Don’t let diet culture fill in the blanks

Humans communicate in shorthand and subtext. Who has the time or inclination to spell out every single implication within every single comment every single day? Sometimes we aren’t even consciously aware of the hidden meanings in the things we say! This leaves the listener with a lot of unknowns, and our own cultural experiences and biases influence how we fill in these blanks.

Because diet culture is such a dominant voice in the world we live in, its messages can easily become the default subtext in everything we hear and say around the topic of food.

Consider this example of something you might hear someone say: “I should stop eating these cookies.”

Pretty straightforward, right? Except for that gaping word “should.” How would you interpret this sentence? What does the “should” mean to you? If you’re under the influence of diet culture, you might complete the thought in your mind in one of the following ways:

“I should stop eating these cookies…”

“…because they will make me fat, and fat is bad.”

“…because when you eat cookies you’re supposed to feel guilty.”

“…because cookies are bad and so am I.”

But making a conscious effort to push diet culture aside, there are so many other real-life possibilities for what that “should” might mean:

“I should stop eating these cookies…”

“…because I’m going to give myself a stomachache.”

“…because these cookies are for the bake sale tomorrow and I don’t have time to make another batch.”

“…because spouse/kid/roommate likes these cookies too and I want to share some with them.”

“…because I’m going out to dinner later and want to be hungry for it.”

There are so many possible meanings for every tiny “should,” and they add up to something big. These interpretations shape your worldview, which affects how you speak to others, which can shape their worldview too.

Here’s another example that has nothing to do with diet culture — at least, not explicitly. But it’s a handy Rorschach test to get a sense of what’s on your mind. It’s the sort of thing you see all over Pinterest and Instagram:


What do you think the goal is here? Finishing a degree? Writing a novel? Starting a business? Or……manipulating the size of your body? When your life is focused on diets, you fill in the blanks with diets.

For years I wasn’t aware of diet culture, and I had no idea I was living completely under its spell. But as soon as someone pointed it out to me — POOF! The spell was broken, and now I see and hear it everywhere. It takes a bit of extra effort to be more mindful and intentional with the way you speak and the way you listen, but the effect on how you exist in the world is so so so worth it.

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