There is a deconstruction process that happens when people suddenly realize the ways their body image and self-talk are informed by harmful societal pressures and cultural norms. The process involves recognizing issues of sexualization, the interconnectedness of thinness and elitism, the roots and realities of racism on body image, and so much more. I went through my own body image deconstruction journey years ago when I started working full-time in the fitness industry.
At the time, I felt that I was happy with my body, proud of its strength, and accepting of its curves. I was proven wrong when prospective clients and gym-goers complaining about their own insecurities quickly pulled down the thin veil masking my own. Female clients would talk about their “ideal weight” and then quickly point out the most thin-framed or outwardly fit woman on the gym floor. I couldn’t help but wonder – Why aren’t any of these women happy with their bodies? And why aren’t they pointing at my balanced health and average body size as a nice ideal?
For my entire adolescent and adult life I’ve refused to join in the disparaging and self-deprecating conversations women tend to have about their bodies’ “flaws.” I always thought that because I didn’t chime in that I was somehow floating mystically above the damaging forces of our culture’s beauty ideals. Not only did this façade begin to unravel as I sat across from dissatisfied gym goers ready to fork over large sums of money to work with me, but the whole thing officially shattered to pieces after a bike accident rendered me unable to exercise and seeking comfort foods in my distress.
In that year after college, I gained the classic “freshman 15” that I had managed to keep off while in school. My self-worth deflated within a few short months and I found myself having an unhealthy relationship with both exercise and food, restricting calories only to overeat later, and feeling shame if I didn’t try to work out almost every day of the week.
I managed to preach balance and wisdom to my clients but struggled in my inner world, feeling that my identity had taken an intense blow – all because of what the scale told me I weighed.
Unraveling my worth from my weight took years of slow effort and movement towards intuitive eating and joyful movement. It took patience, self-care, spiritual growth, and discarding so much of what was being preached around me in the fitness realm. In order to find true wellness I had to pull myself out of the diet industry’s powerful, greedy jaws and had to recognize with humility that I was doing inadvertent harm to so many women by conforming to the racist, elitist notion that thinness was somehow superior.
As we dive deeper into the origins and harmful realities of the diet industry, body weight connotating to superiority, and the damaging health effects of yo-yo weight fluctuations, I ask that you keep your mind open and avoid judgment of yourself or others. This is hard for all of us to unpack but it’s important work for collective wellness.
The Origins of the Diet Industry
The ancient Greeks were the first to use the word diet (diaita) but it didn’t apply exclusively to a certain way of eating. Rather, it connoted an overall healthy lifestyle of food, exercise, drink, and more. Although they were far from perfect, the Greeks consumed nutrient-dense Mediterranean foods and celebrated athletics. Unfortunately, much of the emphasis on body ideals revolved around a narrow definition of male prowess, muscle and beauty.
Louise Foxcroft, author of Calories & Corsets, says “Women can’t live up to that—or weren’t thought to be able to live up to that. So the onus on diet and on having an ideal body—it’s always been a much more difficult concept for women, and that’s reflected in our modern diet culture as well.”
Journeying forward through history brings us to the Victorian era when plumpness, curves and round figures were considered dignified, allowing women a wider spectrum of body sizes deemed socially acceptable and beautiful. That all changed in the 1860s when William Banting published a pamphlet titled “Letter on Corpulence” addressed to the public about a doctor-led experiment he put himself through to lose weight.
The letter highlighted his diet and weight loss, and resulted in “penny scales” popping up in both public and retail spaces galore, allowing people to check their body weight practically anywhere they went. This led to a rise in self-consciousness and an end to the era of larger body sizes being deemed socially desirable. Add this to the change in the 1800s from clothes being custom made to fit a person’s unique body size and shape to clothing being mass produced and you suddenly have a society that is both more aware of body weight and struggling to adapt to clothing sizes that don’t perfectly fit every person’s unique physique.
