BODY POSITIVITY - PART 1 - A Crash Course in Diet Culture

CW: Body hatred, eating disorders, fatphobia, mental illness and ableism

By Eleanor McKelvey, Head of Online Engagement (Blog)

Body-image anxiety eating at you this January?

It’s no surprise. You have been subjected to a month of intensive advertising from the diet and fitness industries. They have scolded you for holiday “over-indulgence” and inculcated you with the obligation to “improve” yourself with the new year. You have endured food-scrutinization and exercise-bragging from colleagues over your lunch break. The news and government organisations have hounded you with public health messages promising, with brazen certitude, that all of us need to invest more time and money in “bettering” our bodies.

These are symptoms of a diet culture.

What is diet culture?

Although it intensifies in January, diet culture is ubiquitous. The term describes our society’s collective obsession with the pursuit of body “improvement”. In particular, it is the focus on achieving aesthetic goals through diet and exercise. Whilst there is nothing inherently wrong with encouraging people to move or eat in a way that makes them feel better; diet-culture is where we are encouraged to eat and exercise in a way that risks our mental and physical health.

Diet culture describes a multi-billion-dollar industry (Australians spent an estimated $4.7bn on diet and fitness in 2018) which, in its economic might, is powerful and pervasive. Healthcare providers regularly prescribe dieting as a “treatment”, although if it were a drug, it would pass neither efficacy nor safety tests: 95% of attempts at long-term weight-loss through dieting fail. The weight-loss industry is built on scams and false promises - despite what the adverts insinuate, shrinking your body is not a short-cut to confidence, overall health or desirability.

Crucially, diet-culture persists because it convinces us that its failures are ours. We are the problem because we are lazy and undisciplined, and dieting hasn’t made us feel good because we are not yet good enough.

The  “Find Your 30” campaign  says that it  “ is calling on all Australians to find time for at least 30 minutes of physical activity per day” - is such a rigid and inflexible approach healthy and inclusive? Is it right for the campaign to equate fatness with inactivity by using unsupported statements such as “inactivity is having a negative impact on our health and waistlines.”? How does this campaign show the echoes of diet culture?

The “Find Your 30” campaign says that it is calling on all Australians to find time for at least 30 minutes of physical activity per day” - is such a rigid and inflexible approach healthy and inclusive? Is it right for the campaign to equate fatness with inactivity by using unsupported statements such as “inactivity is having a negative impact on our health and waistlines.”? How does this campaign show the echoes of diet culture?

Diet culture affects us all differently

Most women are already aware of the fact that society places expectations on their bodies. Surreptitiously, adverts and film equate meeting beauty standards with being sexually desirable and successful. Directly, from school girls to celebrities, women are regularly bullied using appearance-based slurs. Society continually vacillates on the “ideal” woman’s body (Big bum? Small bum? Big breasts? Perky breasts? Skinny, but not too skinny? Curvy, but not too curvy?), but these ideals are consistently unachievable to the majority of women.

Whilst less stringent, and far less esoteric, male body “ideals” are also harmful. Men are under increasing amounts of pressure to be lean and/or have visible muscle, and this is likely to be partially responsible for the rise of eating disorders in men.

The way that diet culture targets people in marginalised bodies is less frequently acknowledged. For people with marginalised bodies, dieting is sold as a means of compensation for occupying “inferior” bodies. For example, transgender people tend to feel under greater pressure than cisgender people to meet body ideals. Under diet-culture, disabled people and those with chronic pain/illness may still feel heavily compelled to exercise, in fear of otherwise being labelled as “lazy”. People who are considered “obese” are told that dieting is a matter of life and death - from the cultural messages that promise “life will start after weight loss”, to the medical practitioners that can deny them access to life-altering operations until they lose weight. 

Fed up? You are not alone

More and more of us are getting tired of diet culture. We are sick of being told how to eat, how to exercise and even feel about our bodies. We are exhausted by the obligation we feel to continually analyse and critique our bodies. We know something isn’t right when our bodies repeatedly fight back against our efforts, leaving us trapped in restrict/binge, exert/exhaust and lose/gain cycles.

A growing number of us are turning to body positivity. But what exactly does it mean? How does it promise to provide the antidote to diet culture? Stay tuned for more in Part 2…