Musings || Down With Diet Culture

It’s at this time of year, when people’s healthy resolutions and diets are constantly all over social media, that I get the most worked up about the issue of dieting. Especially this year, when email after email landed in my inbox of PR releases about diet pills and slimming tricks. Even twitter has been filled with trigger warning worthy messages. It seems like a good third of the people I’m following are on some sort of weight loss journey. I know there’s been some anti-dieting kickback lately, people arguing that if a diet makes someone happy then hey, why not? 

Personally, I find this thought process dangerous. I consider myself somewhat of an expert. I suffered (suffer?) from ED: AN for many years. I have spent many, many hours of my life trying to unpick all the thinking that surrounds diet culture. I’ve also spent more time with various therapists, dieticians and nutritionists than I’d ever like to admit to. I can wax poetical about their thoughts on smoothie trends etc. 

There’s no such thing as clean eating. Cutting things out of your diet without a doctor’s supervision and advice is never entirely good for you. Sure, cut back on processed foods, sugars, and dairies. But cutting out gluten, for example, isn’t going to make you any healthier unless you actually have an allergy or intolerance. An obsession with clean eating in and of itself can lead to a disorder: orthorexia. In fact, you can actually make yourself far less healthy. Eating can be fun, fulfilling, cultural but it can’t be clean. To claim otherwise is to attach a stigma to various types of food which only layers on guilt, that as a society, we don’t need. My motto: eat what you like, in moderation. But our diets have become a moral fetish. 

When all else fails, I like to think of the words of Nigella Lawson: “I despair of the term ‘clean eating’, though I actually like the food that comes under that banner. [‘Clean eating’] necessarily implies that any other form of eatingโ€”and consequently the eater of itโ€”is dirty or impure and thus bad, and it’s not simply a way of shaming and persecuting others, but leads to that self-shaming and self-persecution that is forcibly detrimental to true healthy eating.

But that’s just one fad. The want to diet is a lot more insidious than the still-quite-new-kid-on-the-block  – clean eating. Unless a GP or healthcare professional has told you that you need to lose weight why would you need to? It’s important to unpack the reasons why you are convincing yourself that you need to lose weight. Do you genuinely need to for your health? If not, are you doing it because losing weight will make you happier?

If it’s the latter option, that’s where we veer into unhealthy territory. If you are genuinely convinced that losing weight is going to make you happier, do it! I’m not going to stop you and I think you have the bodily autonomy to make this choice for yourself. I just think it’s super important to unpack why you think this is the best choice for you. Why will losing weight make you happier? Why do you think that? Is it because of an idealised image that we are being fed of the “perfect woman” by society? I think there’s especially a problem where the idea of losing weight overlaps with internalised misogyny. I particularly agree with this quote “When we take pride in ourselves for being skinny because we’re conforming to the ideal of women as unimposing and ascetic and conventionally “beautiful,” not because that’s how our body just is, we are perpetuating a standard of beauty that harms us.” [citation]

Is it because you are fixating on a time when you felt happier and were coincidentally thinner? Instead of automatically equating thinness with happiness, 9 times out of 10, that happy period of your life had nothing to do at all with your weight. When you post about your diet on social media it’s always helpful to keep in mind “will this be triggering or insensitive to someone else?”

I try to make healthy choices when it comes to food these days, but I also still enjoy pizza and cake and chocolate and I try to do so without guilt. It’s a struggle and it will always be a struggle. But that’s okay. I exercise because it’s important for my overall health but I skip out on things that would make me super unhappy. (I’m looking at you, gyms.) 

Remember thinness isn’t health. “Health” been fetishised to sell us something. Countless studies have shown that the less we value ourselves, the more willing we are to spend money on something that we desperately hope will enhance our self-worth. Remember, when you’re reading a recipe from a Clean Eating goddess they are trying to sell you something. Maybe it’s a spiraliser, or maybe it’s their lifestyle so you buy their books. Did you hear something from a friend? Where did they learn it from? It’s all about judging your sources and really careful thinking. 

