Diet Culture Harms Our Body Image Through More Tactics Than We Think

Diet culture is toxic — there's no doubt about it. From the promotion of diet pills on social media to body-altering filters to edited pictures in magazines, diet culture isn't a new cultural phenomenon. As the body positivity movement grows, there has been some pushback toward these narrow views of what makes a body beautiful and healthy, yet the toxic industry that promotes diet culture continues to exist.

In many ways, it's impossible to escape diet culture in today's world, whether via conversations with other people, altered images online, or advertisements selling products and workout regimens that promise immediate, permanent weight loss. Of course, it's well known now that there's no magic product that can result in an overnight weight loss experience that lasts forever, but the ways in which diet culture continues to infiltrate society and harm body image by setting unrealistic standards may be surprising.

The shock factor in how diet culture harms our body image comes from both the number of subliminal ways in which the industry behind diet culture affects us and in how stealthy the messaging of diet culture can be in convincing us that the way we look isn't satisfactory or acceptable. The purpose of diet culture may be for companies to sell products, but the harm the toxic industry causes is much deeper than their financial gain. Here's what you should know about the tactics diet culture uses to harm our body image — and how we can fight back.

Diet culture has become a moral benchmark

Unfortunately, diet culture has devolved into something much more sinister than merely marketing dieting and exercise plans. As reported by Self, diet culture has become synonymous with morality, self-control, and values. In many ways, diet culture has created its own value system by labeling people who are thin as being of good moral standing and people who aren't thin as having unethical or negative morality.

Even worse, the heavier a person's weight, the less likely they are to be viewed as being in good moral standing or having positive values. A lot of this approach is based on fatphobic views that associate being overweight with having poor self-control, lack of positive convictions, and even unintelligence. It's not always a conscious judgment; the moral benchmark society has created over decades — perhaps even centuries — of assessing a person's character based on appearance has become so ingrained in our collective psyche that many people don't even realize they may hold this view. That makes it even tougher for them to understand why certain comments, views, or beliefs are harmful and perpetuate diet culture. Even without curated marketing strategies, diet culture runs rampant in modern society because it is a deeply entrenched (and wholly inaccurate) way of sizing up who's a good person.

Diet culture creates anti-fat narratives

Just as diet culture perpetuates the correlation between a person's weight and their moral goodness, the belief system created by diet culture allows silent — and sometimes not-so-silent — stigma to thrive when it comes to fatphobia.

There are a lot of advocates of anti-diet culture on social media, but there are also a lot of anti-fat narratives pushed in the same space, both online and offline. A report from the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance found that among individuals of higher weights, diet talk, diet discussion, and anti-fat narratives continue to dominate their interpersonal relationships. Regarding the advancement of anti-fat narratives, the report also determined that when people of higher weights are portrayed or shown in the media, there is nearly always a focus on the person's weight and health, and ultimately a definition of the person's identity crafted based on their number on a scale. When you think about it like that, it sounds so petty that other people judge individuals — often complete strangers — based on a numerical value that pops up when the person in question steps onto a scale. 

Anti-fat narratives are often reduced to oversimplified equations with little room for scientific explanations. A common anti-fat narrative perpetuated throughout society is that being overweight is an issue that must be rectified, with dieting being a simple solution. The result is widespread struggles with body image, which comes with its own set of dangerous issues.

Diet culture harms body image for everyone

One of the raw truths of diet culture is that no one is immune from the toxicity of the messages that damage body image and can lead to harmful outcomes — and that includes celebrities. US Weekly recapped that in an episode of their namesake show, members of the sensational Kardashian family expressed doubts over their appearances and body image. In particular, Kim Kardashian, who is arguably regarded as one of the most attractive celebrities of the age, has been open about her body image struggles and how she constantly reminds herself to suck her stomach in when being photographed so that she is captured to be as thin as possible. The fact that some of the world's biggest celebrities struggle with body image due to diet culture says a lot about how pervasive and horrific the anti-fat narratives are in today's world.

According to Modern Therapy, the perceived need to diet has become so ingrained in societal beliefs that people who struggle with poor body image and self-esteem often experience extremes when trying to achieve thinness. From disordered eating, body dysmorphic disorder, and anorexia nervosa to the obsessive pursuit of weight loss and being thin, the distortion of body image that results from diet culture is capable of impacting anyone and everyone.

If you need help with an eating disorder, or know someone who does, help is available. Visit the National Eating Disorders Association website or contact NEDA's Live Helpline at 1-800-931-2237. You can also receive 24/7 Crisis Support via text (send NEDA to 741-741).

