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Calling out diet culture: a process of unlearning

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Jeanette smiles while standing outside, there is a tree with pink blossoms behind her in full bloom.

SANE Peer Ambassador Jeanette is marking this Body Image and Eating Disorders Awareness Week by reflecting on diet culture and its huge impact. She discusses how unlearning it is hard, and shares her ongoing process that brings a sense of freedom.  

My brain was melting. That’s what happened when I finally realised how much diet culture coloured my worldview, earlier this year.  

I thought I knew what diet culture was. I understood how much value was placed on thinness and certain body shapes. But in retrospect, I think the bit I missed was the equation of thinness and certain body shapes to health and moral virtue. And in particular, it’s that piece around moral virtue that really did my head in.  

It all started with an innocent podcast recommendation from someone at support group. And a few short months on, it’s now my favourite recovery podcast. It was the first time I’d put a social justice lens over my experience of recovery, and the first time I was exposed to a weight-inclusive approach to health, which I now know as Health at Every Size – or HAES. 

It seems pretty straight forward. But my worldview quickly broke down as I began to apply an anti-diet mentality to my life.

Ice cream would no longer be considered indulgent. No foods would be inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad’. And as simple as that, my rationale for punishing myself or feeling guilty evaporated.

I’ve come to learn a frustrating truth as fat activist Ragen Chastain puts it, “Running a marathon and having a Netflix marathon are morally equivalent activities.” 

Somewhere along the way, I’ve conflated the values of diet culture with my own. I can’t recall for the life of me, a conscious decision to value thinness the infuriating way I do.

It makes me angry. For a while I carried so much shame around the discovery of my internalised fatphobia.  

As I continued to observe the world around me with this newfound clarity, diet culture emerged everywhere I looked. It was in the films I watched, the news I read, and the words that my friends, family and colleagues spoke. 

To be honest, I couldn’t quite believe it. It’s like when someone mentions the colour blue and suddenly all you see are the blue things around you.  

In classic perfectionist fashion, sometimes it feels outrageous to not have noticed it before. Because I thought I understood what was going on. But in an unexpected twist of fate, realising the pervasiveness of diet culture has actually brought me a little freedom.  

For a long time, I thought that I was standing in the way of my own recovery, believing if I only tried harder and had more willpower, then I’d be able to recover faster. Well as it turns out, swimming against the overwhelming tide that is diet culture is objectively difficult.  

Diet culture has disconnected me from my body. It has bombarded me with food rules and tied me in knots with its rigidity. Refusing to outsource my decision making to the values of diet culture has been a gradual process of unlearning. And frankly, fostering an anti-diet approach to life is ridiculously hard when everything around you is the complete opposite.  

And so, as I recover from my brain melt, I thought I’d share a few things that have helped me unlearn diet culture and support me on my recovery journey.  

Support groups 

Oh my goodness, what a life saver these have been. A support group was the first time my experiences of an eating disorder and body dysmorphia were really heard. Of all my mental health challenges, it was these two that I had the hardest time talking about. Yet in a zoom room full of strangers, I’d never felt more seen and understood.  

Observing those further along in their recovery gave me hope. And the validating nods to what I felt were my most obscure experiences gave me comfort. Connection has been such a powerful tool for overcoming my shame and stigma. And I’m proud to say that it was here I gained the confidence to be curious about recovery and finally pursue it. I encourage you to find an online or local support group that works for you: 

Books  

It’s become a bit of a running joke in my support group that we revisit this topic every few sessions. These have been my fuel towards a life beyond an eating disorder. Books have helped me understand and process my experiences, while giving me the tools that have underpinned my recovery journey. They have provided me an opportunity to take charge and spearhead my own healing. If I had to narrow it down to a few that have helped me the most it would be: 

  • 8 Keys to Recovery from an Eating Disorder by the legendary Carolyn Costin and Gwen Grabb (there’s also a wonderful workbook version) 
  • Anti-Diet by Christy Harrison 
  • Intuitive Eating, 4th Edition by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch (it’s important you get the 4th edition and not earlier versions) 
  • Health at Every Size by Lindo Bacon 

Podcasts

Podcasts on the other hand have helped introduce me to the stories of countless others. And most importantly, they’ve also amplified anti-diet messaging when my eating disorder self has been really loud. Without fail, I’ll put these on when I’m struggling and very quickly, I feel my healthy self grow. It gives me an added oomph to get through a difficult moment or day, especially between therapeutic sessions. Some of my favourites are: 

  • Food Psych Podcast by Christy Harrison (the podcast referenced above!) 
  • The Eating Disorder Recovery Podcast by Tabitha Farrar 
  • End Eating Disorders hosted by Millie Thomas and produced by Castco Media 
  • Candid Conversations by Eating Disorders Victoria 
  • Butterfly: Let’s Talk by the Butterfly Foundation  

Calling out diet culture 

A super achievable way of calling out diet culture is when you’re consuming any form of media. For example, when I’m watching a film or television series and hear a character say something that perpetuates diet culture, often something fatphobic, I like to say out loud to myself, “Nope I don’t believe that, that’s diet culture talking". There’s something about saying it out loud that gives the statement more weight. And with time, I’m slowly building up the confidence to do this around my family and friends.  

Self-compassion 

Cultivating an anti-diet approach and doing recovery is incredibly hard. So, it’s even more important to be extra gentle on yourself. The process of rewiring your neural pathways established over your how many years of existence is a slow and patient process. I always remind myself that I know I’m doing something right when it feels hard. That’s what I hope will make it all the more rewarding and worth it in the end.  

Seeking help 

If you’re struggling with an eating disorder or body image issue, I encourage you to reach out for help. It unfortunately took me many years after I first encountered these challenges to finally seek support. There is hope, and I promise that things genuinely do get better even if it doesn’t feel like it in the moment.  

Please contact the Butterfly Foundation, our national eating disorders charity, or your local state-based community eating disorder service, such as Eating Disorders Victoria.  

Butterfly Foundation: 1800 ED HOPE (1800 33 4673) 

Where to from here? 

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