Why Diet Culture Is Toxic — Even for People Who Don’t Diet
By Laura Munoz on June 21, 2019
There is perhaps no woman in modern culture more simultaneously celebrated and reviled than the woman who eats whatever she wants and doesn’t gain weight.
We all claim to know someone like this. We look at her and mutter, “I don’t know where she puts it!” She is often derided or ostracized. But we still want to know: How is she doing that? What’s her secret?
The first time I encountered this phenomenon, I was 11 or 12, sharing a plate of chili cheese fries with a friend from dance class at a local diner. I noticed one of the older girls glaring down the table at us, and when I caught her eye, she said, “If I ate that, my ass would be the size of Jupiter.”
I looked back at my friend, who was larger than I was but not by much, and watched her put down her fork.
My entire life, other women have been asking me for my secret to getting/staying so thin. I usually brush it off with a joke about selling my soul to Satan. But the truth is I have nothing resembling a secret, aside from the fact that my mother is thin, her mother was thin, and so on and so forth.
Socioeconomic factors aside, genetic variations in metabolism, resting heart rate, a “hunger hormone” called leptin, and a number of other factors contribute to someone’s ability to lose or put on weight easily. Natural thinness, it turns out, is just the luck of the draw.
As licensed mental health counselor Molly Bahr explains, “Just as some people are short, others are tall, some have smaller bodies and others have bigger ones. Genetics and social determinants of health play a much bigger role in body size and health.”
Until recently, I’d never thought too long or hard about the implications of being naturally thin. When society points to you as the gold standard for how a woman should look and behave, you tend not to question it.
But I’ve since begun to wonder how we all swallowed this narrative. And more importantly, why we’ve chosen to accept it while ignoring the obvious other side of the coin: If there exists a small woman who doesn’t gain or lose weight “no matter what,” it stands to reason that there are larger women who don’t, either.
And while naturally thin women may hear our share of harsh comments about our size, people in larger bodies bear the brunt of society’s size bias.
As a culture, we continue to equate thinness with wellness and weight loss with effort. Thin = healthy, fat = unhealthy. Losing weight = accomplishment, gaining weight = laziness.
We still believe this on a base level despite the fact that it’s disproven time and time again. Sure, weight loss can be a byproduct of adopting a healthy lifestyle, but it’s not necessarily an indicator of one.
Many people in larger bodies are active, healthy, and happy — and many in smaller bodies are not. Some people may be able to improve their health by losing weight, but many others only believe they should lose weight because of the fatphobic message society is sending them.
Moreover, the fact that people in larger bodies, and in particular larger women — and in extra particular larger women of color — are consistently dismissed and shamed by everyone from their employers to the medical community to complete strangers is an outrage and a societal disgrace of staggering proportion.
But it turns out that the “weight = wellness” mentality has a toxic effect on everyone, even thin people.
The advertising we see and the messaging we receive from nearly every direction don’t tell us that eating vegetables and exercising regularly will help us concentrate, sleep, and generally just feel better. They tell us that doing those things will help us lose weight. And so those of us who aren’t looking to lose weight might not give much thought to our diet and exercise habits.
In college I considered my terrible habits — partying too much, eating fast food, never exercising — and told myself, “It’s fine. I’m not gaining any weight.”
It wasn’t until I took up running in my mid-20s that I realized my weight was not an accurate barometer for my health. My legs got stronger, my mood improved dramatically, I had more energy, and I slept better, but my weight remained the same.
It was clear that exercise was helping me feel better. It was also suddenly clear that I had spent my years in and after college, nearly a decade of my life, desperately unhealthy and completely unaware of it.
Perhaps even more dangerous is the myth that being thin equates not only to being healthy but also to being happy.
Asking a thin woman for her “secret” implies that she has some mystical knowledge, that her lifestyle is worth aspiring to just because of her size. What if you are in a thin body but you still feel like crap?
Enter the pharmaceutical industry. I have been on and off SSRIs since I was 15, and not until I was 29 did a medical professional ask what I was eating and suggest that it might be affecting my mental health.
There have been encouraging shifts in the tide of diet culture, if you know where to look. Actress Jameela Jamil is singlehandedly taking down celebrities and companies who use body shaming to sell products.
A growing and vibrant community of dietitians, influencers, and actual doctors is promoting the Health at Every Size (HAES) movement.
Terms like “intuitive eating” and “body positivity” are becoming increasingly mainstream. “This is not another fad; it’s the revolution,” claims a popular meme among intuitive eating accounts.
People in larger bodies, those recovering from eating disorders, and others damaged by our society’s preoccupation with weight shouldn’t be the only ones fighting back against diet culture. We need to realize we have all been sold the same bill of goods.
Diet culture is killing us all, and we all need to be tearing it down.
For my part, I plan to start giving a new answer when asked for my secret: emphatically stressing that there isn’t one.
I don’t struggle with my weight, but I struggle with plenty of other things. No one, large or small, deserves to be shamed or judged for their body size.
Accepting that there are different body types just like there are different eye colors and shoe sizes, and then striving for healthy habits in every area of our lives, may just be the best we all can do.