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How has diet-culture impacted women's body image?

by Georgina 11 minutes read

Last updated: 18 Aug, 2023

Throughout history women’s bodies have always been policed, squeezed into corsets, then girdles and now low-rise jeans, the standards set for women have been constantly evolving and changing, but our bodies have not. Over time these standards have become increasingly rigid and unattainable and diet culture has only made the problem worse.

What is Body Image?

Body image is the way in which you perceive, think, and feel about your body's appearance, shape, weight, and even specific body parts. Your body image is not necessarily tied to your objective appearance, you can see yourself as smaller or larger than you actually are.

Despite there being an infinitesimal number of different body types and shapes, we are all expected to fit one accepted beauty standard, one ideal body, and for most of us, it is one impossible to achieve. When pressured to achieve the impossible, we inevitably fall short. That is when body image issues can emerge. This can cause women’s mental health to suffer, impact on their relationships, cause body dysmorphia, and in the worst-case scenario, result in an eating disorder.

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The regulation of women’s bodies

From birth, there are few messages as heavily drilled into a girl's mind as ‘fat is bad, thin is good’. The shame associated with larger bodies has been taught and reinforced by the media, our schools, and our own mothers who themselves were a victim of the ‘heroin chic’ era of the 90’s and 2000’s and the weightwatcher’s weekly weigh-ins. We grew up understanding this behavior and attitudes towards food to be normal and the ritual body shaming of female celebrities in the tabloids cemented it. If we wanted to be valued, we had to be thin.

It is therefore not surprising when we read that 95% of all anorexia nervosa (which is not only the most deadly eating disorder, but the most deadly mental illness full stop) occurs in female’s, manifesting at three times higher the rate in males. In 2006, after decades of skinny fetishization and fad diet trends, 75% of all American women reported disordered eating patterns.

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What is diet culture?

Diet culture refers to a rigid, yet ever-changing, set of rules and mythologies surrounding food, weight, and our bodies, promoting the idea that a person’s weight can ultimately reflect their worth and even their morality. We grow up believing that a fat person is lazy, that they lack self-discipline and control in comparison to a skinny person.

Diet culture alters our natural eating habits and encourages food restriction, sorting food into rigid categories of ‘good’ vs ‘bad’. The food we eat can also reflect our ‘morality’. This is often sold to us, disguised under a cloak of ‘health consciousness’. The inherent flaw in this is the idea that thin equals healthy, when in fact, to achieve this ‘health’, we can often destroy our bodies and mental health in the process.

Whilst diets have been around for millennia (the first book on dieting being published in 1558), we have moved away from an acceptance of healthy plumpness to a rigid expectation of natural thinness. These radicalised ideals surrounding thinness have filtered their way into every aspect of our daily lives whether we realize it or not. It is everywhere: in the little quips and jokes of tv shows and magazines, in food marketing, in our clothing adverts and our school weigh-ins. The rise of models, fitness influencers, body-shaming tabloids and fatphobic television have made weight gain not only something to be avoided, but something to be feared.

Why is diet culture so harmful?

Size and health are not the same thing

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Firstly, size and weight do not equal health, our bodies come in many different forms, tall, short, wide, slim, larger from the waist up or waist down, in hourglass, pear, or triangle shape. How then can we possibly say that only one specific shape and size out of this infinite variety, is healthy. Beyond that even if we assumed that extra weight did make us unhealthier, our bodies can gain and retain weight for a number of reasons such as stress, aging, genetics or medication (especially the birth control tablets that adult women are simultaneously pressured to take).

To further emphasise how diet pressure and the thin ideal are not remotely grounded in health concerns, a study of American women found that 13% smoked specifically to lose weight. Additionally, it found that 53% of dieters were already at healthy weights but were still trying to lose more.

Over Reliance on BMI to estimate weight and health

In 1998 the National Institutes of Health in the US changed the definitions of overweight and obese in relation to BMI. Without gaining a single pound, overnight millions of people moved from being in the ‘normal’ weight range, to ‘overweight’ or ‘obese’. Suddenly millions of people were ‘unhealthy’ and urgently needed to lose weight. It is therefore not surprising that a prime influencer of this decision was pharmaceutical companies that sold weight loss drugs. Shocking, I know.

