Not long ago, we were driving in our van with our family and a friend. My two-year-old was talking about all the cars he saw out the window. My friend asked, “What about this car?” My son, baffled, said, “What car?” My friend responded, “The car that we are in!” What ensued was a conversation that made it very clear that he had never considered that we were also inside a car; he had only thought about the cars he saw driving by.
It made me think about the culture we live in and how obsessed it is with health and appearance. It is all around us but we don’t even realize it. It is one of my goals as an eating disorder specialist to call this culture out and name it for what it is. I call it diet culture: a culture that emphasis weight, food behaviors, body shape, and health over individuals. Diet culture is everywhere.
I recently tried a sad kind of experiment. I tried to see if I can make it 24 hours without hearing a body shaming or food shaming comment. You see, I got this idea while I was at a summer camp about a month ago. I started my countdown and realized I never made it two hours without a comment. Four weeks into the experiment, I hadn’t made it longer than 18 hours, and I think that may have been a day I slept 8 hours and was home alone the other 10.
This experiment was so revealing. You see, body shaming and food shaming are so subtle and normal we don’t even know they are there.
What is body and food shaming? Any comment about a body or food that is mocking, critical, or negative.
Here are some examples I heard in the span of a week:
- A well respected friend commented in the presence of teenagers (a population very vulnerable to body shame), “I need to be walking more,” as he patted his stomach.
- I overheard a mom explain to her young daughter in the grocery store why they couldn’t purchase a certain type of food. The mother insisted they were just “empty calories that would make them fat and unhealthy.”
- A restaurant worker claimed she had a guacamole “addiction” and she wouldn’t care except it’s filled with calories and chips are “just carbs.” She was saying all of this while selling me guacamole, mind you. Not a great sales tactic but, fortunately, I have done a lot of work and no longer live in fear of food and fat.
- I heard body shaming comments during a children’s cartoon.
- A character in a children’s book was vilified as they were described as “fat.” (As further proof of this subtle messaging, note how many children’s book villains are people of size.)
For my clients, this would be like an alcoholic trying to recover inside a bar. Everywhere they turn, our culture is constantly encouraging their illness.
But that isn’t what I want to talk about today. I want to talk about how it hurts us. But to understand that, I think we might have to talk about the development of eating disorders in another culture first.
Interestingly, before 1995 the island of Fiji had some kind of protective factor against eating disorders. Thinness was a problem to be solved in the Fijian culture. Some researchers even suggest that there was no word in the language for fat. The words they would use to describe people of size would be positive such as well cared for/well loved. As anthropologists, psychologists, and researchers began to study this culture they noticed a shift between 1995 and 1998. Suddenly adolescent girls were reporting dieting and eating disorders for the first time. Then the incidence of eating disorders rose from 0% to around 11-13%, similar to what we see in more Westernized cultures. In a period of just three years, it was alarming! Here is where it gets interesting. What changed in those 3 years?
Fijians finally had access to television. Shows like Melrose Place, soap operas, and Beverly Hills 90210 began to air. Suddenly depression, suicidality, low self-esteem, and other struggles were on the rise. Fiji as a nation began to diet for the first time. In fact, one study revealed that 69% of adolescent girls in one area of Fiji were dieting—this is higher than even American adolescents.
Here is what I want you to hear: Fijian people have always had higher body weights. They have always had diseases such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease. However, what fascinates me is that since the introduction to dieting on the Fijian island, these diseases have only increased, the overall health of the Fijians has decreased, and now people are engaging in harmful behaviors to control their shape or weight.
Fiji is like the other cars were to my son. We can see what went on there. It is outside of us. Outside of a sick culture that we have lived in for so long we can’t see it for what it is—harmful.
We were once like them. Insulated and protected from harmful body and food shaming. Now we have embraced it as a culture and are vilified or doubted if we pause to question it. Diet culture hasn’t made us happier or healthier. It has disconnected us from our bodies and left shame and suffering in its wake.
The other day I was standing in Half Price Books, just scanning the three full shelves of dieting books (a section that is nearly three times larger than the spiritual, marriage, parenting, and eating disorder help sections). I was growing angry at all the conflicting and bad advice these books had on offer, many of them by people who don’t even have education or training in dietetics. An older man and his wife were standing next to me and reading off titles, looking for the perfect book, the magic solution, when the older man loudly announcef, “If these books are supposed to work then how come there are so darn many of them?!”
I erupted into a not-so-silent applause, and he recognized that he was in a car! But I think they went on to buy a book anyway. Sometimes freedom is frightening that way. We would select a familiar prison over an unfamiliar freedom any day.
I work tirelessly to heal people from this prison; I know that it exists. You just have to know you are in the car and step out. There is a whole world out here. A world where you aren’t constantly bombarded with hurtful thoughts about your food and body.
Celeste Smith is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist Associate and eating disorder specialist from Tyler, Texas. Celeste and her husband have been in youth ministry for 16 years and currently work for Glenwood Church of Christ. She is passionate about self care, self acceptance, intuitive eating, and the church. Celeste desires to advocate for the church to become a safer space to those experiencing mental health struggles. She loves youth ministry, reading, spending time with her three children, coffee on the porch with her husband, road trips, and backpacking.