YES – Milly Butters
Every fortnight I sit down to write these articles and I imagine ‘reader reaction’ – I reckon I’m probably that person who defends the things people roll their eyes at. But I promise I’m writing about things that really matter to me and I strongly believe need changing. Pretty high up that list is diet culture. Now let me make one thing perfectly clear first: I am not discouraging those who advocate a healthy lifestyle at all.
As a nation we have to face up to the fact we have an obesity issue and our healthy eating leaves plenty to be desired. Yet I firmly believe that there is a huge difference between encouraging healthy eating and lifestyle habits and the highly damaging diet culture we often hear is the only way to achieve health or fitness goals. Now, (although I’m slightly terrified of doing it) I’m going to lay myself bare here: In the past I had an eating disorder, and I can honestly attest that probably a good 70% of my trigger points came from what I found in the media and on the internet.
The most damaging aspect of media diet culture is that it reinforces the idea that losing weight will make you happy, rich, successful and attractive. This idea is reinforced by celebrities – even if they aren’t actively campaigning for the next ‘revolutionary’ fad diet that helped them lose an utterly ridiculous amount of weight like a stone in a week (they likely don’t believe any of it they’re just being paid for it) they are being paid or pressured to look a certain way.
Our advertising and media works on selling dreams and not realities. How many times have you seen a Victoria Secret model with an ounce of fat or a stretch mark? We don’t like to advertise reality because it doesn’t sell – what does sell is this subconscious connection we draw between wearing the product and feeling and looking more like the models. I can also attest that this mindset leads to nothing but disappointment in yourself. If these models got to where they are now through good conscious eating and regular exercise, I’d applaud them just like everyone else. But when models reveal in interview that they survive on liquid only diets leading up to a runway show, and no liquid for up to 12 hours before – so you ‘dry out’ which can lead to loss of up to eight pounds of water weight but is also seriously damaging for your whole body – I wonder about the kind of message their products are spreading. And yet our media idolises them. Despite more than 16,000 people signing a petition claiming their advertising was sending out highly damaging messages, Victoria secret still turned over a staggering £3.2 billion. Clearly selling idealism works and it just makes me despair. When I was ill, I used to look at these women as the epitome of perfection. I envied their lives, but mostly I envied the respect that their bodies bought them. Now I admire their success, but I firmly believe its for the wrong reason and I wouldn’t trade with them for all the money in the world. Please, don’t allow yourself to buy into the idea that diet culture sells you here: that how you look equals your success or worth. I can attest that watching the scales drop or building more muscle will never make you more content in yourself.
So, to reiterate, it is not healthy eating I have a problem with. I get that self-love comes in different forms: some people need to ‘Bridget Jones’ and eat a pint of ice cream on the sofa whilst listening to music that only makes you more depressed, while others find nothing more therapeutic than exercising in the gym or taking control of their unhealthy eating habits (though personally I think self-pity and chocolate cannot be beaten) and I totally respect the difference. My issue is with the culture that fosters the fad diet that changes every week and suggests that following it is the ‘right way’ to diet.
Every week is a different story: Eat low fat products! Don’t eat them because to compensate they’re full of sugar! Eat eggs because they’re full of protein! Don’t eat them because they raise your cholesterol! The list goes on. These exist only to make money from the both the people who sell them and the products they endorse. Spreading the idea that they are healthy reduces how well we understand a proper diet, and I believe is one of the main factors that influences the rising development of eating disorders.
Diet culture reinforces an unhappiness with who we are, a desperate desire to prove our self-worth through restricted eating, a connection between weight or appearance and success and an unprecedented pressure to look a certain way. By all means, eat healthily and exercise. But don’t subscribe to a money-making industry that preys on our insecurities.
NO – Archie Batra
I have no idea what “diet culture” is and, to be honest, I have no intention of finding out. It’s a term that immediately gives the impression that it was cooked up by members of the liberal, wet, and all-round insufferable new Left of the 21st Century, who have abandoned discussion on proper issues (like jobs, housing, and foreign affairs) in favour of non-issues that don’t matter to most people, but certainly make them feel a bit uncomfortable, or maybe even a bit offended. As such, it does not seem to me to be a serious problem, and I will therefore not treat it as one.
My best guess is that “diet culture” refers to a pervading attitude across the country that prioritises dieting. This new zeitgeist must have passed me by, because I’ve seen no evidence for its existence. Plenty of St Andrews students seem perfectly happy to devour their crisps, chocolate, and sweets in the library, and the noble houses of Empire and Dervish certainly don’t seem to lack for customers. In fact, Rocca’s recent decision to extend its opening hours into the wee hours of the morning seems to suggest the exact opposite is happening.
The wider country also seems to have had a strange reaction to their oppressive “diet culture”. Over half of the country is still considered to be “overweight”, and childhood obesity statistics make for depressing reading. Even soldiers in the Army have become a bit thick around the waist recently, with some of our country’s finest now prohibited from visiting Greggs.
I’ve also not noticed the existence of our “diet culture”: no one intervenes to nick my beer and crisps, even though I could probably do without them. Nor does anyone make me feel guilty about it; if anything, I’m made to feel ashamed because I won’t neck that sixth pint, or chip in for a dominos. I’ve never, ever felt the pressure to diet, and I imagine this is not uncommon. If anything, I could do with a bit of external pressure to get back into shape (Not that I was ever in shape, might I add).
But, for argument’s sake, let’s say that “dieting culture” does exist, and we’re all subject to its effects – you know, eating, erm, healthily. So what? I get this reminder every time I go home; it’s not Mum kowtowing to some oppressive culture of diet, it’s her looking after me. (At least, that’s the speil I get every time I waddle to the fridge.) And, even if I resent it at the time, I do appreciate the thought. I think it’s quite nice when someone reminds you to look after yourself, but that’s just me.
We should also not forget the inconvenient truth that a lot of us could stand to lose a little weight, so maybe a culture that prioritised dieting wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. Being overweight or obese is not some trivial thing: it can have serious and debilitating effects on your health that can be easily avoided. It’s worth keeping an eye on your weight for the sake of those who care about you, let alone yourself.
And, as much as I hate to point it out, there’s a financial cost to the country’s problem with obesity. The NHS spends £1.5bn of taxpayer money on treating illnesses related to obesity, £1.5bn that could easily be saved with sensible and achievable changes to the lifestyles of many of our compatriots. Not only would this bring down the cost of running the NHS, but it would give medical professionals more time and resources to focus on other, more pressing issues.
I suppose the argument could be made that people harm themselves when the diet when they don’t need to, and thus “diet culture” is a greatevil that must be stopped. This is self-evident codswallop, in my view. The only thing compelling an individual to strictly adhere to a diet they don’t need is themselves, and so I’m not convinced waging a war against some nebulous “culture” of dieting will do people like this any good.
What would be far more effective is addressing the needs of the individual in question, as they will all have different reasons for their zealous and harmful dieting. I don’t believe people are forced to harm themselves through excessive dieting because our culture worships it: I think the issue is far more complex, and thus necessitates a more intelligent consideration than “diet culture is damaging.” If we want to truly help people that are harmed by excessive dieting, we owe them our proper consideration, not a lazy referral.
I’m no mental health aficionado, but it seems that people benefit from one on one help, as opposed to being told it’s our culture’s fault. Talking with professionals to seek advice seems a lot better than railing against diet culture.