Diet culture and all the fads, rules, and moral assertions it encompasses, has become a most prevalent aesthetic facet of this country. Within the context of the hyper-vigilant marketing of the Western world, society as a whole seems to have become obsessed with food, calories, the latest weight-loss program, and how to exercise oneself towards self-worth. Yes, in advertisements, commercials, magazines, and social media, diet culture places value on how best we can control (or not control) our food intake: the very thing that sustains human life. Lose weight and get a “bikini body” and you can be a person of worth and praise. This is the message that an appearance-driven, diet-culture sends to individuals. The underlying idea is more, be skinny and one can be the look of “health”. This is especially prevalent among women, for which thinness has become a supreme ideation. This standardized thin ideal of beauty has been brought about by high-pixel, photo-shopped images of models and other women on display. I am not demeaning these women by any means. In fact, I believe that they are victims of a cultural obsession that has cost many women their sanity, self-esteem, and self-love. For, at some point in Western culture, we infused the ideation of thinness with beauty and said that it is all in the name of optimal fitness and health. The problem with this standardization of dieting and thinness is that it confuses fulfilling our human needs of food and desire for pleasurable eating with demoralization and weakness. Is this really the lesson that we want to be teaching to the children of the next generation? Sharp bones peaking though all-baring clothes and thigh gaps have become the mainstays in this diet culture we have become entrapped in. And the question to ask is: how is this serving us? For women, does it make sense that a thigh gap or the perfect size pants should be the ultimate measure of all that you are as a female?
Now a moment of truth. Don’t get me wrong: I understand the diet mentality. In fact, I understand what it means to take it to the point of an eating disorder and have your life focused on weight, food, and body obsession. Yes, I have been there in the trenches of weight-loss wonderland. I sought thinness like it was gold. I’ve aspired to, and have attained, the heroin chic look with bones sticking through my skin. Instead of healthy curves, I sought flatness, lightness, and invisibility. And let me tell you that it did nothing to fulfill my inner-most self. It did not make me bask in glory of my appearance. It did not make me happy. In fact, at my lowest weight, I felt more depressed, bleak, and miserable than I had been at a healthy weight.
Shocking! Yes, underweight thinness did nothing to make me happy, did nothing to help me feel more alive and part of the world, and certainly did not address why I felt I needed to fit unto an unrealistic body standard. When I was 26, I was diagnosed with something called Graves’ Disease. This is an autoimmune disorder in which one’s body produces antibodies that essentially attack the thyroid gland and cause it to overproduce thyroid hormone. Thus, I was left with a hyperactive thyroid, a condition that speeds up the body’s metabolism and can cause people to unintentionally lose weight. When I would tell people this, I had many say to me that they wish they could have that problem and a few individuals even said that they would like to know if there is a way to give oneself a hyperactive thyroid. I would say that this was shocking to me, but in this diet mentality that seeps through so much our culture, it is not surprising to hear such comments. Sadly, at one time, I was one of those people and throughout a few rounds of treating my hyperactive thyroid (there is no known way to treat the underlying Graves’ Disease), I battled with not wanting to take my medicine out of fear of gaining weight. It saddens me to think that I was so caught up in the need to be thin and participate in a culture that perpetuates unrealistic body standards, that I actually toyed with and negated my health for the sake of it. However, that is what it was and I can tell you what I learned from it: it is not worth it. This also teaches me, and I hope it can to others, that thinness is indeed not the ultimate indicator of heath. For, in my situation, my thinness was a result of an unhealthy relationship with and a fear of food in combination with an underlying medical condition. I look back now and can honestly say that this is not the ideal and standard that I want to carry with me in this life. For, it takes away from my inner goddess and defies that fiery feminine spirit that lives in my soul.
Diet culture teaches us that our worth lies in numbers and is only several kale salads away. I do understand that there are many people that have dietary restrictions for medical reasons, such as diabetes and Celiac’s, and that should not be demeaned or downplayed. However, there is a difference between a medical affliction and dropping pounds for the sake of fitting into an aribitrary body ideal.
All over the internet, in magazines, and posted on billboards are messages such as “Lose that stubborn belly fat”, “want to finally get rid of those last five pounds?”, “trim your waist and fit into that bikini”. Lose that last five pounds? Stubborn belly fat??? What do these statements even mean? I did not know that an essential part of the human body can take on the characteristics of a five-year-old throwing a temper tantrum. And what exactly are those last five pounds? The ones you need to discard before you finally choose to be happy with who you are? These statements not only negate our worth as human beings, but also suggest that we are creatures that can be subjected and held to meaningless measurements.
We live in a nation of extremes. We see commercials about supersizing meals at McDonalds, followed by ones about the latest and greatest juice cleanse and diet pill. This is confusing and also a recipe for an unhealthy relationship with food and our bodies.
Why does our culture look at food and calories as an enemy that must be warded off at all costs? I believe it is because we encourage a thin ideal, which on a societal level and thanks to the powers of marketing, has become equated with a high degree of will power. Yet, simultaneously in the advertising world, there is this overwhelming message that bigger is better. It seems to me as a looker-on that in a cultural sense, we have become a nation fixated on the appearance of control, power, and domination. If we can control our bodies, we can gain acceptance of society, and thus, appear to have the power to pave our way to success. In other words, the message that seems clear in the diet industry and in the pictures of painfully thin women with a smile on their face: if we can control our hunger, we have power over our instincts that veer us away from idealized body standards.
How exactly does this diet culture bode for women’s self-esteem and body-positivity? I believe (from both observation and personal experience) it can be disastrous for them. As a collective, there is a trend of women walking in endless shame of what they think the female body should be, rather than checking in with themselves and asking what their ideal is. It is not surprising, considering how often we see advertisements and articles in our Facebook news-feed about the need to trim our wastes, thin our thighs, tighten our stomachs, etc. I believe this leads to a collective fear that our bodies are not good enough as they naturally are and that we cannot fully love and appreciate ourselves until we manipulate our bodies to fit a certain image. And these are some of the fears that can lead to chronic dieting and a perpetuating vicious cycle of body hate.
I ask all my lady friends: what might happen if we simply lay down the diet rules and love our natural bodies? Maybe we might stop endless comparison and look at each other with a more compassionate, loving, and respectful eye. Maybe we might just give a collective “Fuck You” to the advertisers that seek to make women insecure. Maybe we might just like ourselves and be at peace with who we inherently are on the inside regardless of our weight. Maybe the younger generation will grow up embracing the beauty of their feminine mind in lieu of nitpicking at imagined flaws. Maybe instead of obsessively counting calories, we can appreciate the nourishment, fuel, and pleasure of food. And, maybe we could help our society get to a point where we eliminate body shaming.
Which side of body love do you want to be on?