Episode One: Deconstructing Diet Culture
Does diet culture affect me?
From the pressure to hit the gym to diets that promise a beach-ready body, we are constantly inundated with messages about our weight and the ways it supposedly determines our worth and health. Diet culture is omnipresent, so it’s no wonder that it influences our beliefs — even when we make a conscious effort to challenge its messages: “It seeps into my own home from media, from social media, the athletic world,” says ultrarunner Mirna Valerio, as she recounts a situation when diet culture’s messaging infiltrated her home life despite her efforts to eat and move in a more intuitive way. Both Valerio and physical therapist assistant Ilya Parker describe times they’ve encountered diet culture in the doctor’s office and the ways this prevented them from receiving comprehensive healthcare. Natalia Petrzela, professor of American culture and history at the New School, points out the overlap of diet culture with American politics, with notable examples including JFK’s claim that the “soft American” is a national liability.
Let’s dig deeper:
- What were some of the earliest messages you heard about the size and shape of your body?
- How did those messages shape your beliefs about body size, whether your own or those of others?
- In what context(s) do you encounter diet culture in your daily life?
- In what ways have you internalized, questioned, or resisted this messaging?
How do diet culture and fatphobia perpetuate other forms of oppression?
Diet culture is built on a concept that’s been around for thousands of years: it is moral and virtuous to maintain a lower body weight. “This was because of the belief system that ancient Greeks had about balance and moderation in all things being seen as a virtue,” says dietician and author Christy Harrison. “And so fatness was seen as an imbalance to be ‘corrected.’” The idea that our body weight has moral or ethical implications persists in our language today — from diets that classify certain foods as good or bad, to the use of “fat” as a slur, to the concept of a “cheat day.”
The belief that virtue is linked to body size has been used throughout history to justify practices that glorify smaller bodies and oppress larger ones. According to Harrison, evolutionary biologists in the 1800s considered fatness to be an indicator of “evolutionary inferiority,” an idea used to support the oppression of people considered to have “excess” body fat, including women and people of color. Today, this oppression continues to manifest in various ways, including the fact that people in larger bodies are frequently denied access to medical procedures and face a significant wage gap.
Let’s dig deeper:
- How do fitness and weight management show up in your personal values or belief system?
- How were these beliefs and values confirmed, contradicted, or complicated by the perspectives shared in this episode?
- What kinds of privilege or marginalization do you experience as a result of diet culture?
- How do these experiences intersect with other aspects of your identity?
How does diet culture show up in my language?
Diet culture promotes an endless categorization of bodies — as thin or fat; healthy or unhealthy; “good” or “bad.” These classifications are deeply embedded in the language we use to talk about bodies and communicate implicit assumptions about a person’s identity, health, or values based solely on their physical appearance.
This categorization of bodies is fueled more by bias and stigma than by empirical evidence. Definitions of “obese” and “overweight” are based on BMI, a metric that was never intended to be used to measure individual body size and has many other flaws. The definitions of “obese” and “overweight” are also somewhat arbitrary, as demonstrated by the fact that the standards defining these categories shifted abruptly in the late 1990s — a phenomenon which, according to internal medicine physician Dr. Louise Metz, caused 29 million people to suddenly become “overweight” or “obese” overnight. Ilya Parker shares how the categorization of bodies often results in his being misgendered in fitness spaces: “It's countless group classes that I've been in where language was so important,” Parker says, “especially when you're like: Hey, guys can only do this exercise. Ladies can only do this exercise. And then also making the assumption that you know who's in the room.”
Let’s dig deeper:
- What adjectives do you associate with the words “fat” and “thin”?
- What words do you tend to use when talking about your own body or other people’s bodies?
- What words are used most often in the fitness or health-centered spaces of which you are part?
- What assumptions, generalizations, or biases are embedded in these words?
- How might you adjust your language to avoid categorizing, classifying, or making assumptions?
Christy Harrison is an anti-diet registered dietitian, certified intuitive eating counselor, certified eating disorders specialist, and journalist. She is the host of the weekly podcast Food Psych and is the author of the book Anti-Diet: Reclaim Your Time, Money, Well-Being, and Happiness Through Intuitive Eating.
Natalia Petrzela is an Associate Professor of History at The New School whose work centers on contemporary American politics and culture. Her book FIT NATION: The Gains and Pains Of America’s Exercise Obsession is forthcoming from University of Chicago Press.
- “Eating disorders and malnutrition across the weight spectrum” (blog post) - Louise Metz
- Food Psych (podcast) - Christy Harrison
- “How to make your gym or fitness space more inclusive” (article) - Ilya Parker
- Fat Girl Running (blog) - Mirna Valerio
- “From Performance to Participation: the Origins of Fit Nation” (article) - Natalia Petrzela