Content warning: This article discusses disordered eating in a way that some readers may find distressing.
These days, it’s easy to look at socials, magazines and even designer fashion campaigns and think, ‘we’ve come so far.’ And in many ways, we have. Representation is important, and the ideal of showcasing all bodies is becoming more mainstream. But diet culture and its self-improvement agenda remain as insidious and pervasive as ever.
We may look back at body image discourse of the ‘50s, '60s, all the way up to the '00s in disbelief, wondering how businesses could ever have gotten away with such blatantly irresponsible marketing. But diet culture really hasn't gone anywhere, but rather, has taken new shape. Just one quick Google search serves me 1,830,000,000 results for 'weight loss', and another 1,330,000,000 for ‘diet’. Typing in virtually any body part suggests the related term 'workout', as well as plenty of ads promising 'Instant! Proven! Results!'
But of course we can't talk about diet culture without talking about capitalism. In a hyper-commercialised world where the business of looking good can earn you literal billions, marketers work hard to keep selling the dream of physical perfection. Frankly, it's not terribly hard. But despite a growing movement towards body positivity, young people continue to develop body dysmorphia and disordered eating at an alarming rate.
To help draw attention to the complex issue of body image and the ways it is used against us, we spoke to Joyce Tam, Clinician and Manager of The Butterfly Foundation's National Helpline in Australia.
Unrealistic body ideals are nothing new, Tam begins, but the ideals themselves have changed considerably. “In the 50s there was a strong focus on movie stars such as Marilyn Monroe who boasted a curvaceous figure, before the 60s celebrated supermodels like Twiggy who had an extremely thin frame. The 80s saw a focus on fitness with muscular and toned frames being the preference and then the 90s became synonymous with the infamous 'heroine chic' look sported by some of the biggest supermodels at the time,” she says. “Now, the goalposts have moved once again, with the hourglass figure back in demand thanks to the likes of certain reality stars. Throughout history, images of ‘beauty’ are reflected in diet culture, and what is considered “attractive” is always changing.”
So why do we still get so hung up on the inches and kilos of it all? According to Tam, it's not our fault. “Diet culture is ingrained [in our culture], and it takes active consideration to not let yourself be impacted by these social constructs.”
All the mixed messaging can weigh heavy on a person.
“In 2019, the weight loss, weight management and dieting market was valued at $192.2 billion USD, and this is projected to increase to $295.3 billion by 2027,” Tam points out. “This is a market that is literally designed to make people think and feel like they are not good enough, that their bodies must be changed, and only once you have reached the pinnacle of success, i.e. weight loss and the thin ideal, will you be happy.” After all, it's not exactly the physical body being marketed to us, but what comes after, as if all the other imperfect pieces in our lives will tip like dominos and fall into place once we reach this goal. If we could just look like X, we'd be happy, and happiness is always an easy sell.
So what about all the change then? All too often, we're served up body diversity and size representation in its most palatable forms — non-straight-sized people with perfectly cinched waists and smooth skin, for example. Sure, the needle has moved, and industry standards for beauty, wellness and fashion now demand that brands use diverse casting or suffer the risk of being called out or cancelled. But herein lies the problem. We're provided with just enough diversity to still view these bodies as 'different', and made to feel that these crumbs are major victories. But it's the brands that are being celebrated, not really the people, and these milestones can lean more towards tokenism and virtue signalling.
Alarmingly, a lot of the advertising does work. We've somehow been sold the idea that all of this means that diet culture and all its anti-fat propaganda is dead. But did it actually die? Or did it just find ways to re-market and diversify? We see it not only in gyms, diet shakes or weight-loss advertising, but in fashion, beauty and health, too. Suddenly, our flat arses don't look good in the jeans we've always loved, our textured skin doesn't suit this 'no makeup makeup' liberation, and our social algorithms are filled with happy, skinny people supposedly killing it at life.
We can't talk about diet culture without talking about capitalism.
All the mixed messaging can weigh heavy on a person. The radical self-love movement pushed for body liberation, and while its intentions were noble, it simply didn't stick. The added pressure to love ourselves just as we are in a world that tells us not to isn't fun, and it's easy to slip into feelings of guilt and failure. Of course, self-love has become its own marketing machine too. But simply telling people to ignore a lifetime of ingrained beliefs isn't enough.
It's not even just media and business, but institutions, too. A ground-breaking multinational study of almost 14,000 adults across Australia, Canada, France, Germany, the UK and the US by The Butterfly Foundation found that 66.6% of participants had experienced weight stigma when visiting a doctor for health care. Patients with a higher body weight also identified doctors as one of the most common interpersonal sources of weight stigma.
And now we’re in a global pandemic. The push to optimise your health and emerge from lockdowns a hotter, better you is more palpable than ever. With our phone and television consumption only heightened in lockdowns, lifestyle association and its ties to body image have run rampant.
“For many people, the pandemic has impacted regular eating and exercise routines,” says Tam. “Unfortunately, this has led to significant discourse from the diet industry about weight gain during periods of lockdown, with terms such as the ‘COVID kilos’ and ‘Quarantine 5’ being coined. This type of messaging is extremely problematic in an already stressful period, with research suggesting that increased exposure to weight stigmatising social media messaging has been linked to greater eating disorder symptomology at this time.”
“People do not need to be told that they need to look a certain way as society starts to open up again... Instead, we should use this time to be kind to our bodies, grateful that they’re helping us to get through a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic.”
The push to optimise your health and emerge from lockdowns a hotter, better you is more palpable than ever
It's easy to point out these problems when you're actively thinking about them. But when we're caught up in the undulations of everyday life, we can lose sight of what makes sense. Our lives don't operate in the same way that those of the Kardashians and Instagram models of the world do, despite what social media's comparison trap can have us believe.
Ultimately, fitness is not a one-size-fits-all situation, and health advice should always be sought from professionals you trust. Mental health plays a vital part in our overall wellbeing, so be kind to yourself and to others — and always seek help if things begin to bog you down.
“Above all, remember that diet culture cannot take away your innate value as a person,” says Tam. “We are worth so much more than our bodies, weight and appearance.”
As a part of Body Image and Eating Disorders Awareness Week, The Butterfly Foundation has put together a number of strategies that you can use to reduce the impact that diet culture has on your life. Head here to learn how to diversify your social feed (including our favourite body-positive influencers to follow), call out weight bias, and change your thought patterns that suggest your body needs to change in order to be accepted.