What Is Diet Culture? A Primer for Resistance
If you’ve been following me for a while, you know that I am 100% anti-diet culture. But do you know what that means? Here are 3 main characteristics of diet culture, and what you can do about it. But first, my definition:
Diet culture is a system of knowledge, values, and meaning that supports interpretation of personal health choice as moral character.
Got it? Let’s break it down.
1. Diet culture isn’t just about weight loss.
This is probably the most confusing aspect of diet culture. Diet, of course, refers to what you eat. Overwhelmingly, “diet” is understood by most people as dieting for weight loss. And that’s certainly a major component of what diet culture does, which is convince people that their bodies need to be smaller. But diet culture is concerned with all the choices people make about the food they eat because food=morality. Think about the messages you’ve been told about certain diets and the foods that comprise them. More often than not, you understand some foods as good and some as bad. Cheetos=bad, carrots=good. Vegan diets=good, choosing not to eat vegetables=bad. Sugar=bad, raw honey=good. But wait — honey is “bad” for vegans, so… ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Diet culture assigns “goodness” to certain lifestyles and choices, and that’s morality. We prize restriction and anything considered “self-control” as indicative of strong character. Are people who choose not to eat mushrooms due to taste (me!) better people than those who don’t eat strawberries due to allergies? Nope! We all make different choices about our diets for a variety of reasons.
What to do about it: Be mindful of how you assign morality to choices you make about your diet. And read everything Michelle from The Fat Nutritionist has ever written.
2. Diet culture does not support the value of all bodies.
Diet culture doesn’t just show itself through moralizing food choices. It also has a deep concern for assigning hierarchical value to bodies. Again, this comes through most clearly in compulsory weight loss, but the phrase “you are what you eat” also makes this pretty clear. Healthy people look healthy, right?
The place where this part of diet culture is clearest for me is in advertisements for fitness products. There are lots of good reasons to exercise that you can’t see on the body — see this list from Thought Catalog for examples — and I can attest to these benefits having more impact on my day to day life than any physical change. Even physical changes that can come from exercise — improved function for joints, heart, lungs, and muscles — can’t be seen. And yet, nearly every fitness product promises that we’ll look more attractive with exercise. Most leave out other benefits entirely. This sends the not-so-subtle message that your body as it is has inherently less value than it could have. Fitness advertising is also notoriously ableist, meaning that exercise should be used to “overcome” or avoid disability because disabled bodies have less value. This isn’t a naturally-occurring condition — it’s a direct result of diet culture.
What to do about it: Stop looking at #fitspo. If you choose to exercise, focus on the non-physical and/or benefits.
3. Diet culture does not exist in a vacuum.
Diet culture is just one social system in which people are treated inequitably, and it often overlaps with racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, and classism. I abhor them all, for the record. But it’s important to understand that many issues of oppression and prejudice do not function on their own. If we go back to the Cheetos=bad, carrots=good example, it’s not the foods themselves that signify their worth, but the meanings around them that give that good or bad reading. Cheetos invoke our deeply broken food system, inequities with food access, and people (coded as poor people or people of color) who value inexpensive food. Carrots invoke farmer’s markets, wholesome living, and people (coded as white, economically stable) who value their health.
If you are anti-diet culture, you must also be anti-oppression in other ways. It’s important to recognize the similarities and differences, and how the messages we receive reflect this. Example: Why are yogurt ads so gendered?
Once you start noticing this sort of thing, it’s hard to stop.
What to do about it: Keep resisting diet culture alongside other systems of oppression. We all deserve better, and the change begins with you! Think twice before you make judgements about yourself and others when it comes to food choice, exercise choice, and access different people have to those choices.
We all deserve better than diet culture. Stay extraordinary.