Normalized fat shaming

For some, to live authentically in their own bodies is to ‘promote obesity’. Take Lizzo for example, a woman who dared to exist in her natural form in a public space and not feel ashamed of herself for it, was condemned as promoting unhealthy lifestyles, despite the fact she often danced, exercised, and worked out. An individual’s body has become the collective property to be dissected, mocked, and judged. One of the few forms of discrimination we still socially accept, if not legally, is fatphobia.

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Categorisation of food into good and bad

Rigidly sorting food, or even whole food groups, into categories of either good or bad can create increased food anxiety in young women. Food is an essential aspect of our lives and the sharing of it can be a fulfilling, communal experience. But when we ascertain moral worth to food it can lead to eating disorders, whereby someone can either zealously avoid these foods or feel so guilty for eating them they feel the need to purge them from their body.

Exercise as punishment

Following from the issues of categorising food into groups of good and bad, the issues of exercising to punish yourself can arise. For some of us, the occasional doughnut is an enjoyable treat, for others it is a sin needing to be expelled from their bodies through burning calories. This strips the enjoyment from exercise and makes it something we need to do. If we miss a day, we must train even harder tomorrow and in repentance, torture our body to its limits.

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The impact of social media and influencers

Nothing has harmed women’s body image in recent decades quite so much as the media. From the Daily Mails persistent shaming of every celebrity in a bikini daring to hold a little tummy weight 3 weeks after giving birth, to influencers sharing tips, tricks, and the best products for weight loss, often without disclosing their own history of personal trainers, nutritionists or even plastic surgery to achieve that same body.

Numerous studies have indicated that when young women are subject to images and stories of extreme exercise habits and crash diets by celebrities in magazines and social media, they can easily develop body image issues. And when hearing that Kim Kardashian lost sixteen pounds in three weeks (more than double what is safely advised) to fit into a dress for the met gala, it understandably impacts their body weight stigma.

After decades of indoctrination, the diet and weight loss industry has capitalised off our fear of fat bodies and has utilised these influencers to spread these fears further whilst offering a supposed solution. Weight loss programs, meal replacement milkshakes and laxative teas are offered as the solution and the number of diet books published each year has been consistently on the rise in recent years.

The weight loss and weight management market were valued at $192.2 billion in 2019 and is projected to reach $295.3 billion by 2027. So, it is no surprise the amount of new trendy diets that keep popping up, it is how these people stay in business.

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Intuitive eating vs dieting

The most ironic part of diet culture is that diets rarely actually make us thinner. Studies show that whilst you may lose weight temporarily, you are more likely to put that weight back on relatively quickly, if not more than you lost to begin with.

The diet cycle typically involves:

  • Starting a diet.
  • Short-term weight loss.
  • Physical deprivation - cravings and food fixation begin to set in.
  • Diet rules are broken - cue feelings of failure and guilt.
  • Weight loss is regained - the diet is abandoned and you may even start binging.
  • You eventually try again.

This can be even more harmful to women’s body image as when they lose weight, they receive so much praise and affirmation it cements their suspicions that as far as society is concerned, their worth is tied to their weight. So, when they inevitably put the weight back on (whether due to breaking the diet or the natural fluctuations of our bodies) their confidence is even more crushed than it was to start with. In the long-term dieting has little impact anyway, so why bother with it at all?

Instead, the principles of intuitive eating reject the diet industry’s trap. Move on from a diet mentality and nurture your body. To build a healthy relationship with food we must feed our bodies when they are hungry and stop when they are full. Eat nutritious foods and exercise but do so because your body deserves to be taken care of and respected, don’t punish it out of resentment.

Moving towards intuitive eating instead of dieting and exercise for enjoyment, alongside the spread of the body positivity movement will help us move beyond the reach of the weight loss industry. As we move forward, may we honour our bodies as the intricate masterpieces they are—capable of laughter, strength, growth, and boundless possibility.

Seeking help for body dysmorphia or disordered eating can be daunting, but there are organisations that can help:

The National Eating Disorders Association's Eating Disorder Screening Tool aims to help people decide whether they want to seek professional help for their thoughts and behaviours around food and body image.

BEAT Eating Disorder

Their Helplines are open 365 days a year from 1pm – 9pm during the week, and 5pm–9pm on weekends and bank holidays.

0808 801 0677

[email protected]

BDD Foundation

They provide support and information for people affected by Body Dysmorphic Disorder.

Or you can message their email helpline - [email protected]

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