Dieters Are Not the Enemy
I belong to a very positive, body accepting, joyful movement-based Facebook group. The vast majority of the time, the posts there and the responses to those posts are supportive and uplifting. But I’ve noticed a disturbing trend there lately that deserves some discussion: Whenever someone posts that they are pursuing intentional weight loss through diet and exercise, they get flooded with shaming comments. The anti-diet mentality becomes an anti-dieter mentality, and that doesn’t serve anyone.
I get it. When we begin to realize how harmful diet culture is, it’s perfectly normal to see everything related to dieting as the enemy. We’re angry. We’re frustrated. We’re ready to fight. These feelings are a necessary and logical reaction. They help us get to the more productive steps of healing our relationships with our bodies, with food, and with ourselves. Anger is powerful, and it serves a powerful purpose. And that’s exactly why it’s so important that we turn that power toward the fighting the right battles.
So, let me be clear: The enemy here is diet culture, not people who diet.
The late author David Foster Wallace once gave a speech where he said, “There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys, how’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’...The immediate point of the fish story is that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about.” We are the fish, and diet culture is the water. We are literally swimming (or drowning) in it. It’s so pervasive, and it has been that way for so long, that we can’t even see it until someone else points it out to us.
We need to stop blaming and shaming individuals for not seeing the water. We need to find ways to support the people who are still swimming without letting ourselves drown.
I know that when we’ve finally begun our journey out of diet culture, it can be uncomfortable and triggering to hear people talking about their diets and their efforts toward weight loss. I also know that when we feel the freedom of breaking out of diet culture, we want to share that feeling with everyone. We want others to heal with us, and we also want to preserve our own healing.
In trying to figure out how to walk that line, I think it’s helpful to remember that when we say that we are anti-diet, what we really mean is that we are anti-diet culture. We are against the culture that tells us there is only one right way to have a body. We are against the culture that profits off our insecurities. We are against the culture that sells us harmful and ineffective products and then convinces us that we’re the problems. We are against the culture that pits us against each other in competition and comparison. We are against the culture that prioritizes our appearance over every other part of our lives. We are against the culture that ignores all the societal and genetic reasons that we have different bodies and places all the blame on lack of willpower and personal responsibility. We are against the culture of fatphobia, healthism, ableism, racism, and transphobia that is inherent in every piece of diet or fitness advice given with the sole purpose of changing our bodies. We are against the culture.
It’s also helpful to examine the flip-side of that stance. Being anti-diet culture means being pro-compassion, pro-informed choices, and pro-autonomy. It means being pro-community and pro-inclusion. It means being pro-supporting individuals no matter where they are in their journey.
So what can we do to respond to people who are pursuing intentional weight loss in a way that aligns with all of our anti-s and pro-s? How do we support individuals without supporting a culture that we know to be harmful? Here are some tips:
Be empathetic. If you’re feeling frustrated, try looking back at your own journey. Reflect on how recently you may have been caught up in diet culture, and how long it took you to find your way out. It’s helpful to remember that, for most of us, becoming aware of diet culture is a pretty recent event. And, even once we’re aware of it, getting out of diet culture is not as simple as flipping a switch or changing our minds. It’s a process, and it takes a lot of work. Empathy is a really important part of compassion, so the more we can put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and relate to their perspective, the easier it will be to avoid blaming and shaming.
Get personal instead of clinical. Especially in the early stages, there’s no need to bombard people with a ton of arguments and facts, no matter how true or how well researched they may be. Most of the time, that will only cause defensiveness (denying diet culture exists/defending its existence/digging themselves deeper into the mindset) or shame (feeling guilty for not seeing diet culture earlier/feeling like they’re not making progress fast enough/feeling left behind). Instead, try peppering some personal observations about your own experiences into conversation. “I” statements work very well here. For instance, the next time a group of coworkers or friends is talking about their diets, instead of rolling your eyes and listing off all the latest data about why diets don’t work, try saying “I’ve found that I’m feeling much happier in my body and more comfortable around food ever since I stopped dieting.” This shows people that there’s another way, rather than just telling them that what they’re doing is wrong, and it’s a lot less likely to make people feel blamed or shamed. Using personal experience instead of arguments and statistics also helps to create a feeling of connection, which means that once you’ve planted the seed, people will feel more comfortable coming to you to talk about their experiences or to ask questions. (And later, when they’re ready for a deeper dive, you can send them over to my free email course, 7 Days to Dumping Diet Culture!)
Give compliments that matter. So your neighbor is doing a new diet or exercise plan and she’s super excited and proud of her weight loss. You want to be supportive of her, but you don’t want to support the idea of diets and exercise for intentional weight loss or the idea that weight loss itself is an accomplishment. What do you do? Try giving compliments that shift the focus off of appearance and onto the personality traits and behaviors that she’s demonstrating. You can compliment her on her hard work, or her consistency, or her dedication, or her perseverance. You can tell her that her energy levels or her mood seem improved. You can even simply say that you’re glad she’s feeling better. All of these options will make her feel supported without reinforcing weight loss as a goal. Remember that when people seek weight loss, they are often actually seeking feelings of connection, love, and worthiness. When we can make people feel cared for and capable without commenting on their bodies, we can help them see that what makes them worthy comes from inside.
Remember, placing all the blame and responsibility on individuals instead of recognizing the systemic and cultural factors at play is a classic diet culture move. As people who believe in the anti-diet message, we can (and should!) do things differently.