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Yes, Diet Culture (& Fatphobia) is a Product of Racism.

I was recently asked on Instagram why I have to talk about the “divisive” topic of race relations in the US and not just “stick to body positivity which is what we’re here for.”

While I personally consider anti-racist work a moral imperative and hope I would do that work regardless of my profession, it’s worth pointing out the deep relationship between diet culture and white supremacy in American history; these topics cannot be separated, and to talk honestly about diet culture means speaking honestly about race as well.

Let’s start here…

In the 1800s, fatphobia (and dieting) was intentionally used as a tool in justifying slavery.

During that time, white authority figures claimed that larger black bodies must be the result of “oral excesses” or “gluttony,” which was seen as un-Christian and, therefore, uncivilized; and encouraged white women to diet to distinguish themselves from black bodies—thereby “othering” black folks and supporting an “us” vs. “them” narrative in the culture.

At this time, thinness (as a marker of whiteness) came to be associated with civility, elegance, discipline, and self-control, while fatness (as a marker of blackness) became associated with gluttony, laziness, and barbarism.

Through the invention of such narratives, slavery and other labor policies that allow white folks to profit on the (literal) backs of black people, were justified, as black folks came to be seen as inferior, unworthy, and less than human.

While the reasons people diet today are complicated and touched by a series of intersecting forms of marginalization—including sexism, ableism, classism, and others—it’s important that we collectively acknowledge the racist roots of fatphobia as one critically influential factor in its development.

No person reading this post has gone unaffected by the racialized history of dieting and it’s important that we consider how this history affects us personally regardless of whether or not we are conscious of its impact.

For white folks, in particular, the past weeks have largely been about making what was previously unconscious, unseen, or unconsidered—conscious, seen, and seriously considered.

Reflecting on our relationship with diet culture is but one area where we can do this important anti-racist work.

To learn more about the historical relationship between racism and diet culture, I highly recommend checking out the book, Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fatphobia by Sabrina Strings—you can also glimpse into the author’s work in this short written interview.

I also hope you’ll check out this personal essay by Master Class alum, Savala Nolan, which shares her personal experiences navigating diet culture as a woman of color and how her relationship to whiteness and thinness intersect.

Body image feels aren’t the problem

when you stop dieting,
when you stop restricting,
when you gain weight…

all the difficult feelings that that you’ve tried “diet away,”
that you’ve tried to suppress through weight control,
will pop right up.

All the fear, all the shame, all the “not-good-enough,” all the “unlovable” or “unacceptable” feelings,

all the trauma you’ve experienced as a result of being judged on the basis of size or bearing witness to the judgment of others,

will come rushing to the surface when you’re no longer using weight control as a coping mechanism—

that is, when you’re no longer trying to assimilate as a strategy for managing the pain of oppression.

Contrary to popular belief, these difficult feelings are NOT a sign of “failure” in recovery; nor are they symptoms of mental illness. 

Difficult feelings related to internalized or externalized fatphobia are understandable for everyone and anyone regardless of mental health status;

it’s how we relate to those feelings—how we care for ourselves in the midst of those feelings—that is the much bigger predictor of our mental and physical health and well-being. 

How am I tending to my shame, my fear, my body-related trauma or anxiety? 

Am I trying to manage it through dieting, over-exercise, “self-control,” or self-denial? 

Or am caring for myself in more self-loving ways?
Holding myself in the tender moments—taking care of myself like a child in need?

Recovery is not the state of being “free” from body-negative thoughts or feelings;

it is the process of learning to love and care for ourselves in the midst of our pain; of tending to our wounds compassionately, rather than violently;

and ultimately, learning to be with our feelings and self-advocate for our needs…without running back to self-harm through restriction.

x Isabel

Diet Mentality & Amnesia

The most common side effect of diet-mentality or poor body image is Amnesia. 

In the midst of our emotional discomfort when difficult body-related feelings strike,

the pain of dieting or restriction—and our firm resolve never to diet again—suddenly vanishes from our memory

…as if dieting was never a problem
…as if “this time will be different”
…as if “only” cutting out sugar never hurt
…as if dieting didn’t eventually lead to All Hell Breaking Loose Every. Single. Time.

These bouts of Amnesia usually last as long as the mind and body can maintain another attempt at control—

before they’re brutally disrupted by binges, anxious episodes, obsessive thoughts, or some other symptom of “craziness” around food.  

“Oh yeah,” she says. 

“I forgot.”

“I’m actually not capable of dieting safely for very long…it’s only a matter of time before the shoe drops…before the wild beasts within me take over…”

“On my knees…desperate for help…I remember now.”

Moderation vs. Liberation in Diet-Binge-Cycling Recovery

Moderation…is trying to stay “in control” while widening the amounts and types of food you eat, so your rebounds aren’t as severe.

Liberation…is losing control and being okay with it—relaxing with out-of-controlness—knowing that no matter what I eat, and no matter what I weigh, I am whole, safe and complete. 

Moderation…defines recovery by what you eat or your ability to perform “correct” (aka “moderate”) eating behaviors.

Liberation…defines recovery by how we feel about our food and body no matter what they look like (i.e. by our ability to relax with our food and our bodies under all circumstances).

Moderation…positions “acceptance” or “surrender” as a means to an end (i.e. as a means to achieving certain physical food or body goals).

Liberation…positions “acceptance” and “surrender” as the highest ends in and of themselves, understanding that our state of consciousness—and not our behaviors—is where peace lies. 

Moderation…is afraid of losing control; untrusting of “cravings,” “urges,” and other strong or powerful energies within us.

Liberation…trusts and celebrates the flow of our instincts, our appetites, and our wild (i.e. natural) human desires.

Moderation must always be careful. 
Liberation cannot be touched.