Sometimes learning about diet culture can feel like putting on eyeglasses for the first time and seeing your surroundings clearly while also marvelling at how long you lived life blurred around the edges. In my experience, when my HAES-informed, anti-diet therapist and dietitian first introduced the concept of diet culture to me I felt partly relieved that the shame and guilt I felt wasn’t necessarily “my fault”, and I also felt partly astounded that I was unknowingly such an active participant in consuming and perpetuating this culture.
What is diet culture? Christy Harrison offers a robust definition in her book, Anti-Diet: Reclaim Your Time, Money, Well-Being and Happiness Through Intuitive Eating. According to Harrison, diet culture is a system of beliefs that:
- Values thinness and equates it to health and moral virtue perpetuating an impossibly thin “ideal”
- Promotes weight loss as a means for attaining higher status despite research that indicates no one can sustain intentional weight loss for more than a few years
- Demonizes certain ways of eating while elevating others
- Oppresses people who don’t match with the supposed picture of “health” which disproportionately harms women, people in larger bodies, people of color and people with disabilities
After learning about diet culture many come to find that it is a philosophy you’ve been subscribing to without even realizing it. And then you see it everywhere. You may see it in your social media, books, magazines, workplaces, workout studios, schools, friend groups and even your own family. And this can feel very overwhelming and disheartening.
In particular, if your loved ones are caught deep in the beliefs surrounding diet culture it can be so, very frustrating. You just want those around you to be able to see what you can with your newfound clear vision and insight! Trust me, I’ve been there. Early in my recovery when I was unpacking diet culture and its impact on me and my eating disorder I wanted so badly to explain to my sisters and mom how prevalent diet culture is. How it sneaks into even the seemingly harmless comments of “I’ve got to work off this pizza tomorrow” or complimenting someone on their weight loss. I’d think if I could only phrase it right or explain it in XYZ way then maybe they’d understand. But some people may not be ready to listen – they need to want to learn and have an open mind. All we can control are our own thoughts and actions, not those of others or how they interpret our actions. This can be a tough pill to swallow when we think we know “what’s best” but it also allows us to release the pressure of needing to “educate” everyone around us. That is far too heavy a burden to carry. When it comes to those closest to us, friends and family, I found they actively expressed a desire to learn (as dismantling diet culture was a large part of my recovery) so in turn I shared anti-diet, intuitive eating and body positivity books, podcasts and social media accounts that I felt could explain my perspective without having the stress on me to “describe it right.” Offering the resources and then letting time, grace and patience do their things helped me to feel seen and heard by my loved ones.
But we don’t always have the energy, or responsibility, to call out diet culture to every passing stranger or acquaintance. At first, every time someone made a statement steeped in diet culture it stung. I could feel it deeply and felt myself shrink away from them and my surroundings. In the early days of recovery being surrounded by diet culture can feel triggering – from your workplace “Biggest Loser” challenge to your friend’s aunt talking about her latest diet – but it won’t always be this way. Your wounds are still relatively fresh so it stings to hear things that irritate them; however, over time your tolerance increases and you build a tougher skin around what was once hurt. When you hear a colleague or friend talking about their latest diet or the numbers on the scale you can recognize it for what it is – diet culture hard at work – and acknowledge that person is stuck in diet culture but you don’t need to be.
In fact, as time went on my anger toward those actively participating in diet culture transformed into sympathy and sadness for they were trapped in a system of beliefs that is ultimately harming them, just as I was years ago. Diet culture is not going anywhere and over time it takes on new forms like the “wellness industry” and “clean/healthy living” which are fancy words for the same things. Instead of focusing on trying to take down “the evil empire” I’ve found a sense of peace by instead living my own life aligned to my authentic values (of which thinness is not) and letting the joy and contentment that comes with that radiate outward. You never know who is watching and your commitment to a lifestyle different from diet culture may help those around you to at the very least question what they know and maybe inspire them to change.
By: Maddy Weingast, Assistant for Therapy for Eating Disorders and Body Image