“Diet Culture. It’s there in the frustration we feel when we are getting ready for that holiday party, changing clothing over and over, feeling like nothing looks ‘good enough.’ It’s there when we gather around a plate of appetizers, talking about how many calories are in the food we are eating, everyone vowing to work out harder at the gym the next day. It’s there at the family party, when all of the aunts and cousins complain about the ‘family hips.’
It’s with us year-round, day after day, and it never takes a break or goes on vacation. And it’s especially alive and well at the holidays. Nagging us. Constantly taking down our self-talk and our self-worth and sabotaging our self-care. Teasing us. Bullying us. Reminding us that we can go ahead and jump ‘off the wagon now,’ only to ‘get back on track’ along with the rest of the planet with an extreme diet, an unpleasant regimen, and a restrictive relationship with food to ‘undo’ all of the revelry and ‘bad behavior’ of the holidays starting promptly the moment we wake up on January 1.
I am no stranger to Diet Culture. It has been a near-constant companion since middle school in the mid-1980s. ‘Wide load’ was what I was called back then by a group of boys in class. Their teasing, along with the rampant images and saturation in media at that time, as well as the explosion of fad diets and the ‘low-fat food’ craze were an ever-present reminder that I was ‘too big.’ I took up too much space. My body did not, would not fit into the container that it was ‘supposed to.’ In high school, I was officially a card-carrying member of the Dieter’s Club. I knew the calorie content of most foods. I watched the display on the exercise machines at the YMCA light up, reassuring me I was burning them back off again. In spite of the rise of grunge and oversized clothing trends at the time, my senior year of high school I wore a shirt to a party that bared my midriff and felt like I had arrived. Where? I didn’t know really. But it was a place that society reminds us daily that we should aspire to inhabit at all costs, no matter what our age, our genetics, or our body type.
In college, I dated a guy who told me it was ‘cute that I was chubby.’ He would tease me for ‘waddling across the room.’ He would suggest I should work out more. Make comments about what I was eating. I was confused. He was one of the most handsome men I had ever dated up to that point in my life. I was actually shocked he asked me out. From what I could see, we didn’t fit together. His comments suggested that maybe he wasn’t sure we did either, but he kept asking me out, sending these mixed signals that made me feel simultaneously overjoyed and worthy yet wildly inadequate and humiliated.
In college, I ran. Not because I liked running. In fact, I hated running. I ran because it was a torch. A way to burn calories. Shape the body. Change it. Control it. Except it didn’t seem to deliver as promised. It didn’t seem to work. Late one night, I was on the floor in the bathroom, exhausted from having tried a new strategy to rid my body of the hunger inside. It didn’t feel good. And deep, deep down, I knew if I kept it up, it wasn’t going to go anywhere good either. So, I called my parents. I asked for help. I didn’t really know what was wrong, but I knew it needed fixing. And as it turns out, that journey of finding out what was at the root of feeling constantly haunted by messages from both within and without changed my life. And hopefully now has the power to change others’.
I am now 45 years old. I am a mother. A wife. A photographer. A therapist. I am, in fact, so many, many things. As we all are. I still walk side by side with Diet Culture, but now, instead of believing it’s my well-informed friend, I see it as an adversary to rid the world of one girl or woman at a time.
In my private practice clinical therapy office, I spend my days talking to girls and women about Diet Culture. How it seeps into the way we see ourselves. See others. Feed ourselves. Nurture ourselves. How it is intertwined with media, social media, fitness culture, motherhood culture, fat-phobic culture, the beauty industry, the fashion industry, and just about every other aspect of modern living in Western Society. In my photography work, I aim to show women and girls the true beauty of their real and unique selves. My definition of Diet Culture is this: ‘anything that is designed to make us feel that there is a ‘better version’ of ourselves if we just lose weight, change our bodies, or aim for perfection with food, weight, or the way our bodies look.’ And it is everywhere. All the time. And we all know it.
The effects of Diet Culture break my heart over and over. When I see the statistics of how younger and younger girls are struggling with eating disorders. When I hear moms who don’t want to get in photos with their children because they have ‘that last ten pounds or more to lose,’ or who ask me to be sure to ‘Photoshop’ their bodies. When I hear over and over the lamenting of girls and women of how we just aren’t good enough in just about every way, especially in the way that we look.
But Diet Culture does not have to have the last word. We can change the conversation. We can create a new world order, where food is not the enemy but a tool we use to improve our health. Where food can be enjoyed while we sit at the giant buffet of this big, beautiful life. We can teach our girls that they don’t need to count calories or fear having ice cream with friends. We can learn, many of us for the first time, what we intuitively want and need for our bodies to feel healthy, energized, and empowered. Not because we look perfect, but because we realize that perfection is a dream not worth realizing. Because if I’ve learned anything in my own life and in my therapy practice, it’s that the dream of perfection is actually a nightmare.
Whether it’s at the holidays, where food is often plentiful, tempting, and loaded with emotion, or at any other time of year, there are strategies that we can slowly learn to adapt to architect a new way of living in the world without the scaffolding of Diet Culture.
Here are a few places to start:
1. Challenge the messages from diet culture, media, social media, and any other industry trying to sell you the message that you need to lose weight or eat a specific way
2. Learn about HAES. Health at Every Size. It’s a movement that confronts the idea that our weight is an indicator of our health. It calls BS on the BMI and the idea that thinness equates with health, which many medical and mental health professionals can debunk quite quickly when we see health through the lens of overall behaviors with food, movement, and lifestyle.
3. Don’t engage in conversations about dieting, calories, or guilt around food.
4. Pay attention to your self-talk. Are you your own worst critic? Do the things you say to yourself sound like things you would tell your friend? A loved one? Your daughter?
5. Investigate intuitive eating. Learn about how to listen to your body’s hunger and fullness cues.
6. Ditch the ‘good food/bad food’ belief that is at the heart of Diet Culture and usually ends up triggering guilt, shame, overeating, bingeing, and unhealthy or downright deadly compensatory behavior to ‘undo’ food.
7. Suss out and stop following social media ‘influencers’ who share diets, tips, and tricks to stay or be thin. Their content is often a glorified representation of disordered, restrictive, or unhealthy eating, and their content is almost always highly edited and photoshopped.
8. Get help. A therapist or dietitian who is specialized in eating disorders can absolutely help you. Learning about your body and its specific needs, how to ‘legalize’ all foods, and how to eat all the foods you love and enjoy in moderation while still being healthy is possible! A trained therapist can help you retrain your brain and your thinking around food weight, and your body, especially with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.
9. Pay attention to emotional eating. It usually feels like you are ‘stuffing’ both food and emotions at the same time. It’s generally not mindful, pleasurable, or fun.
10. Give yourself permission to enjoy food. Love and accept your body the way it is, rather than waiting to love and care for yourself on that elusive day in the future when you finally get to the weight where you can at long last feel worthy of love.
Freedom from Diet Culture and all of its trappings is there for the taking. All that is really required is to make the decision to walk away.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Gina Graham, LCSW from Chicago, IL. Follow her on Instagram and her website. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
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