Never Say Diet: How Dieting Became A Dirty Word

·7-min read
Photo credit: Courtesy of Press Office - Imaxtree
Photo credit: Courtesy of Press Office - Imaxtree

‘You shouldn't be saying you're unhappy with your body when you're OBVIOUSLY not fat,’ Kate told me recently when I posted a photo on Instagram, bemoaning having to unbutton my too-tight jeans due to lockdown weight gain.

I don’t know Kate.

I suppose she either follows me on the app or stumbled across my story. Either way, she is unhappy that I – a size 12, for the first time – am bemoaning my body shape. For some reason, possibly because my too-tight jeans have cut off the blood supply to my brain, I rashly reply: ‘Didn’t mean to offend, just having a fat day.’ Big mistake.

‘FAT?’ replies my new acquaintance. ‘That’s offensive to bigger people to call yourself that.’ I delete the messages. I’m not sure whether it’s through embarrassment or anger, but it leaves me worried. Do I have the right to feel that way about myself? Can a skinny girl use the F-word? And, in the era of body positivity, what is the right way to talk about your body?

I’ve been dieting my whole adult life. Longer, in fact. But then again... who hasn’t. According to a survey, the average Briton will start (and fail) 189 diets in their lifetime*, with the industry now worth an estimated £2billion** in the UK. And this is, of course, nothing new. From Cabbage Soup to 5:2, weight-loss diets have been sucking us in for decades.

‘I can pretty much place someone’s age by what diet they first tried,’ says nutritional therapist and author Ian Marber, who correctly pegs me (‘mid-thirties?’) when I tell him my first was the Lemonade Cleanse – surviving on a cocktail of water, lemon juice, maple syrup and cayenne pepper for up to 10 days. Today’s diets read like a list of sci-fi characters: Noom, Keto, Galveston and Sirtfood. ‘They come and go, they get rebranded,’ Marber tells me, but they all have a common goal, whether it’s hidden or not: weight loss. Not health, not happiness, but size. And we sign up, because we’re programmed to believe that dieting means skinny and skinny means better.

Photo credit: Lacey
Photo credit: Lacey

But now there’s a strong force fighting that template: the body confidence movement. One of the few positive products of social media, body confidence (an arm of body positivity, which is focused on challenging all beauty standards, including around disabilities and gender, not just size) is a female-led movement aiming to change our feelings about what constitutes a ‘good’ body. ‘We want to encourage women to live confident, happy lives, no matter what their size, diet, health or body type,’ says Callie Thorpe, who together with fellow influencer Lauren Smeets runs The Confidence Corner, a community that offers fellow plus-size women a space to connect with like-minded individuals.

Not only has this movement allowed previously excluded women to enter the chat, it’s also educated and changed all of our discussions. The highlighting of fatphobia, the notion that health is possible at any size, the inherently sexist aspects around body conversations... So much of what we used to think and feel is – finally – shifting.

One of their lead messages is that bigger does not automatically mean less healthy. ‘We shouldn’t make assumptions about someone’s physical or psychological health based on their size, weight or BMI,’ confirms Dr Bryony Bamford, consultant clinical psychologist and Founder of The London Centre for Eating Disorders and Body Image. ‘If the focus could be removed from that and placed on lifestyle factors, this would be a step towards reducing the psychological impact of weight phobia.’

But the social media movement has its work cut out against generations of ingrained beliefs about what our bodies ‘should’ look like – beliefs that are only too easy to exploit. Marber still finds that most people who come to him for nutritional advice have size at the forefront of their minds. He is careful to ensure people are in it for the ‘right’ reasons. But who gets to define what the ‘right’ reasons are?

A friend recently, quietly, shared with me that she wanted to lose weight for her wedding. She wanted to look her ‘best’, and in her mind that was fitter, healthier and, yes, a tad slimmer. But she was conflicted about it: would people think she was fat-phobic? I told her she should do what felt right for her. Surely, wanting to look and feel your best on your big day is a ‘right’ reason? Or is it?

Late last year, singer Lizzo came under fire for undertaking a 10-day juice detox, and sharing her progress on social media. Heralded as a poster girl for plus-size women, people were outraged that she was promoting dieting, or seemingly wanting to adhere to the mainstream beauty standard. Her argument was that the cleanse was for health reasons, to ‘reset her stomach’ – but also that she shouldn’t need to be giving a reason at all. ‘As a big girl, people just expect that if you are doing something for health, you’re doing it for weight loss,’ she added. ‘But that is not the case.’

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Now, with energetic arguments against dieting and fat shaming butting up against long-established ideals of what looks best, and with increased awareness of how sexism and racism have fed into those ideals, it’s getting more complicated all the time. ‘Yes, it’s crazy that Lizzo got so much attention for that,’ says Lauren, ‘Because it shouldn’t be that she’s holding the baton for all big girls. It’s wrong to put that pressure on her.’

But what, to put it bluntly, if she had wanted to lose weight? What if any of us do?

The Confidence Corner makes a point to disallow any conversations about dieting in their group. But: ‘We’d never judge someone on the decision to lose weight, ever,’ Lauren and Callie tell me. ‘The idea that we can’t choose to change, that’s disturbing.’ She mentions the importance of body autonomy, the right to governance over your physical self.

It’s something Marber is passionate about, too, although from a different standpoint. ‘If someone wants to lose weight, we have to understand that it goes beyond kilos. It could be for a whole host of reasons. Yes, it can be seen as “anti woke”. But it’s an individual’s choice. If someone goes into Chanel to buy a handbag, they don’t get asked, “Why? Are you sure?” They’ve made a decision as an adult, and who are we to question it? Your body, your choice.’

‘So there, Kate!’ I think. Yes, my Instagram story might have been triggering for people, and perhaps I should be more considerate about that. But I’m allowed to feel bad about my body, just as much as I’m allowed to feel proud of it, right? Then I reflect a bit more. My engaged friend –happy, seemingly confident – used the word ‘best’ to describe how she wanted to look at her wedding, implying she would look ‘better’ after losing weight. These lessons have gone so deeply into our psyches they feel like our own opinions, not something that’s been fed to us. Our bodies, our choice sounds right – but are our choices ours?

It will take a long time, if it ever happens, for our feelings about our bodies to catch up with the new vocabularies around it. Which could be seen as unhealthy in itself: how can we openly talk about our experiences and emotions when the dialogue is so tricky? Should I be harangued for expressing how I see myself?

Well, in this case, maybe. As Kate rightly pointed out, I was using the F-word in a negative way. Because if I think fat is a problem on my own body, surely that means I think it’s a problem on everyone else’s?

I don’t think that’s true. It’s an internalised insecurity. Perhaps that’s why these conversations are tricky: we’re all in our own personal negotiation with our bodies, but we have to fight collectively against impossible beauty standards. For me, that means taking ownership of my body and thoughts, but bearing in mind that doing things like sharing them on social media can be triggering for others.

So I’m working on it. I’ll diet again, I’ll gain weight again. But the goal is to be able to do both from a place of love for my body. For now, I’ve – without any self-loathing or sharing it on my Instagram page – bought new jeans a size up.

They’re comfier, they feel much better. And so do I.

*The Laughing Cow, January 2018 **British Heart Foundation, 2016

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