Lately, I have been talking about issues around body image quite extensively. This can take the form of “I’m trying a new diet”, “my trousers don’t fit anymore”, “I put on so much weight” or “I am embarrassed with X part of my body”, all said with upset and at times anger. As someone who herself had to fight against this inner dialogue, I couldn’t but notice how insidious and damaging it was to look at myself in the mirror and attack my body every so often, promise myself a course of actions that would fix that and be fully supported by friends and family in all of this (from not appreciating my body to finding solutions to have a better one). Most times though, that was well hidden. By engaging in physical activities and declaring I was looking for wellness and toning up rather than shaving off weight was an attempt to hide the fact I wanted smaller tights/ waist. But why?
This blog post tries to answer the question of why we may have a burdensome relationship with our bodies or food. When this relationship becomes problematic and reaches a point of concern, affecting our health and daily living, diagnosis, medication and structured treatment in specialised facilities are often prescribed without necessarily looking at why distress is there in the first place.
Hence, this blog post is not about the types of interventions or tools to overcome issues around body image or food. It will hopefully support you to shift the focus from “What’s wrong with you?” to “What happened to you?” to help you heal the relationship with your body and food.
First stop, diet culture. How to describe it? In one sentence, diet culture is systemic oppression that we normalised, which means that we unknowingly perpetuate thinking we are doing something right (and at the same time, being unhappy with it too).
Diet culture dictates how you should look and what you should do to achieve that. Anything falling outside of these parameters is regarded as bad/ toxic/ unhelpful/ shameful/ you-don’t-respect-your-body. Diet culture celebrates thinness and healthy eating regardless of how different systems of oppression are affecting you. Diet culture strives on fitness programmes that allow you to lose XYZ weight in XYZ days. Diet culture pathologies certain bodies over others. Diet culture builds on the idea that meeting its standards is either unachievable or difficult to maintain.
Let me offer you an example of this. You may embrace the idea that eating locally and organically is good for your body, mind and soul while supporting local communities and being environmentally sustainable. Conversely, you are trying to have your ends meet and feed a family of five with a minimum-wage salary. Shopping locally and organically is out of budget, so is your desired lifestyle. Concurrently, you worry that this will prevent you from reaching an optimal health standard (whatever the standard is).
How does diet culture look like?
Diet culture can look like this:
- you are healthy only if you are thin
- food is seen as both a reward and a curse. There is a fine line between the two and that line is oftentimes invisible and affected by a new diet trend/ fitness programme/ how society sees your body size and shape in that precise moment.
- movement is seen as prevention from being in a body size that is less valued and admired (according to diet culture) or punishment for the way you look or the food you ate.
- you feel inadequate for the way your body looks
- you struggle to connect to a sense of fullness that doesn’t align with the diet trend/ fitness programme/ how society sees your body size and shape in that precise moment.
Some questions you can ask yourself
Diet culture does not allow you to connect to yourself by consistently fuelling an environment of war inside your head against your very own body. If that speaks to you, I gathered few reflective questions you can ask yourself to check whether the relationship you have with your body and food is influenced by diet culture.
- Am I moving my body because I enjoy this or as an award/punishment? If so, why am I awarding/punishing myself? Am I having fun when moving my body?
- Am I having this food as a “cheat” to a diet I am following or because I enjoy that particular food?
- Do you feel guilty when you eat junk food? If so, do you know why?
- Do you divide food from good to bad? If so, what is your rationale for doing so?
Fatphobia: “I’m not fatphobic but…“
There is no diet culture without fatphobia. They feed each other.
Fatphobia is fuelled by fat-shaming, weight biases and weight stigma (for example, using derogatory words towards fat people or producing a cloths line that does not cater for people in larger bodies).
Fatphobia is not only the fear and hatred of fat bodies but also, most importantly, the normalisation and fuelling of that fear in our cultures. Fatphobia is a double-edged sword. On one side, it humiliates and marginalises fat people with not so covert (micro) aggressions. On the other side, it instils the fear in people in smaller bodies where similar fate awaits if they don’t control/restrict/suppress the way they attend to the needs of their bodies according to diet culture.
