Written by Amye Archer, MFA
Diet culture hides in plain sight
In the past, “diet culture” acted as an umbrella term for outdated values about food and health. But today it’s come to refer to a set of social expectations that dictates how people should eat, feel, and look. The pressure to diet to achieve this ideal body can lead to eating disorders.
Bianca (name has been changed), a doctoral student in her 30s, has lived with anorexia since her early teens. She has seen diet culture change in her lifetime, but she confirms that the message of thinness as the goal hasn’t gone anywhere. In fact, she thinks it’s been amplified in new ways.
“Celebrity” endorsements now extend to anyone. “A lot of influencers are talking about things like intermittent fasting and these ‘healthy’ alternatives,” Bianca says. “I see it a lot around reality television and the shakes and supplements the cast members sell.” Gone are the days of only mega-celebrities hawking products—on social media, anyone with a platform can push a product or a message.
Hashtags promote unhealthy ideals. Bianca says social media broadly promotes anorexic bodies and other eating disorders, also often disguised as wellness. Similar to the “thigh gap” phenomenon, these impossible body standards seep their way into our culture—especially teen culture—and are promoted using hashtags. Access to these images can easily trigger her back into her eating disorder, Bianca says: “It all depends on how I’m feeling in that moment.”
Diet culture often masquerades as wellness. According to therapist Judith Matz, LCSW, one of the ways we see diet culture show up is in wellness culture. “People who say, ‘I’m not dieting, it’s a lifestyle; I’m not dieting, it’s my wellness plan,’ are often focused on the end goal of losing weight,” says Matz. This new way of talking about thinness is still doing the work of diet culture, creating an environment in which many of us believe that people with higher BMIs are unhealthy, a strain on the medical system, and unable to control themselves around food.
Pros and cons of the body positivity movement
Since the 1960s, there has been pushback against diet culture in the form of movements like Health at Every Size (HAES), body positivity, and the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA). These groups were badly needed and have done a lot of good, but they also face challenges of their own.
Some worry the body positivity movement is becoming toxic itself, and that it promotes the notion that if you’re not a certain size, you shouldn’t be allowed to feel at odds with your body. Then there’s the idea that if you do express a desire to lose weight, you’re endorsing the unhealthy ideals of diet culture. No wonder some of us feel caught in the middle.
Matz acknowledges that the push toward body positivity has the potential to cause guilt in people who still feel badly about their shape or size. If a person in your life shares negative emotions connected with their appearance or body, have compassion. Because body shaming is so embedded in our culture, Matz explains, there aren’t a lot of safe spaces where we can say, “I’m really struggling. I feel like nobody’s going to care for me if my body stays at this size.” This is a real feeling deserving of attention, says Matz.
“It’s important for us to create safe spaces for people to talk about their struggles,” she says. “I’m a big fan of groups for this reason. If we don’t talk about our shame, it gets bigger.” Some therapists host groups focused on this topic, and there are a number of online options as well. One example is Liberating Jasper, which offers online support groups designed to help people rebuild their relationships to food and their bodies.
How do messages about dieting affect self-esteem?
The way we feel about our bodies and respond to diet culture can be tied to our self-esteem, which Matz says is often rooted in childhood.
If you grow up hearing comments about your weight or how much you eat, it can lower your self-esteem and leave you more vulnerable to harmful dieting messages and anti-fat bias. “A child in this environment learns their worth is based on their physical appearance,” says Matz. This can also happen if a parent focuses on their own weight, which sends the same message.
In terms of healthy body image, the ideal upbringing isn’t focused on the body at all. “There aren’t scales in the bathrooms, dieting and restricting food isn’t present, and the central message is that people come in all shapes and sizes,” Matz says.
Being raised in a body-positive home doesn’t mean you’ll never get caught up in diet culture, she adds, but you may be able to resist it better.
Low self-esteem and eating disorders in young people
Having healthy self-esteem acts as a protective factor against many mental health issues, including eating disorders. Research indicates that people with low self-esteem are more at risk of developing an eating disorder.
Building up our self-esteem can take some time. While we may lay the foundation for how we feel about ourselves in childhood, studies show that self-esteem peaks between the ages of 50 and 60. This means many of us carry a diminished sense of self for much of our lives.
Unsurprisingly, technology plays a key role in self-esteem. Children are already in a vulnerable position when it comes to self-worth, and today they’re using their phones more and starting earlier. As a result, diet culture messaging is making its way to kids’ screens and affecting how they feel about themselves. For parents, creating a supportive and weight-neutral environment like the one Matz describes above can help combat some of these messages.
If you think you or your child may have an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) Helpline at 1-800-931-2237 (Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. ET; Friday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET). You can also reach out to a therapist for support.
Finding the right therapist
Therapy can be a great way to start shedding problematic beliefs, rebuilding our relationship with our bodies, and increasing our self-esteem. But remember, says Matz: “Therapists are people, too. They are also products of internalized diet culture.”
For this reason, she suggests the following guidelines as you look for professional support.
Find a therapist who has examined their own attitudes toward dieting, food, and weight. If a clinician hasn’t explored their own implicit bias and starts working with a client who wants to lose weight, they may show a willingness to jump on board with helping the client do that, despite the high rates of diet failure. To increase their own awareness, Matz suggests that therapists take an implicit bias test, which looks at the unconscious stereotypes we all hold about weight, race, gender, sexuality, and other aspects of identity.
Find a therapist who specializes in a weight-neutral approach. A therapist who’s familiar with a weight-neutral approach is best positioned to offer support around body image and health, says Matz. This approach, which focuses on positive, sustainable behaviors rather than weight loss and BMI, has been shown to improve health without the goal of weight loss. It often involves attuned eating or intuitive eating, which encourages paying attention to physiological cues and listening to your body.