For generations, society has told women that their bodies and outer appearances are the most valuable thing they have to offer. Advertisements about how to shrink your waistline or lengthen your eyelashes bombard us from the moment we walk out of the door in the morning. Images of women with the “ideal” thin bodies are plastered across television and billboards. Magazines tell us to “Love Yourself the Way You Are” while also suggesting we try Mariah Carey’s “purple diet.”
Even the strongest, most resilient women I know struggle with accepting themselves and their outward appearances. My mom has been obsessed with her body and weight for as long as I can remember. Both of my aunts have tried about every diet under the sun, from low-fat to keto to paleo. My grandma convinced me to try Weight Watchers when I was 14. My great-grandma, at the age of 90, has mentioned avoiding certain foods to lose weight. This is a pattern that many young women know all too well.
The diet industry is a $72 billion industry, whose main prey is women and young girls. This includes the more obvious culprits, such as Weight Watchers and Beach Body, as well as more ambiguous ones such as Whole30 and intermittent fasting. In recent years the diet industry has put on a mask called “health and wellness.” They sell the idea that in order to care for yourself, you must also shrink yourself. This perpetuates the myth that thin equates to healthy.
Many people believe that by giving up dieting and intentional weight loss, you are letting yourself go, no longer caring for your body. But it is actually quite the opposite. In fact, Harriet Brown, a body liberation author, noted that “yo-yo dieting is linked to heart disease, insulin resistance, higher blood pressure, inflammation and, ironically, long-term weight gain.” In addition, the National Center for Biotechnology found in their research that “restricting calories increased the total output of cortisol, and monitoring calories increased perceived stress.” Beyond the strain it puts on your body, weight loss is not sustainable—it has been said that 95% of dieters end up regaining the weight they lost and sometimes gain more.
Food freedom is a core concept for diet culture dropouts. Allowing yourself to eat previously restricted foods, however much you want and whenever you want, takes away its power. This is only one small piece of food freedom, but it is the one people struggle with the most. Eating a lot of previously labeled “bad” or “junk” foods feels out of control, but after a while, the food becomes just food. Now, this is not to say that anti-diet culture does not care about health and nutrition, but it is framed in a more gentle, weight-neutral way. The focus is on changing health behaviors to improve quality of life, such as eating vegetables and engaging in joyful movement. This creates a space where bodies of all sizes can engage in health behaviors without being shamed into shrinking themselves.
Luckily there is a bold collection of women supporting this narrative. The anti-diet community is encouraging women to not only accept their bodies but to find their purpose aside from their outer appearance. Dieting takes so much mental space, time and energy. By refocusing your efforts outside of your body, amazing things can happen. You can find a new hobby. You can learn new things. You can travel more. You can foster healthy relationships. Personally, without giving up dieting, I would have no idea who I was. I rooted a big part of personality on dieting and weight loss, even majoring in physical education. Since giving it up, I have found my passion for public health. I have the mental space to invest in my education. I have time to volunteer with community organizations. I spend more time with friends and family. There is so much more to life than dieting, regardless of what society has force-fed us for generations.