It’s Time To End Diet Culture
Since the beginning of 2018, I have been making changes to my life. I cut down my consumption of fizzy drinks dramatically, going from 3 cans of Coca Cola and Diet Irn Bru a day to maybe 3 a week if I’m feeling generous. I take more walks, I sleep at proper hours, and I finally gave into some of the cultish skincare routines the internet won’t shut up about. I also promised myself I’d take up some form of legitimate exercise. As a naturally lazy person, one who feared public exercise thanks to terrible experiences with physical education in high school, I knew the mental block would be especially hard to overcome. I started yoga and barre classes, both of which I royally suck at, but what mattered was that I found a form of exercise that I actively enjoyed doing. What cemented my love for this was when I realized, around 6 weeks into attending classes, that I’d never heard anyone mention the topic of weight loss.
I’m a size 16. I used to be a size 12. Now and then, someone will tell me I’d look so good if I went back to that figure. When I told people I was starting yoga, their immediate response was that I must be doing it because I want to lose weight. It seems more societally acceptable for someone like me (and I get a mere fraction of the crap any woman over a size 18 is subjected to daily) to proclaim that I’m sickened by my body rather than tell the truth: Honestly, I’m pretty cool with how I look. I’m not doing what I do to change it, although given the options our world presents us with when it comes to body culture, I’m dishearteningly not surprised by how many seem almost eager for me to do so. My objectives are to move my body more, to get out and about and try new things, to resist falling into a rut and challenge my preconceptions about myself. I’ve already got a bikini body - just put a bikini on it and I’m ready to go.
Perhaps it’s because I have decided to make those changes - or perhaps it’s just because the internet assumes my femaleness must mean I’m weight loss obsessed - every targeted ad I encounter these days is promising me the world of skinniness. Each stock photograph of a glossy haired woman, teeth almost fluorescent in their whiteness, comes with outlandish claims which increase in lunacy with each click. Lost ten pounds in two weeks; here’s how this woman, one who’s definitely a housewife local to your area, dropped a dress size in seven days; here’s a before and after of one man whose radical fitness routine coincidentally caused him to totally change his appearance. To be honest, all of this makes me miss the porn ads.
Alongside this freakshow of encouraged self-hatred, familiar faces will appear, offering to reveal the juicy details on the diets of the celebrities. An industry built upon body policing is bound to have its fair share of questionable diet plans. The mere act of weight loss (and occasional gain) has become a standard bearer for dedication to one’s craft in Hollywood. Men and women pile on the pounds for a role to show how committed they are to their character, and the headlines write themselves. Look at how brave this beautiful woman is for mildly inconveniencing herself for a couple of months. How did she manage to cope with living as a pig-shaped size 14 for all that time? If that isn’t good acting, then what is?
Our culture loathes fatness so much that it’s turned rejecting it into a multi-billion dollar industry. It’s not enough to lose weight now. You have to lose it quicker than ever, then do multiple yoga handstands a day, then photograph yourself in your Lululemon workout gear drinking a green smoothie you made yourself and post it on Instagram for everyone else to be inspired by it. Body positivity has been hijacked from its source and appropriated by those whose bodies define our beauty standards. What was once a radical movement of self-acceptance founded by those whose bodies were considered ‘unruly’ is now an excuse to sell t-shirts and vegetable spiralizers.
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Looming overhead as this toxicity grows is the promise of the next great diet. There’s always a new scheme that promises everlasting results. Slimfast said the same thing, but it was true when the Atkins Diet assured us, until it wasn’t and we all returned to Slimming World, then fled to whatever Gwyneth Paltrow was promising.
I have something of a fascination with weird celebrity diets. When you spend as much of your time writing about pop culture as I do, it’s hard not to come across fawning articles of pseudo-exploitation that pretend to condemn such shocking practices by repeating verbatim how to do it. I remember how so much of the promotion around Dreamgirls was obsessed with the so-called maple syrup diet Beyoncé went on to allegedly lose 20 pounds in a fortnight. On the same pages as outrage over this dangerous practice would be a 7-day guide on how you too could replicate the results. The same thing happened with the South Beach Diet. Then the Atkins Diet. Bootcamps guaranteed results through backbreaking routines. The Biggest Loser made bear baiting television out of emotional turmoil and irrevocably destroying the metabolisms of contestants.
