Toxic diet culture and personal insecurities—how are they related? When others and I talk about toxic diet culture, we are referring to any programs that encourage extreme weight loss, require restricting yourself, and suggest cutting calories and working out more, as well as programs that advertise weight loss pills and shakes. All of these products and programs promote a supposed ideal of what being healthy is. Basically, toxic diet culture entails anything suggesting that “healthy” has one specific size and look. When I talk about diets, dieting, and diet culture broadly speaking, I always refer to them as being toxic because I do not believe there is an area of diet culture that is not toxic. Let me explain!
Diet culture is both the marketing of these products and the beliefs and insecurities that they instill within us. The relation between the two becomes clear when we think about the motivations behind the many companies that constantly push various diets upon us, usually depending on what is trendy at the time. Simply put, diet culture constitutes an entire industry and was thus created with profit in mind. In order for them to convince us to buy their products, we first must be insecure about our bodies, whether it is our weight, stretch marks, cellulite, rolls, dimples, hair, acne, etc. The list seems endless these days. Their success and profit, therefore, comes at the literal expense of our mental health. Diet culture plays an integral role in creating these insecurities. The more insecure we are, the more money they make. The more money they make, the more advertising and products they create, and the more insecure we become. It is a positive feedback loop of negative self-image.
How do these insecurities almost unconsciously seep into our minds? Well, insecurities arise from many different areas of our lives, but, more often than not, it happens via social media, television, and advertising. When we log onto our favorite social media platform, it is not uncommon to come across a picture of someone with what we might deem a “perfect” body, a body to which you instantly start to compare yourself. Where did this seemingly ingrained idea of that person having the “perfect” body even come about? Along with the long patriarchal history of sexualizing certain women’s bodies (which is, of course, also undetached from colonialism and racism), these insecurities today continue to be capitalized upon and perpetuated by toxic diet culture.
Commercials for weight loss programs on television will often show “before” and “after” photos proving the efficacy and “results” of the program. Let us examine what happens when we briefly think about the effects of these desired “before” and “after” photos. “Before” and “after” photos create shame and guilt, especially for people in bodies that closely resemble the “before” photo, leading them to feel insecure about their body, even if they are already perfectly healthy. According to these ads, though, those people should not be content with themselves. Instead, they are enticed to purchase the program, as they should desire the “after” photo. This is toxic diet culture in full effect, creating insecurities through a visual method now so commonplace that we don’t think twice when we see it, and, if we do think about it, it is not in a mentally, physically, or emotionally healthy manner.
Such ads continue another myth: that the skinnier “after” photo—and, therefore, the skinnier body in general—equals a healthier body, which is far from the truth. I was much “skinnier” and weighed less than I do now during my five years of battling eating disorders, which included bulimia and overexercising. I have been fully recovered for a few years. However, according to the standards established by conventional “before” and “after” photos (whereas the “after” photo is the “healthier” body), my “after” photo (how I look now post-eating disorder) is indeed healthier, but not for the reasons set forth by toxic diet culture. I now weigh more, AND I am so much healthier. That being said, the “before” and “after” comparison is inherently triggering in and of itself, as anyone who personally relates more with the “before” photo instantly feels lesser. I have moved away from promoting such comparisons for this very reason.
Tens of billions of dollars are spent by individuals in the United States every single year on diets and weight loss products. It makes me sad knowing the immense levels of insecurity necessary for that much money to be squandered over to these companies. If one diet doesn’t work, people are often encouraged to simply try the next. Why do new diets seem to appear every year?
It can be difficult to transition away from this mindset I’ve been describing. However, I want to reassure you that life becomes much more free once you fully understand and then consciously reject toxic diet culture. It’s like any other toxic relationship that you must end in order to grow and become the best version of yourself.
So, now having this information, how do you begin to break up with toxic diet culture and remove it from your life in order to start living with more freedom and happiness? First, please know that your weight does not determine your worth; in fact your weight and size is the very least interesting thing about you. You are smart, capable, and unique in your own body, making it a work of art.
Also, I want to emphasize that food and exercise are NOT your enemy. Toxic diet culture has a way of making us feel guilty for eating certain things or for not exercising a certain amount. Food and exercise are meant to be celebrated; they are a form of self-love. Fuel your body out of love, move your body out of love, and stop restricting yourself out of love.
Lastly, remember that toxic diet culture wants nothing good for you. It is designed for you to never be satisfied, for you to always fail. Instead of spending your time and energy trying to lose weight or attempting to please others through your physical appearance, use that time to grow—learn a new hobby, read a book, go out to eat with friends and family (enjoy the food you eat!), exercise (for fun!), and, most importantly, surround yourself with people who make you feel good about who you are in the beautiful body you already possess, regardless of your size.
As someone who spent years trying to find happiness in my weight, let me stress that it doesn’t matter how much weight you lose—you will never be happy. Focus on accepting your body, loving your body, living your life, and celebrating the strength and ability your body already has. That will bring you infinitely more happiness than a number on the scale ever will.
Carly Compton founded Paradise Fitness with Carly, after recovering from a five year battle with her eating disorder. She is an advocate for self-love, confidence, and fighting diet culture. She will be pursuing her MSW in the fall, with a specialization in eating disorders.. You can follow Carly’s recovery journey here: https://www.instagram.com/paradisefitnesswithcarly/.