Until recently, I was oblivious to why I judged myself and others so harshly about body image. I now know it was because of the way fatphobia and diet culture sneaked into my self-worth.
Without the voices and advocacy of people in larger bodies, whose fatness has been pathologized and discriminated against, I wouldn’t be here today with this level of awareness and understanding of my own struggles and views.
Their work needs recognised and amplified whilst acknowledging that we cannot expect them to be the ones who continuously educate us. This is a reminder that we shouldn’t put pressure on marginalised communities to dismantle systems of oppression. This is a responsibility we would all need to share and carry if we want to overcome this.
How does fatphobia look like?
Fatphobia can look like this:
- your body size is used to determine whether you can access treatment
- cloth rands do not sell sizes for people with larger bodies
- the media visually portrays unhealthy eating habits by using people in larger bodies
- in films, people in larger bodies are mainly employed for caricatural roles
- preempting comments on your weight gain by broaching the topic yourself (usually with a joke)
- on social media, before-and-after pictures contribute to the idea that thinness is what we should aspire and celebrate
Some questions you can ask yourself
Understanding the roots of that fear can help us understand what is going on for us without this layer of oppression. The following questions will support you to pay attention to some of the thoughts and attitudes you may have towards fatness.
- Are you calling yourself fat? If so, what feeling do you attach to it? If you are using the word ‘fat’ as a feeling, are there any other words you could use instead?
- What does it mean to you to be in a larger body? What feelings do you associate with it?
- What does it mean to you to be in a smaller body? What feelings do you associate with it?
- What is your attitude towards fatness? Where do you think it comes from?
- Were you raised in an environment where fatness was frowned upon?
How diet culture and fatphobia can affect your mental health
Both diet culture and fatphobia promote a climate of inward distrust, affecting how we experience our relationship with our body and food. This relationship may look like a self-loathing and self-deprecating exercise that leads to low self-worth and poor body image. Often, anxiety accompanies this climate around eating habits, specific food groups (according to the diet followed) and, concurrently, the type/ frequency/ level of movement involved to counterbalance the eating habits.
Fatphobia specifically adds fear of retaliation associated with specific body size and image, feeling misunderstood, neglected, excluded and isolated.
Diet culture and fatphobia make you believe that the problem is inside you.
Can you see what is happening here? First, they tell you that health and a specific body size/shape come together as an unbreakable duo. Second, they lure you into believing that you want to aspire to that health-and-body standards or otherwise you’ll face rejection. Third, they tell you what steps are acceptable for you to reach that standard. Lastly, they shame you and guilt trip you for not meeting those standards that do not come naturally to us.
As a therapist, I strive to see behind the overall sense of ‘internal wrongness’ that this capitalistic society is imposing on us. Going by the motto “what happened to you?” rather than “what’s wrong with you?” allows me to see distress from the lenses of power dynamics, privilege and oppression. For too long, I have let diet culture be the lens through which I would see and understand my body, attributing it the only function to please others whilst never being good enough to please anyone. Slowly, I turned to believe that my body was no worth of love and stopped appreciating the little things it was doing for me. Framing the distress that came from it in terms of oppression allowed me to take a step back and remove myself from the causes of unhappiness.
I am not saying here that the work is over. Diet culture and fatphobia are insidious and latch on wider discourses on oppression, privilege and power. Surely, this can be a start.
If you feel like this is affecting you and you would like to look at this further, you can contact me to discuss the possibility of working together. My email address is email@example.com
If you want to know more about diet culture, fatphobia and body positivity, why not connecting to the following activists?
Fatphobia and its racist past and present – this is an audio file with transcription, the title says it all. Link here
Nic McDermid: in her words, “fierce activist, feminist, advocate and content creator”, “disrupting the dominant discourse around weight and bodies”. You can find her on Instagram dismantling anti-fat biases. Link here
Lindley Ashline: the photographer and fat activist. Link here
Mik Zazon: Body positivity activist who trademarked her “Normalise Normal Bodies” hashtag. Link here