The History of How Body Weight Got Tied up in Morality and Superiority
At the end of the 20th century, as immigration increased and white Americans felt that their job security was being threatened, thinness became a means of retaining social status and superiority. The white middle class noted that immigrants tended to be larger in body size and thus, an oppressive social hierarchy was normalized.
A few decades later, during World War I, Americans were confronted with yet another shift in body size awareness and valuation. International food shortages resulted in food conservation reminders across the country, with the spreading slogan “Victory Over Ourselves.” In other words, conserving food was seen as an act of patriotism, morality and survival. To be larger and perceived as hoarding food was suddenly considered an inability to control one’s own urges and thus a moral failure.
Between 1920-1950 people started trying all sorts of creative things to lose weight – smoking, diet pills, and bariatric surgery, to name a few. Come the early 1960s, Weight Watchers was founded and the modern era of formulaic diets began, resulting in more and more people experiencing large swings in weight loss and weight regain, not to mention experiencing feelings of failure and shame. In 1992, the National Institutes of Health concluded that diets are ineffective and most people who lost weight following a diet regained the same amount of weight or more within 5 years.
But did this stop the diet industry?
If you’ve heard of people going ga-ga over bulking and leaning, the gluten-free diet, whole 30, or the keto diet (all fads with their time in the spotlight over the last 10-15 years), then you know the answer.
The weight loss and weight management diet market is a massive beast projected to reach $295.3 billion by 2027. Its hunger knows no satisfaction as it tells the masses to get out of touch with their own. Its financial power and cultural influence continue to grow because of weight being inappropriately made to be the “most important” aspect of a person’s health even though we now understand that looking at one’s size tells us nothing about their underlying health.
The diet industry’s expansion efforts also continue based on the inaccurate notion that modern society’s sedentary nature and high calorie consumption are the most harmful aspects of the rise in disposable income. As you will see, there’s much more to the story of why our world is struggling so desperately with health, and much of it is tied up in our harmful, oppressive obsession with the numbers on the scale…
BMI, Yo-Yo Dieting, and Poor Health Outcomes
Adolphe Quetelet was the inventor of the body mass index (BMI) over 200 years ago. Quetelet was a mathematician, astronomer and statistician, not a doctor. He pursued finding the means of populations in his work and based the modern BMI system exclusively on French and Scottish people. Quetelet made it clear that BMI wasn’t supposed to be a measure of individual body fat, build or health. It was a statistical tool on a population level, not a measure of individual health. And yet, we have seen firsthand how the use of BMI morphed over the years, becoming a central measurement of health.
Beginning about 100 years ago, BMI was used as a justification for eugenics and scientific racism due to broad-sweeping and biased assumptions that the initial population studied (French and Scottish) was representative of all people regardless of race and ethnicity. This put black people specifically at a disadvantage. They became subject to racist and unfair assumptions about their underlying health.
A reporter on Medium, self-named “Your Fat Friend” explains that BMI was publicly recognized through the years as a poor assessment that puts certain groups of people at a disadvantage:
“According to studies published by the Endocrine Society, the BMI overestimates fatness and health risks for Black people. Meanwhile, according to the World Health Organization, the BMI underestimates health risks for Asian communities, which may contribute to underdiagnosis of certain conditions. And, despite the purported universality of the BMI, it papers over significant sex-based differences in the relationship between body fat and the BMI. That is, because so much of the research behind the BMI was conducted on those assigned male at birth, those assigned female may be at greater health risk if their diagnosis hinges on a measurement that was never designed for them.”
The obsession with weight and BMI infiltrate every aspect of modern culture, influencing medical settings, doctor’s offices, insurance, schools, and even churches. In an episode titled “Diet Culture and the Church” on the Faith and Feminism podcast, a dietician named Leslie Schilling says:
“The outside of a person’s body doesn’t tell us anything except about our own prejudice.”