Over the past few years, the epidemic of ‘clean eating’ has dangerously shifted how we talk about food. Model-esque con artists like the Hemsley sisters and ‘Deliciously’ Ella Mills made their names with cookbooks that promoted the highly restrictive lifestyle and giving the most basic elements of the culinary arts an Instagram-ready makeover. The salads look so fragrant and decorative under multiple filters and achingly intricate organization that you’re almost tricked into seeing more than a few scraps of lettuce. I became overwhelmed with images of the ‘restorative bone broth’ that promised total gut replenishment and had to repeatedly resist the temptation to scream out, ‘It’s only bloody stock’.
This assembly line of women - always white, always skinny, always with the air of money - sold quackery under the guise of self-improvement, preying on increasing mistrust of science to sell false authenticity. In one recipe, Mills claimed that cow’s milk leached calcium from our bones, a lie so comically false that I’d laugh if I wasn’t painfully aware of how many bought what she was selling. When certain foods are declared to be ‘clean’, the implication about everything else is clear: Those foods are ‘dirty’.
The ‘clean eating’ fad may be on the way out, with both the Hemsleys and Mills changing their marketing gimmick and trying to distance themselves from scandal. Yet the damage remains. We have a new age of gluten-phobia, pushed by mis-truths and fleeting phases that misunderstood how our bodies actually work. Robert O. Young, the inventor of the alkaline diet, is currently in jail for practicing medicine without a licence. He had previously claimed this diet could cure cancer and had advised one of his patients to stop her chemotherapy and start a liquid diet. One blogger, Jordan Younger, had made her fortune as ‘The Blonde Vegan’, enthusiastically selling the lifestyle of a raw vegan diet. Eventually, she admitted that she was ‘transitioning away from veganism’ after her diet caused her periods to stop. The Hemsleys previously expressed support for Dr Natasha Campbell-McBride’s Gut and Psychology Syndrome diet (also known as GAPS), which she claimed certain foods caused developmental disorders and autism. As noted by food writer Ruby Tandoh:
‘It is no coincidence that the faces of wellness are unfailingly young and thin, overwhelmingly white and all the talk of purity against that backdrop of privilege leaves a rather unsavoury taste in the mouth. Wellness is also the unprincipled driftings of the publishing houses with whatever currents lead them to a quick buck. It is the evangelism of wellness bloggers, picking up and shrugging off whatever label will give them the most page views. At its core, it is idea that food is medicine.’
The problem with diet culture is that it makes too much money for someone to bring it to a halt. The collateral damage it causes - the societal agony, the self-loathing, the potential end of life - is unimportant in the long-term. Publishers flocked to unqualified mannequins with salad bowls because it was the in-thing, then happily released books from the same figures with different promises, just to keep the revenues healthy. We know diets like this don’t work. If they did, Weight Watchers wouldn’t still be in business because everyone who goes would get to their target weight then get on with their lives. The figures have changed over the years - not but by much - that suggest the vast majority of people who diet either fail, put the weight back on or gain more than ever. There is more at play than mere dieting, of course: The cost of food, the cost of living, the growing poverty gap, lack of nutritional education, cultural biases, and so on. Still, it would be foolish of us to pretend that get skinny quick schemes don’t play a part in this problem.
I’m not suggesting that anyone who is unhappy with themselves shouldn’t do what they feel their bodies need. That’s a decision you make alone, or possibly with your doctor. It’s not anyone else’s business. For me, it’s difficult to overlook how our world’s loathing of not just fatness but of self-love has completely defined our relationships with our bodies. My plus size friends are chastised for ‘promoting obesity’ when all they’re doing is going out into the world with a healthy dose of self-respect. Women smaller than me talk of how gross and fat they are while picking at a chicken breast and no seasoning. Magazines draw glowing circles around the tiniest hint of belly and call for shame, then proclaim skinny girls who preach watered down body positivity as the heroines we need. Wellness reigns supreme, but it’s not making anyone truly well. Clean eating has made food dirty. Diet culture has starved us of our self-regard, and made us poorer in ways that extend well beyond mere financial loss.
(Header photo of chief quack of the clean eating movement, Deliciously Ella Mills, courtesy of Getty Images).