diet culture
Trigger warning: discussing subjects of
Sizeism or Fat Shaming
warning: Adult content
Article by:
Céline Vonlanthen
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January 13, 2022
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Diet Culture Is A Lie And It Is Harming Everyone

We have talked about fatphobia a few times here. Because it is important and because it is a far too often forgotten topic in LGBTQIA+ fights. Today, we are addressing a fundamental aspect of fatphobia: diet culture. Because we are in early January and it is the time of New Year’s resolutions, injunctions to diet can be quite hard. So, here is why it is dangerous, and why we should all stop buying into this billion-dollars industry. 
Image credits: gripperpersonaltraining.com, January 2021

First of all, hi babes! It is good to be back, and I hope you have had some (good) holidays to get plenty of rest and share some good time with friends and/or family. I hope you were celebrated like you deserve! Today’s topic might be a bit hard, so brace yourself. But I think it is important that we have this discussion. 

Disclaimer: this article will address issues of fatphobia and internalized fatphobia. If fatphobia and/or eating disorders trigger you, some parts of this article might be particularly hard to deal with for you, so take care of yourself. Also, I will talk about the belief that we all have been taught to assimilate in this fatphobic society: that fat is bad. This, of course, is wrong and harmful and I do not stand by it. I have discussed it in more depth in the article on 10 awesome activists to follow, but I wanted to make it clear here as well: fat is not bad. Fat is just fat. 

The obsession of weight: a universal topic 

Now that this is cleared, we are back on topic. Diet culture: believing that thinness equates beauty, health and happiness, that fat is inherently bad and that you should do everything in your power to become thinner, even at the cost of your health – or life. 

Rings any bell? For me, it does. Diet culture has shaped my teenage years, well into early adulthood. And I know I am not alone. I am willing to bet most of you have a very clear memory of the day you suddenly thought – or someone explicitly made you think – that you were too fat, and that this was bad. For me, it was the day I realized my thighs were moving when I walked. I was 10, maybe 12 years old. I was wearing a swimming suit. I looked down and I saw my thighs. They were moving. Swaying as I walked – which, let me clear this right away, is absolutely normal; a body is made of bones, flesh, fat and muscles amongst others, of course it is going to move: it is not made of stone. 

But because of the society we live in, this was a catastrophe for my young self. It broke me, literally: I spent the next 14 years hating on my body. My thighs, my stomach, my arms, my face, my breasts, just about everything. Because I was convinced I was too fat – and everybody knows women are supposed to be small, petite, thin and not take up space. And I was taking up so much space. I was too tall, too fat, too large – too everything, except pretty. And this led to years of (failed) dieting, losing and gaining weight, feeling like a failure because I could not stay thin. To this day, I still cannot eat chocolate the way I used to before my string of diets.

Image credits: mysignaturenutrition on Instagram

Now, why am I telling you all this? It is not for you to feel sad for me – if anything, we should feel angry. Fat is not bad. Having fat is not a bad thing, it is what keeps us alive. Rather, I think it is important to voice this constant, overbearing obsession with weight, fatness and diets. Because the majority of us have been made to feel like that at some point, and this has to stop. 

Whether it came from you or someone else – I am thinking of that friend of mine who told me, when she was 10 years old and wearing a swimming suit, a grown a** man told her she was fat with a disgusted tone, and to this day I still want to punch him in the face – whether it was direct or an accumulation of small comments and jokes on your weight, appearance or eating habits, we have all experienced it. And for a lot of us, it has had a devastating effect on our self-esteem, body image and relationship with food. 

Studies have consistently shown that eating disorders affect an ever-higher proportion of the population – and especially young women. Most of us are constantly aware of what we eat and how much. A significant part of our brain is dedicated to thinking about not eating too much, too fat or too sugary; and should it happen, how much exercise we will have to do to compensate. Our weight is a constant worry. It has become so important, it is literally a scale used to evaluate how much we are worth and whether or not we deserve to be happy and to receive medical care – this has been addressed in my article on fatphobia, if you want to read more about it. And it makes me incredibly sad (and angry) that one of the things we all have in common is our issue with weight. 

So, why is that? What does that imply? Why is it so bad? And why do diets always fail? 

The industry of diets – or why none of it is your fault 

Let us start by looking at the dieting industry, how it has become so successful, how much it is worth, and what its biggest success is: convincing us that if diets do not work, it is our own fault and that the system is not in question here. 

The fear of becoming fat

We live in a classist, ableist, racist, sexist, transphobic and fatphobic society, there is no denying it.

NB: also, I am realizing, as I am writing this, that this is taking a darker turn than what I was expecting. To make up for it, I will add very cute pictures of baby animals as we are going through this article. Do not hesitate to take a break and look at them if it becomes too heavy! 

