Note: The following article discusses potentially triggering topics around dieting
By Katy Haynes
Diet culture is a pervasive set of beliefs that values thinness and idealised beauty standards above health and wellbeing. Diet culture has sneaked into every aspect of our daily lives, insidiously influencing the decisions we make, often without us realising. Grocery shopping has become a moral exercise as we push aside grandma’s gooey trifle for a ‘zero-calorie’, ‘guilt-free’ invention, which we try (and fail) to convince ourselves ‘tastes just the same!’ Exercise has become less about enjoying movement and more about satisfying that manic trainer at the gym screaming catchphrases like: “burn it to earn it!”, “let’s get beach body ready!” and “sweat is your fat crying!”
Even the way we dress is influenced by our desire to conform to the ‘thin-ideal’ expected of us by diet culture. Horizontal stripes? Widening. Skinny jeans? Better not. What about that top? Not with that figure. We do not leave these expectations at the door when we return home either. Diet culture’s messages are continually regurgitated by our favourite TV shows, on the radio, and even in the books we read, where the mantra ‘thin is better’ is constantly spouted out in various guises.
Without realising, we become desensitized to diet culture until it becomes entangled in our thinking and begins to govern our everyday behaviour. Diet culture creates a disconnect between our bodies and behaviours. Our actions become mandated by an external set of standards, rather than our bodily cues and intuition. A grumbling stomach doesn’t tell you when to eat; a meal schedule does. An aching muscle doesn’t tell you when to rest; a workout regimen does. Our everyday routines are no longer dictated by ourselves, but rather a set of artificial expectations created by diet culture. We experience a strange dislocation between our actions and desires, as if looking in on ourselves through misted glass. When did courgette oats become appealing? Since when were 6 am HIIT classes my new favourite thing? Is body contouring really necessary?
Diet culture feeds us a tantalising illusion. It promises us beauty and success if we just try hard enough: exercise enough, diet enough, control enough. The reality: it will never be enough. For many people, the ‘thin ideal’ is unattainable and attempts to get there will risk their mental and physical wellbeing in the process. Diet culture promotes disordered behaviour. We score points for missing a meal. We gain praise for obsessive exercise. But when does it stop? Diet culture feeds off our insecurities and the goalposts are always being pushed further away. No matter how hard we try, we never seem to get there.
From an early age, we are exposed to the bombardments of diet culture even in the conversations of the people around us. Perhaps you heard your grandma talking about her latest Weight Watchers class, or you noticed your dad stopped having cake before a family holiday. Children are like sponges, absorbing what they see and hear, taking it as a kind of truth. My seven-year-old cousin came home from school recently and told my auntie her thighs were “too fat.” Even by the age of seven, diet culture’s mantra of ‘smaller is better’ had begun to influence her self-perception.
Diet culture is endemic. We cannot idealise a society without it. However, we can all become more critical of our own involvement in it, recognising when we become diet culture’s mouthpieces. Notice yourself congratulating your friend on her weight loss. Notice yourself reprimanding yourself for that extra slice of toast. Switch up the dialogue. Find ways to speak against these beliefs. Perhaps if we generate a counter-narrative, we can diminish the impact of diet culture on future generations like my cousin’s. As Skylar Harrison recently commented: “My life got so much bigger once I stopped trying to make my body smaller.”
Illustration: Emerson Shams