Diet culture is so deeply entrenched in American society that it’s easy to miss It

 

Have you ever been so far inside something that you couldn’t see you were even in it? After living the majority of two years in Mexico and then returning back to the USA I felt a little of this like I had been given a new perspective.

 

I left Southern California, one of the most image obsessed areas of the world, in February of 2017. When I left, I had no plan but I did have three goals: learn Spanish, learn to surf better, and heal my relationship with food, exercise and my body.

 

I never felt like a girl was “supposed” to feel like.

Growing up a female with an athletic frame during the 90’s, when female role models were long-suffering, self-sacrificing, housewives and moms, I definitely didn’t identify with the things other girls liked. I preferred snowboard jumps and skate parks to the mall, or the sewing lessons I was forced to take. I never felt like I fitted in with the girls. In fact, I didn’t want to. My culture told me that women were meant to get married, crank out babies and run a household.  I didn’t have any alternative female role models, no business women, no unmarried women, and definitely no athletes.

 

I never wanted the life I thought I “should” have.

Even as a child I never felt at home in my body. Shit, I didn’t even feel at home with my thoughts. I didn’t belong in the mold I was supposed to fit. I didn’t want to grow up to be a mom and live in the same town I grew up in with some mid-level 9-5 job (which, by the way, is actually an awesome choice for any woman who wants it, I just didn’t want it). So I looked for some other way to feel valid. Although I tried to validate my existence through academics and later career, my drug of choice has always been athletics…

…Athletics, and along with that, aesthetics. Like many female athletes who feel like their bodies are too big for society, I started to fight with my appetite around the age of 14. By this time diet culture messages had already warped my thinking. My struggle as a female athlete with food and body image is not at all unique.

 

The pressure on female athletes to be thin is greater in certain sports.

Figure Skating, dance and gymnastics are sometimes referred to as “aesthetic sports” which means the winners are judged, in part, by their aesthetic appeal. And as such, these athletes are at higher risks for eating disorders.

One of the U.S.’s top olympic gymnast of the 90’s, Christy Henrich, succumbed to anorexia at the age of 22. Before she died she stated: “My life is a horrifying nightmare. It feels like there’s a beast inside of me, like a monster. It feels evil.” It’s sad to say, but there was a time when those words could have been my own.

Famous american figure skater Nancy Kerrigan went public with her eating disorder struggles after suffering an attack organized by her competitors in 1994.  In 2017 she produced the documentary “Why Don’t You Lose 5 Lbs?” which focuses on disordered eating in the world of sports.

 

It seems like you have to be a model to be a female pro surfer these days.

Surfers, whose uniform is a bikini, are certainly not exempt for the “aesthetic sports” category. Three-time world champion Champion, Carissa Moore, opened up about her eating disorder to People magazine.

 

I never make those ‘hottest surfer girl’ lists. It used to bother me because all of my peers were on them, and I would look at myself and be like, ‘Why am I not hot? Why am I not beautiful? Why don’t all these people think that I deserve to be on those lists?’ 

 

Diet Culture, Bikinis and Instagram

And of course, this makes so much sense. Especially when you consider the importance sponsors put on social media numbers. A pro-surfer friend of mine recently enlisted my help to increase his social media following. Sponsors were requesting larger social media numbers before offering high-level sponsorships. Although his surfing was on par with, or better than, other surfers for the brands, he was turned down due to his lack of social media following.

 

Now consider the fact that when I post a picture of myself in a bikini on Instagram I always receive a message from the app stating that “this post is performing better than 90% of recent posts.”

 

When you couple the facts that 1) social media numbers further an athlete’s career and 2) Sexy body pictures perform superbly well on social media, you have a recipe for disaster, especially for women who perform their sports in bathing suits.

The pressure to post sexy shots is unbelievable. Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with this. If a person feels great in their body and wants to show the world how confident they feel then I’m all about that.

But it’s more complicated than that. I’m not going to speak for all female athletes out there, but I will speak for myself.

 

When Diet Culture Turns to Bulimia 

I became a competitive athlete at the age of 13. That is around the same time I learned my body was too big to be considered attractive according to social norms. I played power positions, I was the center of the basketball team and later a professional women’s American football linebacker and now, I surf bigg-ish waves where strength trumps grace. But I always felt my body was too big.

 

For the next two decades I fought my body, trying to force it to be smaller. My body was in a state of mild grade starvation for over 15 years before it finally rebelled. What was dieting turned into binging and purging. My body was starving. My animal brain forced me to eat, but my human brain refused to gain weight. I began forcing myself to vomit after I felt I had eaten too much.