For everyone who has set themselves a weight lose goal in the new year, I’d like to challenge you to have a think about the whys. I sincerely wish you well on your weight lose journey, and I will support you should you need a personal cheerleader. But if a pizza makes you happy, I damn well want you to eat it. 

***Sidenote, if you want to read more about interludes misogyny, Everyday Feminism has a great post here. If you want to read more about nutrition, I highly recommend Michelle Allison’s blog The Fat Nutritionalist. And Eating Towards Immortality in the Atlantic. ***

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  • Yes. Yes yes yes!

  • I am happy now than I have ever been. Coincidentally, I am also at my highest ever weight! I’m not overweight, but still heavier than I’ve ever been. I’m trying to eat more healthily and move ore, not necessarily to lose weight (although I would like to lose a little!) but because I know not exercising will come back to bite me on the bum in a few years. And honestly resisting the lure of chocolate occasionally can only be a good thing!

    I hate that avoiding gluten has become a fad now, but on the other hand it’s nice that people with genuine intolerances have so much more choice now. I remember when my dad’s friend was first diagnosed as coeliac and the chef at a restaurant we went to didn’t even know what gluten was!

    • Yea it’s great for people who are actually coeliac – it’s wonderful! One of my friends as a child was coeliac and it wasn’t until the past 5-6 years or so that she’s been able to eat more normally in restaurants. However, most people need gluten in their diets. A bit is not only good for you, but necessary. I know it’s a bit pearl-clutiching but it drives me crazy when people decide to be GF for no real reason (other than the fact that they want to diet!)

      I totally agree that exercising and indulging in moderation is a good thing – we all need to look after our health in the long run! Taking care of ourselves is super important. But someone who is a healthy size 16 shouldn’t feel like they need to diet to be thin/beautiful/happy. x

  • A very valid take on the whole thing, its now been highlighted how rubbish a lot of clean eating theories actually are! I am someone who is currently attending slimming world because although healthy in a lot of ways, I am still obese, which is a word that sticks in your throat, so I’ve chosen to do something about it. You’re encouraged not to refer to it as a diet, but as a lifestyle change, and you can eat absolutely anything you want, provided that you limit and count the amount of the processed, sugary, fatty stuff (makes sense huh?!) For me, I’ve got the exercise sorted, I eat my veggies, but I just needed the extra help with food to steer me in a better direction to help the pounds come off rather than creeping on. Alice xxxx

    • And I totally agree with that theory/practice. I think there is a complicated balance between being healthy and trying to eat right and exercise and dieting (so I love that they don’t call it that.) Eating what you want in moderation leads to people being less likely to binge eat anyways!

      So much of clean eating is nonsense. I spoke to a brilliant nutritionist who was lecturing people on sugar once and was saying it doesn’t matter if it’s your grans granulated or expensive agave nectar. Your body still does the same thing with it, one is just WAY more expensive.

      And I’d never want to discourage anyone from loosing weight if that’s what they want. But it’s important to make sure that thin=beauty=happiness is questioned, and questioned frequently. Because it just ain’t true. And as someone who has been stupid skinny, there’s never a number where the societal and psychological pressure to be thin just wears off – it just keeps getting lower. x

      • That’s so so true, being thin doesn’t make you happy, but then neither does being fat. In my view being too big is hard, and losing weight is hard, but at least by losing weight I’m moving forward and actually making a lot of things in life a bit easier (especially with the half marathon plans, the lighter I am, the easier it will be to lug my bum around 13 miles, right?!) haha xxxx

        • I guess it’s important to note that there are thin people that are happy and there are fat people that are happy. The weight itself isn’t necessarily the restriction on someone’s life and confidence (though of course, there are always exceptions to that in both ranges). Being fat doesn’t mean that you are inherently unhappy and dissatisfied with your life in the same way that being thin doesn’t mean you are happy and healthy.

