Breaking Up with Diet Culture: On Body Image and Gender

By Sagarika Chaudhary

Artwork by @sonostatachiara

The widespread notion of what a perfect female body is has been spread by the media as part of its capitalist, westernised propaganda. In saying this, I do not think that I have made a revolutionary statement, after reading which women will immediately start loving their bodies, and neither is that my intention, even though in an ideal world, all women love themselves. The body positivity movement has been around for much longer than I have, and I have yet to come across women who are not already well acquainted with this reality. However, I also know that despite accepting this fact, women play into the narrative and resort to hating their bodies in order to not seem narcissistic in a world that profits off of their self-loathing.

The first time I explicitly got told that I need to lose weight, I was eight years old at the most. While in retrospect the incident seems absolutely sickening, at the time I remember it feeling completely natural because the advice had (albeit subtly) been ever-present in backhanded compliments, jeers and the “fun” my friends and family poked at me, thinking that it was all in good humour. As a result, I had a relationship with food and exercise that not only discourages intuitive eating but also brainwashed me into believing that I am but one diet and one new workout away from my beautiful, slender self. I love food, but I hadn’t enjoyed eating it in a long, long, long time, because it is almost immediately followed by feelings of guilt, eating less in the next meals or forming a detailed workout and diet plan in my head. Every time someone brought up a new diet or juice cleanse, I had either done it or read about it, and realised that not only did it not work for me, it also somehow had managed to leave me worse off than the way I was when I had started it. Why is that?

In a South Asian household, dietary autonomy is already a very far-fetched concept and dietary patterns cannot adhere or cater to the “keto” requirements or those needed for green, red, purple, orange or whatever it is that is the new fad diet. I can’t exactly put biryani and gulab jamun into My Fitness Pal. So as a South Asian girl growing up in a globalised world, it seems next to impossible to have a healed relationship with food and not feel guilty each time you eat something you like. You can’t, when all your life women around you have also unconsciously done these tangible things that ingrain weight loss and equating health with how your body looks into your very thinking pathways. This is despite the fact that a lot of South Asian based foods and dishes are not inherently unhealthy - daal, fish, potatoes etc. We end up obsessing over denying our bodies our cravings, dictatorial portion control and restricting our appetites so much that we end up having incessant thoughts about food.

Who is the culprit?

We have ended up attaching so many connotations to the word “diet” that something which is supposed to be an enjoyable and pleasurable part of your everyday routine, and is supposed to heal your relationship with your body, has ended up being the cause it is so broken in the first place. Diets are nothing but a part of your lifestyle, but the problem is the association with weight loss and looking a certain way (read: thin). Diets are varied and what your diet consists of is dependent on you and your body. Part of cultivating a healthy relationship with food is that you make educated choices, learning balance and moderation that suits you. But how do you do that when health and education are so skewed towards one look, one diet, one body type version of what it means to be healthy?

It’s hard to neutralise the word or connotations around “diet” or “dieting”, not just because of the individual interactions you have with friends or family members about your weight and body, but because of the immense advertising that convinces us that the only way to be beautiful is to shed those pounds. We see it in the huge increase in weight-loss and diet adverts after every holiday. Diet culture catastrophizes holiday eating which is supposed to be enjoyable and should help you keep your traditions alive, not go on a post-Diwali-detox like so many women in my family. Your new year's resolutions should not be getting rid of the holiday weight, and neither should you restrict yourself before or after big events. Suddenly on January first, every influencer has a new diet or workout plan, selling you flat-tummy teas, and when you switch on the TV every other advert is for a weight-watchers type product. This continues to fuel the weight loss industry valued at 200 billion dollars, profiting off our body-related insecurities and disproportionately affecting women.

These notions of beauty are also created by businesses that capitalise on the insecurities of women to sell products to them. They are omnipresent in media, in the size labels of high fashion brands and even in the language we so casually use. Calling someone “a plus-sized model” might not be a compliment because it goes to show how deeply we’ve internalised the ideal body type and any deviation from that is not normalised, and how we need to label it as ‘plus sized’.

And let’s not forget the health and medical industry, playing a massive role in enabling fatphobia. I could have a serious health disorder or hormonal imbalance and the doctor’s first instinct would be to tell me to lose weight. It is only after I lost a lot of my weight that doctors started taking my health issues seriously, thinking there could be another reason, and there was. But before I dropped 10 kilos, I was always inevitably asked to ‘run every day’ or ‘cut down on calories’. I know so many other women with similar stories. A study by The Obesity Society found that out of 4,732 1st year medical students from 49 medical schools, 74% exhibited implicit weight bias and 67% exhibited an explicit weight bias. The explicit weight bias was largely predicted by “lower BMI, male sex, and non-Black race” participants. Hardly surprising, considering how fatphobia is rooted in racism, as thinness was related to male rationality and fatness was used to inferiorize and dehumanise Black people (especially women) during the slavery era.

The Best Break Up I’ve Ever Had

So is it any wonder we feel so influenced by all of this? We need to break up with diet culture, because, would you believe it, we’re meant to enjoy food. If you spend all the time you spend worrying about food on something else, you will realise that you have all this free time that you never did before. I personally learnt a whole language when I started trusting my body and catering to its needs. Trust your hunger, because your body is communicating with you, and it needs to be celebrated. Eat, when you feel hungry because your body deserves food, even if you ate holiday food all week past week, had a heavy lunch or ate a high-calorie cake in the morning. As women, we are also told that we are eating “emotionally” or are bingeing when we simply haven’t eaten enough.

The beauty industry, diet culture and institutionalised fatphobia make you subservient by convincing you that you’re not worthy if you don’t fit a particular body type. But in reality, we could all eat the same meals and do the same workouts every day and still not look the same, or have the same body type. And neither should we want to. The response to “I look fat,” should not be “No, you don’t, you’re beautiful,” because while it may come as a shock, you can be both!

It is not necessary to adhere to these habits that we have internalised because of the need to look like Instagram models. Eating a midnight snack is okay, wanting to exercise by dancing is also okay. Food and exercise should primarily focus on being healthy, and the way you look shouldn’t be the be-all and end all because there is no one body type for health. Women will continue to be subjugated with unrealistic beauty standards which are not only artificially created but also marketed and are inherently eurocentric in the way they function. Thick thighs save lives, but they can’t exist with a snatched waistline. Too skinny, too fat, there’s always going to be something, and the trends will change every three years. You can never win. So I’m going to let you in on a little secret.

Health should be about nurturing your body, not forcing it to look a particular way and hating it if it doesn’t, and suffering through the process of trying to achieve that.

And so one day I stopped fighting my body and I decided to be its friend. The thing is, I had never hated my body as much as I had revered others’. I did not mind that my body wasn’t perfect, but I hated that some bodies were. I kept telling myself that I was smart and that I did not have to be pretty if I was smart. But, beauty with brains is a phrase I hate, because it makes beauty and intelligence seem like two inversely proportional components of a woman, that their coexistence was the exception when really it had been the norm.

“Do you love me?” My body often used to ask me, and I used to look down at my wiggling toes because the answer required more courage than I had.

“Do you love me?’ My body now asks and I can whisper a faint, “I’m trying,” in response.

“Do you love me?” My body will ask one day and I will smile and say, “Yes.”

Till then I have decided to break diet culture rules and stop wasting my time stuck in this endless food loop because it is next to impossible to feel at peace around food when you’re hungry. Food is meant to nourish you, and pleasure goes a long way both in food and life.


About the author

Sagarika Chaudhary is a student of English and Political Science at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University. She is a keen researcher and a student with a deep passion for and a sense of social justice.