By Sarah Alinejad a recent ASU nutrition student
I can’t remember exactly what age I was, but it was around 10 (probably younger) when I noticed I wasn’t quite as skinny as some of my friends. I remember that voice in my head, constantly criticizing my body; a relationship I never consented to but still had the responsibility of dealing with.
I couldn’t necessarily wear the same clothes because they fit a little different, a little tighter. I still went swimming at pool parties and bike riding in the summers. I was blessed with the confidence to love who I was, no matter what, but as I got older, I did get more insecure. I started to notice things that would shake even the most confident.
Food trends are some of the fastest evolving trends on the market. Innovation, technology, and social media have all helped diet crazes possible and have helped them flourish. These trends are common and usually imitated for the ‘Gram (Remember charcoal ice cream and unicorn everything?) More recently, it’s celery juice and intermittent fasting. However, too often, food trends walk a very thin line into diet culture, which can be much more detrimental than a few badly-filtered photos.
In 2018, the United States weight loss industry reached an all time high of an estimated $72 billion (Research and Markets, 2019). This includes weight loss programs, diet drinks and artificial sweeteners, frozen low-calorie entrees, health clubs, meal replacements, appetite suppressants, medical programs, and diet books or DVDs. People want the quick fix. They’re convinced that there’s that one secret, that weight loss hack, that they just haven’t discovered yet.
Keto, Paleo, Gluten-Free, Atkins, South Beach, Flexitarian, Raw and horrifyingly enough, during the process of writing this, I even found something called the Cotton Ball Diet, where people would actually eat cotton balls soaked in juice or smoothie in order to help make themselves feel full. Disclaimer: don’t ever do this.
In a world where people are debating whether or not they should eat cotton balls to restrict their overall calorie intake—we clearly have a problem with food and its implications. There’s an endless list what kinds of foods are “good” or “bad”, how many “points” they may be, usually followed by a rigorous exercise routine, whether it’s yoga, HIIT, or a weight training session. Most of these diets have next to no real nutritional benefits and can actually be harmful to the body. But the truth is, you could amputate an arm or do copious amounts of drugs and lose plenty of weight. The thing is, that’s stupid and causes a lot more harm than good.
Cardiologists have voiced their concern with those following the Keto diet, as it advocates for a high-fat diet, which can clog arteries and create inflammation, something, especially concerning for those prone to heart issues. Those who follow low-carb diets are at risk for fatigue, as their brains don’t have immediate access to glucose. Then theres the diet pills, meal replacements, cleanses, diet books, exercise machines, and weight loss programs that all have the potential to create adverse effects, not only on the body, but also on the mind. These diets are a segwey into diet culture, but hide under a facade of health and wellness. For majority of these diets, the main goal is weight-loss, not perfect blood tests and clear arteries.
To be fair, there’s good reason we’re obsessed with our waistlines. The stigma associated with being overweight is that they are lazy, noncompliant, unintelligent, undisciplined, and weak-willed. This stigma seeps into personal lives and lessens opportunities for social, educational, and economic success. This stigma also impairs social interactions with the general public and with their partners, friends, and family. Lastly, it can damage overall self-confidence and identity, creating risk for depression, body dissatisfaction, and low self-esteem (Andreyeva et al, 2008).
Studies show that the cultural idealization of thinness is the leading contributor to the development of eating disorders. (Culbert et al, 2015). By age 6, girls start to express concern over their weight. 40-60% of girls aged 6-12 are concerned about becoming too fat, which continues throughout their lives (Smolak, 2011). This obsession with weight becomes something so engrained in our minds that it’s subconscious. It doesn’t help that today’s beauty standards are as unrealistic as ever and those standards are plastered all over billboards, play repeatedly on TV commercials, and lurk amongst out social lives.
Social media has greatly helped fuel the fire that is diet culture. More than ever before, people are able to quickly and easily share photos of their perfectly positioned meals, evenly toned abs, and daily workout routines. It’s easy to get caught up in comparisons to others, not remembering that these things on Instagram aren’t real life. A study in 2015 showed that teenage girls who use social media are much more likely than those who dont to have a desire for thinness and engage in body surveillance. (Fardouly et al, 2015). Another similar study showed that social media use is strongly linked to self-objectification. Additionally, a short 30 minutes of social media exposure a day can severely change the way one views their body. (Fardouly & Vartanian, 2015).
My entire life, I’ve been one of those girls. The kind of girl who weighs themselves daily, looks for the latest information on dieting and weight loss, and constantly cares about how her outfit contours her body. Yet, I’ve never been a ‘skinny girl’.