          But in my opinion it’s when a person thinks “if I reach X weight (gained or lost) then I’ll be happier” that the whole logic breaks. Reaching a number on the scale won’t make anyone feel better about themselves in the long run because it’s just a minor solution to a symptom that someone is having but not a solution to the actual unhappiness cause.

          Whereas working to exercise so that you can celebrate and be proud of the fact your body is an amazing thing and it is capable of awesome things like run 13 miles is something that can boast your confidence and make you happier. (It’s all very complicated isn’t it?!) You’re kicking butt and you should be proud of all your planned half marathons!

  • Ellie

    Great post!! So many good points and I love the Nigella quote ๐Ÿ™‚ xxx

  • It’s good to say these things out loud and make people think why they want to lose weight. Although, I think sadly many just want to fit the beauty standard. I remember working at a fashion show, where one of the girls who I worked with said that she wished she had the body of a model. And then I heard the models say how they had been called fat by the designers when they did not fit into their clothes (these models were skinny to the bone).


    • Oof. That’s awful. I couldn’t even imagine the pressure on those models. If people need to lose weight for health reasons, or even just want to for their own personal reasons then they should go for it! But I think it’s important to examine why and challenge that image of thin = beauty.

      • I agree with you!

  • Thank you for sharing your own personal experiences! Weight is something that can become a bit excessive so I’ve actually gotten rid of my scale and feel a million times happier. As long as my clothing still fits, then I have no reason to worry!

    • So much this! The urge to weigh yourself all the time is so pointless isn’t it?! You’ll know if you gain weight by the ways your clothing fit you anyway, so the scales just cause unnecessary stress. And nobody got time for more stress these days, right?! x

  • Such a wonderful post, I grew up with a mother that has body dysmorphia and seeing her at a US size 2 stare into the mirror and say how fat she is has been hard to not internalize myself. I realized in my 20’s that no matter what I did I had a different body shape all together to my mother and it would be better to just be myself. I try now to get some sort of exercise in about 4 times a week, eat proper portions, and try an apple before the bag of chips when I want a snack. Sometimes it works great and sometimes it does not, I stress/lonely/sick ate a ton in Sundsvall which has taken a year to get to a more healthy size and now I feel much happier in my body as it is stronger and frankly does not take up so much of the damn couch!

    • Same, same, same! I learned all about being self critical about weight from my mother too. She would always tell me I was beautiful but then turn around and call herself fat. Before I even knew what that meant, I thought that’s how girls are suppose to talk about themselves. I do much better these days but damn if it isn’t hard!

      • Yes to you both! I think it’s one of the reasons we have to be so careful about what we say to ourselves about ourselves. Because you never know who else is listening in and being influenced! x

        • So true, I have tried to remember that when interacting with friends children. Telling them they are smart, clever, and interesting and buying presents to go along with that and I have found it is infuriating that a medical playset or blocks can be so much more expensive than fake makeup and princess stuff.

          • And if kids want to play with princess stuff, then I want them too. But I also want them to know that there are alternatives out there that are just as cool! x

          • True they should, I suppose a bit of this comes from the way my in laws treat their grandchildren!

      • When I was on my bachelorette weekend on a lovely walk through an autumnal Central Park all my maid of honor and mom could talk about was working out and how fat they felt to the point I stopped and yelled at them. I mean surely we could think of anything other than that to talk about being in the middle of one of the greatest cities and coming from an amazing museum! The thing is it is like you said something they were taught to talk about and commiserate over and bond as some sort of womanly experience.

