Diet culture is part of society, and it can be incredibly hard to escape from. You’ve heard the messages — that you need to fit a certain mold or look a certain way to be accepted. But the truth is, you don’t need to conform to these standards; you can challenge them. It starts by recognizing that these messages are part of the collective thinking of society. Once you acknowledge that they’re harmful, you can work to change your thoughts and beliefs.
Healthy living isn’t just about what happens when you step on the scale — it’s about taking care of yourself in every aspect of your life, from eating well and exercising regularly to cultivating supportive relationships with friends. It’s also about practicing self-care rituals like meditation or journaling. Let’s look at some steps you can take to have a more positive body image in a culture that often works against that goal.
Identify the diet-culture messages that have infiltrated your thinking
First, identify which diet-culture messages have infiltrated your thinking. For example, you’ve heard the phrase “one size doesn’t fit all.” This is true! If everyone were the same height and weight, clothes would come in only one size. But because people have different body sizes and shapes, there are many types of clothing to wear.
Still, some diets say that if you want to lose weight, you need to conform your body to one particular shape or size, for example, by following a specific eating plan or exercise regimen — because this is what works best for most people. Dieting culture has been telling people this kind of lie for decades. It’s time to stop listening!
Name the Ways You Participate in Diet Culture
One step to breaking free from diet culture is to identify habits and behaviors that fall under its umbrella. Here are examples:
Relying on weight loss to solve problems. Dieting might seem like a quick fix, but it’s not. It can make you feel worse if you don’t lose weight right away. Instead of looking for trendy weight loss approaches, look for ways to solve the underlying problem (or problems). It could be anything from dealing with stress and anxiety to finding healthy coping mechanisms to getting enough sleep and exercise. All of these can impact your mental health and how you deal with problems.
Another self-defeating habit is using food as a reward or punishment. Whether it’s indulging after hours of studying or depriving yourself when you’re stressed about work, using food as a reward or punishment doesn’t help with these issues. It just makes them worse. Instead of treating food as either good or bad, learn to enjoy eating without negative associations attached to every bite.
Also, don’t use food to deal with difficult emotions. Perhaps you’ve experienced an upsetting event and turned to restricting calories. But it’s healthier to find ways other than dieting that allow you some space from whatever’s troubling you, so those feelings don’t become overwhelming.
Also, don’t use exercise to punish your body into achieving a certain size. This can happen because society teaches that being thin means being successful while being overweight means being unsuccessful. This propels people who struggle with their eating habits into an endless cycle where they experiment with different diets and only get frustrated when they don’t see fast results. This causes more negative feelings, which leads back to disordered eating habits again.
Challenge Your Definitions of “Fat” and “Skinny”
One of the most important things you can do is question your ideas about what “skinny” or “fat” means. How does your body feel when you are at your ideal weight? How does it feel when you’re overweight?
What’s the difference between these two states?
When people talk about someone being “skinny,” they usually mean they are thin and have a low body fat percentage. When they talk about someone being “fat,” they mean they have an amount of fat on their body that society deems unacceptable (usually having a higher body mass index).
The problem with these definitions is they put people on a path where their self-worth comes from their bodies — what they look like, how much space they take up in this world, etc. — and not from within themselves as people. Recognize that body size and weight are complex issues that are influenced by various factors, including genetics, environment, and lifestyle habits. Thus, labeling someone based on their appearance oversimplifies the matter and can perpetuate harmful stereotypes and biases.
Instead of fixating on societal beauty standards, prioritize physical and mental well-being and foster a positive body image. Every individual’s body is unique and should be celebrated and respected, regardless of its size or shape.
Embrace your individuality and strive to be healthy in a way that works for you, rather than trying to fit into society’s narrow definition of what is considered “acceptable.” Remember, your body is more than just a number on a scale or a label. It’s an amazing vessel that allows you to experience and enjoy life to the fullest!
Talk to Other People About Their Experiences
Talk about your experiences with diet culture with other people familiar with it since people often internalize diet culture by making themselves feel alone in experiences and feelings of shame. Talking with others familiar with the effects of diet culture is a reminder that you’re not alone in having these kinds of thoughts and feelings and that plenty of people are affected by these pressures. This can feel comforting and validating, so if you can find someone willing to listen, take advantage.
Don’t Let the Views of Others Influence You
Diet culture is more than food. It’s a system of beliefs and practices that encourages weight loss but also includes the ways dieters talk about their bodies and view them. Diet culture can insidiously influence your social relationships, your body image, and even your ethics.
You are not alone in this struggle — and you’re not wrong to be upset by these things. The idea that someone would judge another person based on how they look or what they eat is ridiculous. Once you start paying attention to what’s happening in the world without internalizing it, you become empowered to make decisions for yourself, instead of blindly following what everyone else does.
Diet culture teaches that a person’s worth depends on whether they meet an idealized standard of beauty. It also promotes unhealthy behaviors, such as an obsession with counting calories and rigid exercise regimens, at the expense of focusing on other aspects of life, like family relationships or career success. Fortunately, you can choose not to buy into this way of thinking.
“TikTok Perpetuates ‘Toxic’ Diet Culture In Young People, Study Shows.” 07 Nov. 2022, https://www.healthline.com/health-news/how-tiktok-perpetuates-harmful-diet-culture-among-teens-young-adults.
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