Downsides of Diet Culture

Picture of a adorable pug named Biscuit walking toward the camera saying “If I want the Food Police I’ll call Pie-1-1”

Today a new blog reader asked me “I’ve heard you talk about “diet culture” but what do you mean when you say that, I mean, what are the downsides?” Well, unless you are one of the people profiting from diet culture, it’s pretty much nothing but downside. Still let’s look at some specifics:

Conflates size and health, pathologizes some body sizes

Diet culture sells the lie that weight and health are the same thing (despite the fact that it’s plainly observable that there are healthy and unhealthy people of all sizes – knowing, of course, that health isn’t an obligation, barometer of worthiness, or entirely into our control.)  Diet culture seeks to pathologize body sizes (with terms like “overweight,” and “obese”) because it creates a greater market for diet products that don’t work.

Encourages following external rules about what, when, and how much to eat

Diet culture tries to convince us that we can’t be trusted to choose what to eat or how much as if what they suggest instead isn’t completely ridiculous.

Suggests that people are more or less good/moral/worthy based on their body size

We see this in the headless fatty pictures, and in the suggestion that someone’s body size tells us whether we should vote for them.

Creates thin privilege – makes thinness a gatekeeper for jobs/benefits/comfort/accommodation

In telling us that thin people are worthy and fat people are not, diet culture creates a culture where fat people are not seen as “deserving” of the same basic accommodations as thin people – chairs, blood pressure cuffs, seats on a plane, safe restraints on amusement park rides, etc. It also makes being thin the gatekeeper for being hired and paid fairly. It tells us to assume that someone’s size can tell us how good a singer, actor, or dancer they are, or you in a way that makes being thin a privileged identity (even though, yes, bad things still happen to thin people, and diet culture still hurts people of all sizes.)

Suggests movement as punishment for, or prevention of, being fat, rather than for other reasons like fun, or personal goals

Nobody is obligated to participate in fitness, and participating in fitness doesn’t make someone better than those who don’t. But for many of us, things that could be fun hobbies get ruined by a culture that suggests that the only reason to exercise is to punish or bodies for being fat, or prevent them from getting that way. That’s total crap. Many a messy breakup with exercise could have been avoided if people weren’t given such messed up ideas about movement.

Views fat people as less valuable – more risk-able

A thin person goes to the doctor with type 2 diabetes. They are given interventions that are shown to control T2D with minimum risks. A fat person goes to the doctor with the exact same symptoms. They are told that they should have a surgery that amputates part of their stomach and creates disease in the small bit that remains, even though organizations who advocate for this procedure claim that it kills 15 out of 1,000 people who have it (likely a low-balled number because of the tendency for blaming the patient for dying because they are fat.) Those who do survive can be left with horrible lifelong side effects and require many more surgeries, many people gain their weight back, and many people end up seeing their T2D return. Not to mention that fat people are prescribed (highly profitable) medications that could literally kill us, for the small hope of losing just a few pounds. Fat bodies are seen as infinitely more riskable than thin bodies. Doctors seem to believe that the misery that is created by fatphobia means that we are better off literally dying to be thin than trying to live our best life in a fat body (rather than, you know, ending fatphobia.)

Diet culture creates a world that is permeated by discussions of food, weight, exercise, diets. The supposed “right” to discuss these things in every environment is fervently defended.

In diet culture you can’t turn on a radio, television, look at a billboard, open a magazine (or look at the cover for that matter,) without hearing diet and weight loss talk – this is significant because weight loss talk reinforces the idea that thin bodies are better than fat bodies which reinforces all the downsides we just talked about. Diet culture means that you can’t have a Facebook group with a no weight loss talk rule, without needing an army of moderators to delete all the posts of people who insist that, even though they know that the rule is no weight loss talk, they feel that their weight loss talk is special and that they should be able to talk about it.

Diet Culture Perpetuates Eating Disorders and Prevents Full Recovery

In a culture where hating your body and being terrified of being or becoming fat or gaining weight is considered normal, eating disorders can be expected and full eating disorder recovery can be impossible.

