By Silvia Carli-Reese MS, RD, CSCS
We live in a society that is obsessed with the way we look. This has created a toxic environment where people’s self-worth is inextricably intertwined with their weight on the scale, the foods they put in their mouth, and the amount of exercise they do.
In this article, we identify the toxic behaviors that have been normalized by our modern diet culture. We then provide suggestions on how you can transcend these negative societal norms and develop a healthier, more empowering view of yourself.
What Is Diet Culture
Diet culture is a set of beliefs that prioritize our weight, shape, and size over our actual health. It tells us that our self-worth is dependent on how much we weigh and that the key to happiness is to change our bodies and lose weight. It constantly puts in front of us unrealistic images of the body “ideal.”
Diet culture is sneaky, manipulative, and pervasive. Yet it is so common that we often don’t even notice it, even when we do it ourselves. For example, you might meet up with someone you haven’t seen for a while and provide a body compliment on how good they look, following up with the question, “Have you lost weight?”
That question reinforces the idea that looking good relies on weight loss. This could entrench negative eating habits in the mind of the other person. Sometimes people even make weight gain comments that can be very hurtful.
Toxic diet culture also labels foods as good and bad, with the latest terminology being “clean” and “unclean.” It perpetuates the view that eating certain foods indicates weakness and that consuming them has to be punished by doing some exercise. As a result, we associate our choice of foods with who we are. If we eat so-called “bad foods,” we must be a bad person.
As mentioned above, diet culture also robs us of the pleasure and enjoyment of exercise. It is seen as compensation for our bad food choices. For example, if we eat a blueberry muffin, we might tell ourselves that we need to spend a half hour on the treadmill to burn off all of the calories that came with that delicious food choice.
As normalized as these behaviors have become, they are unhealthy and need to be eliminated.
All of this has led to a distorted view of body image among both men and women. In a recent survey, 41% of female respondents described themselves as too fat, and 29% said that they were currently dieting. In fact, only 17% of them were overweight, according to body fat caliper testing.
Consequently, the result of media-fed body image control is that people have morphed their view of how they think they look onto their total self-image. A less-than-ideal self-body image can result in some pretty toxic ideas about one’s personal worth.
Unless you consider yourself physically acceptable, you’re likely to feel powerless, unworthy, and unloved. That’s pretty harsh when the view of what is acceptable is an artificially constructed illusion.
After all, the images that are presented as the “body ideal” are airbrushed and Photoshopped to create an illusion of bodily perfection that simply does not exist. That’s why most of us are looking at our body images through a distorted mirror.
Each of us should be on the lookout for these toxic diet behaviors in our own thoughts and actions as well as in society at large. Having identified them, we should reframe them in ways that are positive rather than destructive.
Body Image Issues Aren’t Just for Women
Diet culture doesn’t only affect women. Men, too, are impacted by society’s focus on weight, shape, and body size. The pressure is on guys to attain a lean, athletic physique with ripped abs, a chiseled chest, and loaded guns. This leads many to turn to such unhealthy “solutions” as crash dieting or, at the other extreme, ridiculously high-protein and high-calorie meal plans, possibly augmented by anabolic steroids, to achieve the body ideal.
Fighting Back Against Diet Culture
You don’t have to be a victim of diet culture. Here are a half-dozen ways you can resist this toxic influence and realize a healthier self-image:
- Start retraining yourself to forget about the false images that society has embedded in your brain about the “body ideal.” It has been designed for one thing only: to take your money. Your body is unique to you; focus on improving it bit by bit, and forget everything else — and stop comparing yourself to others.
- Judge your body by what it does for you rather than what you think it looks like. Your body is an amazing living machine that deserves your respect.
- Adopt a positive power base. You are about to engage in an awesome weight management program that will allow you to finally achieve your physical goals. The mindset that you take into this endeavor is critical. Rather than coming from an “I’m broken, and I need to be fixed” perspective, you should adopt the view that “I’m awesome, and I deserve to be the best me that I can be.”
- Learn to judge yourself by what is really important. At the end of the day, your character is more important than your thigh size. Develop the qualities of love, compassion, empathy, and hospitality, and judge yourself against these criteria. So make a list of positive non-body traits that you appreciate about yourself. Keep this close by and refer to it every day.
- View yourself as a whole person — you’re more than just a sagging butt. Look at yourself naked in the mirror and focus on the bits you like (come on, there must be something!).
- Surround yourself with positive people who clearly love themselves and will encourage you in the same regard. These people should love you for who you are, not what you have or how you look.
Diet culture is toxic, and it is dangerous. However, you have the power to reject it. It starts by identifying how these ingrained ideas are affecting you right now. Next is to work on applying the suggestions given above to free yourself from the bonds of toxic diet culture and start giving your body and mind the respect they deserve.
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