How Diet Culture is Rooted in Fatphobia and Privilege

Once you start to realize the amount of fatphobia and privilege perpetuated by diet culture, you can’t unsee it. If diet culture was truly rooted in health, their focus would be on equality, food access, quality healthcare and sustainable behaviors. Instead they focus on weight-based health, and promote empty causes like ending the “obesity epidemic.”

I have white privilege, thin privilege and economic privilege. And unfortunately I supported and contributed to diet culture’s narrative in the past.

It’s HARD to unlearn. Especially when privileged, fatphobic messaging is everywhere. It’s normalized. And many of us benefit from it.

But once you realize it. And see it for what it actually is. You can’t unsee it.

What is Diet Culture?

Diet culture is any approach to eating that uses specific rules and strategies to primarily achieve appearance-based goals (weight/fat/inches loss; muscles gained). It includes the diet/lifestyle companies themselves. As well as the doctors, dietitians, personal trainers, health coaches, and influencers who share their messaging and dogma. It’s everything from extreme restrictive diets like juice cleanses and Whole30. To blatant diets like Jenny Craig and Weight Watchers. Or subscription-based lifestyles like Optavia and FASTer Way. As well as DIY lifestyles like Paleo or Mindful Eating.

If you have ever felt guilty about what you ate, intentionally tried to lose weight and/or followed someone else’s rules for eating, you are a victim of diet culture.

3 Examples of Fatphobia and Privilege in Diet Culture

“If everyone actually made the effort to eat clean and stopped eating processed food, they’d be thin/healthy!”

Any statement that blames one’s food choices on their body size ignores a VERY important factor: Genetics. You are genetically predisposed to a certain body size. Diet culture wants you to believe that you have more control over your weight than you do. They also want you to believe that if you stay large, you can’t be healthy. Therefore, you need to “fix your body” by following a regimented diet/lifestyle program.

The underlying message of comments like this is that thin equals healthy. Which it most certainly does not! Many a thin person (who eats clean) is unhealthy due to issues with their mental, emotional and physical health. Additionally, simplifying “bad” food choices as the main contributing factor to your weight ignores food affordability, food access and culture.

How labeling food benefits Diet Culture: If they convince you your food choices are terrible and you “don’t know how” to eat, then they can sell their diet/lifestyle program as your best solution. This good food/bad food statement also lays the foundation for the shame and guilt that is associated with processed food or anything that doesn’t follow their diet plan. Being a solution to “fix” your body initially converts you into a customer. And the shame and guilt they create around food ensures your return to the program when you inevitably “fall off the wagon.”

“Pay for organic food now or health bills later. Your choice.”

There are millions of people who cannot afford organic food now NOR hospital bills later! This also ignorantly assumes food is the solvent and preventative for all health issues. It’s not. There are marathon runners who drop dead of heart attacks and vegan yogis who get cancer.

This statement also wrongly believes we all have equal access to the same healthcare treatments. Our weight-centric, profit-based healthcare system in the United States does NOT treat thin people and fat people the same. (And I haven’t even mentioned impact of location or race.) A thin white person who has access to, and can afford, quality healthcare is already set up for a much better health outcome for reasons unrelated to their weight and food choices.

To cite weight as the sole reason an individual had a better outcome is a twisted, self-serving way to look at statistics and use it in diet culture and weight stigma’s favor. It’s why black people disproportionately died of COVID-19…not due to their race, weight, or food choices. But as a direct result of limited access and affordability of quality healthcare. Which, of course, is a result of racism.

How fear-mongering benefits Diet Culture: Poor people aren’t diet culture’s main demographic. So the concept of ‘choice’ lands differently when someone has wealth and the privilege of choice. With money, they have access to organic food and quality healthcare. These privileges are what’s contributing to better health outcomes—not their weight.

“There’s an obesity epidemic and our lifestyle program is helping to end it. Check out these before/after photos [of middle-class white women] that proves it!”

The “obesity epidemic” is rooted in fatphobia and ignores the science that confirms larger bodies CAN be healthy. Trying to solve for it is often “the mission” of white women who are naturally size 8 or smaller and sell a specific diet/lifestyle.

The entire “epidemic” is based on the BMI Scale, which labels people as “under-weight,” “normal,” “overweight,” “obese” or “morbidly obese” simply based on their height and weight. The BMI is an outdated, never-intended-to-be-used-this-way classification system that only pertains to white European men in the 1800s. No other actual health factors are taken into consideration. To cite the BMI Scale as a health tool in 2021 is embarrassing at best, and dangerous at worst.

Using Before/After Photos as “Proof” of Better Health

Ever notice the majority of before/after “transformation” stories were taken after someone’s 6- or 12-week experience? Conveniently right before the reality of sustainability hit. Ever wonder why there’s no “Where Are They Now: 3 Years Later” posts from those previously dramatic before/afters?

They don’t exist!

And if they do, the true measures of health (mental, emotional & bloodwork results) cannot be captured in a selfie because they’re NOT visible.

How the obesity epidemic benefits diet culture: Ironically, diets are the reason for weight gain. If we had remained intuitive eaters (how we were in childhood before diet culture hijacked our self-trust), we wouldn’t have such an unhealthy relationship with food. Fear-mongering with “let’s fight the obesity epidemic” proclamations keeps fatphobia alive. And fatphobia is the number one reason diet culture is a $72 BILLION-dollar industry. If you start to believe that you will be healthier by ditching diet culture and becoming an intuitive eater, then you won’t be a paying customer of diet culture.

And they can’t afford to lose you.

Can you unsee the fatphobia and privilege in diet culture?

Hopefully now you see how deeply rooted fatphobia and privilege is in diet culture. It holds us back as a society, creates inequality and oppresses our individuality.

Leave a comment below with other examples you’ve experienced.

Meridith Oram is an anti-diet nutritionist at Love Yourself Towards Healthy where she helps chronic dieters heal their relationship with food, fitness and body image by ditching diet culture and finding freedom in their God-given intuition. Focusing on behavioral change and Intuitive Eating, Meridith helps her clients unlearn diet culture, stop negative self-talk and set wellness goals---not appearance goals. Follow Meridith at @loveyourself2healthy on all social channels.

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