Shifting beliefs around diet culture and anti-fat bias

Shifting beliefs around diet culture and anti-fat bias

Shifting beliefs around diet culture and anti-fat bias

Utopia: a place of ideal perfection especially in laws, government, and social conditions (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

In sixth grade, my class was asked to write a paper entitled Utopia. The year was 1966-67, when the United States was embroiled in the Vietnam war, peace protests and race riots. My class was studying World War II, so war was heavily on our minds. My teacher was perhaps a bit ambitious to expect 11-year-olds to understand this complex topic. Given those tumultuous times, the assignment about utopia might have been an attempt to give our young selves hope for the future. Whatever, I’ve never forgotten that assignment.

Visualise living without diet or anti-fat pressures

The world remains a tumultuous place and there are many different visions of what utopia could be: world peace, equality and equity for all, clean air, and water, to name a few. For this article, I’m focusing on imagining a utopia in terms of diet culture and anti-fat bias. This may seem insignificant compared to world peace, ending racism, or saving the environment, but anti-fat bias affects society in profound and constant ways.

The unrealistic expectation that all bodies need to look a certain way is everywhere, from television commercials about weight loss companies to images in magazines and news outlets. In this digital age of communication, we are inundated with advertisements based on algorithms predicting our interests and values. On top of that, images can be altered with filters by everyone, so there is no authentic version of reality. An eating disorder (ED) exacerbated my anti-fat bias and distorted my reality, trapping me in an overwhelming need to maintain what I believed was the only way to be good enough.

Imagine a society that does not dictate how you should look

In imagining my utopia, I’m aware that dreaming does not make it so, but dreaming does help me to feel hopeful, like in my sixth-grade writing assignment.

Close your eyes and imagine a world in which no one standard of beauty is dictated by society. To go a step further in this dream world, society doesn’t dictate how anyone should look at all. There is also no weight loss diet. The very concept of intentional weight loss is foreign. Weight gain is a natural function of bodies as they age, reproduce or simply live, instead of a moral failing.

Think about it: If no one tried to change their body through the restriction of food, their body would work the way in which nature intended. No one’s metabolism or hormones would be damaged because they’d be left alone to function like the magic they are, sustaining health and life.* People would be all shapes and sizes because that’s how it’s supposed to be. That is what’s normal; not trying to fight nature and strive to fit the mold of one body type. Doesn’t this sound amazing? [There are medical conditions in which significant changes in weight might indicate illness, but that is where such concerns would remain.]

The anti-fatness message transcends common sense and human decency

My grandmother always felt the need to comment if she thought anyone, me included, had gained weight. You probably know someone like my grandmother and if you don’t, society fills the void. My grandmother, who lived to be 94 years old, had been profoundly influenced by the world around her.

You would think that having lived through two world wars and having raised a family during the Great Depression, she would have placed less value on body size. You would think that after years of food scarcity, she’d equate thinness with pain and suffering rather than a goal to be attained. Her view wasn’t her fault; she’d simply assimilated the values of the world in which she lived. That shows the power of the anti-fatness message. It transcends common sense and human decency.

The diet and weight loss industries hijack common sense and human decency so cleverly that we don’t realize it. The world should be a comfortable, dignified place for all bodies, but instead, bodies that don’t conform are marginalized and disrespected. As a result, people keep searching for new diets and methods to shrink their bodies at enormous cost to their finances, self-esteem, and health.

Living with ED, all I cared about was how my body looked on the outside

I’ve learned in my recovery from ED that the human body is a miracle. It is not a machine that calculates calories in/calories out, but rather, an intricate, complex, beautiful creation of systems that work in harmony to sustain life. Intentionally shrinking our bodies drastically affects all our other organs and systems and how they work. I’ve learned that this damage may not show up for years and when it does, it can greatly affect health and quality of life.

While living with my ED, I didn’t know I might be harming myself. All I cared about was how my body looked on the outside. I maintained an “acceptably” low weight, so doctors never suspected an eating disorder to be the cause of various symptoms. Instead, I was praised, repeatedly, for conforming to their ideal.

