Diet Culture has been around for more than a century and to this day we remain surrounded by its destructive and impactful messages.
Its current obsession with thinness, healthism and attractiveness over well-being, continues to impact the ever increasing numbers of us impacted by Disordered Eating and the deep shame we feel about our body.
Diet Culture continues to promote these key messages:
Living in a smaller, leaner, more muscular body is healthier and more valuable
Our bodies are not good enough as they are
It’s our fault when the diets don't work
By changing our bodies on the outside we can feel better on the inside
We can't be trusted to know what our bodies need.
We weren’t born with these ideas and beliefs. Think back to when you were a toddler. Did you look at parts of your body and judge yourself based on their percieved value? Did you splash in puddles to burn calories or play catch to get a thigh gap?
These destructive messages are inaccurate and reinforce the disconnection we already experience in our body. The ‘ideal’ body size and shape promoted by diet culture and the wellness industry has continued to narrow leaving many of us risking both physical and mental health in order to move towards attaining this ideal.
These messages are also often driven by profit. If we were to feel comfortable in our bodies, we wouldn’t be spending the 10’s of billions of pounds annually trying to change them. There is also huge stigma in many cultures around living in a larger body as our collective fear of fat continues grow.
It is perceived that we are somehow weak willed, not trying hard enough, not committed enough, if we are not able to change our bodies in the way that our culture perceives our bodies 'should' be. It promotes the idea that if we follow 'the plan', if we work hard enough, we will change our bodies long term. This is simply not the case.
Intentional weight loss for the majority of us is temporary. Decades of research tells us that at least 95% of those who diet, regain their weight back (and often more) within 1-5 years.
Our Natural Survival Instinct
When we restrict our food, our body responds by moving into survival mode; we become preoccupied with food, our hunger and cravings increase and we are more likely to move into cycles of chaotic eating (food restriction, binge eating or regular over eating) and compensatory behaviours (further food restriction or purging (self induced vomiting, taking laxatives or over exercising)).
What our body also does in order to protect itself from future 'famine' (restriction) is the 'markers' of our body's natural weight range (our set point range) change. The key point being that they can often rise.
This is the pattern for so many of us who go from one diet to the next. Our weight steadily increases over time in response to repeated restriction.
This happens, NOT because we are broken, NOT because we haven't tried hard enough, but because our bodies want to survive.
Dieting claims to support weight loss when much of the behaviours that Diet Culture supports leads to weight gain (not weight loss) over time. It also leads to weight cycling (repeated cycles of weight loss and gain) which create significant stress in the body affecting both mental and physical health.
Our bodies are all different and body shape and size is influenced by a huge range of factors; genetic, social, economic, cultural, exposure to trauma, history of dieting, experiencing weight stigma. The factors listed here have around a 75% influence on our body size. What we eat and how we move only influences our body size by around 25% (for the majority of us any change in shape or weight is likely to be temporary) (Harrison, 2019).
We also know that experiencing weight stigma is hugely impactful and this is something we are surrounded by. It's everywhere. There are more recent studies demonstrating that experiencing weight stigma has MORE impact on our bodies than the food we eat (Harrison, 2019). Sounds crazy but this is what the research is telling us.
Stepping back from diet culture can be difficult as so many of us are hardwired with the myths and lies from diet culture. Some of these myths and lies may be familiar to you;
Our problems will be solved by being in a smaller, leaner body
We will feel so much happier when we reach an arbitrary number on the scale
Certain food is bad and should be avoided
We shouldn't eat food in this way or at this time or in these quantities
We are a failure if we don't stick to the plan
We are unworthy if we fail to meet cultural body ideals.
By moving away from diet culture, we create space for learning how to reconnect with our own needs and to grieve for the body we were led to believe we could have. We move towards accepting our bodies as they are and hand back the shame gifted to us from diet culture.
Disordered Eating Recovery involves learning to trust and have confidence in the innate wisdom of our amazing bodies. It involves learning how to respect and value our bodies and recognise them as so much more than how we present ourselves to the world.
Our body is our first and forever home, somewhere we live in and from. It’s time to settle in and learn how to make ourselves at home.
Celia Clark is a Disordered Eating Specialist and Programme Lead for Beyond the Body® an online recovery programme for Disordered Eating based on a Parts Work model.
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