In my journey of finding body positivity, I came across diet culture. I always knew about diets and have been on many in my short life but never actually knew it was a ‘culture’ that dictates a large part of society. In short, diet culture is a movement that encourages people to progress towards the thin ideal regardless of whether or not that is healthy for the individual. It can be perceived as a movement that thrives on making people believe they are imperfect (just to clarify, you are all perfect. Please read Shame Has No Size) and burdens you with the latest diet. Diets come in and out of trend. One month you’re drinking juice, the next you are cutting carbs. They all however, share the same message. “It will keep the weight off”, “it really works”, “you’ll never feel better.” I can promise you that cutting carbs will only make you feel tired and miserable. For those individuals who are particularly vulnerable to mental health difficulties, especially issues that centre around body image, diets can exacerbate the problem. This has the potential to contribute to the rise in the prevalence of eating disorders within our society – what may start off as an innocent attempt to lose a few pounds can easily escalate into an all-consuming psychiatric illness such as anorexia or bulimia.
The secret behind diet culture
To be blunt, diet culture could very well be considered a huge money making scam. Sure, diets can make you lose weight in the short term, but keeping the weight off takes a change in lifestyle; who wants to be on a diet for the rest their life? When I’m lying on my deathbed I am not going to be thinking ‘I wish I never ate that piece of cake.’ More often than not, dieting constructs a vicious cycle – when a person regains the weight that they have lost from being on a diet, they look for the next diet because “it will really work this time.” However, biologically your body will settle where it is supposed to settle – you can’t choose your height and equally, you can’t choose your size. I appreciate that some people are told to lose weight for health reasons such as before an operation or in order to appropriately manage their health, for example, a coeliac must be on a gluten free diet or a diabetic must follow a low sugar diet. These are medical exemptions for changing your diet and have nothing to do with controlling weight or shape for aesthetic. Outside of these circumstances, going on diet after diet in order to control how you look can actually do more harm than good.
As I mentioned previously, diet culture is this vicious cycle that we can get trapped in, in part because we are so fixated on the image that society portrays as perfect. I am 5”1 and a size 8, there is no way I’m ever going to look like Kendall Jenner. Falling into the diet trap just fuels your inner critic, the voice that tells us we are ‘not good enough’, and creates a big long list of things you want to change about yourself. How can you ever be happy when you want to change one thing after another? The notion of loving our bodies for how they are is a much easier one to maintain than the practice of yoyo dieting. Self love will ultimately benefit your long term happiness in addition to not compromising your physical health. In short, it’s time we embrace our differences and give diet culture the middle finger.
Easier said than done, I know
Since diet culture has consumed so much of our lives, it is incredibly difficult to move away from it. Celebrities are doing it, we see it on social media and we can’t go out in public without diet campaigns or low calorie products plastered on billboards. As a true dieter for years, a mindset which culminated in my development of anorexia, I have two conflicting voices in my head. The good voice tells me ‘Diets are rubbish, you should be happy for who you are.’ This is in direct contradiction to the bad voice which constantly bombards me with a message of ‘You don’t look perfect and need to lose weight.’ Having a mental illness makes the voices even more extreme and it is exhausting. Sadly, the bad voice often takes centre stage and in spite of my investment into my recovery, it is so hard to not go back to my old ways. The internal voices often seem so real to me and it took an incredibly long time for me to be able to identify that the bad voice and my own thinking were completely separate. When you have a mental illness and specific body image issues, it is much more complex to discover self love and not be influenced by diet culture. Dieting and exercise are familiar habits that I have compulsively done all my life, so it makes sense that it’s not a mindset that is going to change overnight. I need to re-write my rules and beliefs and start taking action. It’s time we spoke back to this voice and realise it is just a product of how much diet culture has brainwashed us. Eventually, the bad voice will get quieter.
I sometimes write down three things I like about myself or something that I did well each day. “I played football with my younger cousins, I made my boyfriend dinner, I wrote a brilliant article today which I’m proud of.” It made me cringe at first because I firmly believed that there was nothing I liked about myself. My self-esteem was so low, and continues to be to this day, but I’m taking small steps to working on it. It has been a slow process of learning that there is nothing wrong with loving yourself. At school we might have been told “You are so full of yourself!”, for being confident in who you are. We often notice that children talk about the things they like about themselves as opposed to anything negative as society hasn’t yet made an impact on their self esteem. It is so admirable when a person talks about themselves in a positive light with a sense of pride. We should all cut ourselves a bit of slack and refrain from abusing ourselves with self hate. This is not what we want to teach the future generation on how we treat ourselves.
What social media tells us
It should come as no surprise that low self-esteem is a common problem in our society when we are told by the diet industry to hate our bodies. We are told to look like a body which is un-achievable and un-maintainable; where is the greatness in all looking the same? The pressures of social media are a catalyst for low self esteem and body image issues. Social media’s target audience is teenagers and young adults and adolescence is a particularly vulnerable stage where we are already self conscious about our bodies as they naturally transform to adulthood. This is also the typical age where Body Dysmorphic Disorder is most likely to develop. I have a 16 year old sister who thankfully is really happy in the skin she’s in. Since social media is more popular than ever, it is this generation I fear for in regards to the consequences of low self esteem such as, dieting, plastic surgery and other non-invasive procedures. It stands to reason that there is a possibility of an increase in mental health issues due to these pressures of social media.
We could all begin to make changes by appreciating each others differences. We all have unique shapes and sizes, skin tones and ethnic backgrounds. How about changing your social media feeds to different kinds of people, rather than one perfect body that society says we should all look like. Appreciating one another for who they are may open your eyes into believing you are beautiful and it’s fabulous to be different. Start recognising the things you like about yourself and your inner qualities. I think I have nice eyes and I am very caring. All my friends are kind and loyal and that is why they are my friends, not because of the way they look; this should be the way we view ourselves.
But I used to be skinnier than this?
Bodies change every 7 or so years due to lifestyle, age and in women things like pregnancy and menopause. Your metabolism can slow down if you aren’t eating enough (on a diet…basically) since your body is preserving energy to prepare for starvation. Other factors that can affect your basal metabolic rate are gender, body composition, hormones and physical activity; many of which we have no control over. We need to accept that our bodies change over time and try not dwell on what we once looked liked. We must also realise that weight fluctuations naturally occur all the time. I get weighed once a week as part of my treatment for my eating disorder and I am now in my healthy weight range. Each week I never see the same number on the scales which made me realise that fluctuations happen without controlling calories or physical activity. Monitoring weight on a trajectory, for example, noticing if it is near enough the same weight over 4 weeks, gives you a more accurate result for identifying if your weight is stable. This is a guide but it’s important to mention that you should not get fixated on a number on a scale, especially if you are vulnerable to getting obsessed with weight. My advice is get rid of the scales and begin to live your life. So long as you live a healthy lifestyle, that number should settle where it’s supposed to – just let nature do its thing. Sure, it might seem scary to get rid of the scales and lose that sense of control but, it is that that’s potentially controlling the way you live your life. Instead, gain that control in doing things to make you happy.