Eating Disorder before and after

 

For Health’s Sake

During the three years I battled bulimia, I was the owner of a yoga studio, a weight loss coach and a personal trainer. Gaining weight would literally mean the end of my career. I attracted clients who, like me, wanted to exercise in order to achieve better-looking bodies. If I gained weight, I would lose my credibility. I was living a lie but I didn’t know it because I was too far inside it to see it.

In reality, I was so good at disguising my diets I even hid them from myself. I was convinced that I really needed to do a “ juice cleanse” for my “health” or that if I just cut out carbs then “I would have less inflamation”.

 

Diets in Disguise 

And of course, we don’t call it dieting anymore. Everyone knows diets are something our mothers did. Now we are “going gluten free” (but we don’t have celiacs) or we are “eating clean” or “living a low carb lifestyle.” But the fact remains that we are altering what we eat in order to be thinner.

My yoga studio was hosting a “cleansing” seminar. My friends were posting “fitness inspiration” photos showing how “intermittent fasting” made them “healthier than ever.” My friends from yoga class were urging me to go vegan. Internet celebrity doctors showed me how “keto cures cancer”. My own doctor, upon finding out I have a high genetic risk for breast and ovarian cancer urged me to begin a “plant based lifestyle.” Even my own family praised the benefits of gluten and dairy free that they learned from the non-medical professionals to whom they paid hundreds of dollars to diagnose them and from whom they purchased hundreds of dollars of natural supplements.

Through a series of unwanted events I did stop binging and purging, I did gain weight and I did lose my career. It was crushing, and it was the best thing that ever happened to me.

 

Mexico

Leaving the toxic diet culture behind and moving to a culture where being called “Gordita” (chubby girl) is a pickup line was life-changing for me. Mexico changed me. In another article I describe a bit of it:

 

I went weeks without showers, slept in my surfboard bag on deserted Mexican beaches, suffered staph infections, a broken rib and a torn MCL, all in search of something to fill me up. Food, attention from men, photos of myself on big waves; will anything ever be enough?

 

It wasn’t until I returned recently that I began to clearly see the diet culture messages that I couldn’t see when I was living in the US. I was constantly receiving messages to re-enforce and normalize my disordered eating.

 

Diet Culture in the US

In the US we are constantly being sent marketing messages praising weight loss and equating it with health.  When I first saw the hashtag #dietculture a couple of months ago it was like a lightbulb went off in my head.

Diet culture is defined as a culture that places value on being a certain size, weight, and shape over actual health. It promotes the false notion that health equal thinness. (According to Chasing Joy).

And it shows up everywhere! We are accustomed to seeing overly thin models and actresses, but how about certain snacks being marketed as “thin snacks”?

Diet Culture in our Food
The word “thin” is highlighted. But wait? I thought she said she was eating Paleo for her “health”?

 

Or how about the Today show featuring a Christmas special showing how far you have to park away from the mall to burn off grandma’s baked goods.

Diet Culture on the Today Show

 

I can’t count the number of time I’ve heard someone say, “I’m so bad, I just can’t resist dessert.” Who the fuck said eating dessert makes you a bad person? Oh yeah, an entire culture obsessed with weight, that’s who!

I'm so bad for eat this cake. oh for fucks sake you are eating not burning down an orphanage

Over the course of a week or so I unfollowed anything and everything on my Instagram feed that equated thinness with health. #fitspiration? #fitnessmotivation? #21daychallange? UNFOLLOW! I also flagged about a dozen sponsored ads for diets and weight loss programs disguised as health plans. I replaced these follow hashtags with #badasswomen #womenup and #antidiet. Within a week I had courerated a guilt free instagram.

View this post on Instagram

Which side do you relate to?👇 . . Re-sharing this post because it resonated with so many of you. Reminder that if you're experiencing the dieting effects then you are not alone and it is not because you aren't "strong enough" or lack "willpower". DIETS JUST DON'T WORK🚫! . . Restriction drives cravings to the very foods you want to keep off limits with disregard to internal cues. Once you "break" – all or none mentality will drive you to "eat it all while you can" because that's the natural response when you truly believe you'll never have it again . Sound familiar? . . You don't need to stay stuck in this eating behavior pattern that is not serving you or your health (mental and physical). If you are longing to be able to eat a chocolate without guilt and move on while still feeling good – its possible! Food freedom IS a reality everyone can and SHOULD experience – for life 🙌. #intuitiveeating . . This Tuesday at 1pm EST (replay will be emailed) I'm teaching a free Masterclass ➡️ Why Your Diet Fails + How to Live Well Without It. If you are ready to learn how to transition from the left side of this image (dieting behaviors) to the right side (intuitive eating behaviors) – join in the link in my bio! You will also receive my free Masterclass Workbook as a bonus for showing up for YOURSELF❤ and taking a step toward a healthier relationship with food🙏🏻! . . I can't wait – it's gonna be interactive and loaded with useful information to transform the way you think about food and eating habits – in the best way! I'm so excited for it🤗! . . Are you ready to ditch diets and rediscover the intuitive eater within you?

