Diet Culture Goes Back Millenia, And It Still Has a Hold on Us Today

Welcome to The Weight of It All — a new series about diet culture and the way it weighs on society. Diet culture is pervasive and while it targets everyone to some extent, those who live in marginalised bodies, as well those who are female-identifying, experience the brunt of it. The weight of it is almost overwhelming. This four-part series will explore how diet culture operates, its roots in colonialism, the way shame works in the wellness industry and advice from experts on how to ditch diet culture from your life.

It’s fair to say that humans as a species are fairly fixated on appearance — especially when it comes to thinness and fatness. This preoccupation with the physical isn’t anything new. In fact, it can be traced as far back as Ancient Greece, where the moralistic view of fatness has its roots. These days, the obsession is still evident in music, TV and film as well as both digital and print media.

Thanks to social media, our interest in how we and those around us look has become even stronger. Now, we scroll past the ever-changing face and impossibly thin waist of Kylie Jenner on Instagram. Achieving the hourglass proportions of the Kardashian-Jenner family is downright impossible unless you have unlimited time and money at your disposal — but still, we want to know how they achieve their look.

As the beauty ideals continue to become further out of reach, so does the amount of appearance dissatisfaction. In fact, appearance dissatisfaction is now considered to be “normal” among much of the general population. Large scale studies in the early 2000s found 61–82% of adult men and women to have “significant” concerns about their appearance. These figures are believed to be much higher now.

Much of the content we consume, be it via social media, streaming services, magazines or digital publications, reinforces the beauty ideals perpetuated by the Kim Kardashian West’s and Kylie Jenner’s of the world. This content tells us that we must look a certain way to be valued and appreciated in our society.

This construction of values feeds directly into diet culture. One where thinness and whiteness are sought after and anything outside of these realms is othered. Diet culture tells us that to be thin is to be healthy while being fat is downright dangerous.

Anti-diet dietitian, certified intuitive eating counsellor and journalist, Christy Harrison, describes diet culture as “a system of beliefs that worships thinness and equates it to health and moral virtue, promotes weight loss as a means of attaining higher status, demonises certain ways of eating while elevating others and oppresses people who don’t match up with its supposed picture of ‘health’.”

Harrison traces this moralistic view of fatness and food back to the Ancient Greeks, who saw fatness “as an imbalance to be ‘corrected’,” she told North Carolina Public Radio. “This was because of the belief system that Ancient Greeks had about balance and moderation and all things being seen as a virtue.”

To be fat was considered to be out of balance and as such, you were demonised. This demonisation of fatness and food is still rampant in our modern society and can manifest in a number of ways including the labelling of food as either “good” or “bad” as well as the notion that your weight defines your worth or influences your ability to be happy.

These values are something nutritionist Patrilie Hernandez has also wrestled with. For over 12 years, Hernandez has worked in the health and nutrition field as an educator, advocate and policy analyst. Hernandez currently works for a local government agency in Washington D.C, where they oversee the health and nutrition programs used in the early childhood space.

In their spare time, Hernandez puts energy into Embody Lib — a platform that is comprised of a website and Instagram account created to engage, educate and empower BIPOC of marginalised genders. Like many others, Hernandez has had to spend time unpacking their own relationship with diet culture, which manifested in an eating disorder diagnosis in 2017.

“My career choice and a lot of my personal choices were driven by diet culture,” Hernandez told The Latch. “I remember hearing that news [of the diagnosis] and just being like, ‘No, no, no, that can’t be right.'”

In 2018, Hernandez entered outpatient treatment for the eating disorder and shortly after, went looking for a community of likeminded people who could relate. This is when Hernandez realised that there wasn’t anything that catered for those living in marginalised bodies.

“I didn’t know what I was expecting, but I know that it wasn’t tailored for people like me. It wasn’t tailored for people that were not white from an American background, that were large-bodied or that had a degree in this stuff.”

Hernandez has since built a community via Instagram and uses this platform to discuss topics like weight stigma, intuitive eating and food access. “It just kind of grew into a bigger platform where I took on the role of activism and advocacy in a larger space, [I thought] ‘How we can use my lived experiences, coupled with the expertise in a way that can kind of drive change on a larger scale?'” Hernandez said.

Using an academic background in cultural anthropology as well as expertise in nutrition, Hernandez has dedicated time to unlearning the diet culture norms while also learning how this pervasive societal construct came to be so accepted and practised. And ultimately, it’s rooted in colonialism.

Diet culture is intertwined with racism, anti-Blackness and misogyny. It’s a construct that thrives on colonialism and white supremacy and is a way to control people, with female-identifying people largely the target. Diet culture encourages you to focus your attention on the consumption and morality of food — as well as the way it makes your body look — as a means of control, while specifically targeting those whose bodies are different.

To deconstruct diet culture would be to also pull apart the societal structures that were created to oppress and sideline BIPOC, trans-people and non-binary folks. Taking away the control diet culture has on your life, as well as the control it maintains in society at large, would also allow us to begin to dismantle white supremacy at the same time.

