Commentary  Dismantling Diet Culture

Spilling the (Detox) Tea on an Exploitative Industry

Last week was National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, and many conversations have focused on the alarming rise of eating disorders, especially among young people in college. However, viewing eating disorders, and disordered eating in general, as isolated incidents misses the broader picture. Eating disorders are directly linked to the pervasive diet culture that exist within Western society. Diet culture is a multi-billion dollar industry; from detox teas to diet programs, personal trainers, “organic” food stores, and clothing brands, much of what we see as personal choices are produced by a sexist and fatphobic rhetoric.

Diet culture creates a link between your eating habits and your moral character. It’s not just about weight loss – it also takes the form of the categorization of food into “good” and “bad.” For instance, vegan diets, the cutting back of red meat, and juice cleanses are branded as “healthy,” whereas sugar, carbs, and fast food are considered “bad.” Diet culture doesn’t just falsely establish these categories as objective truths, it also links them to one’s value as a person. Therefore, if you eat “well,” and restrict your intake of “bad food,” you’re seen as having self-control and a higher moral character. This rhetoric is normalized even on campus – just think about how many times you hear people, especially women, glorify how little they’ve eaten during the day. Not eating for hours during finals is seen not only as normal, but as a sign of inner moral strength. This leads to the normalization of “cheat days,” “no sugar November” challenges, and the framing of carbs and sugar as indulgences that should be punished. Assigning morality to food choices creates the basis for disordered eating.

Something we often miss is that diet culture is perpetuated regardless of the actual “weight loss” outcome. If someone loses weight thanks to “clean eating” or detox products, they serve as a success story for the industry, and will advertise diet culture in good faith to their friends because of their personal experience. It doesn’t matter that the same program that worked for them could trigger an eating disorder for someone else, because it worked, didn’t it? When people inevitably gain back the weight they lost during those diets, they are once again characterized as lacking self-control. The fact that someone’s metabolism was altered, that their view on food was distorted, or that they physically cannot completely change the way they eat in the span of a “crash diet” is never brought up. Rather, overweight and fat people get categorized as “lazy,” and pushed into more extreme weight loss tactics. Diet programs sell images of what a successful, “post-diet body” should look like; more broadly, clean eating is often equated with thin bodies. These perceptions ignore the fact that some body types can never achieve the levels of thinness that are defined as acceptable, regardless of how much “effort” they put in.

Diet culture creates a link between your eating habits and your moral character

Diet culture also dictates what types of bodies are acceptable in society. Unhealthy levels of thinness are glorified and rewarded as proof of hard work, regardless of how they are achieved, while fatness is punished and equated to laziness and lack of self-control. The social capital that accompanies thinness is directly linked to the economic gain of the diet industry. The same companies that benefit from the hegemony of thinness also define the standards for “acceptable bodies.” This disdain for fat bodies becomes systemic under diet culture, as anyone who isn’t thin is automatically seen as not healthy and is shamed into silence.

Diet culture advertises “good,” “bad,” and “safe” foods without making these products accessible. For those who have the economic means, they contribute to the industry by shopping at overpriced, high-end “wellness” stores such as Whole Foods because it’s perceived as a responsible consumer choice. For the rest, they are shamed for consuming “bad” food and then sold diet products intended to “fix their bodies.” Evidently, diet culture is not an isolated phenomenon, and exists within a systemically oppressive society. By focusing on the shaming of women’s bodies, by making the “good” foods economically inaccessible to most, and by refusing to recognize that thinness is not a norm that all body types can achieve, it directly perpetuates sexism and classism.

Further, diet culture exploits oppressive gender norms to enforce certain eating habits on us; femininity is equated with food restriction while masculinity is supposed to be performed by overeating certain types of food. These broad standards then apply differently in relation to sexuality as well, wherein restriction and extreme thinness is encouraged and glorified amongst certain gay men’s circles, for example.

The same companies that benefit from the hegemony of thinness also define the standards for “acceptable bodies.”

Diet culture is usually denounced by shaming celebrities who use their influence to promote it. Jameela Jamil, who has made herself a spokesperson against diet culture, criticizes it by calling out the economic gain and hypocrisy of celebrities who advertise these products, but don’t even use them. Last year, she denounced the harmful effects of the detox tea promoted by public figures like Cardi B and the Kardashians, and urged people to not take advice “from women who know nothing about nutrition/basic advertising ethics.” While the exploitation of their young audiences, who often are not well-informed on the subject, is ethically wrong, this criticism doesn’t acknowledge the systemic ways in which these women also are exploited. Diet culture shames women, especially famous ones, into abiding by certain beauty standards to gain social recognition.

Focusing on criticizing the women who advertise diet tactics shifts the blame away from the people who created and capitalize on this “clean eating” and “detox” culture: white men. As argued by journalist Virginia Sole-Smith, it is “mostly white, mostly male, mostly thin food writers and chefs who have been setting the agenda of what they call the ‘good food movement’ for the past couple of decades.” The creators of the “famous diets” that started the clean eating movement were overwhelmingly rich, misogynistic white men, just like those who still directly benefit from women losing weight within the clothing and diet industries. For instance, the cookbooks and diet programs that regularly appear in bestseller rankings are written by men and then branded as healthy choices for women’s bodies.

Eating disorders do not emerge in a vacuum; they are rooted in the way we talk about eating as a morally charged topic, rather than a basic need, and in the way we glorify restriction and sell weight loss tactics to each other. The dismantling of diet culture will not be achieved by shaming women for internalizing these standards, but by refusing to let a misogynistic, exploitative industry dictate our eating habits.