We, in the disabled community, recognise that all bodies come in different shapes, sizes and ways of functioning. However, diet culture would lead us to believe that we should all be the same. Chloe Quinn talks us through diet culture and how to tackle the difficult and triggering conversations that can arise when talking about bodies and diet.
Trigger Warning: eating disorders, dieting
[Image: a bright yellow background has a silver fork wrapped and entwined in a measuring tape.]
by Chloe Quinn.
This time of the year always strikes dread into the hearts of anti-dieters. Whether you’re sick of the pressure to conform or you’re recovering from the effects of diet talk, some of us just don’t want to hear it anymore. Diet culture and the pressure to look a certain way has been around as long as we have. From having wide hips and small waist, to having nothing at all, society is always moving the bar on how they police our bodies.
The truth is that all bodies are different. Even if we all eat and exercise the same way, we’re going to end up at different shapes and sizes. That’s just part of being a biological, living creature. And guess what? It’s the same across the animal kingdom! Our bodies all work and metabolise at different rates.
So why have we gone through centuries of being told how many steps to take, what to eat, and how many minutes of exercise to take in order to fit an imaginary, once in a lifetime body type? And why has it taken so long for so many of us to break out of that mold?
What’s the deal with diet culture? Why is it so dangerous?
Talking about the latest diet has become as common as talking about the weather. It’s a safe topic for a lot of people, and an easy ‘go-to’ when they have little else to talk about. It even crops up when we least expect it. It’s negatively commenting on your body, other people’s bodies and the food choices we make. Even those comments we feel are positive have negative origins.
The diet industry is huge and has been for years!
It’s difficult to escape. After all, the diet industry is huge and has been for years! Everyone of us has been on or heard of some sort of diet before. Weight Watchers, Slimming World, Atkins! You name it and we’ve all probably heard of it. Therefore a lot of people, unfortunately, have been stuck in the diet culture cycle for the majority of their lives.
We don’t have to look very closely to see how insidious diet culture can be. The rise of clean eating and fasting alone is problematic. Not to mention the unachievable ‘ideal body’ wherein ‘thigh gaps’ and a tiny, unachievable waist are praised! Social media in particular is home to hundreds of diet and fitness accounts, all available for the eyes of children as young as eight years old. Fasting apps are advertised throughout Tik Tok, an app that is widely used by young children and teenagers to make entertaining videos.
For a long time I was too. I was born and raised on diet culture! I recall comments on my food choices being ‘bad’ by school teachers, and comments about my young body being ‘fat and chubby’ by other children. At just eight years of age I remember so clearly crying in my local sports shop because pants for my age range wouldn’t fit me. Instead I had to go for two ages above. The shame I felt on that day has followed me into every changing room ever since, even when I was drastically underweight.
It wasn’t until I began recovering from Anorexia Nervosa for the final time that I looked a little further. Drawing back the curtain and peering behind to the origins of diet culture has given me the fuel I needed to push back against it.
Tasha, 29 from Co.Tyrone, Northern Ireland, has been a long term patient under the adult mental health team.
“I was always teased about my size in school and even at home. My grandmother used to make comments about me being the size of a house when I was still a child, and would make nasty comments about how I would look in the future if I kept eating bad foods. It made me feel disgusting and ashamed, and so I started to make myself sick after every meal. It soon got to the point that I avoided all snacks and only ate my dinner to please my parents with the knowledge that once they went for their daily walk I could ‘get rid of it.’”
Tasha goes on to discuss an incident in high school wherein another classmate passed a remark on her body being ‘lumpy’ as they prepared to go swimming. A comment I too am familiar with as I recall my own swimming classes.
“She pointed at me as soon as I left the changing room and made a real show of me. There was her and three other girls making nasty comments about my belly, my arms and my legs, all of which they said were covered in cellulite. They started to whisper that no one would want me and at just twelve, I was so upset. I didn’t go swimming that day and the teacher, who had no sympathy, made me sit at the side of the pool with her and watch the rest of my classmates.”
Her bulimia nervosa only escalated after this, and soon Tasha was smaller than she had ever been. But the price she paid was a lifelong eating disorder, something she still struggles with now.
“The treatment here is terrible for eating disorders. Unless you are deathly underweight, there’s no help available. Especially where I live. My mother and I had to travel to receive any help, even minimal. The west of Northern Ireland is among one of the poorest funded in terms of eating disorders, with many of us travelling up to an hour for treatment, and sometimes to an entirely different country. Those comments have done their damage, and after over a decade of inadequate treatment, I fear I’ll hold onto this eating disorder for the rest of my life.”
But what’s the problem?
The more we talk about and normalise something, the more it fits snuggly into society. Diet talk can lead both parties to feel that their body and food choices are wrong. It can make us feel like even the most natural parts of us are imperfect and therefore undesirable. Not only can it lead to disordered eating habits and eating disorders in adults, but even children as young as seven have been impacted by diet culture.
Eating disorders can affect anyone of any age, culture, class, race etc.
Eating disorders can affect anyone of any age, culture, class, race etc. In the UK alone it’s believed that approximately 1.25 million people are living with an eating disorder, 25% of which are male. While there can be many different reasons as to why someone might develop an eating disorder, pressure from the media and other members of society to achieve the ‘ideal body’ are among some of the reasons.
