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Diet Culture: Exploiting Your Insecurities

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at UMKC chapter.

Feeling dissatisfied with your body? Well, you’re in luck! Thanks to the multi-billion dollar industry, plenty of companies and wellness influencers have the solution for you: to diet. According to them, your discontent with yourself isn’t due to unrealistic beauty standards but instead the consequence of your wrongdoing. You’re the one who is not eating right, exercising enough or prioritizing your health. They tell you these things to distract you from unmasking the truth about your self-loathing. Where would the blame be placed if it doesn’t fall onto your shoulders?  The veracity of these hateful feelings toward your body is the result of a well-oiled machine whose sole purpose is to keep you in an endless cycle of insecurities. This machine I’m referring to is diet culture. 

Diet culture can be defined as a pervasive belief that appearance and body shape are more important than physical, psychological and general well-being. It’s the idea that controlling your body, particularly your diet, by limiting what and how much you eat, is normal. Diet culture falsely correlates thinness with health and shames those who don’t meet that criterion. By publicly bashing people who have bigger bodies, we as a society have collectively agreed that being fat is humiliating and morally wrong. Society truly believes that a smaller body holds a greater value than other body types. This attitude has been shown in various ways, from the media we consume using fat people as the butt of a joke to the weight loss commercials on TV to the limited clothing sizes in stores for larger bodies. By allowing fatphobia to exist systemically, diet culture will always have that foundation to build off of. 

A common example where diet culture markets itself is in the grocery store. When perusing the aisles, you might notice some phrases thrown your way: “low-calorie”, “no fat”, “low carb” or “guilt-free”. These mini slogans are meant to appeal to you because those companies are promising that through their “good and healthy” foods, you will achieve the thinness they are trying to sell to you. . They’ll trick you into feeling guilty if you don’t buy their low-carb bread because, oh my god, who would want all those carbs! (Side note: I’m offended on behalf of all normal-carb bread). This practice applies to a lot of foods that shouldn’t require adjustments but end up with so many different versions of themselves such as low-fat peanut butter or sugar-free ice cream. These brands create these food monsters, slap a high price on them and stick the items on the shelves as a way to deceive you into spending away your insecurities. Because remember: according to diet culture, the only way to be healthy and feel good about yourself is to get as thin and fit as possible. 

So after reading about diet culture you probably feel frustrated, maybe a bit overwhelmed. That’s completely valid. Diet culture is a pathway to many problems like eating disorders, fatphobia, fad diets, health issues, etc. So how do we combat all of this nonsense? Unfortunately, you alone cannot go to battle with this beast known as diet culture, and you shouldn’t have to. It’s not your fault that an industry with power caused you to develop self-doubt over your body. It was put in place to do exactly that. If there’s something to change about yourself then there’s always a product to buy.  Fortunately, I do bring some good news! I don’t just want to leave you with impending doom, so I’m happy to share that there are a couple of practices to use as a way to lessen the grip of diet culture’s control over you. 

Firstly, there is this wonderful concept referred to as intuitive eating. Intuitive eating is the idea that you eat what you want when you want. It sounds simple yet it is often overlooked when we are going about eating. The beautiful thing about intuitive eating is that there is no structure to it. It eliminates labeling foods as good versus bad and allows you to make peace with all food groups. There is no right or wrong way to eat; you just listen to your hunger cues or cravings and submit to them. I’ll admit, it’s easier said than done because to eat however you want to, you have to deconstruct the way your brain views food in correlation to your physical appearance. Fear not! I have a handy little trick to apply when viewing your body. 

I’ll bet that most of you have heard of the phrase “body positivity” at some point in your life. While I am in full support of spreading the message to love your body, sometimes that feeling isn’t realistic for everyone. Since self-love takes time and energy, it can be a big leap to go from despising your physical appearance to adoring every inch of yourself. So I introduce you to body neutrality. The definition of this phrase is pretty much explained in the name. Instead of having any strong feelings toward your body, you learn acceptance for what it is and gratitude for what it does for you. For example, if you’re unhappy with the size of your stomach instead of hyper-focusing on that resentment, you put into perspective that your stomach wasn’t made to meet a certain size, but is there to protect all of your organs. Its main function is to store and digest food which allows you to live. You don’t have to force yourself to like your stomach, but you can change the lens in how your mind views it. Rather than judging your body based on looks, body neutrality teaches you to respect it for what it does. Something I found helpful to my journey of body neutrality was writing down neutral statements about each part of my body to train myself into thinking of those facts whenever looking in the mirror.  Again, I don’t want to deter anyone away from the body positivity movement if that’s what feels right for you. Body neutrality is a good place to start for people who don’t feel that those positive emotions toward themselves are genuine. 

It’s important to note that applying these ways of thinking takes practice which takes time. Be patient with yourself as you navigate these methods. Diet culture has had its time to develop its spread in the world so there is no quick fix to dismantle that system. That is why it’s so important to focus on yourself and what your personal needs look like. I’m going to risk sounding cliche but no one indeed knows you better than you do. So, if anyone thinks that they have the right to look at you and tell you how you should eat and move your body then they are greatly overstepping their boundaries. Even these ideas I’ve introduced to you don’t have to be something you live by if it does not work for you. What is crucial to understand is that these negative ways in which you think about yourself are often not born from your own thoughts but instead a result of diet culture’s influence. Learning to identify when that happens can  free you of the restrictions it creates for you. Go eat some pasta, ride a bike, drink milkshakes, participate in some goat yoga or simply do nothing at all. Your life is exactly that – yours- so don’t let this diet machine take that control away from you.

Abby is an undergraduate student majoring in Psychology at UMKC. She is an avid reader and a consumer of all things media related such as movies, TV shows, music, and podcasts. When she's not updating her Letterboxd, Goodreads, or Spotify accounts, you can often find her wandering in a nearby bookstore or enjoying her free time with friends!