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How the diet industry looks at you

We may define ourselves by our profession: teacher, banker, physician, filmmaker, chef, nutritionist, psychologist, mother, or father. We may define ourselves by the things we love to do: cyclist, yogi, dancer, friend, pet enthusiast, or singer. But regardless of how we see ourselves, industry has a singular definition of what you are…a consumer.

Shayne Leslie Figueroa is a food studies doctoral student at New York University. In a recent interview (read full interview here), she spoke with us about the rise of consumerism in the 1950s. During this era, people became defined by what they bought, wore, and ate as opposed to who they were. People learned through the media what was in vogue and strived to adhere to these societal standards by buying the “right” things and trying to “keep up with the Joneses.” This new mindset impacted how people looked at food. What you ate reflected your role in society. Advertisements emphasized the importance of owning the newest products to impress friends, neighbors, and husbands. Rather than cooking real homemade meals from fresh ingredients, processed foods became prized as a symbol of success.

Science entered the kitchen during the 1950s. TV dinners, condensed cream of mushroom soup, cake mix, and instant coffee were invented, along with constant in-your-face advertisements. Most of these advertisements were directed towards women, aimed at convincing them they needed what the industry was offering. Whether the product was Coca Cola, Spam, or the newest gelatin mold, the media trumpeted that we would be inferior without it. The diet industry (not far removed from the food industry) followed suit, quickly convincing us that our bodies are flawed and can only be fixed by purchasing the weight loss plans they were selling.

All of a sudden, it seemed as though women would do anything to lose weight and, in the early 1960s, Jean Nidetch founded Weight Watchers. Figueroa aligns this preoccupation with weight loss with a change in role models in the media. Throughout the 1950s, Marilyn Monroe, a self-proclaimed size 14, was the ideal. Her ample (by today’s beauty standards) curves, thighs, hips, and bosom were desirable. Then, the 1960s saw the rise of Twiggy and her super-thin, pre-pubescent look became all the rage. Industry promoted the message that women are not beautiful unless they look like the new role model.

But what came first, the role models or the societal mindset? Did one influence the other or do they have a symbiotic nature? What does this say about our current ‘super fit’ role models and our recent obsession with health?

Figueroa argues that society today is overly obsessed with having the ‘right,’ ‘lean,’ ‘healthy’ figure. Often this idea of health is far removed from an individual’s natural body size. Figueroa helps teach a class that explores ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’ notions of food, culture, and physicality. She notes that students have absorbed the idea that fat is an unacceptable trait. In our interview, she spoke about her feelings after teaching this class saying: “I usually go home from those classes and am like OH MY… and go pet my cat. It is hard, a big problem, and its unfortunate that fat studies and fat acceptance is a really small niche in the whole discussion.” With future leaders of our healthcare system carrying such biases against fat, how will our society overcome weight stigma and be able to mobilize and accept ideas of true health?

And this is how the diet industry wins. When there is only one acceptable size for people to be, when that idea is promoted (not only by the media but also by health professionals), and when that acceptable size happens to be one that is different than the size of 99% of the population, this results in an epidemic of people feeling that their bodies are flawed and that they need to change in order to be accepted in society. In contrast to what we hear in the media, there is no easy answer magical solution to health. Rather health is personal; intimate even. Industry has completely disconnected health from the individual by categorizing foods as good or bad and convincing us that we need one-size-fits-all diets. Without diets, the industry suggests that we will be undesirable.

The diet industry has capitalized on the human need to fit in, to have friends, and to have community. We are taught that only with the help of the diet industry can you become popular, acceptable, lovable, desirable, and fashionable. This is simply not true! Whether you identify as a mom, teacher, physician, or yogi-- you can be what you are, which is so much more than a dependent consumer. Isn’t it time to drop the diets and be you?

This blog post is guest written by Kimberly Buesser, a nutrition student at New York University, and edited by Dr. Alexis Conason. It is the second installment in a series of stories and interviews with experts on the topic of Fat Shame that will appear in this blog over the next several months.

To learn more about Dr. Conason and Mindful Eating, please visit www.drconason.com

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