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Diet culture: Movement toward health or glorifying eating disorders?

With the rise of airbrushed social media stars comes the unbearable pressure to conform to beauty standards. Unfortunately, this often results in young people resorting to extreme diets and other harmful methods to meet them. – Photo by Unsplash.com

Content warning: This article contains references to weight and eating disorders.

It’s hard to imagine a world where diet culture doesn’t have an iron grip on the lives of women. 

The idea of the ideal body may be amorphous, and what’s specifically in vogue is always evolving — whether one is stick thin, or busty with an hourglass figure or fit with washboard abs. But when one quality of a woman’s body is given so much value that regardless of changing ideas on what the rest of her should look like, it’s almost equated to moral virtue. 

To be good, this idea says, is to be one thing: thin.

There are beauty standards more expansive and pervasive than thinness, certainly, like the kind of value that is placed on whiteness, or youth. But when it comes specifically to bodies, regardless of age or color, fatness is always a detriment.

The second there is a pocket of fat on your tummy, or a love handle on the side, beauty seems to become something out of reach in the eyes of the masses. And while the problem of beauty standards are almost always uniquely gendered, and women certainly struggle in different, complex ways as opposed to their male counterparts.

The equation of fatness to wrongness, disgustingness, laziness and ugliness also applies to men — and is perpetuated by thin people rather than people of any certain gender. 

Diet culture, though often portrayed as vying for wellness or fitness, is, at the core, all about obtaining thinness. Its grip on society as a whole has only strengthened with the internet — scrolling down any social media feed, you’re bound to see something involving bodies, be it positivity or shaming, and food’s impact on them.

To clarify: There’s nothing wrong with seeking health, or seeking to lose weight, in the same way there’s nothing wrong with seeking to gain it.

There’s nothing wrong with being conscious of what you put in your body, whether that involves calories, exercising, or both or neither. I write this article from the unique perspective of a plus-sized woman who also intentionally lost 40 pounds. 

What is wrong is the idea of that doing these things has any kind of moral value, or has any relation to beauty, internal or external.

Viral diets are essentially glorified eating disorders. From only consuming 800 calories a day to replacing meals with drinking juices —  these aren’t your mother’s Atkins diet or South Beach diet with legitimate food plans and science backing them up. These diets take it to the extreme and apply it to bodies that they aren’t meant for.

One of the most popular diets on the internet right now is the Ketogenic diet, where one almost avoids carbs entirely and focuses on the consumption of fats. This diet is recommended by doctors … except not for the fully grown adults that utilize it for weight loss, but for small children who aren’t responding to their epilepsy medication. 

Even food plans with moral or environmental focuses, like vegetarianism and veganism, can quickly spiral into eating disorders when they are viewed as crash diets rather than lifestyle changes that require intense thought and effort. 

It’s also increasingly popular to make jokes about food consumption with insidious undertones — it’s practically a cultural phenomenon for people in their late teens and early 20s to joke about only having an iced coffee, an energy drink or a hit from their JUUL as a meal. 

For men, discussions around more male-centric eating disorders have recently become hot topics on social media. Obsessions with hitting the gym, consuming repetitive, bland foods for the sake of “health” and the toxic environment of gym and wrestling culture’s obsession with weight gain and loss are gaining more traction in the notoriously underreported epidemic of male eating disorders

The most obvious thing to be drawn from the internet’s obsession with modifying diet is that it’s not about foods that contain more beneficial nutrients, or meet health standards. It’s not even just about lessening calorie intake (for example: rather than recommending ideas of healthy moderation of things you like, like a single scoop of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, dieters are encouraged to binge on entire pints of “healthy” low-calorie ice cream alternatives).

But rather it's about the promotion of thinness as something inextricably linked from health as an end-all-be-all, rather than a possible single indicator that should really just be discussed between someone and their doctor. 

“Eat this, and you'll be thin,” and “eat this, and you'll be beautiful” are almost synonymous on social media — as is the equation of following strict, often harmful diets to health that can actually be quite dangerous. Considering how many impressionable young women spend most of their time on Instagram or TikTok, it’s no wonder why they’re by and large the most likely group to suffer from an eating disorder. 

More importantly, when you consider that less than 6 percent of those who suffer from an eating disorder are classified medically as underweight, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, it’s evident that the connection between online diet culture and the obsession with thinness is incredibly pervasive and dark. 

We ought to remember though that diet culture is not that changing your eating habits is always bad — it’s not. 

It’s not that people can’t be beautiful at any size — they can be. It’s not even that diet culture has, and will continuously, do damage to people of all ages and genders, especially young women. It’s the idea that what you eat, what number you see on the scale or what you look at in the mirror has a bearing on who you are as a person, and it most definitely does not.

You’re smart or funny or kind or strong-willed or passionate before you are beautiful. And you’re most definitely beautiful before you’re thin or fat. No amount of encouraged iced coffee lunches or failed keto diets can change that.

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