“I don’t want anyone to show me that my body is a before, and that I should be looking for an after”: Debunking diet culture
By Syd King
TRIGGER WARNING: This article contains discussion around diet culture and eating disorders. If you are struggling, please contact Beat Eating Disorders.
We’ve all been there. New years day, surrounded by friends and family. Everyone resolving to lose weight, go on a diet or hit the gym – talking about how ‘naughty’ they were over Christmas, eating all those ‘bad’ foods. Now imagine you’re recovering from an eating disorder. You are going through months of therapy, maybe even hospitalisation, to try and recover to a point where you can feel secure in your body and eat intuitively. Sitting through these conversations can be triggering and have horrific effects on your health and recovery, and for many of us, we turn to social media for escape.
But it doesn’t stop there, social media is filled with ‘diet and lifestyle’ ads that are unavoidable and triggering. For many of us, the options are limited. Either we stick it out, get triggered and often never fully recover from our disorders, or delete the internet forever and resolve to live under a rock with no life, friends or jobs – not really much of a choice, is it?
The war against diet culture can seem hopeless, but one activist, Katie Budenberg (@make_love_not_diets), started a petition to allow Instagram users to ‘filter out’ weight loss and diet adverts. She is an “anti-diet content creator”, dedicated to “body acceptance, love and debunking diet culture”, and she is a force for good. Far from trying to ‘censor’ or ‘ban’ weight loss companies from social media, this option would allow users the freedom of choice to make their own informed decisions about whether they can handle seeing weight loss and diet content.
During an interview, Katie (she/her) recalled years spent “putting up with an influx of diet ads after Christmas and New Year’s”. She found these triggering, even when she was in a “good place mentally”. She talked about how social media can be “so wonderful and so horrendous”; it allows users to create a space that feels inclusive and safe, but also pushes diet ads that “permeate that bubble … with whatever shoddy product they’re trying to sell me”.
And with the petition rapidly becoming one of Change.org’s biggest ever in under a month, with almost 30,000 signatures, users clearly agree. Katie described the popularity of the petition as “bittersweet”, as the solidarity shows an amazing effort, but also shows just how many people’s health is being affected by these ads. Signatories of the petition stated:
“When I was in recovery, this sort of option would have made it so much easier, and I want better for those who recover after me.”
“I shouldn’t be shown ads which claim I’m not good enough as I am”
“Death to a billion dollar industry – diet culture. Time to end preying on people specifically after a holiday period, guilting them into feeling bad about their body and throwing them into years of disorderly eating and body dysmorphia.”
Instagram already offers the option to filter out certain ads including: parenting; pets; alcohol and drugs and politics/social issues. There is no clear reason why the company did not include more triggering areas in this list. Katie argued this means Instagram already recognises that certain content can be triggering. So it’s just a case of expanding the categories they consider to be dangerous.
Katie hopes that the petition will lead Instagram to allow users to choose whether they see diet and weight loss ads or not, and that other social media platforms will follow suit, as they usually do. Ultimately, she dreams that “all the ads would be cancelled,” and “advertising agencies can recognise that ads can be harmful”. She reminds me of the banning of cigarette ads due to the detrimental effect smoking has on people’s health. “With about 25% of people who take up a diet having disordered eating or an eating disorder (one of the deadliest mental health issues), this should shock [them].”
Katie ended the interview by stating “I don’t want anyone to show me that my body is a before, and that I should be looking for an after”.
I don’t have an eating disorder – why should I care about diet culture?
Diet culture is ultimately rooted in bigotry. Whilst at first that can sound like a very scary, buzzwordy reason for disliking diet culture, I’ll break it down – so bear with me!
Imagine a weight loss advert, a skinny woman, doing yoga in a field – what does she look like? What colour is her hair? What about her skin? Most of the time, diet culture pushes the idea of the ‘perfect’ body, and this is usually white. As well as generally presenting white people in the space of having the ‘ideal body’, diet culture also assumes that we have access to the same resources and income as everyone else – and this is not the case for a lot of people of colour, especially those that identify as black. Often, especially in the UK) black people are more likely to live in poverty, thus having less access to resources and time for diets and working out.
Diet culture’s very foundation is that being fat is bad. Not only that, it’s so bad that everyone should go through huge amounts of physical and mental pain, and spend thousands of pounds to avoid it at all costs. Often, diet culture takes aspects of disordered eating, and promotes them as ‘effective’ ways to stay skinny – regardless of the cost to your health. Realistically, it is a myth that all fat people are unhealthy. Every person has a different natural body weight; someone can be healthy at size 10, whilst their friend can be healthy at size 16, size 20 or above. I wish I could say that ‘only a doctor can tell you if your size is unhealthy’ but even the medical community is rife with fatphobia.
Like with racism, diet culture relies on portraying a specific body type as the ideal, and this body type is non-disabled for one, and often extremely inaccessible to disabled people. The same issues with poverty apply to disabled people as people of colour, and even more so when they intersect. Alongside this, the world in general can be unwilling to accommodate disabled people who do want to exercise for health reasons, with sports centres and gyms often having little to no accommodations. Moreover, a lot of disabilities make it incredibly hard to work out anyway; with chronic pain or fatigue being some of the most common side-effects of disabilities. This poses huge barriers to exercising. Diet culture doesn’t accept this as an excuse however and shames people all the same.
Again, diet culture does not portray the ideal body as being trans* – it presents a type of body that for a lot of trans* people, we can never achieve. Scars, in particular, are presented as ugly, but they’re a necessary byproduct for a lot of us. Moreover, diet-culture doesn’t accept the systematic abuse and discrimination against trans* people as an excuse to not work out. Oftentimes, simply by going to the gym, trans* people risk being attacked; gyms often involve use of gendered toilets or changing rooms, or even entirely gendered gyms, as well as potentially being unable to safely hide certain things that ‘out’ us as trans* to passers-by.
Overall, as well as being rooted in bigotry and colonialism, forcing diet culture on people has a very serious negative impact on their health – a needless one. The profits of diet companies should not come at the price of people’s health.
You can find details of the petition by clicking here.