“When we dismantle the harm that is caused by diet culture within ourselves, we create the space, the capacity, the energy, to be able to dismantle bigger systems of oppression,” Hernandez said. “And so when I talk about what body liberation means for me, it’s very closely aligned to dismantling the systems because when we stop getting stuck on these things, we can shift our attention to really making global change and impacting the world in a way that makes it, I think, better for everybody.”

Diet culture encourages us to place bodies in certain boxes with words like “thin”, “overweight” and “obese”. The concept of what constitutes a healthy weight versus a body that is considered overweight was created by white Europeans. This framework is still used today in the form of the BMI (body mass index) calculator which was invented by Belgian mathematician Lambert Adolphe Jacques Quetelet in the early 19th century. Note that Quetelet was a mathematician, not a physician. As such, the BMI calculator is a flawed method that particularly discriminates against BIPOC who don’t fit the arbitrary body shape programmed into the system.

“We’re seeing now that four out of five Black women actually are considered ‘overweight’ by the BMI,” Amanda Taylor, founder of the Unplug Collective, a platform designed to highlight the experiences of Black and gender-expansive people, told Forbes.

“It’s very clear that, based on the standards of the BMI and the colonial standards and just the ways in which women are told that we need to look, it doesn’t necessarily line up with the ways that some Black women’s bodies naturally sit, where their set point actually sits.”

“We’re also finding that dieting 99% of the time is not working long-term, that people are being discriminated against medically, because of weight bias and weight stigma, and they’re not getting the care that they need, but they’re also not getting personalised care to say, ‘Why is your weight the way it is?’ You know, ‘what are the factors contributing to this? Is it genetics? Is it environmental?’

“Why aren’t we looking at people’s individual lives? Instead, we’re looking at this one thing, this number, this BMI, which [is] skewed [and] already wasn’t made with Black women and gender-expansive people in mind, or people of colour in mind.”

Instead of accepting that all bodies are different, diet culture attempts to tar everyone with the same brush. And, when you don’t meet the unmeetable standards, you are deemed unworthy as if you have an active choice in the way your body does or doesn’t hold weight.

“Just as some people are short, others are tall, some have smaller bodies and others have bigger ones. Genetics and social determinants of health play a much bigger role in body size and health,” licensed mental health counsellor, Molly Bahr, told Greatist.

“As a culture, we continue to equate thinness with wellness and weight loss with effort. Thin = healthy, fat = unhealthy. Losing weight = accomplishment, gaining weight = laziness.”

Sarah McMahon, a psychologist and the director of BodyMatters Australasia, an organisation that provides private, outpatient counselling and treatment for eating and dieting disorders, body image issues and problematic exercise, has worked in the field of disordered eating for 15 years. According to McMahon, diet culture “has a lot to answer for”.

“Many of our clients have internalised the message of diet culture which has ended them in a position where they are very sick,” McMahon told The Latch. “Our work is to try to help them get better however that is difficult when the toxic messages of diet culture are continuing all around them and are often perpetuated innocently by their loved ones and people in the medical industry.”

Diet culture doesn’t just stem from the fitness and health industry but is also peddled by the beauty, pharmaceutical and medical industry as a way to market and sell products. These industries profit off of the hatred and shame people have for their bodies and capitalise on these insecurities.

Women are encouraged to blast, freeze and melt away their fat while men are encouraged to pump iron and constantly be working towards “gains” in the gym. While the modus operandi slightly differs between the way diet culture targets men, women, trans-people and non-binary folks, it all results in a similar outcome which is ultimately the hatred of your own body.

This structure encourages people to police the food they consume, the clothes they wear and the way in which they move their body. People can go to “great lengths to try to not get fat,” McMahon explains, which includes “maintaining exercise and certain food choices. Others may be engaging in very unhealthy behaviours to remain thin, such as smoking”.

“For people who exist in larger bodies, the impact of this is far more severe,” said McMahon. This might include the constant surveillance of what they’re eating, which could stem from previous experiences of being censored by others.

“They may dress to not look ‘fat’ or try to minimise the size of their body,” McMahon said. “They may be torn between feeling like they need to exercise to lose weight however feel that they are too fat to attend a gym class. Awareness of their body may dictate every decision they make.”

Diet culture controls the lives of many people and impacts how they eat and exercise, the clothes they wear, the places they choose to go and how they inhabit the world. To say that this structure weighs on us would be an understatement. When society constantly tells you to shrink down smaller and take up less space, it often feels like the only way to fit in.

The obsession with thinness and fatness doesn’t end there. In fact, the fixation with weight — be it yours or others — is socially accepted and asking someone if they have lost weight is often considered to a compliment of the highest regard. We MUST do better than this. And, now that you know better, it’s time to do better.

This is part one of The Weight of It All. You can read part two here

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