Disordered Eating as a Cultural Response
Updated: Feb 4
Written by Rebecca Barrett-Wallis MA, RP, CCC.
Your body is not the enemy; the real enemy is diet culture
When I decided to write this blog in honour or National Eating Disorders Awareness Week (Feb 1st-7th), I knew I wanted to move beyond discussion of the clinically defined eating disorders (EDs) such as Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, Binge Eating, Orthorexia, to talk more broadly about: the spectrum of disordered eating I see in both my professional practice and personal life; the myths of self-control and thin=healthy; the toxic impacts of diet culture, fat stigma, the thin ideal and patriarchy (to name a few); and where we might go from here. If this sounds like a lot, I hear you, it was a lot to write… but this only scratches the surface of a very important conversation we need to be having more often, in our homes, schools, therapy offices, while out for dinner with friends, with our kids etc.
I feel it is important to position myself within the context of what I write. I am a white, cisgender female of upper-middle class, who practices Psychotherapy and Counselling in downtown Toronto. I recognize my privilege to be living in a body that, including my size, basically conforms to cultural standards and expectations. Race, class, gender, ableism, socioeconomic status all play a role in whose bodies we deem acceptable/worthy. It is where these social determinants intersect that we tend to see the most health inequalities and stigmas, including weight stigma and barriers to health-promoting services.
You’ll notice that I italicize certain words throughout as a way of drawing attention to their duplicitous and complex meanings. For example, normal eating refers to the state of eating we would be doing, had culture not gotten a hold of us and tormented us into doing otherwise. This is however, not to be confused with the myth that normal eating for one person looks the same as normal eating for another. It doesn’t. But if I could simply use the word “eating”, I wouldn’t be writing this blog in the first place.
It has become increasingly hard to see ourselves clearly in a culture that equates thinness with… (insert really any synonym for success here and it probably works). At one point in time food was hard to come by. To eat, it physically took hard work. Food and eating were, and still are, biological necessities to keep us alive. Some of you may be saying well, duh that’s simple! But the reality is it’s NOT so simple anymore. Just to prove this, take a moment to write down all the words that pop into your head associated with the words “food” and/or “eating”. If your list looked something like this: sustenance, calories, diet, yummy, guilt, emotion, healthy. You are not alone. Do you think these would have been the same had our hunter-gatherer ancestors done this exercise? Likely, not. Your unique list is a result of the multitude of messages you have received on a daily basis - since you learned even basic language- about your body’s worth and what is good and bad to put in it.
Disordered eating is a cultural response and stigma is a health hazard. The Health at Every Size (HAES) movement being taken up by diet-recovery specialists and activists alike, purports “we need not fear food- or fat- as agents of illness and despair” (Bacon & Aphramor, p. 1). In other words, fat does not automatically deduce to ill-health. Yet, people who live in larger bodies are consistently stereotyped as unhealthy among other harmful and hateful characteristics. People in larger bodies face weight stigma everywhere: doctor’s offices, workplaces, schools, air travel etc. Doctors' weight bias causes them to overlook medical conditions in patients who are deemed overweight, and prescribe weight loss as the course of treatment. But this is another classic case where correlation does not equal causation explains Harrison. Weight science has yet to link being in a larger body with poor health. What it has done though is identify some very real confounding variables, including weight-based discrimination. In other words we cannot say that fat alone leads to negative physical health outcomes such as diabetes and heart disease, but weight-stigma certainly can.
Despite strong evidence that shows that dieting of any kind (i.e., changing what you eat and how much you exercise in order to lose weight or conform to some other body ideal) is only more likely to lead to a host of other problems, including “rebound bingeing, food obsession, weight gain” (yes that’s right) and eating disorders, people continue to diet at staggering rates. In her book Anti-Diet, Christy Harrison asks, “why are we so wedded to dieting when it so clearly doesn’t work – and is even hurting us?” Her answer: “diet culture…it masquerades as health, wellness, and fitness. It cloaks itself as connection” (p. 7).
In my work with individuals at various stages of diet recovery I see the ways in which diet culture has sunk its claws in with such force that the possibility of pulling them out feels near impossible. Disordered eating is just one of many other mental health outcomes that I work with and that take root in a self-criticism that is deeply enmeshed with the pressure to conform to unrealistic standards, not only of beauty but of productivity, health, even self-care. Through my work I have come to see four key ingredients to quieting the inner critic. I believe these four things will also be helpful for those readers curious about standing up to diet culture, and embarking on a diet-recovery journey. Knowledge, Self-compassion, Meaning, Mindfulness.
Knowledge: a problematic term in and of itself since the holders of knowledge have long been male, colonizers, and those with enough money to pay for and education. For me though, knowing does not have to come from pedagogical means. Academic forms of knowledge tend to exclude the under privileged and racialized minorities and so in this case, I use knowledge to refer to a deeper form of knowing: self-knowledge, intuitive knowing (about what our body needs), cultural/ancestral ways of knowing through storytelling etc. Empowerment is offering someone room to share what they know and giving them permission to be critical of what other people claim to know. Everyone, regardless of race, class, gender, body diversity, deserves access to health-promoting knowledge, such as accurate nutritional information. Why is this not already the case you ask? Well who would support the multi-billion-dollar weight loss, diet, and wellness industries? (Harrison). We are up against a systematic form of body-shaming that comes at us through our phones, tv screens, advertisements etc. all aimed at selling something.