The funding and training for eating disorders is at an all time low, despite anorexia, one of the most common eating disorders, having the highest mortality rate of all other psychiatric illnesses. Of those who survive, it’s thought that only 50% recover, 30% will improve but continue to live with their disorders, and the remaining 20% will remain chronically ill. This is due in part to the complications caused by anorexia within the body and the co-morbid mental health issues that accompany it.
Vie, creator of VieNess, aims to help people boost their body confidence and feel good about themselves. VieNess is an award winning company and works closely with community groups and schools in the effort to spread the message of health and wellness at any size.
Having worked with many people of all shapes and sizes, Vie had this to say about the impacts of diet related conversation.
“I’ve worked with a lot of people who, following a flippant comment, such as, “You’re getting a bit cuddly”, or, “Look at those chubby thighs” have started a lifelong hatred of their body. They are left feeling like they don’t measure up to what’s expected of them.”
We’re surrounded by messages telling us that we’re not good enough. If we’re this size or that weight, our lives will be better. Yet the impact of dieting, physically, emotionally and even financially is rarely shared.There’s substantial evidence to say that the majority of diets don’t work! We’re led to believe that we’ve failed when diets don’t work which increases our lack of self-worth. But it’s the diet that’s failed, not us!”
4 Ways to respond to diet related conversation.
Unfortunately diet culture and talking about diets is always going to be there. When you’re on a journey to heal your relationship with food and exercise, it can leave an awful taste in your mouth. Even the mention of the word ‘diet’ can make your skin crawl. But so long as we live in a society polluted by diet culture, diet talk will continue to happen.
Here are just some of the ways you can choose to respond when diet talk rears its ugly head.
Change the subject.
When friends or family start to talk about their weekly weight loss goals, or comment on your food choices, it can be very distressing. Specifically if you’re recovering or have recovered from disordered eating. Possibly the simplest way to respond to diet talk is to attempt to change the subject. While this may not always work, it’s the least assertive and uncomfortable way to move away from talking about food, intake and the latest dieting craze. You can try and steer the conversation onto one about vacations or even the weather. Or you can take the topics of dieting and spin it into something much more health and wellness focused.
Failing both these things you can simply state how uncomfortable talking about dieting makes you feel. Close friends and family should react to this with ease, suggesting a chance in the conversation. However, don’t be surprised if you’re met with smart remarks and even abuse by those you’re not necessarily close to. Despite this, it’s important you should take action to set these clear boundaries.
Walk away from the conversation.
If all else fails, there’s no shame in walking away from the conversation. Whether you’ve said your piece or not, you have the right to take your leave from triggering situations.
However, unfortunately this isn’t always possible. My first reaction in this instance is to stay quiet. If I've tried everything else from changing the subject to educating, and leaving isn’t an option, I focus my attention elsewhere. I don’t respond to the conversation in any way and find interest in my phone instead. But where possible you are perfectly within your rights to walk away.
Educate and explain!
I often use diet conversations to educate and explain the dangerous surrounding diet culture. Whether it’s using my own experiences or knowledge from my time spent at eating disorder treatment centres, I’m always ready to dispel the myths of dieting.
There are various ways you can go about this. You can talk about how you changed your outlook on food and weight, how you’ve ditched the scales, or even how skewed the consent of BMI can be.
Here are some simple facts to recall in the field-
“Did you know that most dieters have been on a diet their whole lives? Why do you think that might be? Well, rapid weight loss or restriction is actually a predecessor of weight gain. Most people who lose weight on a strict diet go on to put it all back on, and then some.”
“Do you know your body has its own natural set point? Our bodies work best at an optimum weight, just like we all have an optimum temperature. Just because we’re the same height, doesn’t mean our set point will be the same weight. When your body reaches its set point it will work hard to stop it going up or down! So trust your body!”
“I’m all about being healthy as much as the next person. But you know that just because you’re thinner or lose weight doesn’t mean you’re healthy? Health exists at every shape and size!”
If all else fails, don’t try and win.
You’ve started to work on yourself and that’s wonderful. But not everyone else is at the same point in their life, and some might never get there. You can shout about the dangers of diet culture all you want, but there are people who will still be dieting well into their older years. It’s sadly a deep, generational root that simply won’t budge for some of us.
Your priority is yourself and your own mental health. Keep leading by example and those that want to follow will join you in their own time. But you can’t save the ones who don’t.
The sad truth is that diet culture isn’t going away any time soon. If anything with the introduction of step counters to children and remarks about the ‘lockdown 15’, it’s set to get even worse. But already we’re seeing push back from young people, influencers and even long term members dieting. Health and every size is becoming known within top companies with their use of full bodied models, something seldom seen in the past. It’s up to us as future parents, aunts, uncles, teachers and doctors to educate about the dangers of the language we use and the diets we follow in the next generation.
Chloe Quinn is a freelance writer & Illustrator, a proud cat Mum and is recovering from anorexia. She is also a mental health ambassador. You can find Chloe here on twitter - @Nyxiesnook and on Instagram here. - @Nyxtrix