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Opinion – rebranding diet culture is keeping us hooked on thinness

The toxic behaviours we’ve turned to in the past to ‘get skinny’ are supposedly out and wellness is in. But while the ‘clean eating’ revolution is touted as being all about ‘health,’ weight loss is still very much the subliminal message and ‘lifestyle changes’ are often just disordered habits in sheep’s clothing.

I was in a secondhand book store recently when a section caught my eye.

Across multiple shelves, I could read ten, if not 20, titles that prompted me to do a double take.

From ‘get fit not fat’ to ‘how to be skinny,’ the collection served as a reminder that we’ve certainly come a long way in terms of toxic diet culture since before the turn of the century, when most of these self-help ‘guides’ were published. Or have we?

Though the body positivity movement has fought tirelessly for over two decades to leave heroin chic and its inherently damaging glorification of thinness in the past where it belongs, a quick scroll on Instagram in 2024 will show you that this simply isn’t the case.

Today, while you may have to dig deep to find such blatant displays of fatphobia as the ones presented to me on those bookshelves, they still very much exist, under the guise of ‘wellness.’

This is especially evident on social media, where we’re increasingly witnessing the expansion of a breeding ground for pro-disordered habits content sold to us as being ‘health-focused.’

@hoff.phd a diet by any other name would suck as much #antidiet #dietculture #wellness ♬ original sound – Aubrey Hoffer, PhD

The rebranding of diet culture

In 2022, the New York Post reported on how ‘even the famously bootylicious Kardashians [seemed] to be turning away from curvy physiques.’

A couple of Met Galas later, and most of us are now aware that Kim’s tiny waist is the product of Ozempic, a diabetes drug that’s gone viral for its appetite-suppressing effects and that’s hugely popular amongst celebrities determined to shed a few pounds.

The thing is, however, none of these A-listers have actually disclosed that they’re using the stuff, assuring us over and over that their waifish, emaciated figures have been carefully sculpted by militant gym routines and clean eating.

‘Let’s not discredit my years of working out,’ responded Khloe to criticism that she was lying to her followers about how she lost weight.

‘I get up five days a week at 6am to train. Stop with your assumptions.’

Playing into the harmful stereotype that those who ‘successfully’ manage their weight are dedicated to doing so – and those who struggle to aren’t – this clapback highlights a wider issue: that people with platforms (and even their fan pages) purposefully misleading us to maintain their ‘perfect’ image are themselves involved in diet culture’s rebrand.

 

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A post shared by Kardashian Social (@kardashiansocial)

By implying that such an unattainable level of thinness is possible without any medical intervention (the radical normalisation of cosmetic procedures and photoshop is another example of this), they’ve fostered a perception that weight-loss is equated with wellness.

Marketing to us their Erewhon smoothies and their natural remedies, we’ve been coerced into believing that a healthy approach is all we really need to squeeze into the size 0 box that outdated beauty standards are desperately striving to keep us locked inside of.

Influencers and brands have fervently latched onto this too, telling us half-truths through the screen such as ‘heal your hormones and guts by going carnivore,’ ‘reduce inflammation by taking supplements or trying a juice cleanse,’ and ‘start the 75 hard challenge.’

These ‘lifestyle changes’ are not only in an effort to get us to buy more (classic capitalism), but they’re diet culture in sheep’s clothing.

Because most of the trends that influencers praise the benefits of – and brands accordingly weave into their sales tactics –  continue to categorise different foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ promote practices like calorie-counting or restriction, and commend excessive exercise, we remain unconsciously expected to view our bodies as objects to be controlled and fixed.

The repercussions of this are unsurprisingly very concerning indeed.

@bethprendergast4Too many women in the charts so they said ozempic♬ Please Please Please – Sabrina Carpenter

Hooked on thinness

‘Diet culture has persisted for centuries, making it resistant to change,’ writes Mik Zazon, whose Insta bio states ‘permission to show up exactly as you are.’

‘It is reinforced by foundational industries such as fitness, diet, cosmetics, food, media, fashion, and healthcare. Ultimately, its primary concern is money and power.’

As Mik alludes to, what this all comes down to is the perpetuation of the thin is healthy myth for profit at the expense of our physical, psychological, and emotional wellbeing.

In ironic contrast to what the term ‘wellness’ suggests, the industry cares solely about its annual income, not its consumers’ safety.

For this reason, it’s gone to great lengths to circumvent the regulations newly introduced by social media platforms to protect vulnerable individuals from being triggered by diet culture keywords and the glamourisation of skinny-worship.

Rather than resorting to false claims, the aforementioned half-truths they’re using to attract attention are gaining popularity because they’re easier to believe and more difficult to argue against.

 

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A post shared by Mik Zazon (@mikzazon)

As a result, we continue to be obsessed with talking about our bodies and making them smaller, which in turn is adding to the already incomprehensible number of people who suffer from eating disorders.

‘It’s everywhere right now,’ says Mik. ‘You can’t escape it. Personally, it’s affecting the stability of my recovery. I’ve had to start clicking not interested on posts and unfollowing accounts that trigger me, which I highly recommend everyone do if you’re being tested.’

What’s clear is that diet culture isn’t going away – cut one head off and two grow back as the old saying goes.

So, with this in mind, I guess it’s up to us to be vigilant and, if we have the capacity to, laugh at the absurdity of this messaging, as I did reading those book titles.

Because as much as it pains me to grin and bear it in the face of such aggressive toxicity, the fact of the matter is that profit will always take precedence.

The best we can do, therefore, is educate ourselves on the ways that diet culture sneaks through the cracks undetected, set boundaries like Mik recommends, and uplift each other – particularly those of us more susceptible to negative appearance-based thinking – so that together we can refuse to engage with these narratives that absolutely do not have our best interests at heart.

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