In my utopia, doctors would ask every patient questions about how they feel in their body and their relationship with food, not to shame them or recommend weight loss, but out of genuine curiosity and concern for their well-being. They would not praise thin bodies or assume that someone is healthy and happy because of their “acceptable” size. Nor would they assume that people in larger bodies are not healthy. There is more than one way to be healthy.

I didn’t know I was the one with the problem

Weight loss diets can be an excellent predictor of future weight gain.** When food is restricted, the body thinks it’s in famine mode and slows its metabolism. When the diet (aka famine) ends, the natural urge is to eat more, not because there’s a lack of willpower, but because the body is preparing for the next famine. The body is trying to sustain life.

In 2002, I thought I had discovered the secret to success. After losing weight on a popular weight loss program, I didn’t regain any weight; in fact, I kept losing. I didn’t understand why everyone couldn’t do the same thing—something I’m deeply ashamed of now. What I didn’t know was that I was the one with the problem. The ED was hard at work keeping me thin, not my amazing willpower and self-control. In the process of trying to conform to society’s ideal body size, the ED was the cruel bonus that stayed with me for decades. It had been lurking within me before that, but in 2002 I believed I’d tried hard enough and had figured it all out. I was wrong.

Besides diet culture, wellness culture was preaching that to be content is to be stagnant

Early in my recovery, my therapist asked what would happen if I decided to be okay with my body. I had restored some weight and amazingly, the world didn’t end, but I still had significant anxiety as to how my body might change if I had the audacity to accept it.

At that point, I was afraid to even imagine it because I didn’t trust myself or the world around me. The idea of being okay without striving to be a certain way was foreign to me. After all, besides diet culture, wellness culture was now preaching we must strive to be better at everything from breathing to sleeping; that to be content is to be stagnant.

The prospect of just ‘being’ was incredibly liberating

The concept of being okay (or even happy!) as is, felt revolutionary and counterculture. To be offered the permission to be at peace with my body had the potential to spill over into other areas of my life. It was exciting and overwhelming. I could continue trying to be my best self, but now Iwould decide what that was, not ED. The prospect of just ‘being’ was incredibly liberating.

Since achieving this type of utopia at a societal level is a distant dream, perhaps it can be achieved one person at a time. My hope is that in shifting my attitudes and beliefs around diet culture and anti-fat bias, I will inspire another person to do the same.

Ways to re-shape our attitudes and beliefs

Ways to re-shape attitudes and beliefs include:

  • curating social media feeds to block influencers who promote diet culture
  • becoming more informed by reading books and/or listening to podcasts on the topic, and
  • practicing self-affirming behaviors and mindfulness.

Sharing this knowledge with others can create change. When stories promoted by the diet industry and culture fall on more deaf ears, they will lose their power and influence. Hopefully this will lead to more people deciding to stop trying to alter their bodies to be a certain way and just live their lives, taking back their power to fully be themselves, creating their very own utopias.

Anger drives me forward, and utopia is a place to refuel

Change is difficult, but possible. When I think of the time, talent, energy, and money that I have wasted in the name of being thinner, I feel very angry, not only for myself but for society. The anger propels me forward, more determined than ever to recover from my ED and to help others, but I can’t stay angry all the time—sometimes I need an escape. That is when I close my eyes and visit my utopia.

*Danielle Kappele, “Why Willpower Isn’t Enough to Keep the Pounds Off,” CBC News, Dec. 23, 2016,

**Michael R. Lowe, Sapna D. Doshi, Shawn N. Katterman, and Emily H. Feig, “Dieting and Restrained Eating as Prospective Predictors of Weight Gain,” Frontiers in Psychology 4 (Sept.2, 2013), https://

You Just Need To Lose Weight by Aubrey Gordon, Beacon Press, Boston, 2023

I am an author who writes fiction as a way to make sense of things for myself and hopefully, my readers. Exploring complex, often painful issues to find meaning and hope is central to my motivation as a writer.

I live in Minnesota with my husband, where the long, cold winters provide ample time to write. My novels include A Charmed Life, Ahead of Time and most recently, A Battle for Hope, a novel about eating disorders. These books are available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble in both digital and print form.

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