The damage of diet culture

Happy new year, readers! It’s that time again, when the tinsel and Christmas jumpers have vanished from the shops, to be replaced by a range of items designed to make you hate your body. Lycra, dumbbells, kettlebells, diet pills, skinny tea, diet books and magazines, protein powders. To turn on the TV or open Facebook is to be bombarded by images of skinny, muscled humans advertising weight loss programmes. Just like the relentless fake-happy-clappy magic-of-Christmas advertising onslaught since October, there is no escape. And this writer is having none of it.

Before I go postal on this toxic culture, the purpose of this piece isn’t to discourage anyone who wants to improve their lifestyle, get healthier -or indeed, lose weight or change their body. There is something very cathartic about the passing of an old year and with it, poor habits, and January’s clean slate is a welcome opportunity to form new habits. Hell, as I do every year I will be donning the runners as I try – again – to rediscover fitness after a sluggish winter. But I won’t be doing it because of the (quite a few) extra pounds I have been carrying since winter set in, or because the ads tell me my wobbly bits are unattractive. (Look, it cost money to put them there and I’ve become quite attached. I’m not giving them up that easily.)

Might I request that you hop off the treadmill for a moment. Step back, and think about the advertising you are seeing. What is its main message? When I look at these ads, the message I hear loud and clear is that ‘being thinner will make you happier’. ‘Fixing’ your body will lead to fulfilment. You too, if you earn it, might look as good as the people in these pictures. Then you will be worth more. How messed up is that? Now ask yourself, who benefits from this culture?

Here’s a fact. If you really want to lose weight or get fit, you can do both for free. Fresh air costs nothing. Fresh fruit and vegetables are cheaper than processed food. It is possible to introduce a fitness routine into your own daily life at no cost whatsoever (apart from maybe a pair of comfortable shoes). It is very worth asking, if the path of self-improvement you are embarking upon costs money, who exactly profits? And why on earth does the word ‘fat’ hold such negative connotations?

You might ask where the harm is in promoting a healthy lifestyle. In theory of course, there is none. But let’s get this straight. Equating ‘fat’ with unhealthy is not only inaccurate, it is unfair, inaccurate and downright dangerous. In reality, ‘perfect body’ campaigns impact all of us, regardless of our size or shape. Eating disorders are on the rise. Children are fretting about their weight, particularly girls. Steroid use is becoming endemic in gyms. If you share a canteen at work, even your lunch is subjected to appraisal by your colleagues.

‘Fat’, unfathomingly,  is a dirty word, and healthy fat people are frequently infantilised, ridiculed, scorned and treated appallingly by health professionals. They are also often rendered invisible in fashion. Why is this, and in a world where we rail against bullying and cruelty, at least on the surface, why are we standing for it?

Post-Christmas, conversations tend to be peppered with references to over-indulgence and self-reproach. It also strikes me as a bit sad that that the only real excuse we get to engage in a bout of collective indulgence and rest should be routinely tainted by guilt.

Our bodies are remarkable. They do so much for us. Yet so many of us dislike them, rather than cherishing them. So for 2019, perhaps a good resolution could be to stop self-berating, start self-embracing and start looking at diet culture differently. If you want to get healthier, or lose weight, great and more power to you – but examine your reasons for doing so in the first place. If you want to do it for you, and because you think you will feel better in yourself for it, then go for it – unapologetically – and embrace the journey, and the pride that comes with forming new habits. Make sure your changes are safe and sustainable (newsflash: crash diets do not work) and enjoyable.

If joining the gym, try to associate your visits with positive change rather than penance or punishment, and embrace the strength with which you and your body have been blessed. Enjoy the wind against your face, and the adrenaline rush of breaking a sweat and achieving something.

But also, remind yourself that ‘thin’ does not equal ‘healthy, just as being ‘fat’ does not equate to being unhealthy. Suspend your judgement of other people’s bodies, no matter what shapes they are. And indeed, of their decisions – whether that is wanting to change their bodies, or not. And most importantly, let’s try to learn to love our own bodies and be grateful for what they do. Even the wobbly bits.

An abridged version of this piece appeared in The Mayo News on Tuesday, January 3, 2019.

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