KnowURbody: Diet culture and body image

Yuliia Vashchenko – absolwentka stosunków międzynarodowych, podróżniczka, uważna obserwatorka relacji geopolitycznych i tych zwykłych, ludzkich. Pierwsza wolontariuszka Laboratorium Zmiany z Europejskiego Korpusu Solidarności. Kreatywna dusza, która dbała o nasze social media, tłumaczyła nasze raporty i podręczniczki na język angielski, a przede wszystkim wspierała w codziennych żmudnych zadaniach projektowych. Niejednokrotnie tworzyła z nami nieszablonowe rozwiązania z zakresu wspierania równości oraz zabierała głos w ważnych dla niej kwestiach podczas naszych szkoleń, warsztatów i wydarzeń. Dziś prezentujemy drugi z czterech jej esejów, które poświęciła obrazowi ciała w społeczeństwie i kulturze. Zapraszamy do lektury.

This is my project “KnowURbody”, where I try to understand how the image of the woman’s body is influenced by society and how we can deal with it without harmful effects on our mental health. The topic we’re going to discuss today is diet culture and how it affects our body image!

It’s quite hard to find a person who has never tried to change the way his/her/their body looks. Of course, I’m one of them, as well as my mom, aunt, cousins and all of my friends. You can see tips on how to lose or gain weight while scrolling through TikTok, Instagram, or Pinterest, reading Vogue and Cosmopolitan and even watching TV or having conversations with other people. Sometimes it feels like you cannot escape this information even despite the widespread of such movements as body positivity and fat acceptance. In 2021, half of all New Year’s resolutions in the U.S. were based on fitness and nearly half were based on weight loss. Americans spend over $30 billion on diet products annually and an estimated 45 million Americans diet every year. And with the rise in the fashion of such trends as “that girl” or “clean aesthetic” this number has only increased this year. 

Why do people want to lose weight? There are an endless number of reasons why you might want to change your body — that holiday weight, your dating profile, medical issues, your new bathing suit — but the real culprit is usually diet culture.

Firstly, let’s start with the definition of  “diet culture” 


Diet culture is the pervasive belief that appearance and body shape are more important than physical, psychological, and general well-being. It’s the idea that controlling your body, particularly your diet—by limiting what and how much you eat—is normal. Diet culture is that collective set of social expectations „telling us that there’s one way to be and one way to look and one way to eat and that we are a better person, we’re a more worthy person if our bodies are a certain way,” says UK-based body image researcher Nadia Craddock in the article “Diet culture is everywhere. Here’s how to fight it” on NPR.

Diet culture also normalizes labelling foods as good or bad and thinking of food as transactional—something that you either earn or don’t deserve depending on how you’ve eaten and worked out. People assume certain foods are “bad” and what’s more, we are bad for eating them, when in reality, this moralization of food and our collective desire to “fix” any perceived wrongdoings is a prime example of diet culture and just how easily it can sneak in under the radar. 

Diet culture has many definitions and faces but, in a nutshell, it’s a set of beliefs that worships thinness and equates it with health and moral virtue, according to anti-diet dietitian Christy Harrison, author of Anti-Diet and host of the Food Psych podcast.

In the article “The Unbearable Weight of Diet Culture” which you can read on the site Good Housekeeping Home we find such information. “There’s a whole lexicon,” says Claire Mysko, CEO of the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA). When we say we need to “burn off” or “make up for” the cheeseboard we shared with friends; when we skip the dessert we want and ponder if even snagging a bite of our partner’s dessert is “worth it”; whenever we ascribe virtue to our food choices, giggling that it’s naughty when we choose to eat what we crave or what comforts us, or good when we opt for low-calorie, low-carb, or other foods diet culture has deemed healthy. “All of that talk is part of diet culture,” says Mysko.

And, it’s a shape-shifter: You might think you’re not subscribing to diet culture, but rather are focusing on your health or fitness. Diet culture hides under the mask of health, meaning it is portrayed as health-focused yet promotes disordered behaviours, and many times extreme beliefs about food, exercise, and our bodies. We see diet culture promoted in articles about current diet trends, news segments about a celebrity’s “body transformation”, and advertisements for “detox” pills, “fat-burning” teas, or juice “cleanses”. These days the diet industry has adapted its messaging to be less blatantly about appearance and more about the in-vogue ideals of health and wellness.

Diet culture places thinness as the pinnacle of success and beauty, and “in diet culture, there is a conferred status to people who are thinner, and it assumes that eating in a certain way will result in the right body size — the ‘correct’ body size — and good health and that it’s attainable for anybody who has the 'right’ willpower, the 'right’ determination,” says therapist Judith Matz, author of The Body Positivity Card Deck and Diet Survivor’s Handbook.

Diet culture thrives on one simple premise: your body is the problem, and it needs “fixing”. In creating a dynamic where we feel as if our body needs to constantly change, diet culture also creates a profitable market. Research has shown that diets don’t work in the long term, and the profit margin reflects that. An industry this large and this profitable thrives off the vicious cycle so many are in: believing our bodies aren’t good enough, trying to find a way to “fix” them, starting a new diet failing to maintain the extreme and unsustainable nature of that diet, re-gaining all the weight, blaming our own lack of discipline, and ultimately feeling intense shame and guilt.

This feeling of failure and the belief that we simply did not have enough “willpower” starts the cycle all over again. This foundation of diet culture not only keeps us feeling as if our body is the problem, unworthy of love as is and in need of change but also creates a profitable business in our capitalist society.

