No matter where you look, the influence of diet culture is everywhere. Here are some of the most common places to stay self-aware of its effects on you.
BY: JILL CLODFELTER-MASON, RDN, CD
For decades, Western culture has provided us with unflattering portrayals of larger bodies in cartoons, children’s books, movies, and other forms of media. These negative characterizations continue on in real life, allowing what we call “diet culture” to have a prevalent presence in our society.
Diet culture is a set of beliefs revolving around the idea that “thin” bodies are the most desirable, valuable, and “healthy.” It conveys that eating a certain way is “good” or “bad” – and that a person’s worth increases when eating “healthy,” or when living in a small body. It also frequently presents an image of health as living in an able-bodied, small, white body. As Christy Harrison, MPH, RD, CDN, once wrote, “Diet culture is a form of oppression, and dismantling it is essential for creating a world that’s just and peaceful for people in all bodies.”
Diet culture’s influence is found throughout the health and wellness industry, telling you that all your dreams will come true when you obtain a smaller body and eat a certain way. However, what it doesn’t tell you is that dieting doesn’t work in the long-term for most people; that it can be harmful emotionally, physically, and mentally – and that it is:
- A strong risk factor for developing an eating disorder
- A strong predictor of weight gain
- Associated with weight cycling and yo-yo dieting, which are linked to worsened cardiovascular health and premature death.
Among many things, diet culture’s influence can lead to developing weight bias and weight stigma – which is the discrimination of people due to their body size or weight. This can be incredibly harmful to those individuals’ emotional, physical, and mental well-being. In fact, weight stigma is an independent risk factor for chronic health conditions. These external forces can eventually lead individuals to internalize weight stigma, in which a person begins to believe the labels that have been thrown at them to be true and can ultimately lead to chronic dieting, a decreased desire to exercise, binge eating, and other harmful behaviors.
In order to dismantle diet culture, the first step is to be aware of a variety of places where its influence can be found. Let’s take a closer look at everyday examples of diet culture’s influence – noticing that some of these also display weight discrimination.
1. GROCERY STORES
Shopping for food can easily create an environment where judgments are being made. For example, an employee may compliment a shopper for being “so good,” at the checkout line because the shopper is buying a large amount of “healthy” ingredients.
A grocery shopper is taking pictures of the food in his or her cart – and posting it on Instagram with a “clean” eating message or “If I can do it, you can too” statement. Another individual looks into a grocery cart containing sweets and thinks that the other shopper is being “bad” for purchasing those items – sometimes even removing groceries from the person’s cart.
2. HEALTH CARE
Often times, health professionals tend to elevate smaller bodies – and make the assumption that a smaller body is “healthy” solely due to its size while viewing a larger body as “unhealthy.” They may not be taking into account the impact that discrimination based on skin color, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, and body size can have on a person’s health. They also may not be taking into account how a person’s genetics, stress levels, level of self-care, and socioeconomic status can influence one’s wellness.
At best, they may view patients in larger bodies as undisciplined and “noncompliant with treatment.” At worst, a diagnosis is missed because a health professional is distracted by a person’s higher weight – solely suggesting weight loss. This can also apply to a health professional who may think that a thin-bodied person is already “healthy.” Missing a diagnosis can be life-threatening in any size.
On the flip side, a thin-bodied health professional may be labeled as someone who is more competent than a health professional in a larger body – despite talented and knowledgeable professionals coming in all shapes and sizes.
Did you know that it is considered legal to terminate a person’s employment based on weight in 49 states in the United States? Research also indicates that higher weight employees have less job opportunities, and are paid less in contrast to people in lower weight bodies – particularly women.
Weight loss challenges through corporate wellness programs reinforce the idea that being smaller is desirable and healthier. If companies want to empower their employees’ health, it would make more sense to reduce weight stigma within their organizations and focus on health-promoting behaviors that create positive and sustainable change – at any size.
And let’s not forget about the comments that some coworkers can make about your food choices as you’re getting ready to take a bite, like, “Do you know how many carbohydrates are in that?”
While there are some gyms popping up that promote a more inclusive, body-positive vibe, many gyms continue to elevate smaller bodies and the idea that the goal of exercise is to obtain a smaller body.
Some fitness instructors that lead group classes talk about “burning off” a certain food by working out, which insinuates that we can’t consume food and enjoy it. They insist that foods must be “burned off” in order to have a small body – which projects the idea that exercise should be used for weight loss – when in reality, it is meant to be enjoyed, help us feel well, and promote heart health.
And of course some gyms communicate “clean” eating messages and label foods as “good” or “bad.”
5. MAINSTREAM MEDIA
According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), “The best-known environmental contributor to the development of eating disorders is the sociocultural idealization of thinness.”
The majority of characters on TV and in movies are thin-bodied – portraying smaller bodies as the most desirable. There is also an abundance of magazine articles and books dedicated to the latest fad diet, “clean” eating, and tips for how to trim down.
From children’s cartoons to movies, people in larger bodies are not portrayed in their best light with jokes about their size that are often dehumanizing.
6. SOCIAL MEDIA
A large number of accounts exist that portray “clean” eating and demonize a variety of foods, fitness posts revolving around the goal of being thin-bodied, and the promotion of different restrictive diets. Bullying people in larger bodies also take place regularly – including threats of violence.
7. CLOTHING STORES
While the number of plus-size clothing stores and fashion-forward options are increasing, there is still so much room for improvement. Around 67% of American women are plus-size, wearing size 14 or higher – yet so many stores fail to provide plenty of options for smaller and larger bodies.
People are also being charged more money for plus-size clothing. People who wear a size 11 shoe are charged the same amount of money as people who wear a size 6 shoe. As one fashion designer states, “We rarely see tall and maternity editions of clothing being priced differently. It’s cruel and unfair to single out one body type.”
As we grow more aware of diet culture’s influence, let’s do better to avoid discriminating against others while improving our own attitudes towards ourselves. The good news is that once we know more, we can do better.
And by lessening diet culture’s influence on us as individuals, we can start promoting health equity for all bodies.
Adapted from the original post.
HEADER IMAGE: SERGEY RYZHOV
Jill Clodfelter-Mason, RDN, CD, is a private practice dietitian, health coach, food blogger, and owner of Cultivate Joy Nutrition in central Indiana. She assists her clients with developing a healthier relationship with food and their bodies. Jill’s mission is to help women overcome the ‘shoulds’ that rule their lives, so they can become fully present in celebrating delicious, nourishing foods and reconnecting with who they are – mind, body, and soul. To learn more about Jill, check out her website, www.cultivatejoynutrition.com, and follow her on Pinterest, Instagram, and Facebook @cultivatejoynutrition.