Before we get started, just a few things I’d like to note:
- This article will use the term “fat” as a neutral descriptor, I want to write here that I recognize its long standing derogatory usage and the current work around reclaiming it’s meaning.
- This article recognizes the inherent privilege in which the way it discusses diet culture influencing women of cisgender, heterosexual, and predominately white experiences and the way diet culture capitalizes off the intersections of internalized misogyny/sexism, fatphobia/weight stigma, and white, able bodied, & socioeconomic privilege – this population is not by any means singularly affected, let us recognize that marginalized communities frequently go undiagnosed or misdiagnosed in mental health spaces when it comes to disordered eating due to these biases.
- Topics written about here can be further discussed in Laura Thomas (PhD)’s book, “Just Eat It, how intuitive eating can help you get your shit together around food.”
Thanks for reading!
Let’s start by approaching this topic with empathy for ourselves.
A lot of our feelings around our own bodies are learned from a system that is working against us. It’s not our fault if we feel shame around our physical form. So without blaming ourselves, let’s unpack how we got here…
What is “diet culture”? It is a powerful industry that preys on our bodies and minds. If that sounds dramatic, it’s because it is!
How does it work? Diet culture puts an emphasis on weight loss, body shape, size, and aesthetic before overall health. Think of a one off product (maybe something marketed as a “super food” or “detox” anything) think of an ideology (equating things with good health, equating fatness with poor health.) It’s subtle and insidious and might be hard to identify at first, but once you see it, it’s hard to unsee it!
We learn diet culture over the span of our lifetime but the good news is: We learned it and we can unlearn it too!
Easier said than done? Definitely. So let’s start one topic at a time. Today I’ll discuss a bit about the way diet culture has created a distance between our mind body connection by driving a wedge between our ability to recognize and honor our natural hunger & fullness cues through external and internal shame. So, let’s start at the very beginning!
When we are infants, we instinctively know when and how to nourish our bodies. Our internal hunger cues are strong and recognizable to us, because they are innate, meaning we are born with them as a primal method of survival. It’s the same way our bodies know instinctively to breath, we don’t need to actively tell ourselves to do so. Our bodies just know, it’s the magic of our biology!
We use these cues to act, think of a baby crying. They are hungry, they are letting their caretaker know they have a need that must be met, they require nourishment. They aren’t able to speak or understand the reasoning behind their tears or screams, but their bodies and minds know that these cues require attention, they know they need to be fed in order to continue living.
You also might notice something else babies do with food, namely throw it on the floor, on the walls, on themselves, or just as far as they can get it once they are done. The same way we as infants recognize and honor our internal hunger cues and use them to access food, we recognize and honor our internal fullness cues as well. Our body knows when we’ve received the proper nourishment and we cease our food intake.
So, how do we recognize these cues? Our hypothalamus releases hunger hormones into our bodies telling us it’s time to eat, the same system also stops the production of these hormones once hunger has been satiated, our internal fullness cues.
And this system doesn’t change as we develop and grow older! Yet, for so many experiencing disordered eating thoughts, behaviors, or negative body image, this connection seems severed.
Why? What happens to this sense of closeness between our minds and bodies to take action and meet the primal survivalist needs of feeding ourselves?
We learn shame.
Social learning theory posits that as we develop, we learn how to form opinions through our lived experiences. We learn to want to reflect what we see, we want to model the thoughts and behaviors that we view from others.
When we see an overwhelming depiction of thinness idealized and romanticized in dominant culture paired with the deliberate erasure of visibility and positive representation of fat bodies, we (consciously or unconsciously) want to emulate that. We want to reflect what we see! We know it will be validated, the evidence is seemingly all there.
And as humans we all just want to connect. We want to be loved! We want to access what we have learned to be seen as beautiful, attractive, worthy.
However, this is where some serious problems can be found. Because, for a majority of people, this ideal is inaccessible due to (you guessed it!) biology.
Everyone’s bodies are unique and we can’t all look the same. Even if we all did the exact same things and ate the exact same foods, we’d still all look different!
So here’s where the danger comes in, here is where we receive external signs to work against our body’s natural internal system to fit the ideal, and the potentially devastating effects on our physical and mental health follow.
When we learn to equate thinness with worthiness and fatness with repulsion, our thoughts and behaviors start to adapt in order to accommodate our new “truth.”
Think appetite suppression, food restriction, purging, over-exercising, negative intrusive thoughts, anxiety, depression, etc. Yikes!
Let’s put it into perspective in a different way…
Imagine if we were taught through shame the desire to suppress our respiratory system from its main function of breathing in oxygen, the very same way that we are taught through shame to suppress our hunger cues from our hypothalamus from telling us to eat.
Sounds silly in that context right? Sounds dangerous? Because it is! And to add insult to injury, this is the exact way in which the diet culture industry financially profits…..rude!
Diet culture sells us those products and ideologies (see third paragraph for a reminder!) that directly challenge our bodies natural biological system, the products are designed to fail, we blame ourselves, buy more, fail again, internalize shame, rinse and repeat.
The more we engage in the diet mentality, the further we stray from recognizing our biological hunger hormones and fullness cues.
That means the less we can access our feelings of when we are hungry or when we are full, the more potential we have of under or over eating. Over and under eating both have an impact on how you feel mentally and physically.
We have effectively learned and internalized severe shame around our bodies and our food intake, and we might not even know it!
It’s not our fault if we have engaged in any of these thoughts or behaviors in regards to judgement of ourselves or with others. It’s ok if we have been unknowingly participating in diet mentality, diet culture, and feeling body shame. I mean how could we not be when we are constantly swimming in permeated waters diffused with false equivocations of deservability?!
What is important is that we can rebuild, restore, and reconnect our mind and body bond. We can unlearn shame and relearn to find peace within our own image.