This time of the year always strikes dread into the hearts of anti-dieters. We struggle to both avoid and respond to diet culture. How does one politely tell a colleague or well-meaning friend to stop talking about Noom or Slimming World? Whether you’ve become sick of the pressure to conform or 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 have been around as long as we have. From having wide hips and a 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 different. 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 the mould?
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.
It’s difficult to escape. After all, the diet industry is huge and has been for years! Every one 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, unachieved 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 in a diet culture! I recall comments on my food choices being ‘bad’ by school teachers, and comments on my young body as 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 the origins of diet culture has given me the fuel I needed to push back against it.
Four Ways to respond to diet culture and 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 topic 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 dangers surrounding diet culture. Whether it’s using my own experiences or knowledge from my time spent at eating disorder treatment centers, 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 from 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 in 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.
Are there any other ways you would respond to diet culture?
The sad truth is that diet culture isn’t going away anytime 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 pushback from young people, influencers, and even long-term members dieting. Health and every size are 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.