From the moment we’re born, we are exposed to this constant idea that thin is good, and fat is bad. In an increasingly health conscious society, we’re pounded with messages about the health dangers of the “obesity epidemic”, and simultaneously exposed to images of the “thin ideal” in our media. This is diet culture, and it’s everywhere.
Diet culture’s toxic ideas infect our children and are responsible for numerous psychological casualties. By the time kids are five years old, they have absorbed fatphobic ideas: they “know”that fat bodies are bad. Body image rates in the top four concerns for young people according to the latest youth survey. Eating disorder rates are skyrocketing.
Our brains absorb diet culture messages and become internalised as unquestioned belief systems – we go from hearing that thin is “good”, and fat is always “bad”, to believing whole heartedly that thin is good and fat is bad. Such beliefs are so deep seated that we might not even notice their presence. As a clinical psychologist specialising in disordered eating and body image, my job is to help people see diet culture for what it is – a set of oppressive and destructive ideas which steal our lives – and reject it. Liberating people from the oppressive chains of diet culture thoughts, beliefs, and behaviours is incredibly rewarding work. I love helping people to wake up, to reject diet culture rather than waging war on their own bodies.
When my daughters were babies, I would gaze at their tiny, innocent faces and worry. Like all mothers, I wanted to protect them from all the horrors of the world, to know that they would be safe, happy, healthy, and loved. I also worried about the impact diet culture would have on them.
As my girls grew, I could see diet culture’s insidious messaging seeping into their lives. From overly policed lunch boxes at day care, to kiddie Fitbits, to Peppa Pig and her family mercilessly fat-shaming Daddy Pig, and even comments from family members about how my youngest child was “lovely and slim”.
I did everything I could to show them something different: walking around naked in front of them, reading them body positive books (I highly recommend The Queen with The Wobbly Bottom). I never spoke badly about my own or anyone else’s body. All foods are welcome in our house, and I encouraged the children to eat intuitively. Pictures of bodies of all shapes, sizes and colours, many undressed, decorate our walls.
But I never wanted to have that conversation – an open discussion about diet culture which flows so easily when I chat with my clients. The topic felt different when it came to my girls. I didn’t want to tell them that the world wasn’t fair. I wanted to protect them for as long as I could.
My two daughters are four years apart. The eldest is in the clutches of puberty. Her body has changed dramatically, thickening out, while her younger sister remains small, or in our relatives’ words, “lovely and slim”. My eldest daughter’s perfectly normal, biology-led change has resulted in tough times, as she suddenly found herself the target of numerous “fat” comments.
In our body positive home, the word “fat” is not bad – it’s a neutral descriptor, as innocuous as “tall”. But the boys at school weren’t using the term neutrally – they intended it as an insult, a slur on her worth. When she came to me in tears, I knew that the day had come.
This was one of the hardest conversations I’ve had, as my personal and professional worlds collided. Diet culture, my old nemesis, the subject of numerous conversations with colleagues and clients, was here in my own lounge room, squeezing my daughter’s aching heart.I had to wake her up.
Explaining the “shitty” nature of diet culture to a client is one thing. It’s a whole different ball game explaining it to my sensitive, loving, innocent nine-year-old. My heart quietly broke as we discussed the reality of the world, how many people in our society think that certain types of bodies are better than others, that those in larger bodies are often seen as a problem which needs to be ‘fixed’. About how utterly wrong that idea was. This day was the beginning of multiple bittersweet conversations, as I held my daughter’s pain, comforted her, and reinforced the same messages repeatedly:
“There is nothing wrong with your body. There is something wrong with how the world treats people who are larger. I am working hard to change that. The world is beginning to see that. People come in all shapes and sizes, and diversity is a wonderful thing. No matter what happens to your body, always know that you are absolutely okay, just the way you are.”
Watching my daughter suffer, hurt me immensely, and I often wanted to storm into the school, raising hell over some of the comments she was hearing. But I kept reinforcing the same message: it’s the culture, not you.
Over time, I have seen signs that my little girl is really getting it, really feeling it, and so I worry less. She has internalised a powerful body positive belief. Recently, she took part in a class debate about banning ‘junk food’, and one of the other kids was using the argument that junk food should be banned in order to stop obesity. My incredible daughter stood up and raised some great points about how banning one type of food in order to shrink people’s bodies was crazy, because banning foods just makes people want them more, that people come in all shapes and sizes, and all of us are entitled to belong. My heart legitimately exploded when she told me that!
Lately, my younger daughter has been saying the occasional unkind body comment. She seems to have more difficulty in understanding body shaming, and I wonder if this is her age or because she’s never had a body that stands out from her peers. When she’s old enough, I will wake her up too, but right now I’m sticking to the role modelling, and of course allowing her to hear some wonderful discussions with my eldest child. Right now, the little one is Lizzo’s number 1 fan, and there’s nothing cuter than watching her dance along to the videos! I’m using every opportunity I can to educate (or un-educate) her from concepts like “good and bad food”, which seem to come home from school at an increasing rate. It’s a rule of repetition, and I have faith that the body positive one will sink into her, given enough time. I am tenacious, I will pummel her, matching diet culture’s pummelling, message for message. For example:
|Diet Culture Says
|Body Positivity Says
|All bodies belong, and it’s not OK to shame people because of their size
|Thin is healthy, fat is unhealthy
|Health is much more complicated than just size. Some thin people have health problems, and some larger people have health problems. Regardless of someone’s health status, everyone deserves to be treated with respect
|This food is bad/this food is good
|All foods fit. There is no such thing as a bad food. Some foods are more nutritionally dense than others, that doesn’t make it a ‘good’ food. Making sure that we have a relaxed and enjoyable relationship with food is much more important than always eating ‘good’ foods
|You won’t make friends/get a boy/girlfriend if you’re fat
|People of all shapes and sizes belong. Larger people have friends, partners, and happy lives. Anyone who excludes people on the basis of body size is not someone you want to hang out with anyway!
|Fat people are lazy/lack willpower, eat badly, and don’t take care of themselves
|These are nasty stereotypes which are not true at all. It’s like saying that women aren’t as smart as men – these are just old fashioned, made up lies which we don’t stand for in our family!
For me, the hardest part of being a body positive mother has been letting go of the idea that I can protect my children from diet culture. I can’t. None of us can, not forever. So instead of protecting them, I will prepare them. I will wake them up. I’m much less scared of this than I used to be, because I can see the same liberation happening for them that I see in my clients. It’s awesome. These young children are part of a new generation, one which can genuinely change the world. Bring it on!