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How Our Culture Impacts Your Body Image

Diet culture. Have you heard of it? You see it everywhere, you are probably so used to seeing it you did not know it has a name. When someone references “Diet Culture” they are referring to a collective set of social expectations which communicate there is a certain way to look in order to be more of a “worthy” or “healthy” person. In Layman’s terms, anything that propagates dieting linked with: health and wellness, social acceptance, weight loss, or any information which indicates health is implied by the size of your body. Unfortunately, diet culture largely impacts the views of our community on the views of all bodies, including your own. There are often perfectionistic beliefs which are largely disordered and communicated to us from young ages which come from this culture such as “you are what you eat” or “I am so bad for eating _____ food”. Regrettably, the way we view beauty, body sizes, and food is largely impacted by this disordered culture and is reinforced with media, interpersonal relationships, and largely distorts the way we see ourselves, our bodies and our self-worth.



Think about diet culture- or the “wellness industry”- it tends to paint a picture of “if you follow this diet/ wellness plan you will gain self-esteem and confidence”. This culture’s message often also broadcasts false ideas such as “your self-worth will largely improve when you weigh x amount of pounds/ fit into a certain size”. It often communicates messages that changed bodies improve confidence, improve mood, and increase your overall social acceptance, and desirability. What does diet culture actually do? As a mental health therapist who specializes and works primarily with body image issues and eating disorders, I can tell you what this culture ACTUALLY does. It teaches individuals at a young age to never be satisfied with their bodies, the way they look, and that there is “always something to work on” (aka you will never be happy). This culture makes billions of dollars off of people wanting to change their appearance because they are taught to dislike the way they look. It often leads to body dissatisfaction, food obsessions, body checking, social isolation, feelings of worthlessness, avoidance of mirrors/ pictures, camouflaging behaviors (with clothing and food) and constant comparisons with yourself and others.



Let’s say you are still someone who is doubting the impacts of diet culture and you want to see the data of this business model. If you start a new diet and lose weight, then there is celebration! If you can’t stay on the diet (which spoiler alert over 95% of people are unable to), diet culture likes to point the finger back at you and say that you are the problem- not the diets. Let me ask you this question, would you ride on an airplane if there was a 95% chance it would crash? Would you invest your retirement and savings into accounts that only gave you a 5% chance of accomplishing your financial goals and a 95% chance of leaving you financially devastated? If something has a 5% chance of working, do you blame yourself or blame the product? Yet, countless times I have clients sit in my office expressing frustration and feelings of defeat due to being unable to “maintain” the unmaintainable diets. Did you know that diet culture is largely rooted in capitalism and this industry is estimated to make over $100 billion dollars annually off of consumers? Why is the number so high if diets work? What kind of a business model would it be for this industry if people actually completed these programs, moved on and had a happy healthy life- Definitely not as much money as returning customers always looking for a new plan or new rules to follow. People are not born into this world thinking certain types of bodies are good bodies and others are bad- our society is to blame as it continuously shaming all bodies for many different reasons. it is impossible to not have some of these biases impact the way you see bodies, and assign different amounts of worth to bodies. When people are going on diets, they think they are looking to eat healthier or lose weight. What I tend to see is what they are truly looking for which is: body satisfaction, social acceptance, feeling desirable/ worthy, feelings of health/ wellness, or “self- improvement”. It is very rarely about the weight- even though weight is generally highly emphasized in these diets. Diet culture largely promotes something called the “thin ideal” which communicates the ideology that someone is more beautiful/ healthy/ motivated, or has more worth if they are in a smaller body. Remember, this culture would not continue if it was not successfully selling individuals these false promises over and over again of your worth being correlated with the size of your body. Pathologizing anyone’s worth, motivation, or health based off of body size is damaging, and continues a cycle of internalized fatphobia and institutionalized fatphobia. Why should this be important to you?


Think about how many people you have personally talked to within your lifetime who have struggled their bodies, or who are unable to fully live their lives without obsessing about a number on the scale. Think of how many people go their whole lives feeling like they are unable to accept their body because of their size/ weight. Consider yourself, and how often you find yourself either judging your own body or someone else’s body because of these bombarding messages which are communicated to us from this culture. The message of this is not to shame anyone- rather to educate you on how damaging our culture can be on perceptions of people’s bodies and how this can largely impact your own views of your body.


Luckily, there is good news to share. If you type in the internet “diet’s don’t work” there are thousands of research articles and statistics which prove the ineffectiveness of diets along with the correlation they have on individuals developing eating disorders. Researchers are starting to point out the many flaws associated with diets and weight-loss schemes along with their disordered beliefs. There is also a large amount of growing social movements such as the Health at Every Size, and Body Positivity movements which emphasize messages such as: health and wellness cannot be determined by body’s size, bodies do NOT have to change for social acceptance, movement and connection are meant for all bodies, and celebrations of all kinds of bodies is key. Think of how much money, time, tears, or heartache you or others would save if you believed you are enough the way you are. Imagine if you felt no shame wearing different items of clothing instead of hiding your body or “waiting to wear something until I get my summer body”. Envision all the foods or social events you would enjoy more if you were not worried about the foods you ate or who was there watching you eat. Our culture still needs a lot of systematic change for there to be a world that is less impacted by diet culture, but remember- your body is NOT THE PROBLEM- diet culture is. As a mental health therapist, I often tell my clients “You will never shame yourself into self-love.” Know that I have seen clients for many years, and they always believe changing their bodies will heal their body image issues. These are temporary fixes, and do not heal your relationship with food or your body. No diet has ever fixed someone’s body image- even if the media you see which would mislead you to believe otherwise.


 

Body positivity can look different for each person. One of the things you can start with is moving away from hiding your body and into body expression. It can be hard to show parts of your body you may have been taught to hide, or may have had derogatory remarks about, but remember your body is nothing to be ashamed of. The second, is eliminating body shaming talk from your communication with others. Although it can be enticing to comment on someone’s weight loss/ gain, you are continuing the cycle of judging someone’s health and worth based on the way someone’s body looks. Don’t continue diet culture’s bullshit propaganda! All bodies are GOOD BODIES just the way they are. If you have body image issues which are impacting your life, seek professional support- not the latest fad diet to improve your self-esteem and confidence. Do not wait to change your body to start practicing body positivity and self-compassion. Know that you are not alone, and spend time exploring anti-diet literature along with exploring body positivity movements such as Health at Every Size to increase your knowledge and awareness of the disordered messages which are communicated to you on the daily.



Deanna Smith, LCSW


This blog is not meant as therapeutic advice, rather to provide education. If you or a loved one is struggling with disordered eating, or body image issues know that there are many educated qualified mental health therapists and dieticians who are well-versed in these complicated issues. Please seek therapeutic & nutritional support if disordered eating or body image concerns are impacting your life.


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