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.