What is diet culture?

When you’re surrounded by diet culture, it can be hard to see what’s right in front of you.

In light of NEDA’s Eating Disorder Awareness Week, I want to talk a bit about the words and actions that perpetuate diet culture every day. It’s not enough to discuss eating disorder symptoms and prevalence and call it awareness. We must face our own collective responsibility in their causation.

For the record, I don’t believe that diet culture is the only cause of eating disorders. (On the contrary, some historians say they might date as far back as the Middle Ages.) But many, many eating disorders start with an innocent diet, and our weight-obsessed culture seems unwilling to face an uncomfortable possibility: maybe there is no such thing as an innocent diet.

Here are a few examples of situations in which people can both suffer from and perpetuate the enduring power of diet culture. And I have personally done every one of these things.
  • When we see people who have lost a lot of weight, we say “Congratulations!” instead of “Are you okay?”
  • When we eat food around other people, we feel the need to announce the sins or virtues of our choices: “I will pay for this later at the gym” or “I’m being so good!”
  • When someone says “I’m going to consume nothing but lemon water for the next seven days,” we say “Good for you, wish I had your will power” instead of “Wait….what?!”
  • We hear weight-loss commercials on tv and feel a flash of shame if we aren’t dieting. We share weight-loss stories and feel a flash of superiority over those who aren’t dieting.
  • We do our worst damage with the meanest f-word: fat.
  • We spend untold hours and dollars chasing arbitrary weight-loss goals. We call it wellness.
  • We spend our time on earth tracking morsels of food, punishing our bodies, and living in guilt. We call it balance.

If you are struggling with an eating disorder and need someone to speak to, visit http://nedawareness.org/ or call the NEDA Helpline at 1 (800) 931-2237.

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