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Why Do We Say "Diet Culture" Instead of "the Patriarchy?"

Is this term obscuring what we are really fighting against?

If you’ve spent any time on social media looking at #bodypositivity and #antidiet, you’ve probably heard the term “diet-culture.” For those of you not familiar, it refers to a system of beliefs that equates thinness with health and moral value and demands that we devote our precious time, money, and energy to the noble pursuit of weight loss. Diet-culture stems from racist, sexist, puritanical notions that deprivation is a virtue, pleasure is sinful, and we can all lift ourselves up by our bootstraps and obtain perfect health and thinness if we just eat the right things (for more on this, I highly recommend Dr. Sabrina String’s book Fearing the Black Body). It positions health as a matter of individual choices rather than examining things like racism, poverty, discrimination, marginalization, and access to health promoting behaviors. It disproportionately targets women, convincing us that our value lies in the size of our body or the shape of our thighs. Diet-culture keeps us focused on changing our bodies instead of changing the world. As Naomi Wolf states in The Beauty Myth:

“A culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience. Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one.”

Despite diet-culture being an outgrowth of systems of oppression—a tool of the White supremacist cis heteronormative patriarchy—this context is often left out of conversations. As the anti-diet movement has become more mainstream, it’s been watered down to be more palatable to the general public. And this means using terms like “diet-culture” instead of “the patriarchy.”

I remember sitting in an introductory Women’s Studies class during my freshman year of college. The professor asked us to raise our hands if we identified as being a feminist. Less than half of the hands in the room went up. The professor then asked us to raise our hands if we believed that women should have equal rights as men. All the hands went up. You are all feminists, the professor said.

Not much has changed in 20 years. A 2019 poll revealed that only a third of women in the U.S. identify as feminists. However, when questions were worded differently (ie. do you advocate for and support equal rights for women?) over 60% of women identified with the statement.

Why don’t people identify as feminists despite believing in feminist values? I would argue that it is because of the very same patriarchal values that feminists are fighting against. Ever since the suffragette movement in the early 20th century, feminists have been punished for challenging the status quo and derided as being anti-feminine. The patriarchy created a narrative of feminists as men-hating, bra-burning, unattractive, and undesirable. We see a similar backlash happening now with the anti-racism movement and accusations of “wokeness” or “cancel culture” being used to dismiss people who speak out against the status quo.

There are of course valid critiques of the feminist movement. It has been a mostly White movement that has left Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) behind. Even fewer Hispanic (12%) and Black (21%) women identify as feminists than White (26%) women and, while 75% of people believed that the feminist movement has done a lot to help White women, only 60% of people believed that the movement has helped BIPOC and only 46% of Black women believe that the movement helped them. For more on this, check out Rachel Cargle’s article on toxic White feminism.

This is something that obviously needs to change. The patriarchy doesn’t just harm White women; it harms anyone who doesn’t conform to the White, thin, heteronormative, capitalistic, male ideal. And that’s a lot of people. The more marginalized identities you hold, the more oppression you experience, and these are the voices that need to be centered.

Diet culture has become a villain that is easy to rail against: it is more palatable than terms like “the patriarchy” and “White supremacy.” But I wonder if it obscures what we really are fighting against.

Our preference for the term “diet culture” over “the patriarchy” mirrors what has happened in the “body positive” movement, which quickly left behind its roots of radical fat activism to morph into a movement centering privileged bodies that allowed people to feel empowered without requiring any real change. Body positivity is cool while fat acceptance is not. Thin White women are applauded for posting a picture of themselves hunched over showing a belly roll, in a bikini with visible cellulite, or holding the ubiquitous rainbow sprinkled donut that seems to have become the symbol of body positivity. Meanwhile, fat women are harassed for daring to exist in shorts on a hot summer day, posting workout pictures, or—heaven forbid—eating. In its current state, body positivity is all about breaking down oppressive body norms—as long as you aren’t too fat, too old, too dark, too queer, or too far outside of the established cultural ideals.

At the end of the day, diet culture is a tool of the patriarchy. It’s not just about Noom, Paleo, or Whole 30 (although they certainly are part of the problem); it’s about the fact that we are indoctrinated to believe that we aren’t good enough, that we are broken, and that we need to spend our energy trying to shrink ourselves instead of taking up space in the world. I worry that when we just talk about “diet-culture” people mistakenly believe we are talking about the act of dieting. Statements like “diet-culture is racist” are seen as accusations that an individual is racist because they are cutting out carbs. Clearly, something is getting lost in translation.

I’m not sure what the answer is here but I’m hoping to open up a conversation. How can we talk about diet-culture while centering the systems of oppression that it is a symptom of? How can we avoid the pitfalls of #bopo while working towards making the world a safer place for folks who are most marginalized?

More from Alexis Conason Psy.D.
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