A post shared by Intuitive Eating Dietitian (@dietitian.rachelgoodman) on

 

And so now I’m all better right?

I’d love to wrap up this story and say now that whole struggle is behind me. But it’s not. Even though I’m at a healthy weight and I no longer diet, restrict my foods, binge or purge, the battle is far from over.

I surf. I’m a surfer. Surfing is how I identify myself. Not only that but I’m a wanna-be big wave surfer. I’m pushing myself to do something that I need to be in excellent shape for as a matter of survival. I can’t be slow to my feet. Even half a second can be a matter of life and death. It is so tempting to say, “I’m just avoiding sugar and processed foods for the sake of athletic performance.” This may be true, but for people like me, it’s a slippery slope. How much am I avoiding it? Is a little sugar okay? How much is a little? What if I eat too much? What is considered a processed food? Is natural sugar okay? And before you know it, I’m back on a diet again.

I still struggle with black and white thinking around foods, labeling some foods as “good” and others as “bad” is a sure way to guarantee the starved little kid inside of me will eventually rebel with a full on binge.

 

Insta-Famous Body

Then what about the temptation to grow my social media following for “work reasons”? The amount of opportunities you have once you have a large follow is huge, there is no denying that. So maybe it is worth dropping a few pounds, you know, for work… The messages can be so hard to re-program!

 

New Year, Same Me

It’s really complicated and I hate it! I just spent five weeks with my mom who says I love you by cooking. My mom’s food is awesome. I swear she adds double butter and maple syrup to everything. And so here I am, just about to ring in the new year, feeling fatter than ever. I’m dying to “reduce my sugar consumption” or some other diet culture BS.

Will I ever be free of this madness? I don’t really know. It’s getting easier and easier. I try to treat it more like a game than a fight and that helps. But also sharing my struggles here for the world to see and knowing that maybe someone else feels the same helps a lot too.

 

What helped me get this far

Ladies, I’m here to tell you diet culture is a thing, and it’s deadly. I was trapped and I had to go outside of myself for help. So I attended two different types of therapy and two different types of group meetings for two years before I made real progress. Also, I read a mountain of books. My favorites being Women, Food and God by Geneen Roth and You Can Heal Your Life by Louise Hay. It hurt like hell, and it was the best gift I’ve ever given myself! Also, I  wrote my entire story of how this whole thing started and my journey to move beyond it. That helped so much (which you are totally invite you to read it if you are interested).

 

Diet culture in the US is everywhere. But the anti-diet movement is gaining a hold too. While visiting my Family in Michigan last month a saw billboard which read, “The average person gains six pounds over the Holidays…Enjoy every bite!” The diet culture fog is lifting, and for me, there is light at the end of the tunnel!

 

I am a writer and wanna-be big wave surfer. Surfing is my muse. I write about it and how it’s teaching me to live better. I hold certification as a nutritionist, personal trainer, yoga instructor, and lifeguard instructor. My story “100 Days in Mexico” of how a solo road trip surfing my way through Mexico changed my life can be found here www.melanielainewilliams.com

2 COMMENTS

  1. Such a complex world now with social media sculpting body image! Saying that,this website has so many adverts promoting the very thing so many articles are against. I find that very hipocrital.

    • Hey Paul, thanks for reading!
      The ads on this website are automatically served by an ad server which loads ads personal to you (or your computer), based on previous websites you have visited and what cookies are saved in your browser history. For example, I am in Japan on a Japanese IP address so this page is full of Japanese weather ads for me as I visit weather sites daily.

      Still Stoked has opted out of advertising categories such as gambling, cosmetic surgery etc but did not opt out of nutrition which I believe ‘diet ads’ will fall under. I will look into this and ask our ad operations manager if it is an option as yeah, I agree with you.. I don’t want those ads on here either!

      Thanks for the heads up x

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