        • You hit on a really important point, I think. As the socialisation process for women, we’ve been taught that we need to put ourselves down to bond. But you wouldn’t be friends with someone if you didn’t think that they were awesome, so why not bond over awesomeness? (Also I’m really sorry that you had this experience!) x

  • OH MAN, that Everyday Feminism article. I struggle with “choice feminism” a lot and what that means in every day life. Especially as someone who loves burlesque and argues for the rights of sex workers. Have you ever read Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay? You’d love it and I feel like that article is on the same wave length as Roxane Gay. Great blog post as well! Diet culture is so tricky and totally something I struggle with as a social norm AND as someone with a chronic condition. I feel like I’m rambling, but I just want you to know, I have all the feels for this post! xxx

    • Thought of one other thing! Did you hear about that study that came out recently about little kids and who they think is smarter of the genders? If they’re under the age of six, little girls are just as likely to think their own sex is smarter as boys are. However if they’re over the age of six, girls usually think the male gender is smarter. How sad is that?? Here’s a link:

      • Just realized that this last comment has absolutely nothing to do with your post. Ah well. Feminism on the brain, yo. x

        • Well it’s all really about internalised misogyny so it makes sense! ๐Ÿ™‚ I love the atlantic and that article makes me SO sad. x

    • That article is brutal right? Because it’s all so true. It doesn’t make us bad people or bad feminists but we have to acknowledge the effect all these socialisations have on our lives right?

      If someone is dieting because a doctor told them to do it for their health, then I hope they smash it. But it makes me livid when people like clean eating bloggers are like, “Do this and all your problems and health issues will go away.” And it must be so much worse for you, because by now you know what makes your body and your Crohns okay. Like if GF is what helps your Crohns that’s what you should do. But if eating McDonald’s is what helps your Crohns no one should tell you otherwise, you know what I mean?

      Basically skinny doesn’t not equal healthy. We’re just socialised to think that. (Turns out I have a lot of words to spare about this subject!)

      • Also Bad Feminist is on my to-read list, but I haven’t gotten to it yet! (IE it’s not in our local library)

      • That is 100% my constant struggle. I love “healthy” recipes because I feel like it might help, but at the same time when my Crohn’s is bad, “healthy” things are not so great for me. I have to define my own kind of healthy and I can’t listen to what other people try to explain to me what that constitutes. Cause Crohn’s does not GAF what other people think is gonna help me. And there ain’t no diet that will cure it either, despite many non-Crohn’s peoples assertations. …Girl, we just need to live near each other so we can discuss all these things. And eat cake. My belly does like cake. Thank god. x

        • Yet enough reason to look into PhD programs. Right? The University of York is beautiful, or so I hear. xx

      • Since Fredrik is type 1 diabetic I feel like this is something we both get so angry about, people are always telling him what he should or should not eat or giving him side eye when he has a piece of cake. He has had it for almost 17 yrs and what works for him is what really is the basics that works for most everyone and that is balance!

        • And Fredrik actually IS in the medical profession to boot, so it’s crazy that anyone would second guess what works for him! x

  • Such a brave post, Amanda and I’m so proud of you for posting this! I totally agree with you on concentrating on the why’s. But really, you’re right. Everything in moderation helps – and satisfies! x

    • Thanks Honey! I’m firmly team everything in moderation. You make a really good but in mentioning satisfaction, because eating not only healthily for your bad but in a way that satisfies your psyche is super important! (And sometimes my inner self wants a box of cookies after a stressful week!) x

  • ninegrandstudent

    This is such a great post! I have a borderline ED and I know one thing that is really triggering me is wedding planning. Much as I hate to admit it, I do feel the pressure to be “wedding ready” and I had so many diet tips/products pushed onto me at wedding fairs last year. I even had one bridal consultant asking me what size dress I hoped to be wearing – um, that would be the 8 I am?! Trying to stay level headed about it is really difficult!

