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“The message remains the same – control your body”: Diet Culture as lockdown lifts

Emma Gleeson on letting go of the ‘when I’m skinny’ narrative

The $78 billion diet industry is panicking. In 2020 it lost 21% of it’s value and now the shame-peddlers are coming for our innocent bodies as we begin to navigate the post lockdown world. 

I desperately want to stop diet culture in its tracks. I want the conversation about body image to go deeper, to really hack at the roots of why so many of us hate our bodies. 


To be frank, I write this from a place of anger. Anger at the wasted hours I’ve spent pinching my blameless flesh in anguish, binning clothes I now wish I still had, and obsessing over every morsel that went into my mouth. I feel anger too for the close friends I’ve watched lose years to eating disorders, a particular hell of addiction my own neuroses never reached but one with which I am painfully familiar. And I feel anger at the injustice of people in larger bodies being denied healthcare, insurance, nice clothes and employment, simply because they exist in a society that is so riddled with fatphobia it has become one of the last acceptable forms of discrimination.

Lots of ground has already been covered in this area. It’s common knowledge by now that diets do not work long term. The body positivity movement has made some strides but it has been largely co-opted by thin white women which is a huge loss for the people who started the movement, fat women of colour. Diet culture has evolved but the changes are frustratingly superficial shifts in language like “strong not skinny” etc. 

The message remains the same – control your body. At all costs. So many of us are still trapped in a dieting mentality, even if actually saying “I’m on a diet” sounds out of date. So many of us are secretly and constantly willing ourselves to be less, be smaller, even a tiny bit, so that we can feel worthy. We want to be less so that we can feel whole.  

I’m done wanting to be small, coiled, tight. I want to be big, loose and free.

I want to marvel at my body. I am neither fat nor thin but somewhere in between. One huge shift that has helped me massively is letting go of the “when I’m thin” narrative. I will never be thin, that tantalising state of being I spent the guts of 20 years obsessing over. Thin, and it’s horrible teenage sister skinny, are words that convince us to waste our vitality with food obsession and unhealthy exercise, all in the hopes of reaching a mirage of body satisfaction that never, ever arrives.

I’ve always been hungry. An unacceptable thing for a woman to be, along with being angry, and being fat. I hid my eating for years and felt such shame for how much I craved more food than seemed acceptable. I was using food to soothe emotions, definitely, but I was also just a hungry kid. I became a teenager in the 2000s and had flat stomachs shoved in my face everywhere I looked. Skinny was the water I swam in, and to not be skinny felt dangerous. 

I have hips, large upper arms and I hold fat around my stomach. Every scrap of media I consumed taught me that these were grievous sins, freakish deformities that needed to be banished by any means necessary. My twenties saw my food guilt morph into a health obsession as I tried to ease digestive problems with extremely restrictive “clean” eating -here’s what’ll give you digestive problems, constant stress about everything you eat lol!

I’m now well into my 30s and though I still have bad days I have firmly, categorically, had enough of  wanting to change my body. This has taken years of reading, learning, relapses, making peace with food and exercise through intuitive eating, and truly getting back in touch with my body. We don’t have to be in love with our bodies every hour of the day. That’s nearly impossible given how soaked we are in the idea that a thin, toned body is the ideal, and it’s an unhelpful expectation to set. But we can learn to see our bodies as blameless, neutral, a mere passing thought as we traverse our days. Trust me, the freedom of reaching that place is like nothing else.

One of the things I want to discuss is language. Humans think with words. Without altering the structures of how we speak we won’t get anywhere. So let’s start with the basics:

Fat is a neutral term. 

If someone with a fat body describes themselves as fat, that is the same as them saying they have brown hair, or that they are tall. When a smaller bodied person uses the word “fat” to describe having bad thoughts about their body, that is harmful. Every single one of us is allowed to feel bad about our bodies, but using “fat” derogatorily perpetuates the idea that fat is a bad thing, a state to be feared and fled as soon as possible. If someone is not fat and they use this language, or a fat friend uses the word neutrally and they try to reassure them that they’re “not fat”, they are both othering and hurting people in larger bodies, which trickles down into thinner people fearing any changes in their own body. 

It’s an issue that hurts all of us and as we collectively fight against other prejudices we have to add dismantling fatphobia to our efforts. People in smaller bodies need to help. And we must start with ourselves. Fat is a neutral term.

Another word that needs to be interrogated is “weight”. It is so baffling to me that how much a body weighs, without taking any other measurements like blood pressure etc, gives information about the health of an individual. Let’s just think about it for a second to really unpack the strangeness – how much you weigh at any given time seemingly has implications for the medical treatment you receive. Losing “weight” is good and putting on “weight” is usually bad. I don’t use this language anymore. I prefer to say “my body has changed”. It is so much less loaded. It is gentle. It is neutral. Our bodies change all the time, for many different reasons. Could we maybe try going easier on ourselves by taking this arbitrary deciding factor, weight, out of the equation?

Of course, I know where the weight fixation stems from. It is the old but tenacious idea of the Body Mass Index (BMI). The BMI is a terrible metric of health which is slowly being debunked in medical settings, although it is still being used by people who think writing about the so-called “obesity epidemic” helps anyone (it doesn’t). The BMI system was developed in the 1830s and was based on very limited observations of northern European men, and therefore did not take into account that women naturally carry more body fat than men, let alone the fact that different countries and cultures have different body types. According to the BMI, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is classified as “obese” because of his muscle mass. Would anyone call him out for being unhealthy? I wouldn’t think so. It is a metric that belongs in the bin of medical history. HAES or Health At Every Size is a much sounder and more nuanced approach.

