Diet Culture: An Introduction & Condemnation

By Melissa A. Fabello

To those of you who complain about my socialist, anti-heteropatriarchal dogma ruining the lives of children everywhere, you’re gonna love this one. Because today, I want to talk about the ways in which diet culture is a fabricated sham that exists solely to uphold capitalism.

But first, I want to show you this super-cool shirt that was made by my friends over at Nalgona Positivity Pride, which is an organization working to decolonize the body-love movement. Look! It’s a punked-out Miss Piggy, and it says “Beat Eating Disorders.” How cute is that? I’m going to put a link to their Etsy shop in the video information box, because I know you’re going to want to buy one.

Okay. Now, you ready?

Naomi Wolf, in her 1990 book The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Womenwrites that “[a] culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience. Dieting,” she writes, “is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one.”

Essentially, Wolf’s argument is that as women have gained social, economic, and political power, societal pressure to adhere to strict beauty standards has increased as a powerful alternative to silencing women by keeping them distracted. “Women who love themselves are threatening,” she writes, because our patriarchally developed, media-driven self-hate is our most controlling oppressor.

It’s estimated that women typically think about weight and diets for 21 minutes per day — that if you combined all of your stray “I shouldn’t eat that” comments or “Am I getting fat?” questions, it would add up to 21 minutes per day. I’m surprised that it’s that low, actually. But when you think about it, over 67 years of life, that equates to 355 days — almost an entire year! An entire year of your life dedicated to worrying about food and your body.

Now, imagine what you could do in a year. Imagine what you could do with an extra 20 minutes a day dedicated to a cause or a pursuit — or even a hobby! You could actually do something (gasp) productive. Hell, you could do something life-changing in the extra two hours a week that that would buy you. But when we focus so heavily on what Joan Jacobs Brumberg calls our “body projects,” it leaves us with less time to do transformative work.

In her 1997 book The Body Project: An Intimate History of American GirlsBrumberg — who’s a historian — traces the way in which girls from the 1830s to present have moved from a focus on inner beauty and into making their bodies their primary projects, leading to dangerous patterns of body dissatisfaction, weight obsession, and dieting that starts as early as eight or nine years old.

And here’s how that obsession supports capitalism: Because it’s a lie — a money-making lie that thrives off of your perceived failure. Let me explain how the cycle works: You start a diet that’s based off of some “Stop eating so much blah-blah-blah, and you’ll lose weight” equational premise. And on this diet, you lose weight. Obviously. Your body is confused, thinks that it’s starving, and starts to feed off of itself. And to you, this means that the diet is working.

But then, inevitably, you start to gain back the weight. And when I say “inevitably,” I mean inevitably. Over 95% of people gain back the weight that they lost on a diet within five years. And why’s that? Because your body wants to survive in its homeostatic state. And in order to reach that, your body starts craving richer, more calorie-dense foods, and because you’ve been restricting, you binge. My friend Isabel Foxen-Duke actually talks a lot about this in her work, so I recommend looking her up if you want to learn more about the restrict-and-binge cycle.

Now, you binge because your midbrain function — which controls instinct — overrides your frontal lobe, which controls decision-making and consequence considerations. Your survival instinct sees the calorie-dense food in front of you and is like, “Eat all of it! I don’t know when I’m going to get food next!” So you do. And then when the binge is over, your frontal lobe is like, “Stupid midbrain. Why did you do that? I shouldn’t have done that.” And because you’ve fallen off the wagon, so to speak, you feel guilt and shame. And those are powerful emotions.

So, you start to reason with yourself. You think, “The diet was working — and then I screwed up. I was losing weight, and then I ruined it.” And the diet industry — via every piece of media that you consume — plays on these feelings, tells you that dieting will solve your problems, convinces you that this is an issue of willpower. “Go back on a diet,” it tells you. So you do. After all, it worked before.

And your brain loves patterns. It’s why people will go back and back and back to Weight Watchers, no matter how many times it fails them. Because they understand it already. But the problem is that the same cycle will happen over and over and over again. And instead of realizing that it’s the diet that’s the problem, you buy into the notion that it’s the diet that can save you and that the negative emotions that it fills you with are actually because of your weight. But they’re not.

And so who wins when you repeat this pattern over and over and over again? The diet industry. The beauty industry. The fashion and cosmetic surgery industry. Media and advertising. All of the people who convinced you that your body was wrong in the first place are the ones profiting off of that low self-esteem.

We’ve been socialized since birth to believe that the way our bodies look will tie directly into how we experience our lives. We think we’re unhappy because we don’t look good. But the truth is that we’re unhappy because consumerism needs us to be.

We are very helpfully complicit in a capitalist structure when we allow it to twist our perceptions of reality around ourselves to the point that we feed into its existence, giving it all of the power it needs to continue thriving off of the dissatisfaction that it created.

And I don’t know about you, but I think that’s fucked up. So as the new year approaches, I beg you to forgo the resolution — and focus on some revolution instead.

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