Diet culture is concept that has the ability to create long-term physical and emotional harm on society. People of all ages, genders, backgrounds, body shapes and sizes can be impacted by the insidious nature of diet culture. Understanding the problematic dynamics can hopefully help you resist its harmful effects and work towards healing any damage that has been done to your relationship with food and your body.
What is Diet Culture?
Diet culture is a system of beliefs that promotes and values a thinness with disregard to the negative impacts it has on a person’s mental and physical health, self-esteem, and relationship to food and their body. You more likely than not come across signs of diet culture on a daily basis. It can look like “beach body” advertisements on social media or more topically, getting rid of any weight gained during the COVID-19 quarantine.
It’s important to mention that there is nothing inherently wrong with following a certain diet, exercising regularly, or even wanting to look a certain way. The choices you make regarding your body are yours and only yours to make. Dieting, losing weight, and exercising becomes a problem when it consumes your life, finances, energy, becomes restrictive, and overall makes you feel bad significantly more than it makes you feel good.
5 Ways Diet Culture Can Harm Self-Esteem
The “Thinness = Health” Myth
There are many factors that go into determining someone’s health. Medical history, genetics, certain medications, and more are also considerations when a medical professional is assessing someone’s health. Body size can’t always communicate whether someone is healthy or unhealthy and that messaging can be hurtful for those who are not thin. Diet culture often perpetuates the idea that if you’re thin, you are more medically healthy than those in bigger bodies. Only you and your doctor are qualified to make those calls.
Diet Culture is Rooted in Racism
There exists an intersection between diet culture and racism, particularly against black women, though all BIPOC can fall victim. In her book, Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia, Dr. Sabrina Strings highlights the historical presence of white colonizers associating black women with overindulging in sex and food, believing that they were gluttonous, lazy, and lacked self-control. Control and rationally were seen as traits of whiteness thus creating historical context around centering whiteness as the beauty standard and pioneering weight stigma and fat phobia. For those who exist in bigger bodies that are not white, they are often left out of the typical beauty standard perpetuated by diet culture and many are often made to feel marginalized.
You Are NOT What You Eat
You might have heard the phrase “you are what you eat.” The phrase is a way that diet culture places morality on types of food. Have you ever turned down a certain food you really wanted because it was too caloric? Did you feel as if you didn’t deserve a high calorie food? If you’ve experienced a similar situation where you find yourself placing moral value on your food choices, it’s likely a product of diet culture’s messaging about foods as good or bad. Placing morality on food often keeps people in restrictive eating habits and can result in developing negative body image or an eating disorder.
Emphasis on Excessive Exercise
There are benefits to exercise. Researchers and medical professionals have found that moderate exercise a few times a week can combat certain medical conditions, improve mood, boost energy, and more. There is nothing wrong with exercise, unless someone develops an unhealthy relationship with it.
An unhealthy relationship with exercise might look like someone working out excessively, becoming obsessed with working out, isolating from people and hobbies in place of exercise, or believing that they are only allowed to eat as long as they exercise. Diet culture’s emphasis on exercise comes from a place of achieving and maintaining thinness and punishment for eating, rather than improving or maintaining one’s physical and mental health.
The Financial Investment
It can be incredibly pricy to keep up with diet culture. There are always new exercise products, weight loss supplements, body shape-wear, and more that promote the idea that certain products will make you skinnier and ultimately happier. Not everyone can afford the many diet products or diet-approved foods advertised to them. It can feel as if not having those products is the only thing getting in the way of losing weight and it can bring up feelings of shame, failure, and inadequacy. Diet culture benefits from keeping people insecure, longing for thinness, and believing there are products out there that can make people lose weight quickly.
Rejecting Diet Culture
Diet culture is everywhere, and the almost $200 billion industry is likely not going anywhere anytime soon. However, there are ways you can reject the damaging ways it impacts you. One example is exploring intuitive eating, where you learn to let your body be the expert on what you want to eat instead of diet culture.
There are many resources out there in the form of books, YouTube videos, podcasts, and more that can help guide you on your way to freedom from the dieting cycle, restriction, and all the various aspects of diet culture that steal from your self-esteem. Whatever route you take; know you can liberate yourself from the harmful confines of diet culture and learn to live more freely.