I write this as someone who has the privilege of never having been denied medical treatment until they “lost weight first”. This is not the case for many people who have larger bodies, and it leads to individuals not seeking medical attention, missed diagnoses, and devastatingly the avoidable deaths of people who could have been helped if their doctor was not viewing them through the un-scientific lens of the BMI. This cannot be allowed to continue. 

I also want to look at the obsessive entwining of the words “weight” and “health”. Health is a state with many contributing factors such as socio-economics, genetics,  diet, exercise. But losing weight in the name of health never addresses the complexity of these factors. It is a blunt tool at best. It also fails to acknowledge the role of mental health when discussing body management. Is the anxiety many individuals feel about reaching and maintaining a certain weight not an issue to consider? I know myself that I could be temporarily slightly smaller if I chose to devote myself to that task. But I know that intentionally changing your body is extremely hard to maintain and often results in a larger body down the line because dieting messes with our metabolism. I also know the peace that practising intuitive eating can bring, and I won’t give that up to fit into jeans with a different number on them. I just won’t. 

If we start changing our language, over time more entrenched ideas can loosen. In our current society, smaller bodies are not only visually more acceptable, they are seen as morally correct. 

It’s essential that we understand the nonsense of this. 

To be blunt, equating smaller bodies with higher morality is racist. The roots of this idea lie in colonial ideology, where the bodies of northern European men were seen as “normal” (hello BMI!) and anything that deviated from that aesthetic was abnormal. This was one tool that reinforced colonial ideas of European superiority, as many colonised populations, particularly certain African and Polynesian cultures, have bodies which differ from the European average. Our anti-racist work must include this issue if any real change is to be achieved.

These racist ideas fitted nicely with the desperate attempts of a patriarchal society to keep women down as traditional gender roles became more fluid in the 20th Century. Body maintenance was and is less about female beauty and far more about female control. Think of the wasted headspace many women spend hating themselves that is freely available to their non-female colleagues and friends. It really makes me furious. And the saddest part is that it’s mostly the women in my life that I feel judgment from when it comes to how my body looks. Patriarchy has orchestrated it so that we are the gatekeepers of our own imprisonment in this shit. This is not to lay blame at anyone’s door. It is to expose the true ugliness of this culture. My husband tells me I’m beautiful and that he loves my body every single day. I don’t say that to sound smug, I say it because I feel so sad that it isn’t enough. His love and admiration cannot penetrate the deep wiring of a 2000s adolescence. 

While we’re talking uncomfortable truths, I need to come clean about my own fatphobia. I’m not proud to admit this but I also believe shame can’t be shifted without staring it straight in the face. When I first discovered women in larger bodies existing happily on the internet, it brought up a tonne of stuff for me. For a 2000s teenager, seeing someone who was fat with stomach rolls and cellulite confidently smiling in photos felt completely bizarre. In fact, and I’m rightly ashamed of this, I initially felt disgust when I looked at these gorgeous, vibrant women. Disgust and fear. It took me a long time to both normalise and love how larger bodies looked. Constant exposure and staying with whatever feelings arose in me was vital. Working with those feelings, not running from them, was what helped. Shame breeds in the shadows, in what we don’t want to address. Be brave, face the fear and your world will open up. Mine certainly has.

Below is a little starter pack for beginning a journey out of diet culture:

  • Give up on diet culture’s empty promises. Always remember that the best thing you can do for yourself is not change how your body looks but actively and consistently work towards internalising a feeling of body neutrality. 
  • Listen, read, watch – Maintenance Phase is a brilliant podcast which looks at the history of the diet industry. Food Psych by Christy Harrison is another brilliant podcast, along with her book Anti-Diet. Follow the wonderful Intuitive Eating Ireland on social media. Other people I love to read and follow are Sofie Hagen, Lizzo, Stephanie Yeboah, Megan Jayne Crabbe. Your own tastes will be different to mine. Explore the internet and enjoy all the stunning, free and wise people out there. 
  • Unfollow anyone who makes you feel bad about yourself. This is non-negotiable. You might like their other content but if they bring up diet thoughts they have got to go.
  • Only have clothes in your everyday wardrobe that fit the body you have right now, today. You don’t have to give away your clothes that don’t fit but definitely store them out of sight. Starting your day by feeling that half your wardrobe doesn’t fit you is starting your day in a diet mentality, with a sense of unworthiness. That can be easily avoided. 
  • Wanting to feel fitter and enjoying exercise is separate to wanting to mould your body to look a certain way. Learn to enjoy moving your body for its own sake, not to alter your appearance. Unless you are an athlete, food and exercise should occupy completely separate spaces in your mind. 
  • Yes, some people need to manage specific health conditions through diet and exercise. But those people come in all body types and sizes. Normalise the truth that you can never, ever diagnose a person simply based on the weight or shape of their body.
  • Always remember that self perception is a fickle beast. How we feel about ourselves differs from day to day. It is neither the truth nor a reason to ransom our well being. Cultivate neutral reactions to what you see in the mirror.
  • You need to look at, listen to, and touch your body. This part is really, really hard but it’s so important. Spend time with your body. Do this a lot, whenever you can. If you find your body criticism is going into overdrive, stop. Try again later. Enjoying your body will feel strange at first but stick with it. This is where real freedom evolves.
  • Know what your triggers are and stay with them when they arise. Mine are seeing photos of myself, being around certain fatphobic people, and seeing people in my life whose bodies have changed or become smaller. I’m working on them.
  • Do not discuss your body or anyone’s body in front of others. Someone’s body may have become smaller due to anxiety or illness, you simply never know. “You’ve lost weight!” might not be the complement you think it is and only serves to reinforce diet culture for all of us. Be particularly careful with this around children.
  • Above all, learn to be kind to yourself. Diet culture has really done a number on so many of us. Be patient, take your time, life is waiting for you.