Image credits: boredpanda.com

Capitalism is not exactly a fun ride, and it benefits from us being exploited and unhappy. I think we are all more or less aware of it at this point. And well, fatphobia plays well into that. Popular beliefs and representations in the media lead us to associate fat with bad, to the point where people would rather starve to death than becoming fat. This stems from racism, ableism and capitalism’s need to make us believe that lazy (and by oppressive and twisted logics, fat) is the worst thing you could be. 

And this weight, this fear of becoming fat is ingrained in all of us, no matter our height, weight or clothing size. Which is, really, capitalism’s biggest victory. Because, while fatphobia is directed to fat people only (spoiler alert, no, thin people do not endure systemic oppression because they are thin), diet culture is affecting every one of us. How many times have you been seated in front of someone who has told you they should lose a bit of weight to be happier and prettier, no matter their size? Yeah. I know.

Money, money, money

So, capitalism. A wonderful creation (not). It convinces you that you lack something, something important: that if you could just get it, you would live freely and happily. But it is never the case. Then comes the next thing you need to buy. Again and again and again. Because companies make profits off of it. And the dieting industry is no exception.

In 2021, the global market for weight loss products and services was worth 254.9 billion dollars (GlobeNewswire, August 2021). 254.9 billion dollars. Which is more than Jeff Bezos’s entire stack of money as of early 2022. And I think we can all agree that Jeff Bezos is obscenely rich. It is also more than Elon Musk’s or Bernard Arnault’s money (Le Soir, January 2022). And I will take this opportunity to remind you that in 2018, Bernard Arnault’s fortune was worth 2.6 million years of France’s minimum wage (Ouest France, January 2018). In other words, considering France’s average life expectancy - roughly 82,25 years if you take the average between men and women’s life expectancy (INED, July 2020) - even if you were working from birth to death, it would still take the span of 31 611 human lives to earn as much as Bernard Arnault. And that was in 2018 - since then, he has added 130 billions to his fortune. Let that sink in. 

Image credits: preppyparadise.tumblr.com

Also, if you like ‘fun’ comparisons, here is another one for you - I find those very interesting personally, because I have some trouble wrapping my mind around how much money exactly this represents. Lilian Bettencourt, L’Oreal’s main shareholder, was estimated to have a 36 billion dollars fortune. If you take French’s minimum wage before taxes and round it up to around 20 000€/year, you should have started saving money (not spending anything at all) since 1 797 984 BC – which is when the homo erectus was alive (mataf.net). And this is for 36 billion dollars. Can you imagine how long it would take to earn 254.9 billion dollars?

Oh, and might I add that the estimated growth for the weight loss products and services market will reach 377.3 billion dollars by 2026 (GlobeNewswire, August 2021). Which puts society’s concern about people’s weight under a bright new perspective, right?

The truth on diets and why you are not a failure for not successfully losing weight

So, we live in a world which makes (huge) profits off of convincing us to spend money not to get fat, because it has brainwashed us into thinking that fat is the worst thing you could be – worse, in fact, than dying. This is enough to make everyone very angry, I think. And I am. So, time for a tiny animal break before going any further. 

Image credits: chaoticlovely on Pinterest

Now, the way we left things, they were bad enough. But what if I told you that we have statistical evidence that diets just do not work? Searchers have found out that the vast majority of people regain all the weight they have lost during their diet, after just a few years (UCLA, April 2007). 

Yes, that is right. It is not your fault. You have not failed. You are not a failure. You are not a bad person and other people are not better than you. Diets simply do not work. And you are not responsible for it. Your body’s main goal is to keep you alive, not to be thin. And for that, it has developed incredibly sophisticated and smart mechanisms. When you lose body fat, your body will boost hunger-inducing hormones to make you regain weight (Obesity Reviews, 2015). If you lower your calorie intake, your metabolism will slow down, so that it will work on fewer calories. This will lead to you gaining more weight if you go back to eating more calories (Obesity Reviews, 2015). 

Also, little parenthesis here: calories are not bad, they are your body’s energy source and without them, you die. Simple as that. Your body is designed to store fat, so that it can keep you alive if you do not have access to food for a time. It is an evolutionary mechanism. And it is what keeps you alive and what has kept your ancestors alive. That is only my two cents on the topic, but maybe that should be celebrated and marvelled at, rather than being shot down?

NB: if you are interested in how your body and brain respond to significant weight loss, you can check out this very interesting article on the matter by NBC News. 

Also, one UCLA researcher’s conclusion on dieting is particularly interesting: 

‘What happens to people on diets in the long run? Would they have been better off to not go on a diet at all? We decided to dig up and analyze every study that followed people on diets for two to five years. We concluded most of them would have been better off not going on the diet at all. Their weight would be pretty much the same, and their bodies would not suffer the wear and tear from losing weight and gaining it all back’
(Traci Mann, UCLA, April 2007). 

