Diet Culture Is Bad For Our Health

It’s that time again: a new season of The Biggest Loser is on the air in Australia. That means that even for those of us who would never willingly watch an episode of this heinous circus of self-loathing, the adverts are everywhere. I saw one at the train station yesterday. It is awful.

I don’t want to talk about the ways in which the show is dangerous for its participants, some of whom end up urinating blood. I don’t need to tell you it peddles damaging misinformation about health and weight, in a manner so disingenuous that even other anti-fat fitness professionals condemn it. I don’t even need to tell you how suspicious it is that the show doesn’t rigorously follow up with the participants afterwards, yet their trainers feel completely comfortable declaring “mission accomplished” – which they do so prematurely it would make George W. Bush do a double-take. You know all that. I want to talk about the social impact of a show like The Biggest Loser.

The Biggest Loser contributes to the primacy of diet culture. Diet culture is a system of thought in which food is an issue of public morality, where eating whatever you want is a grave sin and abstaining from “bad” food – which could be fatty food, sweet food, or carby food, depending on the month – is seen as virtuous. In this culture, bodies are rated as healthy or unhealthy based on their degree of “fatness”, and health becomes a saintly attribute while ill health becomes a serious personal failing. This is a culture in which thinner is better until the person is literally hospitalised (then of course we’re going to wring our hands about anorexia, but like, not too much in case the fat people get confused and think starvation is bad for them too!). This is a culture in which guilt is the primary emotion associated with food. A culture that has declared war on fat bodies.

The Biggest Loser is mired so deep in this ideology that it might as well be the official propaganda arm of the anti-fat movement. Indeed, since the show blatantly disregards the long-term health of its participants, it would seem that its true purpose is to spread an aggressive, rigid, guilt-centic mode of relating to ourselves and our bodies.

Diet culture is awful for everyone. It can take the average, mentally healthy adult human and totally fuck up how that human decides how to feed themself. I have seen otherwise-mentally-healthy adults exhibit genuine fear when confronted with potatoes or full-fat milk. And that’s just people who start off mentally healthy and who are considered mentally healthy. Diet culture is even more toxic for people who struggle with mental illnesses, in particular eating disorders, depression, anxiety and OCD, and/or are generally predisposed to disordered behaviour around food.

I’m not sure how to describe what it’s like to live in diet culture as a person in recovery for an eating disorder. Every day, we all see images and messages telling us that we should be thin, should not eat anything except magic food X and super food Y, and that frankly the only way for you to love yourself is to go hungry until you are thin. The Biggest Loser, in fact, endorses this last message explicitly. But in many cases a person with an eating disorder has a voice in their head that tells them that in much harsher terms, constantly, relentlessly, without pity and without mercy. That voice does not need any encouragement. But in our culture, encouragement is exactly what it finds in abundance.

A room in which The Biggest Loser is playing on the television is a room that is not safe for many people with eating disorders. A train station or a bus stop with advertisements for Diet Shakes, Diet Cereals, The Biggest Loser, Jenny Craig, and other weight loss paraphernalia on it is not safe for many people with eating disorders. A highway with a billboard for a weight loss show is not safe for many people with eating disorders. A menu with large, obtrusive calorie counts is not safe for many people with eating disorders. A magazine with a column by Michelle Bridges that laments the existence of fat people who don’t diet is not safe for many people with eating disorders.

If you feel safe in the presence of these images, that is your privilege. Virtually no public spaces, and a large proportion of private spaces, in the western world are even remotely safe for people with eating disorders.

The other thing that diet culture does is make eating disorders completely effortless to hide. I had an eating disorder for years and the first person who realised there was something wrong was me – because the excuses for not eating very much, or not eating certain things, are everywhere. “I just feel better when I am thinner”, “I’m losing weight for me”, “I want to feel good about myself”, “I’m happier at this weight”…these are things sick people say to hide their sickness. Other people swallow it because their default reaction to weight loss is “good” and it takes work for them to be convinced otherwise. Now, I’m sure these things have been said by mentally healthy people too and I’m not suggesting everyone who ever diets has an ED. But I’m also sure the average listener doesn’t know the difference. The hold of diet culture can be so strong that sometimes even the speaker doesn’t know the difference.

