07 Dec 2022
Diet Culture: The Only Thing We Need to Lose is Fatphobia
Diet culture is the dominant lens through which society has taught us to view beauty, health and our bodies. It promises that eating a certain way and sticking to regimented exercise routines will result in the ‘right’ body size, the ‘correct’ weight and good health - something that we should all be striving for in a society that rewards both thinness and discipline.
The entire concept of diet culture is based on the notion that our bodies aren’t good enough as they are and need changing (or in more crude terms; shrinking), and it’s up to us to put in the work. Globally, 45 million people will start a new diet every year and the average adult will try 126 of them across their lifetime. The sheer number of people prescribing to diet plans and products contributes to the diet industry’s estimated £2bn worth in the UK alone.
These numbers are staggeringly high, however the average diet lasts just 19 days. What’s more shocking is that 98% of diets ‘fail’. According to research, up to 98% of people regain all the weight that they lost within five years, and up to two-thirds of people end up regaining more weight than they lost in the first place. So, if diets truly worked and were sustainable in the long-term, surely we’d only need to go on one to reach our ‘desired’ weight, right?
That’s clearly not the case as demonstrated by the statistics, not to mention the range of adverse health issues associated with this on-off dieting. So why do we keep going back to them?
Diets are designed to be a quick fix to an emotional problem – we feel bad about ourselves (hello unrealistic beauty standards!) and turn to fad diets and confidence-promising plans to take our pain away. It’s no surprise that one of the most searched terms online is ‘how to lose weight fast’, and cited reasons for this search include ‘I don’t like what I see in the mirror’ and ‘I want to lose weight for my holiday’.
The moralisation of food and behaviour is what makes diet culture so insidious. We often label foods as ‘good’ and ‘bad’, reward our ‘good’ habits with food, or deny ourselves nourishment for what we see as ‘bad’ behaviours. Essentially what this means is that certain foods are bad, but we are bad for eating them. This moralisation places the blame on us, so when diets are eventually broken, we have failed, instead of diet culture actually failing us.
So why does diet culture exist? It’s all underpinned by fatphobia and anti-fat bias; a discrimination against people in larger bodies, which is inherently rooted in anti-blackness and racism. This form of discrimination is often so normalised that people who aren’t fat often don’t even notice it’s happening. For example, fat people are less likely to be employed than someone of a ‘regular’ size and health concerns are often dismissed with patients being told to lose weight instead of being given adequate treatment options. Other examples include clothing stores not stocking diverse sizes, and public spaces and furniture not catering to larger body sizes.
So, you may be thinking ‘well, what about health and wellness? Aren’t diets supposed to make us healthier?’. It is actually a myth that our weight determines our health. Health doesn’t have a ‘look’ or ‘size’ and is instead determined by a whole range of factors such as our genetics, socioeconomic status and living conditions. Traditional methods of measuring our bodies and health outcomes, such as the BMI scale, were developed from statistics involving mainly white, European men. How can we all be measured by the same scale, which was only based on a small section of the population when it was developed, when our global population is so diverse?
Pioneering movements, such as Health at Every Size (HAES), are working to combat this outdated and inaccurate view of health and weight. HAES focuses on de-emphasising weight loss as a health goal, as studies have found that dieting and other weight-loss interventions do not reliably produce positive health outcomes across the population. Instead, it states that health is a result of lifestyle behaviours which can be performed independently of our body weight.
The growth of the Body Positive movement and the greater representation of all bodies in the public sphere is starting to dismantle the fatphobia which is upholding diet culture. There’s still a long way to go, but in the last few years we have seen some positive changes starting to happen through greater representation and awareness.
There are ways we can all start to dismantle diet culture and fatphobia in our own lives, such as:
- Diversifying our social media feeds to recalibrate our ideas around what is healthy, normal and beautiful. Say goodbye to the societal beauty standards set for us, and create our own, more diverse spaces where everyone is included!
- With any type of discrimination, it’s important to learn from people who have direct lived experience, so do listen to fat activists who have been talking about this issue for years. We’d really recommend Maintenance Phase, a podcast which discusses fatphobia and debunks health and wellness industry myths.
- We must challenge fatphobia when we see it. This can be uncomfortable in practice, but it’s so important to normalise calling out statements which uphold diet culture.
- Assess your relationship with social media, and consider how it can perpetuate poor body image and diet culture in our lives. Read this insightful guide from Social Media Victims Law Centre about the impacts of social media on body image, particularly in young people.
It’s hard to get this entire topic into one succinct blog post, however we hope that this will act as a starting point to unlearning a mindset which is so ingrained in almost every part of Western society.