CW: diet culture, disordered eating, fatphobia
Photo credit: Oh’Doughnuts. If you’re a Winnipegger, go support these lovely folks! They have so many vegan options (and have some great messages)!
It’s been a long time coming, and I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to write these words on my blog: diet culture sucks.
I want to begin with a disclaimer: I am by no means an expert on the topic of diet culture. I haven’t even done my reading yet! What is written below is drawn largely from my own personal experiences. This post lacks contexts and complexities that I cannot adequately articulate. But, something happened last night and I just could not hold back from addressing this any longer. I hope this can be the start of a continued conversation on this blog, and I hope that you’ll contribute to it if able.
So, what happened last night?
I’m part of a vegan Facebook community. For the most part, it’s great. The admins of the group are truly wonderful and kind people who I respect and admire greatly, especially after this incident. There is talk of someone opening a new raw restaurant in Winnipeg, and someone shared a snapshot of their Instagram profile in the group. I had scrolled through this person’s feed and noticed that it was super heavy on diet culture talk. I decided to share this fact in a comment on the post. Some great people (including admins) commented back saying how they appreciated that I brought this to their attention and that they, too, do not want to support a business with such a message.
But then, of course, there were other comments. There was a comment claiming that the Instagram feed was not heavy in diet culture. I second-guessed myself, was I being too critical? So I went back to the feed for a second look. Here are some of things I found:
-‘Fast Food’ is artery clogging and cancer-causing (the privilege + classicism associated with this comment will be saved for another discussion, but I suggest checking out the podcast The Racist Sandwich who have an amazing episode about class and food).
-Posts featuring the Instagramer’s thin body to challenge people to go vegan to lose weight.
-Pictures of juice with the caption: Get your JUICE ON and LOSE WEIGHT.
-A picture of a thin person measuring the circumference of their stomach, once again challenging people to go vegan to lose weight.
-Claiming that going vegan will make you sexy because vegans are typically thinner than meat-eaters.
Are you sick of this yet? This all occurred in a month and a half worth of posts.
Another reply to my comment in the vegan group was that we really should support vegans despite the owner’s beliefs. I responded to this explaining that I should not have to put my other beliefs and morals on the back burner for the sake of veganism. I also pointed out that while, yes, this person was right in saying that we do not know the morals and ethics of every business owner, we should do the best we can with the information we are given. After I explained this stance, it hurt when another member liked the comments defending the support of the business and then commenting that they themselves would be happy to support the restaurant.
These comments, while not explicitly supporting diet culture, are micro-agressions that demonstrate the commenters true opinions about diet culture and fat people.
I actually cried when this happened last night. It’s only been in the last year or so that I have even been able to talk about weight, diet culture, and fatphobia–and that’s only with people I trust and love. Writing that comment was scary. Sure, it could have been worse, but by commenting I gave people a platform to express their ideas and beliefs in response. And often these ideas are not nice to read. But, I did it and want to continue to do it because I know it’s important. I truly appreciate it when other people call out diet culture, it means more to me than they probably know. I hope my actions can do the same for someone else.
What is diet culture?
Diet culture is hard to define, at least for me because I am not too well versed on the subject. I see diet culture as a socially and medically sanctioned (and encouraged) form of disordered eating. Diet culture is so prevalent and entrenched in society that we often don’t actually recognize it when we see it. Here are only a few ways diet culture presents itself in every day situations:
-It’s justifying the foods you eat in front of other people. For example, saying “I’ll have this doughnut but then I have to go to the gym after to burn off those calories!”
-It’s commenting on someone’s appearance and using thinness as a qualifier for their beauty.
-It’s asking your friends or family if something makes you look “fat”.
-It’s talking to people about your diet.
-It’s commenting to others that you “haven’t eaten all day” or only eaten a “salad” in a celebratory way.
-It’s believing that you have the right to comment on someone’s body because you are “concerned for their health”.
There are so many more examples–these are only a handful.
How does it manifest in the vegan community?
Diet culture is everywhere and it manifests in different ways depending on the situation or community. In veganism, I see diet culture show itself as clean eating. To use the example I discussed above, the Instagramer wishing to open a raw restaurant is claiming that raw foods are healthier and better for you (read: clean), and that these foods are directly related to weight loss.
