Recently I was part of a focus group for some research looking at how health professionals challenge diet culture. (I was so excited this research was happening and jumped at the chance to add my ideas and be immersed in a virtual room of like minded individuals!)
Diet Culture is beautifully defined by Christy Harrison:
“Diet culture is a system of beliefs that:
- Worships thinness and equates it to health and moral virtue, which means you can spend your whole life thinking you’re irreparably broken just because you don’t look like the impossibly thin “ideal.”
- Promotes weight loss as a means of attaining higher status, which means you feel compelled to spend a massive amount of time, energy, and money trying to shrink your body, even though the research is very clear that almost no one can sustain intentional weight loss for more than a few years.
- Demonizes certain ways of eating while elevating others, which means you’re forced to be hyper-vigilant about your eating, ashamed of making certain food choices, and distracted from your pleasure, your purpose, and your power.
- Oppresses people who don't match up with its supposed picture of “health,” which disproportionately harms women, femmes, trans folks, people in larger bodies, people of color, and people with disabilities, damaging both their mental and physical health.”
Want to learn more about diet culture - This article is a great place to start: https://feelgoodeating.com.au/diet-culture-and-diet-mentality/
Living in diet culture
I was angry about diet culture and was determined to change it before I even had the language to describe and label it!
As a child and adolescent I was influenced by diet culture, as were the people around me. I was subjected to harmful body shame and weight stigma as diet culture told the adults around me that it was important to point out the problem with my body and change it. Even at that time I knew something wasn't right!
Many years later, a degree and the privilege of bearing witness to so many people's body and food stories and healing; I now have a much deeper understanding of the complex systems that are at play. Compassion for those that unknowingly perpetuate them, (anger at those who knowingly perpetuate them) and passion to educate and change the experience for others.
I make small decisions every day to challenge diet culture. At a personal level and also at a larger systemic level.
I am curious how others also step up and challenge the norm.
Perhaps sharing reflections on my own journey may help give people some ideas, confidence and motivation to also lean in and learn more about why they think and feel the way they do.
The thing with diet culture is once you see it - you can't unsee it!
It brings up frustration, anger and sadness.
I, as many have, have learnt the hard way that we can't fight every battle. That not everyone is ready to hear or challenge these systems and that we burn ourselves out trying to call out everything all the time!
So we need to be compassionate with ourselves, with our expectations. We can sprinkle seeds of ideas everywhere and we can choose when to pull out the big guns!
So, how do I fight Diet culture?
I don't engage
When people around me start berating their bodies, talking about being bad because of what they ate, commenting on others bodies or my body - I don't engage. I change the topic, answer with a question, challenge them (more on that later), or move away.
I don't comment on other people’s bodies when they change and I don't berate my body to others. I use neutral language to talk about food and health.
I can't physically mentally or emotionally challenge, question or provide feedback every time someone in my proximity makes, says or does something motivated by diet culture. But I can stop the perpetuation of it by not engaging.
I talk about it. My privileges in life affords me the opportunity to have a platform to speak from; and I use it. This may be at an individual social level, with family, friends, peers or it may be speaking to a room full of health professions - I take the opportunities when they arise to label diet culture, to compassionately explore how it impacts us and how we unwittingly perpetuate it.
And as I mentioned above there are times when I protect my energy and choose not to speak up and I know that that is ok too.
I love what I do! Does it show! I have had the privilege of working with hundreds of individual clients. Of hearing their stories. Of exploring with them how diet culture has impacted them and how they can step aside from it and challenge it in their own ways.
I work with other dietitians and health professionals, this may be in a 1:1 format where we can safely unpack diet culture and how it has influenced us as people, our training, our professions.
Or I may talk to a group of dietitians or health professionals. It may be educating them about diet culture itself or it may be another topic and in the language I use, the concepts I explore, I can model another way of relating to food and body.
I can use social media as a platform to surround myself with like minded people and also to share information that calls out diet culture. That helps people to unlearn and relearn.
I can use my position as a health professional to advocate for change of systems in healthcare and other industries. I can provide feedback and recommendations for organisation nutrition policies, I can advocate for change when I see something potentially damaging occurring.
I can support research and development into safe, health promoting care by participating or sharing information.
I can come together with my peers and use our collective knowledge and voices to advocate for systemic change.
I can choose where I spend my money. I can choose not to support companies that knowingly cause harm.
I can choose to support the organisations that are advocating for change. I can be a member of organisations that work tirelessly to challenge the status quo. I can support people with lived experience for then generously shared time, energy and emotional resources by paying for their time and by supporting Patreon accounts.
I have lived in a higher weight body most of my life. I still experience a huge amount of body privilege as I am small fat. I am able to access clothing that fits with relative ease. As an adult I haven't experienced verbal abuse from strangers, though I did as a child and adolescent. I experience weight stigma when accessing health care. The fear of stigma caused great anxiety at times in my life such as buying a wedding dress and accessing obstetric care.
The older, and larger I get, the more opportunities I have for healing; the stronger I am in advocating for myself.
Despite the bad body image days (yes; even with my strong beliefs and the work I do I am still human and vulnerable to this!) I have always chosen to use my body to challenge diet culture.
I proudly dress in a way that makes me feel good about myself. I dress in bright colors. I refuse to hide just because I don't fit the cultural ideal. I appreciate that bright colors help me and make others smile.
I wear my bathing suit proudly. I remember when my kids were babies and we started swimming lessons and my heart broke to see so many mums swimming with shirts and shorts over their bathers. So, I always stand proud and tall. I focus on being engaged with my kids and my friends and I hope that I am modeling for my kids and others around me what it is like to not let our bodies block our engagement in life.
I openly use the word fat as a descriptor when describing my body. I want to contribute to reclamation of this word as a neutral descriptor rather than a slur.
When I want to, for me I dress up and wear make up. And I also just as often don't wear makeup and wear whatever I want, even when I'm in public. I present myself as authentically as I can and I see clothing and make up as an expression of myself.
What can you do?
This is a reflection on how I push back on the oppressive culture we live in. They will not feel right for everyone; nor should they, they reflect my unique journey up until this point.
I encourage you to take the time to reflect on how diet culture shows up in your life and lean in to what feels like a good way for you to push back. Have compassion; you don't need to do it all. Every small step contributes to a larger change.