Heads Up Gen Z, Diet Culture Really Sucks.
TW: The following post discusses topics including food, body image, disordered eating, weight and dieting. If any of these raise concerns, please read with caution. If you or anyone you know is struggling, please reach out for assistance. Recovery is possible.
You've probably heard of diet culture. Or at least, you have an idea of what it's about. But before I rip it to shreds, let’s get one thing straight: the word 'diet' doesn't need be thrown into vocab jail. It just defines your - wait for it - dietary habits.This includes allergies, routines, preferences, and of course choices. But for some reason, the last decade or so has manipulated the term to take more of a 'restrict your freedom to change how you look' meaning.
WHAT THE HECK IS DIET CULTURE???
To some, it doesn't exist. And unfortunately, it's a generational belief. But in reality, it's the idea that 'thinness' should be at the height of everybody's health goals. It promotes the mentality that 'fit' and 'healthy' can only be achieved in a small body. Moreover, a lean body; one with a low body fat percentage that boasts the kind of figure you see in a runway show. The truth is, some people can have this physique without extreme measures. Diet culture, however, feeds us with the belief that everyone should be aiming for it, and that everyone can get there. Lies.
We know for a fact no one person has the same genetics. Likewise, each and every one of us needs a unique food intake and exercise routine. So, that's the first mistake with diet culture: generalisation.
SO, WHERE HAVE YOU SEEN IT BEFORE?
The string of toxicity when it comes to dieting can be found in every corner, though sometimes people with influence don't even try to hide. If I had to pick a 'top diet culture moment' from the media, it would be anything with Yolanda Hadid. She may have raised two model-worthy daughters, but at what cost?
Something tells me Mother Yolanda should never work in healthcare. So where else? What about growing up?
Picture yourself as a child, on a day you were particularly hungry despite having what would usually satisfy you well. You turn to a parent and tell them "I'm hungry." It's a normal thing to do, right? But instead of offering something from the fridge or pantry, they reply with "eat a piece of fruit." You tell them you don't feel like fruit (and fair enough). "Then you're not hungry," they say back... The end. I heard this way too many times in my childhood, and sometimes the conversation still plays in my mind.
Sticking with the childhood theme, think about all the times your school would bring in people to talk about 'healthy diets' and explain how to compare health star ratings... In primary school. As a result, I was reading the nutrition labels from my sauce bottles before I read Harry Potter.
I vividly remember myself as a pre/early teen (when puberty is already playing havoc) walking through Woolworths, reaching the magazine stand, and begin faced with all sorts of images depicting what the 'perfect body' looks like. What do they all have in common? The idea that a flat tummy and abs is the only 'hot' body.
SOME PHRASES YOU'VE PROBABLY HEARD
In the workplace:
"It's only 10am? Oh, I can't eat lunch yet, I have to save my calories!"
"Can we please not leave snacks in the lunch room, it's too tempting while I'm on a diet."
*Telling anyone and everyone about their new diet to 'lose a few' for summer.*
"I can't believe she bought us all muffins and I can't even have one! It would mess up my diet."
In the home:
"If you're actually hungry, you'll eat a banana."
"Just drink water, it will make you full."
"Oh, you're having seconds. Your first plate was huge!"
"Are you eating again? Didn't we just have lunch?"
"Time to get rid of all the junk food."
Amongst your peers:
"We shouldn't eat until tonight so save calories."
"I want to be bikini ready for summer, so I've gone on this new diet."
"OMG the canteen has so much fatty food it makes me sick to look at, how can people it that?"
"I'm not eating today so I can look skinny in my dress."
"You're having full cream milk; do you know how many calories are in that?"
"I need to get to the gym; I ate so much at lunch I need to work it off."
HOW TECHNOLOGY CONTRIBUTES TO DIET CULTURE:
It really is no secret that technology, social media, and influencers play a huge role in shaping our beliefs around dieting. The term 'diet' has taken a whole new meaning from what it actually entails, and as such we've become entangled in a web of lies. We can't avoid it, because even our workplaces and educational institutions rely so heavily on its capacity to connect us with the rest of the world. So, when it comes to diet culture, how does the tech world tie in?
The fancy term is ‘technoculture,’ but we know it more simply as accessibility. Not just with one another using cellular or Snapchat, but through the implication of technology in every aspect of our lives. We use it for ordering meals at restaurants, checking who’s at the door when our ‘smart system’ dings, comparing calories while walking the grocery aisles, updating our status, and all the wonderful (or not so wonderful) things these last few decades have given us. In diet culture, we’ve seen technoculture weave its way into delivery services. Companies like Jenny Craig, Lite N’ Easy and Hello Fresh emphasise how their weekly delivery boxes are quick, delicious, and won’t break your diet. Well, they’re also way too dear and resemble hospital food.
2. Made By Us, For Us
As a society, we’re responsible for what is created. Yes, some may argue that technology is evolving much faster than we can keep up with, but I believe that it can only progress via engagement. We, as individuals, generally love technology. The new iPhone comes out and everyone flocks to Apple like seagulls swarming hot chips. And look what happened to apps such as Fruit Ninja and Subway Surfers. They started off as humble games before quickly turning into an ad-fest for clickbait and in-app purchases. It’s the same deal for technologies like MyFitnessPal. Someone came up with the idea to share their fitness progress, paired it with competitive dieting, and then thought it would be a great idea to make it free to access for all ages. 17 years later it’s the hallmark of disordered eating and diet culture.
