I have spent the majority of my life, at least as much of it as I can remember, battling an eating disorder. I’ve also watched a heartbreaking number of friends and family members face similar struggles with eating, exercise, and body image – most of which are created, or at least exacerbated by diet culture. As defined by Christy Harrison, MPH, RD, author of Anti-Diet, “diet culture” refers to a belief system, deeply ingrained in our culture, that “worships thinness and equates it to health and moral virtue.” This includes the promotion of weight loss and the demonization of certain habits in a way that conflates how much and what we eat and/or do with our value as human beings. The glorification of thinness is embedded in our collective consciousness and reinforced every day through advertising (the weight loss industry is worth 3.8 billion dollars in the US alone!), popular media, and even our personal interactions – it’s time to start paying closer attention to the phrases people use when talking about food, exercise, and weight.
What makes these phrases so insidious is how normalized they are in our everyday interactions, especially as women. Phrases that perpetuate food and body shame are written off as “girl talk,” almost as if judging ourselves and others for what we eat, how we exercise, and how we look is a given (Remember that scene in Mean Girls where they take turns sharing what they hate about how they look?). More often than not, people aren’t saying these things with malicious intent, they’re simply repeating the sentiments that they have been taught throughout their lives, but the harm is still very real.
It doesn’t have to be this way – and our word choices in our internal dialogue and our conversations with others have a huge impact, positive or negative, that we may not even be aware of. By being more conscious of how we talk about diet and body image, we can challenge the social norms that put us down and pit us against each other. Eliminating these five common talking points from our vocabularies is a good first step towards freeing ourselves and our communities from diet culture in everyday interactions.
1.“I have to work this off” or “I’ve earned this”
We should not be using exercise as a way to “earn” food or punish ourselves for eating it! Exercise is wonderful for our physical and mental wellbeing, but using it as a punishment or justification for enjoying food kind of defeats the emotional benefits it would otherwise give us. When I’m eating with someone and they say these things, I immediately wonder if I also need to exercise more to compensate for the food I’m enjoying, or if it’s somehow wrong for me to enjoy the food I’m having because I didn’t “earn it” through exercise earlier. Be present in the moment without bringing up what you think you did or need to do to “earn” your food.
2. “I’m being so bad”
Labeling food as “good” or “bad” is not only completely unnecessary, it’s harmful. Let’s say someone goes back for seconds or goes for dessert and prefaces that action by saying “I’m so bad.” If I also wanted seconds or dessert, now I’m thinking, “doing this is bad, therefore I am bad if I eat this.” Quit ascribing moral virtue to food – while, sure, some foods may have more nutrients than others, no food is “bad” unless it has literally gone bad and is an actual health risk. Food is fuel for our bodies as well as a source of pleasure to be enjoyed – leave virtue judgment out of it! Don’t refer to any food as “good” or “bad” unless you’re referring to the taste or the expiration date.
3. “Have you lost weight? You look great!”
I know people say things like this with the best of intentions, but you don’t know how or why someone lost weight – it could be due to chronic illness, lack of access to food, or an eating disorder. You don’t know if the weight loss was intentional, or how that person feels about their body. While some people certainly work hard to lose weight and take pride in having a now-smaller body (and that’s totally ok! Healthy weight loss is a thing!), moralizing weight loss and thinness is a dangerous, slippery slope.
I’ve been complimented on my weight loss when it was a result of extremely unhealthy behavior, encouraging me to continue destroying my body to receive positive attention from others. In short, others’ bodies are nobody’s business but their own, and to avoid being intrusive, insulting, or disrespectful, find something not weight-related to compliment someone on.
4. “I feel fat”
First of all, you can’t truly “feel” fat. If you feel full or don’t feel comfortable in your body, just say that instead! This phrase is pretty much always said as a negative expression, implying that fat = bad. Before opening your mouth to complain of “feeling fat,” think about how someone living in a larger body than you would feel after hearing you say that. Fat is just a thing that we have on our bodies, with no inherent moral value, but in our culture, that word comes loaded with negative connotations. Because of this, many avoid the word as a descriptor entirely, but activists like Aubrey Gordon have been working to reclaim the word “fat” and “see the word as it is: a neutral descriptor that can hold different kinds of power for different people.”
5. “Are you really going to eat all that?”
I first remember hearing this from my grandmother at a family holiday dinner. I truly don’t understand what goes through someone’s head when they decide to make a statement like this – what are their intentions? Is it for the sole purpose of putting someone down, or are they just repeating what they’ve heard without giving much thought as to how it might make someone feel?
When I order food or make myself a plate, I’m getting the food that I want, based on my hunger and what I’m in the mood to eat. Hearing things like this makes me question how well I know my own body’s wants and needs and also makes me worry that I’ll be looked down upon if I do eat all of what’s in front of me. Trust that others are in tune with their cravings and hunger, though they may be different from yours, and if you must comment on the food in front of them, just say “that looks delicious!”
Unpacking the negative impact of these phrases and changing the way we talk about food, exercise, and body image is no small feat in a society where toxic diet talk is everywhere, but we owe it to ourselves, our loved ones, and our communities to put in the work to make a change. By reframing how we approach these topics, we can help those struggling in the face of diet culture (including ourselves) cultivate a healthier relationship with food and our bodies.