Clean eating is the idea that some food is clean, and other food is dirty (aka bad for you). Vegan blogs have so many recipes that boast using “clean” ingredients. Subbing cauliflower is better than making an Alfredo sauce with cream–not because dairy cows that produce milk are treated with extreme violence, but because it’s less fattening.
This focus on clean eating is, of course, most prevalent in white, privileged vegan communities.
I have a recipe for cauliflower Alfredo on this blog because cauliflower makes a good sauce! But you know what else makes my recipe taste good? The coconut milk and vegan butter. And there is nothing wrong with those ingredients. In fact, just to clarify and repeat what other great women have said: no food is dirty (unless it’s fallen on the floor — and even then, no judgements.)
There is more. Many people advertise veganism as a weight loss diet, for example. I just wanted to give a very brief introduction to diet culture in vegan communities, but it is definitely deserving of a longer (better researched) post.
Why is it harmful?
I’ll speak first to how diet culture has impacted me.
For as long as I can remember, I hated my body. Since elementary school I have always been trying to change my body to make it fit in to society (aka achieve thinness).
One summer I lost a fair bit of weight. I was going to the gym and running–both healthy things that I try to keep with today. But I wasn’t doing it for the right reasons: I did it to change the appearance of my body, not because moving my body felt good. People commented on my weight non-stop. They praised me. They respected me. I moved in society so much easier. Shocker, though: I wasn’t happier.
What these people didn’t know is that behind the scenes I was counting every calorie I ate. I would refuse my body of foods it asked for, or shame myself when I “caved”. I remember going to the gym one day, doing an extra long cardio session because I was going to the bar later that night. I counted my calories so carefully, eating something like 800 calories, and made sure I burned off at least that number on the treadmill. I did that so I could drink, so I could have calories left in the day to have drinks with my friends. I treated my body with such violence and it was celebrated by every person in my life. My body, and by extension me, was finally was acceptable.
That time in my life has gone on to influence me. What I learned at that time is so internalized that unlearning it is a hard, challenging, and often exhausting endeavour.
I know my story is not unique.
The damaging effects of diet culture are clear, then. But there is more. A recent HuffPost article demonstrated that the way we medically discuss fatness is wrong, and that this is proven by science. I highly recommend you read the article. While not perfect, it challenges a lot of misconceptions about body size and health. What really stood out to me was the discrimination fat people face in the medical system. I have a wonderful body-positive doctor who has never once mentioned weight-loss as a solution for any of my health concerns. Most people, however, are not so lucky. People often justify their fatphobia as a concern for someone’s well-being and health. But, as this article points out, medical experts see fatness as a person’s first medical problem. Therefore, they are much more likely to not notice the actual issue at hand. This means that fat people’s medical issues or illnesses do not get diagnosed or identified as quickly as those of thin people. The longer you wait to treat an issue or the longer it takes for diagnosis, the harder it is to treat. Fat people are dying, but it isn’t because of their weight. It is because of fatphobia in the medical system.
What can we do about it?
This is a tough one. Dismantling systems of oppressions is a hard, long battle. Here are a few things I try to do and things I have seen other people do that have helped me:
-Call out diet culture when you see it. This doesn’t have to be mean, this doesn’t have to confrontational. Explain that what is being said contributes to diet culture, and explain why this isn’t okay.
-Support people who call out diet culture. The likes I received on my comment on that Facebook post meant so much to me. It’s a small act, but it helped me deal with the negative comments.
-Don’t participate in diet culture. I am guilty of diet culture still having a hold on my mind; like I said, it’s a hard thing to unlearn. What is easier to control is what comes out of your mouth. Be aware of what you’re saying, even if it’s about yourself.
-If you’re a medical professional of any sort, do your research and look beyond weight.
-If you own business, make sure your spaces are safe and accessible for people of all sizes. Don’t provide tiny little chairs and place your tables a foot apart. Don’t cram your shelves so close together that anyone who isn’t thin would have a hard time navigating the space. Offer clothing for people of all sizes. You get the point.
-Do some reading! Support those who are challenging fatphobia and diet culture. Buy their books, follow them on social media, listen to them!
This is just a start and what came to mind when I wrote this. There is so much more we can all do. Most importantly, take care of yourself. Self-care when needed, nourish your body without shame, remember that your worth is not dependant on a number reflected back at you from a scale. You are worthy at any size.
Some reading + resources:
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(there is so much more and I will keep updating this post, or perhaps add a resource page to the blog that can be easily accessed!)
Thanks for reading,