Fighting Fatphobia: The Importance of Combating Diet Culture

CW: Eating disorders, mentions of weight and fatphobia.

For many of us, dieting and body image have been a part of our lives for as long as we can remember. Even as children, we grew up watching our parents’ step on the scale, curse if the number was higher than the day before and tell their friends with disdain how huge their thighs look in their favourite pair of pants. This only gets worse as we grow, with almost half of Ontario teens reporting feeling unhappy with their weight (NCBI, 2004). As adults, we learn to track our weight, diet and idealize thin bodies all in pursuit of “health.” Our society has normalized disordered eating patterns, masquerading them as diets and preaching that unrealistic expectations of thinness are what everyone should strive for. Luckily, as science is improving, we are educating ourselves, recognizing and understanding that weight and health are not always correlated and that there is much more to life than worrying about our weight. But when diet culture is all around us, what can we do to fight back?

What is Diet Culture?

Diet culture is a set of beliefs that encourage thinness at all costs, sometimes under the guise of advocating for health. This culture creates a sense of morality around food and eating, often labelling low-calorie foods as “good” and high-calorie foods as “bad.” This may extend to other qualities about food, including macronutrient content (carbs, looking at you), sugar content and whether the food is natural or “clean.” This culture fosters the belief that thinness and health are synonymous, and that it is important to spend time, money and energy to achieve the “ideal body.” Another term for a similar concept is “fatphobia,” a form a prejudice that unfairly and unfoundedly equates large bodies with negative attributes such as inferiority and ugliness. Diet culture leads to emotional reactions surrounding one’s consumption of food, such as guilt when consuming foods labelled “bad” and it prioritizes bodies that are a particular shape and size. This is evident in society from ads made for our entertainment, with the vast majority of media portraying protagonists that are thin and equating a small body with qualities of goodness, desirability and heroism. Diet culture manipulates us, promising that happiness is only one more diet away.

Why Does This Matter?

Because we live in a society that values dieting and thinness, we are regularly pressured to treat our bodies in ways that are not only unnatural but unhealthy. Restricting food intake, over-exercising and ignoring hunger cues are all methods that diet culture encourages which are completely contrary to what our bodies need. As human beings, our bodies are designed to gain energy from food, and they are pretty darn good at communicating how much food they need. By using our brains to restrict or shut down the natural hunger signals and food cues that our bodies send us, we are not only hurting our bodies and our relationships with them, but we are also certainly not encouraging health! On top of this, our bodies are smart, and they know when we aren’t giving them the nutrients they need. This leads to our bodies fighting back through cravings, emotional and physical hunger pains and ultimately, binge-eating as our body consumes the food it so desperately needs. It is important to recognize that people naturally come in a range of sizes, making it possible to be healthy at any size! A person’s weight alone is not indicative of their lifestyle choices, eating patterns or activity levels, and our bodies would still look unique even if we all ate the same way. From restriction to over-consumption, diet culture is an enormous trigger for not only disordered eating patterns, but full-fledged eating disorders. The mental and physical strain that diet culture causes cannot be overestimated.

As if this wasn’t enough, diet culture is enormously exclusionary to many people. Research has proven that the majority of people cannot sustain weight loss over a long-term basis, meaning that everybody that does not naturally fit into society’s ideals is shamed. This is disproportionately hard on women, trans people, femmes, people with disabilities, people living in poverty and people with larger bodies. In other words, diet culture further marginalizes society’s most marginalized groups. This has been particularly prominent through the pandemic, pressuring everybody to work off their “COVID 15” weight gain. We just survived a global pandemic, leading to job loss, an inability to see our friends and family and a complete alteration of our lives overall. A change in our weight is so inconsequential compared to the state of the world right now, and it’s about time we start supporting people through one of the largest events they’ve ever experienced instead of shaming them for the body that has carried them through it all.

Health Isn’t Everything

There are certainly people of all shapes and sizes who are in good health, busting the myth that healthiness and skinniness are one in the same. In fact, diets wreck much more havoc on health and wellness than intuitive eating could. But in any discussion surrounding dieting and body acceptance, it is crucial to remember that health is not a goal for everyone. Not only is weight not an accurate measure of health, but health is not a measure of value! Many people live with chronic illnesses, disabilities or other medical conditions that will never allow them to be fully healthy, but this does not take away from the importance of who they are as a person in this world. Also, each person has different things going on in their lives that alters what they value, and health is not a priority for everyone. External factors will always come into play. By equating health with value and morality, diet culture renders these people invisible and worthless, and that is NOT okay. Health does not define our ability to be kind, to create, to be a good friend, to volunteer, to be generous, to be compassionate, the list goes on and on. There are so many incredible, beautiful, talented, intelligent people who will never be considered healthy, and that does not diminish their worth.

How to Fight Back

Now that we understand why diet culture is so problematic, there are steps we can take to reduce its power. To start off, notice the elements of diet culture in your everyday life. How do you react when a friend loses weight? While diet culture reinforces that we should compliment thinner bodies, someone may have experienced weight loss due to illness, an eating disorder or any number of other factors that we do not want to encourage for them. See if you can find non-appearance related compliments to boost your friends instead (a few of my personal favourites include calling someone resilient, creative, a good listener, a valued friend or simply expressing gratitude for your conversation with them)! Additionally, notice how accessibility in the spaces you frequent might be an issue for people with larger bodies. Ask stores to carry stock in a real range of sizes that reflect diverse body types, hold events with seating that can accommodate different body shapes and ensure that people with large bodies are given space to speak about decisions that impact them. Lastly, re-evaluate your own relationships with food and fatphobia. Are you constantly dieting? Do you treat “fat” as a bad word? By repairing your own relationship with food, connecting with fat people on social media and in real life and being willing to see fatness for what it is – quite literally just another body shape, as unique as each of us are as individuals – we can begin to change the narrative and end fatphobia!

It’s hard not to fall victim to diet culture when everyone is talking about the “COVID 15” they’ve gained or talking about how “bad” they are for ordering takeout one night. By recognizing fatphobia and calling it out when we see it, we have the potential to change diet culture and work towards ending it for good. Fat is simply an adjective, same as tall, narrow or strong. All bodies are good bodies, including fat, disabled and unique ones, and it’s about time we celebrated that!

References

Dieting in Adolescence