Nothing good comes from diet culture. If we want a world where people can actually pursue health by their own definition, prioritization, and path – then they need people to be able to get honest information, we need people (and their families, friends, and healthcare providers) to have the opportunity to see their bodies as worthy of care, and the access to the things that they need to pursue their goals. Diet culture (and the for-profit healthcare system it rests upon) will never allow that to happen. So we need a paradigm shift to a Health at Every Size and Size Acceptance paradigm.

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11 thoughts on “Downsides of Diet Culture

  1. Ragen, as always THANK YOU for your educational statements of FACT AND TRUTH!! You always have the BEST and most interesting posts.I only wish more people would pay close attention to what you are say ing.I think that they are fearful of this honesty and that is only one reason of many that drives their behavior..Keep up your fantastic work and know that your tireless efforts truly are appreciated by many!☺

  2. Hi, I just found this artist’s work. I really like her images of women, although I found her name for them a bit problematic, but that may be a translation problems as she is Russian. However you might want to take a look, I found the images very positive.

  3. Funny how that “weight = health” nonsense only works one way. For example, Ms. Chastain is pretty obviously MUCH stronger than I’ve ever been. However, if I announced that I was going to gain fifty pounds so I could be as strong as she is, people would treat me like I’d lost my damn mind. Why is that, if health and weight had ANYTHING to do with each other?

  4. Yeah, I just started reading a book and there has already been two instances of fat shaming. I’m debating about continuing. Heck, I get frustrated with all the books where the heroes/heroines are all some version of thin/perfect.

    1. It’s OK to stop, if it’s distressing you. There are so many options out there, why waste your time reading/watching something you don’t enjoy or find real value in?

      My rule is pretty much, “If I’m already engaged by the time the fat-shaming happens, then it depends on how abruptly it tears me out of the experience. If it’s integral, as in the characters are fat-shaming, but not the author, then I’ll keep reading. If it’s the author fat-shaming, then I ain’t got no time for that crap.”

      Something about the bad grammar there just seems to add emphasis for some reason. I don’t know why. But, yeah. I can’t read much anymore, because my eyes go googly, so I have to be choosy, nowadays.

      I recently saw a show where there was fat-shaming, and it was pretty severe, but the writers were actually portraying it as “This is a bad thing to do,” and using it as a way of showing how awful the shamers were, not the fat person being shamed. Punching up at the bullies. This gives me hope for the future.

  5. Diet culture ensures that the already miserable experience of requiring frequent medical treatment for my myriad of health woes is made even more miserable by the fact that doctors believe that all my ills could be cured by weight loss and the same doctors don’t listen to me when I tell them about the 33 years I spent mired in yo-yo dieting and self-loathing and that it only resulted in my gaining weight. They also don’t listen when they are told that I am on a perpetual diet even though I don’t want to be because I don’t have the money to be able to eat at regular intervals, even though I have diabetes.

  6. You wouldn’t believe how many of the fb lipemeda groups only on the scale and pant size. Some (me) are focused on what is called Non Mirror Victories. That means being able to walk or work again are the victories, or doing sports. I look forward to workiworking longer hours after water key assisted liposuction as my muscles will be able to function closer to design. That is all I care about.

    I also have the tendency to cut the hair at the sides of my head in times of stress, like today. We are expecting a/c repair tomorrow, and I’m going to apply for income supplement. Having extra money will be a big stress reduced, so maybe I can grow my hair out without worrying about it.

    1. Non-mirror victories are so much more important than appearance-based ones, in my opinion. As the late Carrie Fisher once told a detractor, youth and beauty are not accomplishments. They are accidents of time and DNA.

      1. Amen. Last weekend I walked 5 miles in the English countryside, climbing over 7 styles along the way. I have congestive heart failure, and I walk with a cane — and I managed that (incredibly beautiful) walk. I’m delighted to have the term “non-mirror victory” for this! Especially when I look back to the time several years ago, right after I was diagnosed with heart failure, when I could only walk a few hundred yards before having to stop and gasp for breath. In the face of all that, WHO THE HELL CARES how much I weigh or what size I am?

        1. I needed to reread this today. I’m slowly bringing my daily pain level back down, and my daily budget of manageably painful steps back up. This time last year I couldn’t go to the local street fair at all. Last week I could only be down there for half as long as I wanted to and had to skip doing any early Christmas shopping, but the point is that I actually got there. My body shape hasn’t changed. I don’t “look healthier.” But I am healthier.

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