This all adds up to one simple message: our culture couldn’t give a fuck about your mental health. Clearly when people “just worry about your health” – even if they do genuinely mean health and not just thinness – they only mean the health of your body without any consideration for the brain. On a biological level this is completely ludicrous because you simply can’t separate the brain and the rest of the body. They’re one whole and can’t be considered in isolation. Here’s a rudimentary example: a chronically anxious brain will pump the body full of cortisol and adrenalin, which both contribute to all sorts of adverse physical outcomes including a weakened immune system and reduced mortality. Oh noes, did your mental health just affect your physical health – you know, the one we pretend we care about? Say it ain’t so! But in all seriousness, the truth is, they can’t really be separated. It’s all health. Mental health is health.

A culture that is willing to throw people with serious mental health problems under the bus in an endless quest for everyone on earth to be thin is not a culture that cares about health. It is a culture that is using a narrow, twisted definition of health – which coincidentally reinforces social norms around attractiveness – to beat up on everyone, including some of its most vulnerable members. That is the culture being explicitly promoted by the Biggest Loser and other shows like it. It’s making us sick. It’s making our media dangerous to consume. For a society supposedly obsessed with health, we’ve got a damn funny way of showing it.


Leave Kim Kardashian Alone

I can’t believe I’m about to say this, but we need to lay off Kim Kardashian. Now, I know what you’re thinking. Well, actually, I don’t know what you’re thinking, but let me make a guess: you think Kim Kardashian is a bad role model for girls because she does what the patriarchy tells girls to do. Her activities reinforce dominant tropes about how to be a woman, and she actively supports dieting and sizeism by hawking her QuickTrim pseudo-science of weight loss pills.

Well, I agree with you, and I think those criticisms are valid. I’m not saying you have to like Kim Kardashian. But though that may be our objection to Kim’s activities, that is not the main message of the current backlash against her. That backlash is sexist, and as people who care about social justice, we must debunk it whenever we can – whether we like Kim or not.

The major criticisms we hear about Kim are thus: she’s vapid and shallow, a “slut”, “famous for doing nothing”, and makes a mockery of marriage – either because her marriage was too short, or because her marriage was a sham concocted to make money. Let’s go through these one by one.

Vapid? Kim’s life does seem to revolve around fashion, makeup, conventional beauty, and finding love in a heteronormative manner. Are these activities vapid? No. There’s no sense in which fashion and makeup are any less important than, say, videogames or surfboards. Would you call someone who dedicated her life to making surfboards, using surfboards, and being a surfboard enthusiast vapid? Shallow? You wouldn’t, and that’s because we associate surfboards with social codes around masculinity and fashion and makeup with social codes around femininity. Our patriarchal culture considers masculine-coded interests as somehow less shallow and vapid than feminine-coded interests. They aren’t. And as for heteronormative love? There’s nothing especially wrong with that on a personal level (though the macro tropes surrounding it are harmful). In fact, the people making this criticism usually want that too, they just think it’s vapid when women are explicit about it.

It’s also important to note that punishing women for complying with cultural demands for performative femininity is a key component of women’s oppression. Our culture insists that women conform to a certain conventional beauty standards, and concern themselves with “girl things” like fashion and hair and makeup, in order to be acceptable as women. Yet when women like Kim do this, they are derided – called stupid, shallow, and vapid. As feminists, we must never stand by while women are called derogatory names for engaging in socially coded feminine activities. Even if we don’t like those women.

Well, is Kim Kardashian a “slut”? Answer: It’s none of your business! And this particular complaint against Kim is obviously the worst form of slutshaming and misogyny. I have no idea what Kim’s sex life is like but I don’t need to know anything about it to defend her from this charge. Frankly, anyone who thinks the word “slut” in its dominant cultural use is a coherent, sensible concept – let alone a legitimate insult with which to slur a woman – is flat out wrong. I don’t see anyone calling the men Kim sleeps with sluts, I don’t see anyone haranguing the man Kim made the sex tape with and asking him how he expects us to respect him. As feminists, our reply to those who slutshame Kim must be unequivocal: you will respect Kim no matter how “slutty” she is according to your feverish imaginings.

