Written by Judy Crandall | Reviewed by Fit with Food Dietitians Emily and Michael
The term “diet culture” is thrown around often, and you probably have some sense of what it means. However, the term is broad, encompassing a range of complex concerns, and there are a variety of perspectives on the issue. How can diet culture be combatted effectively when we can hardly define it?
Researchers Natalie Jovanoski and Tess Jaeger attempted to solve this problem in their 2022 journal article “Demystifying ‘diet culture’: Exploring the meaning of diet culture in online ‘anti-diet feminist, fat activist, and health professional communities.”
Before explaining the study, the authors provide information about the three main facets of the anti-diet movement. Below are brief descriptions of each:
These three perspectives sometimes conflict, and the division of the anti-diet movement into separate parts weakens it. The researchers’ goal was to summarize diet culture under one definition drawn from all three parts of the movement, in turn highlighting the underlying ideas about diet culture shared by all members of the movement.
This study consisted of a survey of 118 participants who identified themselves as having been affected by and/or challenged diet culture. The participants’ ages ranged from 18 to 63 years old, and none of the participants were diagnosed with an ED or being treated for an ED. The group was majority heterosexual female, and about half identified as anti-diet activists
The data was collected through an online, six-question survey. The three questions addressed in this article were:
Responses to these questions were analyzed for “common semantic references” which were then grouped into three broad themes.
The first of these themes was “Diet culture as health myths.” This theme can be seen in the mentions of “healthism,” or the misconception that weight is the most accurate indicator of wellness. If only one were thinner, they would be healthier and happier. “Health myths” can also refer to myths about food. Many respondents brought up the idea of “bad,” guilt-inducing food as well as the issue of dietary choices being regulated by external rules perpetuated by diet culture rather than internal cues from the body.
The second theme drawn from the responses was “Diet culture as a moral hierarchy of bodies.” This hierarchy is defined by the glorification of thin bodies and people’s constant pursuit of the thinner and, in turn, “better” version of themselves. Conversely, it is also defined by weight stigma, fear of fat, and the misconception that being fat is the result of poor personal decision making.
The final theme was “Diet culture as a systemic and structural problem.” The three social structures included under this theme were patriarchy, racism, and capitalism. The issue of the patriarchy was related to diet culture through the sexualization of the female body, the pressure placed on women to be attractive to men (appeasing the male gaze), and the expectation that women be smaller and weaker than men. Respondents who touched on racism noted the lack of racial diversity in the media and medical settings. They also discussed how, historically, white bodies were distinguished from bodies of color through the idealization of the thin, white body and the stigmatization of “unruly” bodies of color. Finally, respondents pointed out how diet culture supports the profitable diet industry, which has pervaded the media, advertising, porn, beauty, fashion, fitness, and medical industries. They also discussed the exploitation of women’s insecurities.
All three of these themes could be discussed with much more nuance, but for the purposes of this review, these briefer summaries will suffice.