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The Problem with Diet Culture

Written by: Miranda Hawthorne 

Miranda Hawthorne is one of NAMI Wake’s work study students, helping us as a social media technician and blog contributor. 

“Get slim fast!” “How to meet your New Year’s weight goals” “10 Best Diets to Try Now!” 

You’ve seen these headlines before. Maybe on magazines at the grocery store, advertisements online, or posts on social media. These ads target everyone, especially women, to focus on losing weight by dieting. Media influences pressure us to look a certain way, do certain exercises, and try out new diets. But how does diet culture actually impact our physical and emotional wellbeing? 

Recognizing Diet Culture 

Diet culture is present all around us, at all times. Diet culture is any outside influence pressuring an individual to equate their worth with their appearance, especially their size. Diet culture can be present in media and advertisements, but also can come from comments from a medical professional, friend, or family member. Our society has normalized and accepted the frequent outside pressure to appear a certain way and to perform feats including rigorous exercise and dieting to appear “attractive.” Dieting is accepted as a part of normal life and is promoted heavily after holidays, during the New Year, and before summertime; though it is not realistic or healthy to constantly diet. 

The Impact of Diet Culture

The most damaging aspect of diet culture is that it leads individuals to equate dieting and size with health. Diet culture never ends – once a person commits to a new diet, there is always more to improve or new diets to try. This “diet cycle” can cause a healthy individual to develop a disordered relationship with food and impact their physical and mental health. Diet culture also focuses only on appearance, rather than health. Diet culture promotes thinness as the ideal for health and moral virtue, though that is simply not true. Advertisements and media can harm one’s self-image and self-esteem, and this can be especially damaging for teenage girls. Individuals may strive for unrealistic weight or size goals that put their health in jeopardy, just to attain an impossible standard. Diet culture and its messages can lead to eating disorders and other mental health issues. 

Resisting Diet Culture 

Resisting diet culture is difficult when all of us are surrounded by dieting advertisements, social media accounts promoting “health” products, and even our everyday conversations focused around weight, size, or diets. Brenna O’Malley, RD, gives these great examples of diet culture at work: 

  • “If I was thinner, then I’d want to go to the gym regularly” 
  • “I used to dance but I’m too ____ to now, maybe if I was ____” 
  • “Oh man, if I ate like that every day I’d be ____” 
  • “They’d like me more if my body was ___” 
  • “Well, in high school I weighed X but haven’t been able to get back to that since.”

To resist the impact of diet culture, we all need to recognize these statements. Think back to the last time you tried dieting – that diet was not a “miracle cure” that allowed you to become more beautiful, happier, or healthier. Remembering the reality behind dieting can help you resist the appealing marketing done by advertisements and media. Another way to reject diet culture is focusing on body positivity, even though embracing body positivity over diet culture can seem radical. Body positivity is embracing every type of body regardless of size or appearance, and choosing to respect and treat your own body well. This also includes listening to the cues your body gives you. Here are a few tips to help you identify and reject diet culture, and embrace body positivity instead: 

  • Avoid negative self-talk: Check the language you use with yourself. You are most consistently exposed to your own thoughts, so make sure you are being kind to yourself and your body. Check in with your self-talk by considering whether you would say those things to a friend. 
  • Clean up your social media: Social media gives a platform to all kinds of content, but there is a difference between healthy and unhealthy content to surround yourself with. If an account promotes dieting or thinness, you don’t have to follow or interact with it. If an account makes you feel bad about yourself or encourages you to change who you are, you have the ability to remove yourself from that content. There are tons of body-positive accounts that share content on self-love at any size!
  • Speak out against diet culture: You can speak out against diet culture by avoiding the topic of dieting or equating health and size in your daily conversations, promoting knowledge of anti-diet-culture on your social media, and speaking out against media or individuals that promote diet culture. 
  • Reject sizeism: All different sizes of bodies can be healthy or unhealthy. Unlearn the idea that thinness is equal to health and challenge your perceptions of different body sizes. 

Removing oneself from the diet culture you’ve been surrounded by your whole life will not happen overnight. However, with practice and intentional changes to your mindset, diet culture can have less of an impact on your life. 

Sources: I, II

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