Our culture is obsessed with beauty and weight. This is obvious in our advertising, media, and in how we treat and talk about our bodies. The recent push towards health improvement includes various fad diets, cleanses, extreme exercise programs, and “progress pictures”, all that put a clear emphasis on weight loss, regardless of necessity. However, this guise of wellness is a narrative that demeans larger bodies. This is diet culture.
We support and compliment each other on weight loss, and ultimately view weight gain as a negative side effect, a flaw, or error. However, weight gain is a natural part of human development, a side effect of necessary medications, and a treatment goal for some people with eating disorders. So, when we buy into this false narrative, we are creating bias against those who gain weight or are in larger bodies.
It is incredibly important to note that eating disorders are not diets, however the similarities between dieting behaviors and eating disorder behaviors are striking. The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) provides statistics that the most common factor that predicts eating disorder development among teens 14-15 years old is, in fact, dieting.
This is an incredibly vulnerable age when teens are learning about the world around them and wanting or needing to fit in to survive. When we, as a society, continue to push dieting and weight loss on people, it will undoubtedly lead to more disordered eating and diagnosable eating disorders.
Diet culture impacts eating disorders and eating disorder treatment in numerous ways. It continues to reinforce a beauty ideal that many people believe is a necessary and admirable goal to pursue. Eating disorders are not focused solely on what your body looks like; they often co-occur with other disorders including depression, anxiety, substance use, etc. However, when your entire environment and culture tells you what you “should” look like, it’s difficult to move through recovery without this “ideal” body.
Weight restoration is needed for eating disorder recovery if there has been significant weight loss and malnutrition. And,weight gain is also a natural side effect of normalized eating after a period of disordered eating. When the treatment goal of weight restoration is fought by someone’s family, friends, and even some medical providers, following through with treatment and continuing to show up to therapy becomes an added barrier. The stigma of weight gain has now crept its way into treatment of a lethal disorder.
As mentioned earlier, diet culture makes discrimination against people in large bodies acceptable and appear to be done under the guise of “doing it to help”. This discrimination happens on all levels, from schools, families, media, and even the medical community. Health At Every Size (HAES) is a philosophy that many eating disorder and medical providers use to give those in recovery, and the community as a whole, the approach that your health and your weight don’t have to be dependent upon one another. Key principles in HAES are weight inclusivity, health enhancement, respectful care, eating for well-being, and life-enhancing movement.
If we want to have an opportunity to reduce disordered eating and eating disorders in our society, we need to take a look at how we are talking about weight loss, dieting, and bodies. Until then, diet culture will continue to be an extremely difficult barrier in treating eating disorders.