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In the past, diet messaging has been blatant and in your face: "Blast fat." Sexually objectifying: "Would you rather be covered in sweat at the gym or covered in clothes at the beach?" And straight-up shaming: "What you eat in private, you wear in public."
However, with the rise of body positivity and the non-diet approach to health and nutrition, diets are going underground; shapeshifting, mutating, morphing and re-emerging as wellness, lifestyles, detoxes and cleanses. They emanate from capitalist conference rooms, dressed up in self-acceptance and body liberation.
This doesn't mean anything new, of course, it's just a variation on a theme: the lie that women have been sold for aeons. That their worth is tied up in their physical appearance. That in order to be smarter/cooler/more loveable/more worthy, we need to shrink our bodies and take up less space.
Diet culture teaches us, 'You will be great, once you look a particular way.' That creates a chasm between who we really are and who we are told we should be if we want to feel good about ourselves.
But let’s be real, the size and shape of your body is a pretty precarious foundation on which to build a relationship with yourself. Bodies are not static 'after' photographs but dynamic landscapes, constantly evolving to tell the story of our lives. If our self-worth and self-esteem are predicated on an arbitrary clothing size or a number on a scale, where does that leave us when our bodies inevitably change?
What’s so pernicious about how diet culture co-opts the messages of self-improvement is that it drives a deep wedge between who you really are and an idealised version of yourself, who is thinner, perkier, shinier and more confident. This person only exists inside glossy, overly Photoshopped representations of women; it’s an unachievable ideal.
"Personal growth is an inner process that requires reflection and introspection," says Jenna Daku, a psychotherapist specialising in body image and disordered eating. "For instance, 'I know if I have achieved personal growth because I feel differently, I speak to myself differently or I perceive things differently'. Diet culture’s idea of self-improvement is all about the external self and it’s centred on external cues and external validation, ie. 'I have improved my self if I meet certain standards normalised in my sociocultural context.'"
Instead of saying, "Hey, you’re pretty great as you are, let’s grow and develop this person," diet culture teaches us "You will be great, once you look a particular way." That creates a chasm between who we really are and who we are told we should be if we want to feel good about ourselves. The constant overstretching and straining to bridge that gap is a breeding ground for depression, anxiety, shame and feelings of failure and inadequacy. And here’s the kicker: Research clearly demonstrates that diets don’t work, even when they’re rebranded as lifestyles. So we get stuck in a spiral of wanting to feel better about ourselves, then using a diet or 'lifestyle' to achieve it (because that’s how it’s sold to us). Then when that invariably doesn’t work, we look for the next thing that’s going to deliver these promises. But it never does, and the cycle goes around again. With each turn of the cycle, diet rules get more deeply entrenched, food restrictions and anxieties more pronounced. And we take these frustrations out on our bodies, punishing them for not being 'good enough' with overexercise and undereating.
This is exactly what diet and wellness brands want. If we didn’t feel insecure and vulnerable, we wouldn’t need their products. God forbid we stand in our power, because that would render them irrelevant. I asked body image researcher Nadia Craddock her thoughts. "However diet culture is packaged, messaging that privileges some bodies over others and implies your body is not good enough and needs to be worked upon, is toxic to how people feel in and about their bodies," she says. "One of the major frustrations I have is the lie that diet culture sells us that 'body positivity' is accessed upon working upon and changing (often shrinking) our bodies. From a research perspective, a positive body image is conceptualised as acceptance, respect and appreciation for one’s body regardless of how it reflects society’s warped beauty ideals."
I think it is valuable to set aside time and space to think about ways to make our lives easier and happier, less stressful. But it's important these are underpinned by compassion and are truly serving you.
So if positive body image is actually rooted in body acceptance, not body transformation, then all this body manipulation and micromanaging serves another purpose. My theory, for what it’s worth, is that diet culture is just another manifestation of patriarchal oppression that keeps women from fully participating in their lives. Think about how much time, energy, money, effort and other precious resources we funnel into 'fixing' our bodies. The latest palm-print workout leggings, ClassPass, countless influencer cookbooks, exercise plans and apps. Not to mention the superfood blends, the chia seeds, the inexplicably fashionable ghee (costing upwards of $20 a jar). Where else could we be devoting our attention?
This is not to say that we can’t set resolutions or intentions to improve ourselves. "I'm not anti thinking how we can improve our lives," Nadia tells me. "I think it is valuable to set aside time and space to think about ways to make our lives (work, relationships, health, etc) easier and happier, less stressful. But it's important these are underpinned by compassion and are truly serving you (as opposed to a company). Health and self-care have quickly become commodified under the guise of self-improvement. I think it's always helpful to do a quick cost-benefit assessment before buying into any self-improvement plan. If there's a chance you are not the one profiting the most, pursuing the plan is worth a second think."
So how can we protect ourselves from the messages of diet culture dressed up as self-improvement?
"Research shows that things like spending time outside and doing other embodied activities like dancing, drawing and meditation can help us to stay more centred in our introspective awareness, and thus protect us from damaging external factors," says Jenna.
Nadia adds: "Unfollow or mute any social media account that is pushing diet culture BS. And be vocal about being a diet culture dropout. In the same way we are encouraged to be vocal about weight loss goals to keep ourselves accountable, be vocal about your rejection of diet culture."
Another practice I love, which I find helps my clients to shrug off the expectations of diet culture – the ones we never signed up for but have somehow been spending our entire lives chasing – is self-compassion. It sounds woo AF, but trust me; research shows that a self-compassion practice can help lower levels of anxiety and depression and disordered eating, and can lead to higher body satisfaction, optimism, motivation and life satisfaction.
When you notice yourself being sucked into the false promises of diet culture and tempted to try one last diet to find fulfilment, try this instead. Note that you’re experiencing a moment of suffering or you’re struggling with something. Remind yourself that other people struggle in their relationship to food and their bodies – this gives us a sense of common humanity and makes us feel less alone in our experience.
Lastly, offer yourself a gesture of kindness. Find a positive mantra or affirmation that works for you. "May I be kind to myself", "I am safe" or simply "I’ve got this". Find something that clicks for you. If you prefer a more structured/guided practice, then check out the Self-Compassion Break and other (free!) resources from researcher Kristin Neff.
Laura’s book Just Eat It: How Intuitive Eating Can Help You Get Your Shit Together Around Food, all about ditching diets for good and learning more about self-compassion and acceptance, is available in bookstores now.