Diet culture is inescapable in today’s society. It influences the way we think about food and exercise, and controls how we view our bodies. Further to shaming our eating habits, it pressures us to conform to specific body shapes, which, for the majority of us, are completely unrealistic due to the variability in our naturally occurring body types. With these impossible ideals of what we should look like hanging over us, it is having harrowing effects on our mental health. We are all striving for that ‘perfect’ body. But is it actually possible to achieve this media-fuelled pipe dream?
So what exactly is diet culture? According to rhetoric expert Dr Kate Browne, how we eat and exercise are equated to either a sense of achievement for following diet culture’s rules, or guilt for breaking them. It convinces us that by eating and exercising in certain ways – often by following very strict regimes – we can achieve the body shape that society deems attractive. But by drawing a link between food choices and ethics, diet culture assigns hierarchical value to bodies, valuing smaller over bigger ones. It almost always emphasises losing weight, not gaining it. This bias, which is often overlooked, greatly impacts our mental health in terms of self-esteem and body satisfaction.
Although men certainly feel the effects of diet culture too, women have long had it tougher when it comes to body shape and weight expectations. It is primarily women that are compared to supermodels, actresses, and even photoshop. It seems that no matter how we look, it is never good enough. This stems from assumptions that a woman’s appearance can dictate her value in society. A 2016 study, Gender and the Returns to Attractiveness, discovered a correlation between physical attractiveness and higher income. Importantly, the study noted that the main factor that determined whether or not a woman was deemed physically attractive was personal grooming, whereas the same was true for men only half the time. Women who spent more time applying make-up and styling their hair (which in most professions is unimportant for job performance) were paid more. This begs the question: why does the way in which women present themselves have such an impact on how much they earn? With a gender pay gap deeply-rooted in our society, the link between a women’s perceived beauty and the worth of her contributions in the work place cannot be ignored. Our wages should not be judged on the personal choice of wearing make-up to work or not. It represents another layer of societal pressure that women face every day. The pressure to be constantly well-groomed is just another way in which women are made to feel as though their natural self is unworthy.
Women in sheep’s clothing
Women’s magazines also illustrate diet culture’s pervasiveness. They continually bombard us with exercise regimes and diets that will magically alter our bodies so we can achieve the required level of attractiveness to be valued by society. Nowadays, social media may surpass magazines as a more formidable promotor of diet culture, especially owing to its substantial influence over younger generations.
Take the Kardashians, with their millions of Instagram followers. Kim alone has at least 121.1 million, the majority of whom are young, impressionable girls and women. Most of their posts are either photos or selfies of themselves. They might come from photoshoots or their ‘real lives’, but in whichever context they are taken, one factor remains the same: the ostentatious display of their bodies. Their make-up is always ‘on point’ and their bodies are always in ‘perfect shape’. While it may be refreshing to see women who love their bodies, especially since several of the Kardashians have been through pregnancy, we need to think about the damage this causes.
Last year, Dove published research revealing that 61% of girls aged 10-17 in the UK have low self-esteem. This is deeply saddening, yet unsurprising. Given the omnipresence of social media in the lives of young people, content that showcases physical ‘perfection’ seems almost impossible to avoid. Nowadays, a girl does not have to seek out such content because it is no longer contained in women’s magazines. Whenever she is on Instagram or Facebook, she is being told all the ways she must change herself, ‘improve’ herself, in order to be accepted. The Kardashians’ prominent social media presence means they are at least partly responsible.
The Kardashians’ power over the modern-day perception of beauty is unrivalled. The plump lip craze, for example, started by Kylie Jenner has had thousands of women trying to achieve the same look. Problems arise when this sells women an unrealistic, narrow, and dangerous form of beauty. Professional photographers, make-up-artists, plastic surgery, dieticians and airbrushing all factor into the Kardashians’ supposed flawlessness. This artificiality is often glossed over, acknowledged to a certain extent but never lingered on. The Kardashians both profit from and propagate the toxic mindsets that trap the women and young girls in a cycle of low self-esteem and self-hatred as they struggle to compete with the their carefully crafted perfection. They are, in the words of actor and campaigner Jameela Jamil, the ‘double agents of the patriarchy’.
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The Kardashians’ paid partnership with Flat Tummy Co demonstrates their involvement in circulating a damaging relationship with food and exercise. The company sells tea, shakes, and lollipops designed to help women lose weight and gain the flat stomach that diet culture tells us is necessary for being beautiful. Khloe Kardashian has promoted their shakes on her Instagram, telling her followers that she uses them to obtain her flat, toned stomach. But these shakes are nothing but fancy laxatives: all Flat Tummy Co and Khloe Kardashian are selling are expensive drinks that lead to diarrhoea. What makes this worse, is that laxatives are a dangerous way of stimulating temporary weight-loss by clearing your bowels, and side-effects include dehydration, electrolyte imbalance, and dependence. There is no evidence to suggest that using laxatives can lead to long-term, genuine weight-loss. The Kardashians are guilty of marketing a product that is not only a waste of money, but can also cause or exacerbate eating disorders. The huge power and influence of the Kardashians means that we cannot take their endorsement of such products lightly.