Diet culture falsely paints body image as superficial

Body image, which Medical News Today defines as how a person perceives their body and the feelings they have in response to their view of their body, is unhelpfully portrayed by diet culture as a physical phenomenon. And no wonder — as diet culture inundates both public spaces and private conversations, good body image is one of its top targets. If people hold a poor body image and experience an urge to change their bodies, then the dieting industry can continue to thrive as people purchase more things to "fix" themselves. In response to this toxic marketing, one of the best things each person can do is understand how diet culture can warp their sense of self.

The components of body image tend to focus on how a person perceives their weight, complexion, and other outward features. However, there is a deeper aspect to body image in how a person feels within their body, including the sensations they feel emotionally. When a person has a poor body image, their sense of self and confidence can devolve, thus making them a prime customer for diet culture since they'll likely be eager to change their physical appearance through weight loss or cosmetic surgery in the hopes that their inner experience will change and make them happier, too. But body image is more than what's on the surface, and changing the physical won't account for the mental and emotional aspects of a positive body image.

Diet culture relies on the words we say

One tactic used to perpetuate toxic anti-fat narratives that harm body image is vernacular that sustains diet culture in ongoing societal dialogue. For example, phrases like "I feel fat" or "I'm having a fat day" contribute to both your own internalization of diet culture's toxic narratives and the continuation of these damaging beliefs. While you're likely quick to jump in when a friend calls themselves fat and assure them that they're not, the fact that we must be reassured that we aren't "fat" is a strong anti-fat narrative on which diet culture feeds.

Other equally harmful phrases include "I'm having a cheat day" and "It's okay to have a cheat day once in a while." Good Housekeeping advises that discussing the premise of cheat days when indulging in foods labeled as having the potential to cause weight gain is a strong anti-fat narrative that promotes poor body image. Similar statements like "I'll work off this dessert in the gym later" or "I can have this cookie since I worked out this morning" are also extremely toxic. Phrases like these create guilt, feelings of inadequacy, and comparisons with other people — including those photoshopped models on magazine covers and altered images of influencers on social media. Talk to your friends about these harmful phrases, words, and narratives, then make a pact to keep each other accountable for taking harmful phrases out of your conversations.

Diet culture impedes true wellness

As body image is degraded through diet culture's toxic messages and society's internalization of harmful narratives, the result is that diet culture ultimately inhibits the achievement of true wellness. This means that a person's ability to be at peace with themselves, feel comfortable with their body, and spend both their time and money on pursuits unrelated to changing their physical appearance are all impeded by the subliminal tactics that keep diet culture afloat.

Now, there is discussion about how the fitness and dieting industries, which have long been linked to a person's definition of health, are beginning to shift toward a newer focus on wellness. Of course, changing an industry worth billions of dollars like the dieting industry can't be accomplished overnight, but we can begin discussing the differences between diet culture and wellness. Her Health Collective states that while diet culture aims to have people be eternally dissatisfied with their bodies, the movements of body positivity and acceptance instead emphasize self-love through appreciating all of the things our bodies do to keep us alive each day. Small steps of gratitude — like thanking your body for its strength or for turning the food you eat into energy — can help shift your mindset into one embracing authentic physical and mental wellness, which is simply the act of taking care of your body's physical, emotional, and mental health needs.

Diet culture needs self-contempt to continue

Fighting back against diet culture is an effort that requires self-compassion, especially when diet culture is so pervasive in our world that it can feel disheartening to take one step forward followed by two steps back. If you know how diet culture permeates society and what it requires to thrive — such as body image rooted in self-contempt, dislike of one's body, and desire to adhere to the fictitious belief that being thin is akin to moral goodness — then you can take away the requirements that diet culture needs to continue. Just like taking out certain phrases such as "guilty pleasure" and "cheat day" from your vernacular, you can make even more shifts in your life, daily habits, and love for your body that can contribute to the dismantling of diet culture.

Some ways to practice authentic wellness rather than toxic anti-fat narratives include swapping out restrictive eating for intuitive eating — meaning that you eat when your body signals to you that it's hungry — and praising your body through affirmations or a daily gratitude journal where you can thank your body by writing down what you appreciate about the vessel that keeps you alive. Be an ally for your own body, enjoy the experiences your body allows you to have, and be selective about the influencers and accounts you follow on social media. Remove accounts focused on diet culture narratives that thrive on self-contempt, then replace them with content that uplifts you.