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  • Christina Hughes

Unpacking Diet Culture

CW warning (diets, diet talk, ED, language)


So, I gave you the scoop on diet culture over @bigfatpregnancy, but I wanted to spend a bit more time unpacking it for those of you who might be new to this term or idea.


Diet Culture is the system of beliefs that values weight, shape, and size over health and well-being. It worships thinness and provides, and unachievable goal based in an unrealistic standard.


Diet culture is not related to being on a specific diet per se, but rather doing anything necessary to fit the socially constructed, unrealistic, and false narratives around beauty. An easy way to think about it, is that diet culture is anything that equates health and beauty to slenderness and food and eating to morality. This system of beliefs disproportionately harms women, historically marginalize folks, individuals with disabilities, and those in larger bodies. We’ll talk about its roots in racism shortly.


What makes diet culture especially tricky is that is a shapeshifting motherfucker, it used to be a bit more obvious, people participated in diets i.e. Atkins, WW, ate low fat foods, talked about diets at the water cooler etc. And while those are all still included and prominent in diet culture, it is now also often presented under the guise of "health" and sells clean eating, detoxes, intermittent fasting, diet teas, waist trainers, and more! At the end of the day it is all connected to the demonization and fear mongering around food and eating in pursuit of a specific physical appearance.


One way to identify diet culture is to think about how a statement, product, Instagram account makes you feel. If they make you feel guilt, shame, want to avoid social situations, encourage the need to earn food, or make you think you’re good or bad based on your food choices… those are all part of this toxic diet culture.


Diet culture is harmful because it promotes disordered eating, that there is one ideal form of beauty, it it takes the pursuit of health (which is nuanced and as individual as we are) and turns it into rigid rules, it stigmatizes marginalized bodies, black and queer fold as well as disabled bodies and it wastes our motherfucking time, energy, and money,. It’s classist and disregards real issues like food security and deserts and lack of funds for expensive “remedies”, gym memberships, clothing, etc.


The idea of glorifying thinness and condemning fatness has a long history. This history is rooted in racism and is strongly anti-black. If you haven’t read Fearing the Black Body by Sabrina Strings, I highly recommend it. If you want to borrow my copy, let me know! This book dives deep into fatphobia and thin supremacy which aim to keep white women in line with bodily ideals (created by the white man) and to punish Black women for not fulfilling them. The history of enslaving Africans and the rise of Protestantism created an environment where fatness was condemned for its immorality and based on othering the bodies of those people enslaved. I’ll be honest, the first few chapters are very history focused and were a bit hard for me to get through, but the outcome is a deep exploration of how depictions of women and specifically Black women, influenced the views of beauty and how those views were transformed not only in art and philosophical thinking, but also then became ideals over time of “exceptional American thinness”. Strings talks about this evolution through time and how the introduction of the visualization of these "moral ideals" through magazines like the cosmopolitan, book covers contributing to cementing that one ideal of beauty, thin, white, and wealthy.


Long story short, too late for that, it’s all connected. Diet culture exists today still so we can control and “other” bodies that don’t meet the “ideal skinny white body” and still excludes and draws moral conclusions about fat bodies, and most harshly that fat Black women’s bodies.


We cannot begin to break down fatphobia and weight stigma until we understand these connections to racism and white supremacy and start to evaluate those within ourselves. As a white woman educating about this topic, I feel it is imperative to start with self-reflection of how I support this vision of beauty and perfection sold to me, how I spend my dollars, and how my acceptance of diet culture has supported anti-black sentiments and actions.


If you're just starting this exploration, here are some questions you might think about:

  1. Where do I see diet culture show up in my life?

  2. What are things I believe to be true about my beauty and worth? Are they dependent on my size? Where did these beliefs come from? Are they actually true? If not, what can I replace those "truths with"?

  3. What am I saying out loud when I'm around those living in larger bodies? What message does that send them?

  4. How can I put my white privilege to work for non-white people in this space?

  5. What books am I reading? What podcasts am I listening to? What movies/tv am I watching? How are they supporting the diet culture and anti-black narrative? What can I do about that? Can I stop supporting them monetarily? Can I diversify my social media to include anti-diet culture and BIPOC voices/creators? Can I support them monetarily?


And as always, if nothing else, remember, your body shape, size, weight is the LEAST interesting thing about you!


Further Reading/Listening: Fearing the Black Body, Sabrina Strings, Anti Diet Christy Harrison, Body Respect Lindo Bacon and Lucy Aphramor, Don’t Salt My Game Podcast, Association for Size Diversity and health (ASDAH) @haes_sizediversity


Some BIPOC Instagram accounts to follow: @fatwomenof color, @fatblackluxury, @fit.flexible.fluid @sonyareneetaylor @nalgonapositivityp


Sources for this blog:

https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/blog/recognizing-and-resisting-diet-culture#:~:text=Diet%20Culture%20suggests%20that%20people,shamed%2C%20stigmatized%2C%20and%20harassed.


https://christyharrison.com/blog/what-is-diet-culture


https://isarobinsonnutrition.co.uk/blog/what-is-diet-culture


Fearing the Black Body, Sabrina Strings



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