Schilling goes on to talk about how damaging our culture’s focus on weight is and how she’s a non-diet dietician, bringing her clients back to intuitive eating and acceptance that all food is good food. She makes the point that the fixation on weight as the most important indicator of health has actually robbed many people of both physical and mental health as they engage in harmful yo-yo dieting.
There are many well-researched harms of yo-yo dieting and yet diet fads continue to cycle in and out of the limelight. Yo-yo dieting doesn’t even really mean what many people think. It’s not just about jumping from one diet trend to the next. Yo-yo dieting is really about yo-yo weight loss and gain, which can happen with a single diet or disordered eating.
According to research explored on HealthLine, “one in three dieters ends up heavier than before they dieted” due to increases in appetite as the body tries to replenish depleted energy stores and a loss of muscle mass during the dieting process. Not only do diets tend to lead to higher body fat percentage upon weight regain but cycles of weight gain and loss can cause fatty liver, an increased risk of diabetes and heart disease, elevated blood pressure, and a stronger sense of dissatisfaction with one’s life and health. Ironically, these health complications are exactly what diets tout they improve…and yet, evidence suggests otherwise.
A Healthier Way Forward For All Sizes
This information can be overwhelming and may leave some readers feeling at a loss over what “healthy” even looks like – Is it large or small? What can a person use to track health changes if the scale is in fact unreliable? How do you move away from diets and achieve better health with food?
The answers aren’t simple and they won’t be neatly wrapped up for you like a day-by-day planned out diet program. And in truth, to make matters more complicated, the big picture will look quite different from one person to the next. Unfortunately, modern medicine is not designed to properly address healthy lifestyle and eating behaviors on an individual basis. The revolving door of care doesn’t allow for that amount of time and conversation. Even dieticians and fitness professionals are limited. Many dieticians and nutritionists were “classically trained” to keep a close eye on calories and macros while few fitness professionals are educated beyond the scope of programming workouts for the general population. Which leaves people in the conundrum again:
Where do you turn for answers?
Here are a few soft suggestions from yours truly:
Mental Health Reminders to Reframe Your Relationship with Weight:
- Weight alone doesn’t define your health
- You aren’t your weight
- Your weight should never be tied up in your worth
- If you find yourself engaging in on/off dieting then perhaps consider working with a mental health counselor who can help you explore your emotions around food and body size
Becoming Friends with Food for the Rest of Your Life:
- Intuitive eating will take you farther with both internal and mental health than dieting ever will – this involves learning to trust your body’s intuitive system of self-regulation with regards to hunger and satiety
- A balance and variety of ALL foods is possible in a healthy diet
- No food should ever be labeled good vs bad
- It’s okay to emotionally and/or socially eat at times. For example, it’s your child’s birthday and you’re not hungry for cake but you have a slice anyway (guilt free!).
A Healthy Relationship with Exercise and Movement:
- Exercise can be used to augment energy, health and performance, but should never be used as a form of self-punishment
- If you feel guilty for missing a workout and find yourself needing to exercise every day, it might be time to speak with a mental health counselor about feelings of worth and achievement being closely tied to your physical performance and consistency
- If you find that exercise and gyms are uncomfortable experiences then simply aim for an active lifestyle – walking, doing chores, gardening, playing, dancing for fun, etc.
- Giving yourself permission to engage in joyful movement is key. Ex: Don’t force yourself to run just because you think you should. If you hate it then don’t force it. Find something you like!
Patience and compassion are key as you learn to untangle your emotions and self-worth from your size. It takes time to deconstruct all of the harmful messages and expectations culture has imposed on us all and find a healthier, sustainable lifestyle. Also, keep in mind that food and exercise are only pieces of the bigger health picture. Good relationships in life have been scientifically proven to be key determinants of health. Joyful movement, quality non-stigmatizing health care, clean air and water are other factors too.
Schilling says it best: “All bodies are good bodies.”
Yours in health and wellness,