We Live in Diet Culture, and Most of Us Don’t Even Know It

When we are born, we are comfortable in our bodies - no matter what they look like. There are exceptions of course, but for many people the typical dissatisfaction we feel about our bodies is almost 100% learned. It’s shaped by the culture that we live in - namely, diet culture.

By definition, culture is: the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group. Also: the characteristic features of everyday existence (such as diversions or a way of life) shared by people in a place or time (Merriam-Webster).

Dieting, "fitness", and the desire to control our bodies is a huge part of Western culture. This is seen as normal, because we live in diet culture. But many of us don’t really see just how prevalent the fixation on our bodies (and negative impact) is.

Sure we may be aware of how often our family and friends are dieting, seeking an “acceptable” body, but we don't question it. It’s normal to move through life fixated on our “flaws” and “imperfections”. A lot of our time is spent on finding and implementing ways we can to minimize these “flaws”. Pretty much everyone is doing it.

But it’s a catch-22. We feel bad about our bodies, thinking they need to be thinner, fitter, smoother, glowing, etc. So we buy the latest diet book, attend the hottest boot camp class, or “invest” in expensive spa treatments, all to “fix” the things that make us feel bad about ourselves. But by doing so, we’re perpetuating and supporting the beliefs and systems that keep us feeling bad about ourselves in the first place.

It’s hard to escape the catch-22, because we live in diet culture.

Let’s take a look at how insidious diet culture is. Below, I’ve listed systems and structures that either exist because of, or are directly shaped by the diet mentality. It’s not an exhaustive list, so if you see something I’ve missed, please add to it.

  • Diet clinics and businesses like Weight Watchers (sorry: “WW”), Slimming World, Noom, BeachBody etc.

  • Gyms, yoga studios, fitness centers

  • The fashion industry

  • The food industry

  • The healthcare system

  • The education system

  • The entertainment industry

  • The media

  • The advertising industry

  • The “well-being” industry

  • Small businesses

  • Social interactions - practically any conversation at work, with family, friends etc.

There is almost no part of our culture that isn’t shaped by the belief that there is a “better” way to have a body - that some bodies are better than others.

Literally multi-billion dollar industries exist because of this belief.

Think about the stress, self-deprecation, time, money, and energy that is wasted on the pursuit of getting this “ideal” body. An ideal body that doesn’t even truly exist (except in the form of a belief).

Many of us embark upon this body-improvement journey in the name of health. Diet culture tells us that our health is at stake if our bodies do not look like, or are close to the “ideal”. But the healthcare system, education system, advertising industry, etc. are deeply shaped by diet culture, and so is their information and advice. Now, it’s not all bogus information, but most of it is so heavily influenced by the idea that there is a “right” way to have a body, that it’s not all true. I highly recommend reading the book Body Respect to learn more about this.

The good news is we can wake up from the trance of diet culture.

It’s not always pretty. In fact it can be angering to see all the ways we have denied ourselves, punished ourselves, and put ourselves (and our bodies) down because it doesn’t fit the “ideal” image. But know this: it’s not our fault. We were innocently raised with these beliefs.

After we wake up from the trance of diet culture we can start asking ourselves these questions:

If I knew my body was OK just as it is...

“...how would I treat it?”

“...what would I stop doing?”

“...what would I start doing?”

“...what kind world would I want to see and how can I help create it?”

Once we see diet culture for what it really is, we can start anew. We can see and treat our bodies by taking cues from within ourselves, instead of following an external set of rules and ideas.

How would you begin?

If you’d like support in taking your first steps in building a supportive and positive relationship with your body, visit my body acceptance coaching page.

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Photo by Jessica To'oto'o on Unsplash