Its 3am and I can’t sleep (hello perimenopause). Earlier that day I had been subjected to a diet advert, you know the type, you’re minding your own business online and up pops an advert in the sidebar. I’m immune to diet nonsense by now and can see it for what it is, but why is it keeping me awake at night? Yes, the culture of restrictive dieting provides lots of things to be angry about (upholding thinness as the ideal body type, using weight as a proxy for health, equating body control with goodness, I could go on…) but I’ve been trying to get to the heart of what it is about the promotion of weight loss that is so infuriating.
Now before I go any further, I must be clear that what you do with your body is absolutely your perogative. I spent much of my adult life in the pursuit of weight loss so I can relate (to a greater or lesser degree depending on your own personal experiences). Thinness is social currency and behaviours associated with body control are so normalised, it can be difficult to let go. My anger is directed at those promoting weight loss NOT at those pursuing it. Now I dedicate my time to exposing the damage of diet culture and sharing the alternatives. I also understand that these ‘choices’ are not accessible to everyone. For myself, navigating out of diet culture has been safe and sanctioned due to my body privileges. It won’t be that easy for larger bodied people or those experiencing multiple marginalised identities. (If you can sympathise with an average sized person giving up dieting but not a larger bodied person, its time to check your anti fat bias). It truly sucks, and we can do more.
So, back to the promotion of weight loss. Lets take a look at the use of language, in as de-stigmatising a way as possible, and review how eating and bodies are framed when promoting weight loss and how the promoter then positions themselves as the solution.
First up is ‘bad habits’. A common theme is that ‘bad habits’ have got you where you are today (and supposedly that your body has become a ‘problem’). This promotes the idea that there is a direct relationship between eating behaviours and bodies; it assumes that we can tell what and how someone eats by their appearance. And yet our experience and evidence tell us otherwise; there are a myriad of factors that contribute to body size and shape. You are not what you eat! YOU CANNOT TELL SOMEONE’S FOOD CHOICES BY LOOKING AT THEM!
When promoting weight loss, many try to empathise with their audience by saying that they understand yo-yo dieting and how they can personalise a plan that ‘works for you’. They use the inability of diets to sustain weight loss over the long term as another chance to point the finger at you and away from them. All attempts at food control are diets! YOU DIDN’T FAIL, THE DIET FAILED YOU!
After framing the so-called problem, weight-loss promoters then offer the solution. And because ‘diet’ is (literally) a four-letter word, the actual process is played down – just ‘eat differently’ they say (by the way, ‘it’s a lifestyle change’). This adds insult to injury by implying that sustained weight loss is not only possible but has been there all along, it is easy and effortless. But attempts at weight loss come with a host of physiological and psychological consequences that are rarely included in the conversation and for the majority of people, weight regain is the reality. Weight loss is not a benign act! YOU DESERVE INFORMED CONSENT!
Something that is particularly insidious with weight loss promotion, is the underlying discourse that essentially, you’ve been doing it wrong all along – if only you know what I know, then you can make the ‘right choices’. It seductively taps into the current penchant for conspiracy theories or biohacking, like discovering a secret knowledge and that it will be different this time. For the very few people who have maintained weight loss or changed their body, it is likely due to a whole host of confounding factors (genetics, mental health status, physical activity and access to a multitude of resources and privileges that you may or may not have) not to mention the ongoing food control in order to keep themselves smaller. Just because someone has a (socially constructed) ‘healthy lifestyle’, does not mean to say it should be yours. Your experience matters! YOU ARE THE EXPERT OF YOU!
Finally, the diet message usually comes with the adage that you can ‘keep it off’ with your newly changed mindset. Not only is this language deeply dehumanising and fat phobic (‘it’ meaning your body, naming that part of you as alien and unwanted) but what they are really saying is you will need to continue to engage in this new lifestyle (aka diet) or risk the return of well, your own body. In other words, diet forever! EXTERNAL FOOD CONTROL WILL NEVER BRING YOU PEACE!
So, when we pick through the weight loss messages, we can start to see the common thread… ‘it is your fault – your bad habits, your lack of knowledge, your lack of making the right choices’. But this is not our experience or what the evidence shows. Chronic dieters are extremely rigid in their dietary patterns, chronic dieters have extensive food knowledge and chronic dieters are acutely aware of their choices. And if you do not consider yourself a chronic dieter, food is not inherently bad, nutrition can be simplified for most people, and there is more to food choices than ‘this or that’.
Now we are getting to the heart of the matter – the promotion of weight loss must be the ultimate in gaslighting. When diets don’t work, they were right. When diets do work (temporarily), they were right. Whatever you say, they have an answer to override your experience and manipulate you into believing YOU are still the problem. This is what keeps me awake at night. The oppressive control tactics that make the diet and weight loss industry and those that promote it both unjust and untouchable.
The irony of being a non-diet nutritionist is that I care more about your relationship with yourself and others than a number on a scale or what is on your plate. I care more about your wellbeing and your relationship with food than the food itself. Pursue weight loss or don’t pursue weight loss. Either way, you have a right to be fully aware of the snags and snares in weight loss messages, so that when a diet ad pops up on your sidebar, you’re not awake at 3am contemplating your very existence.
 Earlier last month Pinterest banned all ads that use weight loss language and imagery; Instagram also blocks weight loss ads to those under 18, but other platforms and websites have yet to follow. Bye bye BMI: Pinterest bans weight loss ads in first for major social networks | Pinterest | The Guardian