The Toxic Reality Of Living In Diet Culture And Why I’m Doing My Best To Leave It Behind

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Diet culture, better known as the disastrous amalgamation of pop culture, media, pseudoscience, and social constructs we are all systemically smothered by, is something I’d like to break up with. I’ve read and researched the topic, follow all of the #riotsnotdiets accounts, and talk a big game about body positivity. But despite my progressive exterior I secretly worry that I can’t completely break up with this destructive system. While it’s easy for me to champion healthy body and food beliefs for other women, I have a much more difficult time following through for myself.

Diet culture is unquestionably toxic, but trying to untangle myself from its totality is complicated.

The holy trinity (body “positive” statements, diet talk, and believing that all foods have a moral value attached to them) of diet culture is difficult to get away from. Individually these aspects can disguise themselves as innocuous, and they thrive in every corner of modern life, which makes escaping them seem impossible. It doesn’t help that engaging in some of these holy trinity behaviors feel good and connects us to other women in a seemingly positive way.

Julie Klausner, creator of Difficult People, is a woman who has long expressed her separation from diet culture. On one episode of her podcast, How Was Your Week, she goes on a high energy tirade where she discusses how if you were to put two women in a room, one who has just earned her Ph.D. and another who has recently lost weight, that the women who lost weight will receive more acclaim and attention. Julie points out the idiocy in this and the sadness of its truth.

Last year I found myself in an adjacent situation where I had lost a decent amount of weight around the same time that I started working a new job. My weight loss was a side effect of a serious bout of depression and anxiety, and it wasn’t something I was actively chasing. For months, anytime I met up with friends or colleagues my new, slimmer figure was the first thing they would comment on, and it was clearly the thing that people were most excited to ask me about. Julie K’s hypothesized musing was right. My new job was a significant promotion in my field, and yet it was my weight that those around me wanted to discuss. I knew all the weight loss talk was feeding into long-held, toxic beliefs about women and our bodies, but I also recognized that it still felt good to hear. People used phrases to describe me physically like well-rested, glowing, and most importantly good and skinny. 

The words good and skinny are often heard together which has caused most of us to believe that skinny is good, and we all want to be good…and skinny.

While I had never felt more mentally drained and down in my life, I had also never received so much positive praise. The experience felt conflicting.

Losing weight has a hypnotic effect on others, especially women. People talk to you as if you know a secret and have accomplished a worthy feat. My diet at the time consisted of hardly eating and excessively working out in an attempt to boost my brains natural levels of serotonin/dopamine. During this time, I also developed a handful of mild irrational fears around meat, cheese, and processed food which likely occurred thanks to all the food shaming (vegan*) documentaries I was consuming on Netflix. At first, when questioned about my weight loss I would attempt a vague response like, “I’m just eating better and exercising more.” But after a while, I felt uncomfortable about being misleading.

I didn’t want to give truth to the deranged diet culture notion of simply eating better and exercising more equating to weight loss equating to a glowing appearance equating to a new job and better life.

Eventually, I mustered up a more truthful, “I just don’t eat a lot” or “depression,” which I would say adding a hard laugh. This laugh didn’t seem particularly helpful as people often looked uncomfortable upon hearing a closer version of the truth.

While giving out skinny compliments seems like a kind exchange, it’s just encouraging the cycle of placing ultimate value on our bodies. I know it’s tough, it feels good to get and give these compliments. I still accidentally tell women they look skinny as an automatic comment. It feels nice to make other people light up, and nothing does it as quickly as telling a woman she looks thin. Most people want to make their friends feel confident and happy, but we have to find better ways of doing it. I do think we should be able to compliment one another when we’re looking well rested and glowing, but maybe these adjectives don’t need to be so related to the actual skin in which we live.

As girls, I believe many of our first addictions were talking obsessively about diets and food. Some of my earliest memories of interacting with adult women as a child are sitting in the kitchen and talking about diets. Growing up my mom was a Weight Watchers discipline, and by age 12 I could rattle off the calorie count and point value to almost any food. Other neighborhood moms were impressed with my knowledge of points and calories and all things numerically related. Early on, I realized that talking about a diet was an essential part of being on a diet, and a great way to positively interact with other women.

As adult women, talking about food and diet continues to be one of the quickest ways to bond with one another. Food noise is something we all have in common.

I’ve yet to meet a woman who has never been affected by a cultural desire to lose weight and make her body “better.”

Diet talk is a quick way to connect and empathize with one another even though by doing so we are continuing to agree with the idea that your body is your value. While I try to not engage, I still get caught up in it at times because I worry that opting out completely will cast me out as a social pariah, and truthfully something about the chatter is addicting. The morning back to work after the winter holiday the first thing I asked my co-worker was, “What are you drinking? Are you on a new cleanse?” I couldn’t help myself, something inside of me desperately wanted to know. We then proceeded to talk about juice cleanses for 10 minutes before coming around to ask one another how our holiday vacations went.

Even more recently, I slipped up and found myself 20 minutes deep into a conversation about someone’s new life-altering diet at a family shiva. I sat with a plate full of bagel, kugel, and rainbow cake while a woman preached to me about the wonders of Keto. The woman explained how Keto focuses on our bodies natural ability to run solely on fats and proteins. Taking humiliating swallows of bagel and schmear, I actively listened as she continued rattling on about how since she started this new diet her body only needed to eat twice a day. The shame of eating more than two times a day immediately filled me.

The shame feels right though—it’s an essential part of diet talk. We want the shame. We hope the shame will force us to be good. While I know it’s not good for me, diet chatter does light up part of my brain sending out excessive levels of a pleasure chemical. Maybe it’s the learning part that feels good. Perhaps my brain thinks it’s about to gain novel, life alerting information that will bring an undiscovered happiness to my life.

Eating is one of the first behaviors we learn how to do on our own. It’s seemingly the simplest survival mechanism for humans.

1. Ingest food 2. Don’t die 3. Repeat.

We’ve managed to take this natural human need and turn it into an issue of morality.

The idea that food is good or bad is beyond damaging to our self-worth, and in recent years this trend has only been getting worse as we’ve started doing it to even the tiniest of our species, babies! Breast milk is better than formal milk, organic vegetables blended on a free-range farm are better than pre-packaged vegetable blends, etc. Cognitively I know food is just food, but emotionally it’s become impossible to feel that way. It feels like eating the good things means that I’m good. This thought is exacerbated by the fact that everything around me is telling me that this is true. Labels declare what is good and even worse what foods can be consumed guilt free. We are so accustomed to adding morals to food choices that we don’t even hear how psychotic it sounds when someone says, “I’m so bad I just ate ____” In fact, we usually agree with them and say how bad we are too. (If you need a reminder of how absurd this actually sounds watch this.)  

These days I’m trying my best to untangle myself from this food-self-worth mess by constantly reminding myself that food is just food and I’m attempting to disengage from diet chatter, but I still slip up and go back to my old ways like compulsively reconnecting with an ex. Even though I see that the totality is wrong, some parts of it feel right, and maybe I’m masochistic.

Walking out on diet culture is complicated. We live here. The damage of a system that values body type and food choices over personality is clearly detrimental and interferes with a million aspects of our lives. Somedays I imagine a time and place where my girlfriends and I have become so evolved that we eat without shame and talk about ourselves in a kinder way. Other days, I’m annoyed if no one tells me I look skinny because that stupid phrase is still feeding something insatiable inside of me.

I want to let go, but breaking up is hard to do. TC mark

Samantha lives in Brooklyn, NY with her wife.

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