    NINEGRANDSTUDENT: A Lifestyle Blog

  • Miu

    Amanda, with every post I’m more of a fan of you <3 ๐Ÿ™‚

  • I love you and I love this post. I’m always wishing people thought more about the “whys” of everything. From diets to armpit shaving. I’ve never been on a diet, but I do shave my pits. Now, I could bollock on about “it’s just my preference and what makes me feel good about myself” coz that is true, and I’m all for bodily autonomy to shave any part you want, but really I didn’t get here on my own, did I?! None of us are in a vacuum. Really though, you can’t die on every hill. You’ve got to choose your battles. So it’s probably just easier for me to toe society’s line about female armpits and conserve that energy for some other misogynistic bullshit that I actually feel the need to quibble and fight over. It’s all a great big, bollocking balancing act. This is becoming a blog post of it’s own, so maybe I should write my own thoughts down somewhere when I actually get some time back in my life. Sigh.

    • Write this blog post. I NEED you to so that I can read it an nod along. I feel similarly about shaving my legs. I hate it. But I’m also now conditioned to hate my prickly cactus legs. So i’m giving in there for the exact reasons that you mentioned – toeing the line to conserve energy. x

  • Great post! So many of our choices are because of sexism that pervades our society. Like Frankie below wrote, from shaving our armpits to changing our names after a wedding. I think that people do make their choices, but I’m also 100% for thinking of the ‘why’ always! Always trying to think things through (oh what an alliteration!) and try to make a choice as informed as possible. I loved that in the past few years I have come to ask myself more questions, and I wished everyone did it too. Also, more specifically on the topic of health. I thought that dieting was a smart idea a few years back until I realised that it changed nothing, I’d go back to eating the way I did before and binging, etc. Then I decided to eat better in general, to make life changes, like eating less popcorn (instead of stopping completely for a month and binging back on it), focusing on snacking less between meals (mostly because I started eating bigger meals when I moved in with the Brit).

    • Frankie totally hit the nail on the head. It’s so tricky to unpack why we do what we do; if we are doing it for ourselves; and if we are, where we got the idea in the first place. I’m totally pro making healthy life choices, but to weaponise food is ridiculous. It sounds like you are totally rocking working on questioning messages and I find it really inspirational! Xx

  • Obviously I’m catching up on my blog reading after blogging 5x per week in February.

    I love your thoughts on this. Thinness /=/ health. I wish I could just shout this from the rooftops. In my 20s, I’ve weighed between 98 and 137 lbs. I was way healthier at 137 than I was at 98 (or even at 110).

    Food sensitivities are a thing, and I totally recommend elimination diets IF someone has undiagnosed digestive issues. Food sensitivities can be a thing for Crohnies, so I’m glad I tried Whole30 last year just to see if I had any reactions. But for long-term benefits, just cutting sugar/soda/alcohol helps me most!

    • I love the Fat Nutritionist blog for really challenging our ideas of “health”. Her section on Articles and Evidence is especially excellent as a good starting point into researching weight and eating. Plus you really hit the nail on the head: cutting down on sugar/soda/alcohol can be enough. In so many aspects of life, we’ve lost sight of moderation being key.

      Food sensitivities are definitely a thing, and super important to your long-term health to figure out but I still wouldn’t recommend elimination diets without talking to a GP, nurse or dietician before and/or after, if at all possible.

      Another slightly tangential issue is when health bloggers espouse eating “all organic” that is all good and well, and I personally think that organic food tends to taste better. However, lets say you have kids and you only serve organic food. You eliminate most breakfast cereals then, which are fortified with extra vitamins that kids need that they won’t get back from an apple at lunch or a bit of spinach at dinner. It takes careful meal planning to make sure those vitamins get back into their diets!

      • Ha, I guess I thought it went without saying that you shouldn’t try an elimination diet without consulting a doctor! I talked to my gastroenterologist before doing Whole30.

        I don’t really care about organic myself, but I care about two things that can overlap with organic: ethical treatment of workers and ethical treatment of animals. Those can both be really hard to track, and organic doesn’t guarantee either, but I’m trying.

        • Ugh you’d like it would go without saying to talk to a doctor but so many people seem to blindly follow the Deliciously Ellas of the world with zero consideration to how it might medically affect them. So many face palms.