Let’s see the problem from a feminist point of view. In The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf writes, A culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience. Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one.” Historically, feminist perspectives on dieting centred on dieting’s impact on white, cisgender, able-bodied women. However, Naomi Wolf’s perspective applies to all people. The harmful consequences of diet culture impact all genders, races and ethnicities, ages, body shapes and sizes, socioeconomic backgrounds and abilities.

In actual fact, there is no “right” body size, and even if there were, it’s not attainable to whomever does the “right” thing (or whatever weight loss trend may be viewed as “right” at the moment), as evidenced by the 98% failure rate of diets. This stat alone is proof of the no-win norm that we, as a society, have been groomed to abide by. In one fell swoop, diet culture sets us up to feel bad about ourselves — and judge other people, too — while also suggesting that losing weight will help us feel better.

For decades now, medical professionals have used the body mass index as a go-to measure for health, and you’ve likely heard many times that a high BMI can lead to disease and death. But history tells us a different story. The body mass index was created by a 19th-century Belgian statistician named Adolphe Quetelet. It was built as a tool to assess weight distribution across populations and was based on his idea of „the ideal man,” using a small sampling of the size and measurements of white, male Scottish and French soldiers. Eugenics was later built on Quetelet’s „ideal man” model.  Then in the 1970s, a number of prominent American doctors — tired of insurance companies setting arbitrary weight and mortality standards for insurance payments — adopted and rebranded Quetelet’s index. But the BMI was never meant to measure individual health and, again, was based purely on studies of white men.

„There’s no evidence that these studies were representative in terms of race, age, gender, any of the things that can lead to differences in outcomes,” says Sabrina Strings, author of Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia. Yet despite its many flaws, the BMI is our go-to measure of health for all genders and body types. And, Strings says, many still struggle to write off the BMI because of how often it’s invoked to prove that fatness leads to illness.

Moving your body and eating nutrient-rich food are always good idea, but it’s important to understand how much we’re motivated by our culturally accepted aesthetics. Diet culture purports that every fat person is a thin person waiting to be released and that we should fear fatness. But „you are not afraid of being fat. You are afraid of being treated like a fat person,” says Virgie Tovar, a San Francisco-based author and public speaker whose work centres on ending weight-based discrimination.

Where can we find examples of diet culture in our society? According to the article „The Unbearable Weight of Diet Culture” diet culture can be found in Barbie’s thigh gap and 18-inch waist, which influences perceptions of what an “ideal” body should look like. It’s Lululemon’s founder saying publicly that it’s a problem when women’s thighs touch. It’s Kim Kardashian explaining how “necessary” it is to squeeze into shapewear beneath a dress, saying, “without shapewear, you’d see cellulite and I just wouldn’t feel as confident.” It’s the fact that you may have been told (or recited!) that at the first sign of hunger, instead of giving your body the food it’s asking for, you should delay and drink a glass of no-calorie water first in case you’re “actually just thirsty.” Instagram influencer culture, movies, runways, fashion ads, and media outlets including magazines are rife with one type of person: A normatively feminine, usually white woman who is slim and tall and seemingly living fabulously. Could their charmed lives be because of those “perfect” bodies? That is the question!

So, why is diet culture so harmful? 


Firstly, diet culture is one factor that contributes to disordered eating habits. This generally occurs from a lack of focus on nutrition while prioritizing low-calorie foods. 

It can also affect how someone views exercise since activity can be viewed as a way to work off so-called bad foods or used as a way to earn food. The idea that food is only fuel and must be earned is a toxic notion that can create disordered eating and eating disorders. Food is much more than fuel. It is a social and cultural part of our lives. 

Solely focusing on food as fuel—or good vs. bad—isolates you from enjoying and embracing food as a deeper and more meaningful part of your life. This effect is often seen after a major holiday when advertisements and articles push for detoxes or cleanses to “reset” or purge your body of “bad” food choices. Not only are these practices unscientific and potentially dangerous, but they also push the idea that enjoying food must come with a consequence. Labelling yourself as good or bad based on the foods you eat can lead to worsening disordered eating habits and may lead to an eating disorder. Orthorexia is considered an extreme form of clean eating—an obsessive focus on what the person believes to be the „correct” healthy diet. This obsession leads to interference with everyday life, including social, emotional, and more. Diet Culture is lowering your self-worth, wrecking your body image, and generally stealing your joy. 

It promotes discrimination. The mocking and bullying of people because they’re fat is a part of diet culture that is both common and harmful. But beyond that, weight-based discrimination actually impacts access to jobs, healthcare, and more. In 2012, a metastudy found that fat people are regularly discriminated against in „employment settings, healthcare facilities, and educational institutions,” making it difficult for people in larger bodies to live functionally or fruitfully in our society. 

It distracts from a larger societal issue. Our individualistic culture says that if you’re not thin, not only is it your „problem,” but it’s your fault. Being in a large body is actually not a problem, but diet culture says it is because that’s easier than investing money and energy in giving everyone access to fresh food and ample outdoor space in which to move, connect, and enjoy nature.

If we feel like it is impossible to escape, remember starting small can help to remove diet culture’s larger presence in our lives. Aiming to free ourselves from the food judgments, find neutrality and respect for our bodies, and improve upon health versus trying to fit a one-size-fits-all mould takes time and practice. Be compassionate with yourself through the journey and remember diet culture thrives on our humanness, as all humans have insecurities. The diet industry profits off us feeling we are “not enough” or “in need of fixing”, but you are already enough, worthy, and deserve respect just as you are.