The Diet Cult: Exercise, Food, and Guilt

Originally published on Iridescent Women.

Diet culture is like radiation: the more you are exposed to it, the greater likelihood you have of getting hurt or killed by it. When women encourage diet culture through their speech or behavior, they are sending a message to the women around them that there is a correct and incorrect way of eating. In reality, every person can be harmed by diet culture, which tends to focus on controlling women’s bodies more so than other bodies. It’s important, as women, to speak out against diet culture in our daily lives in order to empower women regardless of their size, diet or exercise routines.

Blogger and registered dietitian Christy Harrison defined diet culture in a 2018 post as “a system of beliefs that: worships thinness and equates it to health and moral value, … promotes weight loss as a means to attaining higher status, … demonizes certain ways of eating, … [and] oppresses people who don’t match up with its supposed picture of health.” Diet culture is so ingrained in our general Western culture that, oftentimes, we don’t even recognize why certain behaviors are harmful.

Something as simple as referring to your eating patterns when you eat “bad” foods as “bad” behavior implies that people who regularly eat these foods are somehow morally worse than you. When we assign certain foods the moral qualifiers of “good” and “bad,” we are unintentionally assigning the same moral qualifiers to the people who regularly eat those foods.

The fact of the matter is, there is no specific diet that will make everybody thrive in their physical and mental health.

Diet trends are harmful because they claim to obtain the secret to thinness that everyone can achieve with enough willpower. In reality, bodies digest foods differently, meaning some people do fine eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner at traditional times, while others require more frequent meals, and other bodies function better with less meals. With the rise of intermittent fasting, this popular trend encourages people to restrict their eating habits; however, some people’s bodies can’t handle long periods of fasting, but these people nonetheless are surrounded by messages that tell them they aren’t being strong enough or aren’t motivated enough to make a change to their eating habits.

The same issues come up with the keto diet (a diet that was originally created to help reduce epilepsy in children). While many people felt too sick to continue with the diet, some people on the internet (often with no medical degree) told others that getting sick was normal and that great results would come after the “Keto Flu”. Both of these diets, as well as many others, tend to cause more harm than good and even if you do lose weight, those results tend to be temporary.

Another way people try to control their weight is through exercise.

Exercise can quickly become a form of punishment for eating “bad” foods or a tool to attempt to soothe a fear of becoming (or staying) fat when we are surrounded by conversations and media that make diet culture front and center. In reality, the best way to soothe a negative self-image is to recognize that everyone’s value isn’t embedded in their appearance (and that “fat” is not a synonym for “ugly”).

There are so many benefits to exercising, but when it becomes a punishment against yourself or a competition against other women, this just leads to self-isolation. The more women obsess over dieting, exercising, and their weight — even through the guise of health, the more they tend to isolate and rob themselves of so much joy. Even if these unhealthy relationships with food don’t become eating disorders, they can still rob women of great life experiences. Diet culture robs people of stress-free dinners with friends, enjoying excellent cake, and it even robs three women worldwide of their lives every four hours.

For a majority of women, diet culture’s biggest harm is stopping women from enjoying a second helping of dessert or forcing them to spend a few hours unwillingly at the gym. Regardless, the competition of “who spends more time at the gym” and “who ate less fries and more kale” discourages women from seeing other women as friends.

All women become competitors, even if only subconsciously.

The funny part is, even after all of diet culture’s damage, there is no evidence that weight is an indicator of health. This is still an incredibly common misconception, which many medical professionals still believe. Being fat doesn’t just get people socially rejected, but it often leads to the dismissal of symptoms by medical professionals and employers. This is why it’s so important to work actively against diet culture in our daily lives in the same way that we work actively against racism or sexism. Ultimately, diet culture is just one of the many manifestations of the fatphobia that surrounds us. In the words of the author of Fat! So? and fat activist Marilyn Wann, “the only thing anyone can diagnose by looking at a fat person is their own level of prejudice toward fat people.”

So, with all of this in mind, how can you work against diet culture? Although educating yourself about fat activism through artists, creators, and writers is a great way to work against internalized fatphobia in general, it is important to be outspoken against diet culture. When people around you engage in conversations about food shame or conversations in which they shame fat people for the simple act of existing, speak out. There is no need to go into an in-depth conversation about why their conversations are harmful, but make it clear that those are not conversations you are comfortable with and, most importantly, that you disagree with their fatphobia. This is a great way to let women in your life know that you support them beyond what they eat or what they look like. You do not need to drain yourself emotionally to build other women up, so making your values and boundaries known can lead to healthier and deeper bonds with all women in your life.

Mexican senior at The King’s College.