3. Medias Align
Take a moment to consider just how far technology and media have come since, say, your first mobile. I remember getting an iPod touch in fourth grade for Christmas, and being over the moon at the prospect of a camera roll. It meant I could play Minecraft on a handheld device instead of a desktop, and could make god-awful iMovies to show my babysitters.
While my parents slowly caved to the Apple world, technology began merging. iPhones soon became a mini television, with 9NOW and 10play on top of Netflix streaming. What’s more, iPads began taking a new role: work devices, and Apple released a 4x4cm phone: the Apple Watch. There’s a fancy word for all this. It’s called convergence, technological convergence.
In the diet culture world, this means iPhones, iPads, watches and televisions are inescapable, and simply push ideologies further as we interact. You walked up some stairs? Now your watch is telling you ‘that burned 90 calories!’ And while you check if MyFitnessPal has calculated your steps, you document the nitty-gritty of that eggs on toast you had for breakfast. Why? To see if you can afford that muffin from Starbucks at morning tea. Surprise, the restriction hasn’t changed, and you’re still disappointed. Ta-da! That’s convergence in diet culture, baby.
4. It Has It ‘All’
Here’s where we meet the sister of technological convergence: cultural convergence. It plays on the same mentality that technology is slowly morphing together, and therefore bringing with it a new sense of connection (and connectivity). Where it differs, however, is the fact cultural convergence places more emphasis on people conforming as a result. My favourite example is one I only recently found: Weight Watchers Digital. It has all the tips and tricks of MyFitnessPal, with the added bonus of costing a limb. Sounds thrilling. While it's evidently just another pretty-looking restrictive diet, the program is already thriving. But why?
When it comes to convergence (especially cultural), there are three things that must be present: content, commerce and community. I don’t need to explain what the content of diet culture is, because we see and hear it everywhere. Commerce is seen explicitly when companies like Weight Watchers, Lite N’ Easy, and Jenny Craig convince people to purchase services in order to obtain their 'body goals.' Whether it be a one-off shop or subscription-based, it counts. The community (which can be alternated with the term cult) is unfortunately comprised of those who engage in said commerce. If I were to create a daily task-list for these community members, it may look something this this:
1) Think about food and exercise excessively 2) Scan every crumb I consume 3) Feel guilty 4) Take photo of half-naked self to compare with community 5) Weigh self at any time possible 6) Only eat from strict meal plan or I won’t make any progress 7) Feel extra guilty
But before we bash Henry Jenkins for giving us convergence, there’s something else it reminds me of: capitalism. Digital capitalism if we want to be fancy. I’m not just insinuating the ‘New Year’ enlightened weekly gym memberships that most people stop attending after May. I’m also not talking solely about those food delivery services that conveniently never get your ‘unsubscribe’ request. Instead, I’m targeting companies such as Noom, who credit their client weightless results to ‘cutting edge psychology.’ The simple term for that is manipulation, but we all know it by now. It all comes down to the fact these resources are intangible; they have no physical form. Meal plans? Buy a ‘starter pack’ and it unlocks online recipes. And as such, they simply contribute to this knowledge economy that tends to suck in victims left, right, and centre. I’d also like to point out how all of these companies like to use the saddest, most depressed looking ‘before’ photos, to compare with a nicely edited, smiling ‘after’ photo. It all screams: pay to lose weight! Pay to smile! Pay us to screw your relationship with food and exercise! The common theme? Online payment subscriptions in return for a ‘healthy you in just 12 weeks.’
5. Breaking the 30-year Rule
It supposedly takes 30 years for a technological innovation to really be accepted, but aspects of diet culture seem to have broken that rule. I mentioned before, MyFitnessPal was created 17 years ago (2005), yet it’s made substantial headway in that time. HealthLine are calling it ‘the best’ calorie-counting app, and it sold for over $450 million in 2015 – just 10 years after its launch. The question is, are people accepting diet culture as a whole, or simply testing the waters when it comes to tracking their dietary patterns? Keep in mind what I said earlier: diets aren’t all bad. In fact, some people need to follow a diet in order to control blood sugar, allergies and etc.
For additional opinions, I asked my Instagram followers (I know – how official) whether they think diet culture is an issue. A 60% majority said ‘yes,’ while 26% either said ‘no’ or are still on the fence. Of those, 60% voted the media and fitness industry as the biggest contributors. But does this split in response mean the 30-year rule still stands? The 11-20 years after a new innovation is recognised as the ‘flux’ period, when we see most people follow (a.k.a: bandwagon) . So, maybe we still have a chance to redirect diet culture before it hits ‘standard’ status.
SO, LETS BE REAL...
So, to those who don’t believe in diet culture, I ask you this: why? The term diet used to be a way of describing one thing: what you eat. Now, we see it as a restriction; a list of ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to follow on a night out. It destroys food freedom, and ruins the idea of enjoying what you want, when you want it. The dangerous fact is there’s no one person to blame. Each and every one of us engages with technology – the thing at the centre of it all. Sometimes we don’t realise, that while checking the news from our smart watch, we are encouraging the convergence of technology which seems to bite us from behind. The fact is, however, boycotting isn’t an option. In this society, we rely on technology and the media like we rely on our right arm. It gets us to and from work, it buys our clothes, it keeps us informed and it connects us to loved ones. What we can do, is limited. So, try this: next time you see something that pushes an ideal we’ve just discussed, recognise it and move on. By doing so, you’ll save yourself from falling down a hole, but also prevent others from following the steps that led you there.
REFERENCES (because I can't take all the credit)
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