How Do We Start to Change Diet Culture

I recently had a reader ask: "How do we change this {diet} culture?  We all talk about how horrible it is, then we perpetuate it by telling friends we're fat. I see how young women dress and think that it's very hard to be young and not in perfect shape. There is also no modesty. Everything is shown these days. Young women must feel the need to look perfect all the time because everything is photographed, "shared", and posted. It's a tough time to be self conscious and yet have to put yourself out there to be a part of social media."

Here was my response:

Hi Reader - thanks for your question! 

How do we change the culture? To start with, we change it by having conversations like these. We also change it by not joining in the diet talk and telling friends you are fat.  We change it by getting up and walking away when people talk about dieting and then someday we even say something about how much it bothers us or how harmful it is for kids who hear this talk.  We do our own work to discover what fat means to us and why we are so afraid of it. 

"It is hard to be young and not in perfect shape."  That is 100% true.  It's true at any age too.  But that is because of our conditioning and the fear talking.  That is society's message that we won't be loved or desired if we aren't thin. Our society tells us we won't be happy or enjoy ourselves if we are not thin.  This is not actually true. Young girls need to know that their size does not define them as a person. 

Our bodies already know what they are going to look like and what size they want to be and when we mess with it, there are consequences. Dieting, for example, is more likely to cause weight gain than weight loss. Size would not matter, however,  if we didn't have weight bias in our society and that is the thing that needs to change. The reason we worry about our teenagers and how they must feel on social media is because we agree on some level that it's not ok to be bigger and that it's shameful.  Would you worry about teens on social media if all bodies were welcome and cherished? So first we have to become aware of these fearful thoughts and our own bias and then we have to challenge it all. 

Teens should not feel self conscious when using social media because  there is no right or wrong body.  Exposing teens to more body diversity is a good way to show them this.  Go to any mall, restaurant and movie theater and you will know we all come in all shapes and sizes, but look at certain feeds on social media, or magazines and it looks like everyone is thin and looks the same.  Those social media feeds are not realistic and should be weeded out.  We should warn girls against following those sites that feed the fear that thinness is everything. 

We also need to watch what we say and what we do as role models for young girls. When we diet, we send the signal that a larger body is something that needs to change. When we comment on other people's appearance, we highlight it's importance.  When we say disparaging things about ourselves, we teach young girls to hate their bodies too. 

Fear of "not looking good"  is a fear of being seen as undesirable and less than perfect.  But trying to be society's "perfect" shape of the day can lead to years of dieting, drug use, retail therapy, regular therapy, bingeing, excessive exercise, plastic surgery, and being miserable trying to attain a standard that even doesn't exist without photoshopping, and is always changing.  Not to mention that even if you attain that standard, it's bound to be temporary and you are working to help a system that is trying to oppress you.  Those that are  lucky will realize the futility of it and go out and enjoy their lives and have fun.  Others go to the grave thinking they still need to lose XX pounds. 

No doubt the culture is pervasive but our girls need our support.  Our fear only supports fat phobia and diet culture.  When I was 12, I wish someone had told me that women gain weight before starting to get their periods.  Our bodies are cultivating the strength to create life and should be celebrated and revered.  I wish I was shown that all bodies are beautiful, all colors, all abilities, all genders.  I wish I knew that bodies change over time and with circumstance and that it was largely out of my control. I wish I knew that fat was a body type and largely genetic and not everyone was meant to be thin.

I wish I knew I could trust my body's wisdom and that it will tell me what it needs.   I wish I knew that trying to drown out what my body is saying with diets and punishing exercise would keep me trapped in a battle I'd never win.  I wish I knew that if something doesn't feel natural, nourishing and fun then it's never going to be sustainable.  I wish I knew that if someone only liked me for my body, then that relationship didn't really have much room for growth.  Thanks to diet culture, there was no one around me who knew these things either. 

I wish I knew that I was being sold a bill of goods by a 60 billion dollar beauty industry that preys on fear.  I wish I knew that a partner would find me beautiful when I find myself beautiful AND that it was not my mission on Earth to have others find me desirable. I wish I knew that once I learned body acceptance and body trust, none of these outside forces would bother me as much as if I spent all my time worrying about them.  I wish I knew that the real work was exploring myself as a person.  What did I like to do? What did I like to eat? How much did I like to move?  I wish I knew that I was worthy no matter what my body size and that there was nothing to fear. 

So reader, congratulations on noticing how hard it can be to have a body on display in today's world. But please challenge the notion that we should fear for teenagers (young boys too) who do not have the body that society says they should have.  Is that their fault or society's for insisting on that standard? We shouldn't fear for our kids, but we should expose the narrow standards and make sure our kids know how narrow the standards are.  Teens also have to know that they don't have to put themselves out there if they don't want to.  It may seem like they are missing out by not being on social media but if they continue to connect with friends IRL, they won't be missing anything. If teens do put themselves out there, the more real and authentic they are with their posts, the better off everyone will be. 

I actually think it can be empowering to post pictures of yourself no matter what you look like because they are authentically you.  It can be an act of self love to take lots of selfies and get comfortable with yourself through the lens of your cell phone (for more on this check out Vivienne McMaster's Be Your Own Beloved program.)  But if you get a lot of haters, remember that is always about the other person and not at all about you. And if you are relying on everyone else's approval to validate your own self worth, then that might be something to explore. 

Diet culture is insidious and it's not likely to die off any time soon. (I think of it like the creature in the Upside Down in the Netflix show Stranger Things.) In the meantime, we can help our kids be more resilient and make sure that they know that there is absolutely nothing wrong with them, no matter what they look like, and there is everything wrong with our society and how we value appearance. The more we all try to play the game to benefit from thin privileges, the more everyone ultimately loses.