Okay, now what about “famous for doing nothing”? Kim is famous for making a sex tape and then doing lots of modelling and reality television. I admit, this does not seem like a huge contribution to humanity when you compare it to the life’s work of Rosalind Franklin or Morgan Tsvangirai or Elizabeth Blackburn or Alvin Roth or Aung San Suu Kyi or Norman Borlaug or Christina Romer. But is that the right comparison? No. Because I bet you had to google at least one of those people, all of whom have contributed “more” to humanity than virtually any Hollywood celebrity ever will. (I admit I’m invoking a hierarchy, and I acknowledge the issues inherent in that, but I think it’s reasonable to argue that these people contribute to human society more than TV stars do.)

Fame is arbitrary. The vast majority of fame in our culture is bestowed on one group: entertainers. I do not wish to belittle the entertainment industry; it provides people with a lot of enjoyment, relaxation, excitement and fun, as well as the occasional transformative experience. But there’s no real philosophical reason why these people should be famous while doctors and teachers are not. Some people claim that it’s totally legitimate to make actors and singers famous, it’s just reality TV stars that are “doing nothing”. But really, they are entertaining people just as much as actors who memorise scripts. Is Kim Kardashian’s fame that much less deserved than the fame of Jessica Alba or Reese Witherspoon or Vin Diesel or Robert Pattinson? Maybe she is “doing less”, but last time I looked, your product is what matters in the entertainment industry – not how hard you had to work. Face it, very few famous people “deserve” their fame in any concrete sense.

It’s also worth remembering that Kim Kardashian didn’t get famous on her own: fame requires the attention of the masses. Now, clearly, Kim is pretty dedicated to getting our attention. And we give it to her – if we cut her off, there wouldn’t be anything she could do about it. We are the lynchpin of who gets famous. So if anyone is responsible for the sorry state of affairs in which the Kardashians are more well known than the Curies, it is us, not Kim Kardashian. Most celebrities are famous for their skills at entertainment: if you think Kim is famous for nothing, then you must admit that most celebrities are famous for next-to-nothing. Criticise the whole culture of fame, not one girl who is working the system.

Now we come to Kim’s apparent crimes against marriage. I have seen a lot of gay-rights activists decrying Kim’s quick-as-a-flash marriage and divorce as if it is personally injurious to them. I think the core of the complaint is that she is “misusing” an institution that is denied to us queers. First of all, let’s be honest about the situation: Kim’s marriage has no effect on us. She has not altered our chances at making gay marriage a reality. Sure, it can be galling to see how straight people are allowed to marry and divorce someone they barely know with ease while we are denied the right to marry a committed partner of 20 years. But it wouldn’t help our cause if marriage got more restrictive, so that only straight people in supercommited relationships could get married and they were never allowed to divorce. In fact that’s a giant step back. The fact that queers don’t have equal rights is not Kim Kardashian’s fault and she doesn’t deserve our hatred.

From a feminist perspective, there’s something interesting about accusing anyone of making a “mockery” of marriage. Really? What’s left to mock? I’m not implying that love and commitment are not important – they are important, but they are not the exclusive domain of married people, and they are directly counter to the historical legacy of marriage. Marriage started off as a morally bankrupt, sexist institution used by men – and families run by men – to signal possession of women. In most parts of the world it was in essence a financial contract, intended to enhance the wealth, power and prestige of families, and it had nothing to do with love. It’s pretty hilarious to say Kim is making a mockery of marriage by using it for financial gain when that was the explicit purpose of marriage for most of human history. The only difference? It was usually for the financial gain of men, since women were chattel. Now we get the faint whiff of a rumour that a woman used the institution of marriage for her own financial gain – and her husband did not even become her chattel! – and suddenly it’s off with her head? We can’t let this go unquestioned. Not on our watch.

If we want to criticise Kim Kardashian, we have plenty of legitimate concerns (and Quicktrim should be our leading issue in my opinion). But the vast majority of the complaints made against Kim are straight up sexist bullshit, and the rest use her as a scapegoat for institutional inequality. Kim Kardashian is hardly a feminist hero. But women don’t have to be feminist heroes before they deserve to be defended from sexism, slutshaming and hatred. All women should be defended against sexist attacks, not just the women we like. That’s kind of how feminism is supposed to work. Leave Kim Kardashian alone.