“Advertisers have recently realized they were so busy exploiting women’s insecurities, that they’d forgotten half the population. So now they’re doing their best to make men feel equally horrible about themselves” (Bacon & Aphramor, p. 136).
Self-compassion: different from the all too commodified self-care, encapsulates (for me) how we treat, talk-to, feed, accept, and generally like ourselves.
“diet culture is a system of beliefs that equates thinness with health and moral virtue, so the aspiration to be thin isn’t just skin deep. At its most fundamental level, it’s about the desire to be as good, lovable and enough” (Harrison, p. 123).
You have been taught to want to lose weight your entire life, so it is not surprising that you may have developed some anger towards your body when your efforts have (inevitably) fallen short (see Body Respect for detailed information on why diets don’t work). When we hate ourselves, or a part of ourselves, this is likely to foster an internally hostile environment. Self-compassion intervenes in this process by saying, "Hey, what about befriending me instead, I'm hurting." Interventions aimed at developing self-compassion have been shown to "improve body satisfaction, and higher levels of self-compassion are associated with lower levels of disordered-eating behaviours” (Harrison, p. 196). One strategy I use with my clients is self-compassion-oriented journal prompts (see strategies at the end of the post).
Meaning: It is almost impossible these days to untangle what we want from what other people want. In my practice I notice a trend whereby in an effort to make meaning of our lives, individuals inevitably get caught up in the noise of self-care, meditation, yoga retreats and so on. Whereas for some, these activities are wonderful ways to connect to meaning, they are not the only avenue to wellbeing (as we are being made to believe they are). To break free from disordered eating and other forms of self-criticism, I believe we must find meaning in places outside of our attributes (i.e., what we look like, what we own); and do things, not because they are “insta worthy”, but because they are worthy, worthy. They feel good. If you are or have ever been a client of mine you have likely completed a “Values Exercise”. This is because I believe that if we can label our values authentically, then we may be able to live a life that represents these values more fully. Let me give an example: Among my top values are those of Compassion and Connection, two things that I now have in abundance as a result of my job. But what is so interesting is that before I found myself in a job that aligned with what I truly value, I was more susceptible to believing that my worth was tied to my appearance and how it conformed to the cultural ideal. Figuring out what you value, and making small shifts to incorporate them without needing to apologize for changing things up is crucial (and it certainly doesn’t have to mean changing jobs by the way!).
Mindfulness: has become something of a buzz word these days. If you have “tried” mindfulness before and thought there was something wrong with you (i.e., “but I can’t seem to silence my thoughts!”) this is because you have been misinformed about what mindfulness is. The way I explain it to client is this: We so often get caught up in imagining negative outcomes that we lose track of what is going on in the present moment. We experience anxiety -fight or flight sensations- because we are consistently imagining a future or past threat. But mindfulness asks you to consider if that threat is really as big and scary as your imagination would have you believe. By taking a brief moment to notice only what we know to be true in the present moment (not labelling it as good or bad) we practice mindfulness. Intuitive, or mindful eating was once our default mode (Harrison, p. 203). As babies, once fully satisfied we would lose interest in food and look around for something else to satisfy us. (This of course may not be true for individuals who grew up with food-scarcity). But today, we have stopped honoring our hunger (p. 205). We have learned how to supress our bodies most basic needs. “By the way” says Harrison, “Intuitive eating does not mean you’re allowed only to eat when you’re hungry and you must stop when you’re full. That’s just another diet” (p. 209). It takes a deep and purposeful turning inward to ask, “hi body, what do you need?” and be open to listening to what it has to say back. (See strategies at the end for more on intuitive eating).
Phew… I hope you are still with me! If you are, it likely means you are curious enough about all of this to have read to the end. It also might mean that you are feeling ready to combat diet-culture in your own unique way. I leave you with my list of resources and suggestions for getting started:
Read! Read critically. Read the books I cite in this blog.
Search for self-compassion or body positive journal prompts and free write, doing your best not to get angry at your critic but rather inviting them in as a protective part of you
Explore your values (with a friend, family member, or therapist!)
Move. Move your body in a way that feels good for it!
Practice gratitude. Use a gratitude journal and write down three things from your day that went well or that made you feel good. This will help tame the negativity bias we all live with.
Limit social media usage, purge accounts that make you critical of yourself/your body
Educate yourself on the science of diet culture and such things as the restriction pendulum (Harrison).
Connect with others. Start talking about this stuff and how it affects you as an individual.
Check in with your own fat stigma – notice where you might be holding on for dear life to misinformation about health and weight, about good vs. bad foods and be curious about where that comes from
And don’t forget there are people out there who are trained to help you on this journey!
Let me know how it goes ☺
Anti-Diet: Reclaim your time, money, well-being and happiness through intuitive eating by Christy Harrison
Body Respect: What conventional health books get wrong, leave out and just plain fail to understand about weight by Linda Bacon & Lucy Aphramor
Burnout: The secret to unlocking the stress cycle by Emily Nagoski & Amelia Nagoski