During this year’s National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, the “Let’s Get Real” theme seeks to highlight stories we don’t often hear about disordered eating and expand the conversation to other allies. Part of our work to end sexual violence includes understanding the nuances of oppression and the ways in which they show up in our culture and social norms.
A history of dieting and size and weight prejudice are some of the socioecological risk factors for developing an eating disorder. Messages that saturate our culture suggest that folks in thinner bodies are more valuable and “good,” while those in larger bodies are “bad” and should be working toward decreasing the size of their body, often through dieting. These biases and norms are upheld by diet culture. Because both diet culture and rape culture have roots in oppression and inequity, it’s important to include these conversations in our sexual violence prevention work.
Kate Browne describes diet culture as “a system of knowledge, values, and meanings that supports interpretations of personal health choices as moral character.” It can look like:
- Feeling “bad” or guilty for eating a certain food
- Viewing exercise as punishment or compensation
- Avoiding certain foods because they’re too high in carbs, fat, etc.
- Compliments that reinforce weight loss as a positive
- Conversations about and bonding over diets, weight loss, food avoidance, etc.
Now let’s get into the nitty-gritty.
Diet culture is not just weight loss. It supports the idea that certain foods are good or bad, and folks who eat those foods are respectively good or bad. For example: cake is bad; broccoli is good; potato chips are bad; carrot sticks are good; sugar and carbs are bad; whole grains are good. If someone chooses to eat from the cookie tray instead of the veggie platter, they’re “bad” or “being bad.” What we need to remember is that food has no moral value and what food a person chooses to eat does not reflect their morality or value.
Diet culture suggests that some bodies have more value over others. It reinforces the idea that a good body is a thin body and everyone must be striving to achieve that ideal, otherwise they’re lazy and unhealthy. A person’s size does not automatically suggest their health. People can exist in larger bodies and still be healthy. If we’re upholding diet culture, we’re upholding the idea that some people are not as valuable as others. When it comes to survivors of sexual violence, we know that all survivors deserve positive, trauma-informed support, regardless of their identity or their body size.
Diet culture is harmful. In addition to the above, diet culture focuses on the “accomplishments” of changing one’s body to fit the social definition of what’s acceptable instead of focusing on other important aspects of life, such as meaningful relationships with others, an important project, a positive career move, etc. It also ignores disabled folks because the “ideal” is rarely, if ever, pictured as someone with a disability. Additionally, 95% of diets fail. It’s an endless cycle of cultural messages that suggest we can be a “better version” of ourselves if we change our bodies to fit a socially constructed standard. This, of course, is false, because someone’s appearance does not determine their value as a person.
Diet culture is like rape culture – it’s normalized which can make it difficult to identify. If we want to uproot rape culture, we must uproot the oppression that supports it, including a diet culture that suggests that some bodies are more valuable than others. Everyone is valuable. Everyone deserves to not have their body violated.
Want to read more about diet culture and body positivity? Check out these links:
You Have the Power to End Diet Culture – National Eating Disorders Association
The Body is Not an Apology
The Power of Resistance: Saying No to the Diet Culture – Project Heal
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