Finding your good place
There have been some signs of a counteroffensive against diet culture, with several public figures making a stand against its damaging message. Actor Jameela Jamil, currently starring in Netflix’s The Good Place, has first-hand experience of recovering from eating disorders and body dysmorphia. She adamantly opposes air-brushing, and the flood of positive responses received by her Instagram post, ‘I love the big stretch marks on my boobs’ suggests many agree. Jamil is also the founder of the campaign I Weigh, which she started after seeing an image of the Kardashians in which they were each labelled by their weight. She posted an image of herself in response, which, in contrast to the Kardashians’ image, was accompanied by a description of the ways in which she defines her worth as a person and everything she loves about herself. The I Weigh campaign (@i_weigh) became an Instagram phenomenon, with thousands of women (and some men) sending pictures of themselves and listing what qualities they are proud of, unrelated to their body size or shape.
Laura Thomas, who has a PhD in nutritional sciences, also strongly opposes diet culture. Responding to the January/February 2018 edition cover of Women’s Health UK, she tweeted: ‘going on a diet may transform your body (temporarily, diets don’t work long-term), but it’s not a cure for low self-esteem, it doesn’t help you cultivate body acceptance or good body image, and it can lead you down the path of disordered eating.’ Both Jamil and Thomas want people, women in particular, to accept and love their bodies for how they look naturally. It is the self-love that everyone needs to make the first step towards a genuinely healthier lifestyle. A healthier mind not weighed down by diet culture will pave the way to a healthier, happier body.
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⚠️ Trigger warning, please don’t swipe right if you’re in a bad place with body image, exercise or restriction. 📆 Taking a brief interlude from the Non-Diet Advent Cal to bring you the latest in diet culture dumbfuckery. 😱Earlier this afternoon I ran into a shop and was STUNNED by this ludicrous @womenshealthuk cover (swipe to see but literally just to laugh at how ridiculous it is and not because it means anything.) 🙅♀️This cover is the EPITOME of diet culture. 🤦♀️ This is, of course, their yearly ‘transform’ issue, which promises to ‘shed kilos, strip fat, and build muscle’. 💭 But remember, going on a diet may transform your body (temporarily, diets don’t work long-term), but it’s not a cure for low self-esteem, it doesn’t help you cultivate body acceptance or good body image, and it can lead you down the path of disordered eating. 😈 That’s the lie of diet culture. It promises you things will be better after you change your body. 💩 But guys, even Beyonce shits. No amount of controlling your body will make you happy, and you still have to get up and go to work when you reach your target. You’ll still have relationship problems and family drama, and all the rest. Diets don’t solve problems. 🤔 Plus ‘sculpt killer abs’. But guys. YOU ALREADY HAVE ABS, they do an awesome job supporting your lower back and internal organs. 🙄 What this message is REALLY saying is “restrict your energy intake through disordered and restrictive eating & kill yourself in the gym, and don’t even think about having a social life”. 🙈You get the point, right? This magazine has nothing to do with health and everything to do with tearing down your self confidence and preying on your insecurities in order to sell you something, either the magazine itself or their strategically placed partnerships. 💰 Please save yourself £4 and instead consider donating to an eating disorder or mental health charity. 🌈 remember that movement isn’t punishment for eating. And you don’t owe it to anyone to conform to unrealistic aesthetics that someone else decided for you. 🍑 if working out and eating nutritious food are your jam then that’s awesome, but it should never be at the expense of…
Your body is a temple: respect it
Does dieting actually work? Is it possible to achieve the ideal body? For the great majority of people, dieting is only a short-term fix and cannot significantly or permanently change your weight or shape. Ragen Chastain (speaker, writer, certified health coach, marathoner and fathlete) ‘spent many years of [her] life trying to become thin, because [she] was promised that being thin was the key to happiness, health, and all [her] dreams coming true.’ But this is the lie that diet culture tells. In her article, How to leave toxic diet culture behind and pursue actual health, Chastain rips apart studies that supposedly prove the success of diets, showing that their results were manipulated or their goal-posts were shifted to achieve the desired outcome. She uncovered how most people who go on diets put the weight back on, and sometimes even regain more than was previously lost.
In that case, how do we improve our health while avoiding dieting and other damaging advice promoted by diet culture? First, Chastain suggests that ‘researchers, clinicians, and public health officials should focus on physical activity and fitness-based interventions, rather than weight-loss driven approaches to reduce mortality risk.’ People of all shapes and sizes should exercise to build up stamina, strength and speed. Let yourself enjoy exercising with the knowledge that it is great for your health, helping you to live longer and more happily, without the unnecessary pressure of weight loss haunting you. There are many ways to foster a healthier lifestyle that do not include restricting dietary intake.
Secondly, unfollow any toxic celebrities, friends, and family members on social media. You have control over your own feed, use it to empower yourself and make yourself feel better, not worse. Follow accounts that promote self-love, body acceptance and healthy eating habits, such as @i_weigh, @bodyposipanda, and @laurathomasphd. We need to start believing that our bodies are worth taking care of, no matter how they look. Your body will always deserve food (no matter how much you ate yesterday) and your body will always look beautiful in its natural form (despite not being airbrushed to ‘flawlessness’). Embrace your flaws because they make you human.
Is diet culture damaging to your physical and mental health? Yes, most probably. The influence it has over our bodies, opinions and lives starts at a young age and continues long into adulthood. It takes significant work to defeat such a powerful opponent to our self-worth, and it can only be beaten by loving yourself as you are. Accept your natural body shape and understand that you do not have to conform to what the media tells you is attractive. Eating and exercising should be for survival, enjoyment, and health, not simply to achieve specific body measurements. With diet culture being as pervasive as it is, loving yourself unconditionally is not easy, but it is the kind of treatment that you and your body deserve.