here at Seattle University. Annie, aside from being the sweetest person I’ve ever met, is very anti-diet culture. Before I sat down to write this article, I knew I wanted to talk to her about it. She stated that diet culture is an incredibly pervasive set of learned behaviors that is rooted in direct harm to others, especially people with larger bodies who don’t fit the “ideal” body shape. Diet culture is not rooted in science or care for others, which is what we often think because it is legitimized by people we trust, like our doctors. The truth of the matter is that there is no way to humanely ask someone to lose weight, because dieting asks us to ignore our bodies cues and exercising is so coupled with diet culture that it is seen as a way we can fix or balance what we’re eating. I truly can’t put it better than Annie did: “Diet culture is a war on fat people.”

Here’s a potentially hard pill to swallow: our weight is predetermined. Seventy percent of our weight stems from our genetic makeup, which means no matter how much we work out or diet, our baseline weight will always be our healthiest weight. It can be incredibly difficult to accept this because we have been taught to associate thinness with health, but the truth of the matter is that being thin does not mean someone is healthy. Likewise, being thin is not the only way to be healthy. Annie is a big advocate of intuitive eating, which can be described as listening to what our body is asking of us and giving our body what it wants. This can also be described as eating for health. Eating for health doesn’t mean exclusively eating fruits and vegetables and counting calories and policing everything you put in your body (which is what most diets ask of you and is honestly a very unhealthy relationship with food). Eating for health/intuitive eating is when we have removed our negative emotions from eating, creating a neutral space for food.

Annie gave two examples during our conversation. Example one: someone decides they want to eat two whole cakes for dinner, and later, their stomach hurts. They aren’t in pain because they ate “unhealthy” food, but because they ate a lot of food (which happens sometimes and is 100% okay!). The next time they crave cake, their body won’t want two whole cakes because it remembers that it upset their stomach.

Example two: someone eats three whole bowls of pineapple. Afterwards, their tongue burns from the acid in the pineapple. Next time they crave pineapple, their body will remember to not eat so much pineapple at once because it caused them harm.

Neither of these examples result in the person feeling shame over what they ate; rather, their body remembers what made it feel good and what made it feel bad. Your body learns to moderate how much food you’re eating rather than what you’re eating.

Kids are truly the best examples we could follow. Kids know when they’re hungry, when they’re full, what they like, and what they don’t like. This is because they haven’t been shamed into feeling like they have to eat certain foods in order to be attractive or successful. Annie mentioned that every year around Halloween, parents are worried about their kids eating too much candy and that leading to obesity or diabetes. Children are actually more likely to develop eating disorders than diabetes, but the truth of our culture is that we don’t care if people are unhealthy as long as they’re thin.

Diet culture affects us all. It seeps into the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the way we see other people. We’re taught that dieting is healthy, that we should all be hyper aware of the food we’re eating, but the truth is that diet culture is incredibly unhealthy. When you stop listening to your body and start listening to an outside source, you lose control of what you’re eating and why you’re eating. This takes away the enjoyment of eating, eating for taste, and any empowerment people feel from eating, according to Annie.

The holidays are coming up, and this time of year can be really difficult for people with eating disorders, people with an unhealthy relationship with food, and/or people on a diet. Annie feels strongly about being aware of how we talk about food and disrupting any negative comments about food, like calling food “junk food” (because as Annie says, “Junk food doesn’t exist.”), saying something looks tempting but we shouldn’t eat it, or saying we feel guilty for overeating. Annie says she tries to challenge people when they make comments like this, which encourages the person who made the comment to evaluate their thought process as well as challenge everyone in the room to think about how their comments can hurt someone in the room who may not be comfortable speaking out about it. Sharing a meal with people you love can be incredibly intimate, but it can be really painful to people who are worried about how much they’re eating or what they’re eating. Annie’s final comments on eating and the holiday season are that “nobody should feel shame around eating” and we should normalize eating “a lot of damn food” without feeling like we “need to make up for it” somehow, like exercising or not eating a lot--or at all--the following day.

Diet culture is embedded in our culture and it seriously harms a large portion of the population. Diet culture is so popular because of how profitable it is, especially around the start of the year (how many of us make losing weight, dieting, or exercise our New Year's resolution every single year?). While it is devastating that diet culture is so deeply rooted in capitalism, this means we can take the power away from it. If there’s no demand for diet culture, it will fail. Maybe someday we can go an entire day without hearing an ad for the new, “best” diet, or a whole day without someone talking about weight with a negative connotation. But for now, what we can do is challenge ideas of thin as the only way to be beautiful or healthy and learn to practice intuitive eating. Our bodies are so much smarter than any diet we could force ourselves into. Listen to your body when it talks to you.