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Wellness

Diet Culture is Racist and We Need to Talk About It

This comes as a surprise to absolutely no one, but it must be said (again): diet culture is downright evil. The entire diet industry is basically a capitalist agenda constructed to shame women into feeling needlessly hypercritical of ourselves and all of our decisions, and spend an inordinate amount of money and time trying to “fix” problems we don’t have. Even if we know how counterproductive the whole ordeal is, a part of us really loves to convince ourselves it matters. 

Every aspect of it is enraging, but the one part that I feel gets frequently overlooked in criticisms of diet culture is just how big a role a person’s race plays. This is not a new discussion by any means, but regardless of how many people of color (especially Black women) speak up, there still remains a common, unsurprising tendency for the discourse to be centered around the struggles of white people. 

One of the main things diet culture loves to control is what you’re “supposed” to eat. Part of this is cleanly categorizing some foods as “good” and others as “bad” — which, interestingly, are moral judgements of the food rather than synonyms for “healthy” and “unhealthy.” While this notion is pretty absurd in and of itself, it’s even more absurd to note the sets of foods that are categorized as “bad.” My favorite one right now is white rice: a wonderful, wholesome food that has somehow been vilified for reasons I can’t fully understand. I have seen people suggest that (1) it makes you gain weight, which is apparently bad, and (2) it isn’t nutritious. Perhaps we’re still struggling to unlearn the harmful implications of point (1), but the second one is definitely a reach! No matter what the media imposes on us, carbohydrates are not just “good,” but also necessary. Plus, rice is a staple in the vast majority of countries in Asia, as well as several countries in Africa and South America. The rice crop is actually believed to have been domesticated in China approximately 9000 years ago, which means that’s how long humans have been consuming it. There is also no obvious correlation between white rice and poor health: on the other hand, the introduction of Western diet patterns in Asia has led to a potential increase in ailments such as diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular diseases. In short, while Western “nutritionists” love to promote white rice’s young, trendy cousin AKA cauliflower rice as a substitute, white rice is not the demon here. At the end of the day, it genuinely is all about balance: no food is inherently bad, especially not rice!


paella
Photo by Annie Spratt from Unsplash

Another common trend among “bad” foods is the prices: considerably low and accessible when compared to “good” foods. It’s already pretty obvious how classist this is, but it’s also a cruel reminder of the intrinsic connection between classism and racism. At least in the context of the US, it’s impossible to talk about classism without specifically addressing the ways in which BIPOC in low-income communities are disproportionately affected by classist structures. With the recent spike in the popularity of “superfoods” such as kale, chia seeds, blueberries and protein powder comes the unsolicited condescension towards people who don’t eat these, disregarding the fact that some people literally can’t. Writer Mikki Kendall calls this whole process “food gentrification,” a term that I think pretty accurately describes the way certain foods that get classified as “good” or “healthy” by white influencers suddenly become much less affordable to anyone who isn’t a suburban mom.

Besides the physical diet itself, American media also imposes a certain “ideal body type” on society that is almost always, by default, that of a lean white person. I am fully aware that society’s standards of physical beauty affect all people: the body positivity movement belongs to everyone regardless of their race. However, we just can’t deny that in the US it is BIPOC, especially Black women, that are the primary victims of vicious, unsolicited criticism — or, you know, what I prefer to call barely-concealed racism. In “Neither Soul Food, Nor “Slave Food,” Made You Fat,” writer Erika Nicole Kendall says, “our culture didn’t do this to us. The disparities in income did this to us. The availability of fresh produce, or lack thereof, did this to us.” Assistant professor at UC Irvine Sabrina Strings, Ph.D. writes in “Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia” that Black people were once thought to be “inherently obese,” an idea rooted entirely in racist ideologies that are still perpetuated in so-called “modern” societies.


women with different body types
Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

While it is wonderful to see people criticizing diet culture in general, as well as the unhealthy habits that it promotes, we must educate ourselves and address the ways in which it specifically targets BIPOC and the foods consumed by BIPOC. There is a pressing need to recognize the interconnectedness of diet culture and racism, and to uplift the voices of marginalized communities rather than speak over them. In order to dismantle diet culture, we must be actively involved in dismantling systemic racism at the same time. Besides, by forcing any misconceptions about food, we are not just harming members of marginalized communities but doing ourselves a disservice by not feeling excited by something that has kept humanity going for so long. Food is the literal basis of human life: ultimately, we must celebrate the centuries of knowledge that continue to keep us alive even today. 

Madhura Sengupta

U Mass Amherst '23

Madhura is a sophomore majoring in Linguistics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She loves film, music, literature, discussions about social issues, and 1990s animated TV series Moomin.
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