Diet culture is, for sure, something I never thought I would be dissing, online or otherwise. I have spent most of my life on a diet. I have tried some diets that were (note the tense) successful. I have tried others that I found to be less so. I am still a fan of the “elimination diet“, although now, not with a view to weight loss but because it genuinely makes me feel good to eat fewer carbs, more lean meats and more green veggies. (I wish it could be called something else; even “eating clean”, as a term, is ruined.)
But I’ve been noticing, over the past few days and weeks, that similar types of posts have been creeping on to my feed, mostly on Instagram. Posts by personal trainers or members of the #fitfam, urging others to think carefully about what they’re putting in their mouth over the festive period. “You might think you’re just having a few Cadbury’s Heroes, but before you know it, you’ve downed 800 unnecessary calories!” or “Christmas is just one day, but it can mean a big difference when it comes to achieving your weight loss goals.”
They reek of guilt. Of shame and of blame; if you put on weight this Christmas (heaven forbid!), you’ll have no one to blame but yourselves. After all, we tried to warn you. There are so many things wrong with this line of thinking – all of which stem back to that big ol’ elephant in the room, diet culture – that, in a way, it feels futile to try to unpack them all. But I’ve never been afraid of a challenge, so here we are. How about we start with…
You don’t need to go on a diet
The whole theory that underlies diet culture as an insidious, creeping, convincing ideology is that the vast majority of us could benefit from losing some weight. We’d be healthier! We’d definitely be happier! We’d feel better in our clothes, not to mention when we looked in the mirror! We’d be more beautiful! (See also: “You have such a pretty face.”)
But if you think about that for a second, it’s not that difficult to unpack…
- Weight is no indicator of health.
- Weight is no indicator of happiness.
- Clothes should fit us, not the other way around. (I’ll grant you that it is nice to be able to fit into high-street clothes. But the fashion world needs to cop the fuck on and stop excluding the majority of consumers for no reason whatsoever. It’s discriminatory and dumb and, ultimately, it hurts their bottom line.)
- The only reason you feel bad when you look in the mirror (if you do) is because society has told you that your body is wrong. Your body is not wrong. (Your body carries your brain around. It deserves some respect.)
Diets do not work
I’m talking in general platitudes here but this is a fact: for the vast majority of people, diets do not give them the results they want, within the time frame they expect them. In fact, 95% of those who do lose weight put it back on again. Even if losing weight was the magical cure for all of life’s problems, dieting – choosing a prescriptive way of eating, day in, day out – isn’t the magical road map to get you there.
Shame and guilt are not motivators
Think about the last time you felt shame or guilt about your body, or about something you’d eaten. It may temporarily have motivated you to “eat healthily” the following day, or to go and do a horrific gym session. It may even have motivated you to do that twice, or three times, but negativity is not a motivational tool. Woman cannot survive on shame alone.
When I first started training at Lift, I was there because I hated my body. I hated what I saw in the mirror. I hated that I “couldn’t wear” things I wanted to wear (point to note: we can all wear whatever the hell we want to wear, at least if shops and brands will cater to our sizes). I hated that I saw women who were the same age and height as me on Instagram who looked like models. Why was I so crap/lazy/gluttonous?
It was a pretty familiar feeling and it was a shame-guilt combo that had motivated many the training spurt – usually 10-12 weeks of intense four-times-weekly training, resulting in around a stone lost, followed by a gradual falling off of gym intensity and a return to a life of feeling shit about my body and not working out. I was either a fit, “good” person – training and eating “good” food – or I was an unfit, “bad” person, who wasn’t training and was eating a lot of Eddie Rocket’s.
It was about six months into training at Lift, when a friend asked me if I was “still at the gym” that I realised I’d suddenly stopped being someone who was “in a gym phase” and I was just someone who trained. I trained pretty regularly, but, more importantly, I trained when I felt like it. I trained when I wanted to. I did classes I thought were fun and I created programmes I enjoyed, that challenged me and made me feel strong. (And I still ate Eddie Rocket’s every now and then.)
Also: there is neither guilt nor shame in eating something you want to eat. There is neither guilt nor shame in skipping the gym because you don’t feel like it, because you feel tired or sore or just because there’s a double bill of Keeping up with the Kardashians on and you can’t be arsed getting off the couch. You have nothing to feel guilty about.
Weight is not an indicator of health
I weigh 87.5kg (about 13 stone 10) and I’m 5ft 6in tall. I wear a size 12-14, or a Medium to Large, depending on the brand. I can squat 100kg and deadlift 135kg; I train 4-5 times a week; I can complete a 90-minute Bikram class without dying. My readings are almost all entirely within the healthy range (my cholesterol is high, but it’s been high since I was 14 years old – a friend of mine, who’s the same height but weighs 9 stone, has high cholesterol too, just as a comparison).
According to the BMI scale, I am obese – and because of diet culture, I have spent most of my life on a diet, hating my body and feeling guilty about every single thing I ate. I used to hate eating in front of people, for crying out loud, because I felt as if they would be looking at me thinking, well, of course she’s fat (as if, a, you get fat in one sitting and, b, being fat is some indicator of moral character).
Sure, you can make assumptions about someone based on their weight – the same way you can make assumptions about someone based on their gender, or their race, or their socioeconomic background. But your assumptions mean nothing. In fact, they just mean you’re a dick, who is probably a bit of a bigot and likes to judge people on looks alone (so, y’know, congratulations).
No one is going to die if you eat an entire tub of Celebrations…
…every day between now and Christmas. Not even you. (I’m not going to try it, because my digestive system would go absolutely insane – but I’d be pretty confident I’d survive the experiment.)
Oh, and you know those same people, on Instagram right now, telling you that you should feel shame and guilt for indulging at the most indulgent time of the year? They are the very same people who, in a few short weeks, will be selling you their “transformation” programmes to “get back on track”. (Bitch, I’ve been on track. I’m just taking the scenic route, through the Cadbury Valley and over McDonald’s Mountain.)
Balance is not about training every day of the week and “eating clean” in an 80/20 ratio. It’s about training one day and not bothering the next; it’s about eating the chicken balls and getting to the gym the next day; it’s about exercising to make your body feel good and eating chicken nuggets because they make your heart feel good and you don’t have to apologise for that.
P.S. If anything I’ve said above contradicts things I’ve said in the past, it’s because I’m learning and growing and (I think) getting closer to that little thing called balance. But I live in this world; I still have moments where I think I could do with losing weight. I still have days when I look in the mirror and I don’t like what I see. I still sometimes think, if I just train harder and eat better… and then I remind myself that absolutely nothing in my life changes with my weight. The only difference it makes is in my head.