Time for another cute animal break before our next session!

Image credits: betsymac2 on Pinterest

The real side effects of diet culture

Let me start by saying that numerous fat activists, including people trained in the medical field and health professionals, have pointed out the lack of evidence linking dieting and health improvement in studies. In other words, as of today, there is not scientific proof that dieting does improve your overall weight. Just like there are no studies showing a causal effect between weight gain and diabetes; there is a correlation effect, this much has been established. But no study yet shows that diabetes is directly caused by weight gain – on the other side, insulin resistance has been proved to cause weight gain (fatdoctoruk on Instagram). So, lo and behold, it could very well be that fat does not equate to bad health. 

PS: if you want more information on this, I suggest you check out Dr Asher Larmie’s account – I have already talked about them, they do an incredible work of calling out fatphobia in current medical studies.

Now, we do talk a lot about the effect of weight gain or being fat on the body. But we never talk about the effects of dieting and extreme dieting on your health – could it be that society would rather have you dead than fat because companies want to achieve that 377 billion dollars estimated gain in 2026? Mhhh, I wonder. 

Image credits: favim.com

Physical health issues

On a physical level, several studies actually show that dieting does harm your body. One of the first things you will lose on a diet is your body’s water, so you become dehydrated (US News, August 2021), which leads to headaches, dizziness and tiredness. Also, when you drastically lower your calorie intake, your body will try to get an energy source wherever it can: namely, your muscles. This can lead to muscle atrophy and especially, an atrophy of the muscles of the heart. In this respect, low calorie liquid diets are very dangerous and can lead to death (US News, August 2021). 

Rapidly losing and regaining weight also takes its toll on your body.  One UCLA study, for instance, points out that ‘repeatedly losing and gaining weight is linked to cardiovascular disease, stroke, diabetes and altered immune function’ (UCLA, April 2007). It can also lead to an increased risk of gallstones and osteoporosis (EatingWell, September 2019). 

Common side effects of starvation – which actually happens when you go on extreme diets and fasting – include anemia, a drop in the body temperature, thyroid malfunction, low potassium, organ failure, slowed down growth rate, infertility and so on (Healthline, March 2019 ; SEDIG).

Dieting thus presents significant risks for your health. Of course, not everyone starves themselves to death when going into a diet. But fasting is an ever more popular ‘diet’, and it is important to talk about the risks. Your body needs calories to keep you alive. If you drastically reduce your calorie intake, it will seriously endanger your health. Please take care of yourself. Your weight or size does not have any impact on your right to be happy and healthy and loved.

Image credits: boredpanda.com

Mental health issues

Diet culture and dieting is dangerous for your body, and it can be dangerous for your mind as well. It can lead to low self-esteem, self-hatred and an unshakable feeling of being a failure. This, in turn, can lead to self-harm or suicidal thoughts – especially in teenage years, when you are more vulnerable.

But it also has a profound impact on your eating habits, leading to eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia and hyperphagia amongst others. And even if you do not develop one of these disorders, it can lead you to develop unhealthy eating habits or a feeling of guilt every time you eat something. On top of that, being calorie-deprived also leads to confusion and irritability. 

Image credits: nationateatingdisorders.org

All the above-mentioned effects, both physical and mental, are serious and should be treated as such. If you need it, please seek professional help. You deserve it. I do not know who needs to hear this, but you are worthy. Please do not blame yourself. You deserve love and kindness. Also, here is another cute animal for you to look at:

Image credits: BabyGoatPics on Twitter

What can we do about it? 

After all of this, one question remains: what can we do about it? A lot of awesome people are making art, speaking up, and advocating against diet culture and fatphobia. Amongst them, we can cite Barbara Butch, Katydid These, Shoog McDaniel, Marie Boiseau, Flavie Eidel and Scottee & Friends, which are doing a formidable work of changing the narrative on fat people. Instagram and other social media are full of incredible activists, like Sofie Hagen, Asher Larmie, or Substantia Jones. And it is so important to hear them and understand them to deconstruct our fatphobic biases. Tell your friends to follow them. Make them read. Send articles to your fatphobic family. Speak up. You will not take down the entire dieting industry on your own. But you might very well help someone close who needs it. 

Image credits: verywellfit.com, July 2021

As for the rest, well. The Fat Underground once said ‘Riots not diets’ – so let us keep rioting. Let us raise our voice, until people have no other choice but to listen. Let us change the rules. Let us force the dieting industry to take responsibility for all the harm it has caused and continues to cause. The path is long and harsh. But changes are already happening. Let us keep fighting. Let us love our bodies – because they all deserve to be celebrated. So, celebrate yourself and share your photos with us on Instagram! We love to see the joy spread.

Talk to you soon!

Love, xx 

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