I wanted to open this conversation about diet culture to those who have a different experience than my own. This topic deserves authenticity and merit, so I asked one of my closest friends, Saleena, about her firsthand experience with extreme diet culture.
Sarah: First of all, thank you so much for being here and being willing to talk to me about this. I know it can be a difficult subject and I want to address the topic with as much authenticity as possible.
Saleena: No worries at all! It’s so important to open up this conversation up in an honest way. I love that you’re doing this.
Sarah: I totally agree. So first question, what is your earliest memory of feeling insecure about your body?
Saleena: My earliest memory is when I was 9 and I was on the hip-hop team. All the other girls were stick thin and my sister was always so petite, so I would feel like the largest one there, even though realistically, I was perfectly healthy and “normal”. It was always my stomach that I was incredibly insecure about. I’d always find myself looking at the other girls when they’d do jumps or backhand springs and their shirts would go up, but they had skinny, flat stomachs, so they never thought twice about it. And I would just stand there in amazement and envy, that I didn’t feel that freedom because of my belly. Even after that, during that time, and especially when I turned 10, everything to me was about my weight and my body.
Sarah: Was there anyone specifically, friends, family, strangers, that made comments about your body that would make you feel bad?
Saleena: Yes. My sister and uncle would always go for my body with ugly comments. My sister would use that as a jab when we’d be in arguments. If we were yelling, it would always be ended with, “Well you’re fat!” And my uncle would always say, “You know, when I wake up, all I have is about 4 water bottles. You should do the same,” Or “I got the new P90X videos, do them with me. It’ll get you in great shape.” I was constantly hearing it from a tiny little girl (my sister), and if it wasn’t from her, I was hearing it from a grown man in his mid-40’s. Once a stranger made a comment to me about my weight was when I was about 13 and was at a new salon with my Grandma. We had just walked in and got talking with a stylist. He asked what I wanted done and such. He and my Grandma began to chat awhile and he asked her how old I was. When she told him he said, “Oh, wow! Big girl, huh?” as he chuckled. That was always the response I seemed to get. Even throughout the years people would always say similar things to me regarding how I looked. Even my doctor told me “well, you have the mind of an anorexic, but not the body.” I could go on and on with stories. But they all sum up to the same conclusion: my weight and body.
Sarah: Were these insecurities bad enough to the point that you’d miss out on events with friends or family?
Saleena: Absolutely. When it was time for the end of the year party for our 8th grade graduation, a classmate, Ryan (also my neighbor), was having a pool party after school, and I didn’t want to go because that meant I’d be forced to wear a bathing suit in front of everyone. I was terrified. It was always an issue for me to attend anything involving swimming. Even if it was family at my own house, in our own pool. I carry such shame with me, just because of my stomach. Still to this day, (and I’m 24 now), I won’t workout in an open room because I feel embarrassed for my mom or sister to see me and judge me, even though they probably don’t even think twice about what I may or may not be doing.
Sarah: When you did feel bad about your body, how did you deal with it?
Saleena: I went to therapy for anorexia when I was in middle school. It helped a bit. And as I’ve grown older, I’ve begun to pick apart and try to understand my thoughts. It doesn’t ever go away— at least for me it doesn’t. I still see a therapist and I’ve brought it up here and there. It’s a daily battle, truly. But, what’s different about me now is that even though “those thoughts” are still there, I know that it’s stemming from the eating disorder voice, not the real Saleena. I’m able to understand and reason with myself now. Whereas before, I would let it take over and I would go in a downward spiral. Now, I send my therapist a text, I’ll keep to a daily routine (I work best with a schedule) and I went vegan to be healthy (in all aspects) while *still* eating. I learned that the eating disorder for me is about control. So when I feel like I’m OUT of control with something in my life, that’s when those negative thoughts are screaming in my head. And I allow them to, then I go to a task where I have full control, and the voice will quiet down.
Sarah: I’m so happy you’ve found healthy ways to deal with this, even though it’s taken a while. Were there any specific diets or supplements that you took?
Saleena: I’ve done almost every diet in the book. I’ve done Nutri-system, Slim Fast, and many others. As far as supplements, I’ve taken about 3 different types. I don’t remember the names, but one of them I nicknamed “Alan”. I’ve also tried Garcinia Cambogia to lose weight. This was all from the ages 11-16. I remember I wanted this certain diet pill so badly, but I didn’t have cash (I was about 15/16) and was at the mall with my grandma, I went into GMC to look for the diet pill, “Alan”, and told her it was for constipation so that she would get it for me. She had no idea. She’s my dad’s mom who I don’t see often, and I took advantage. When I was 12, my uncle took me to some place to get a “wrap” done where they wrapped me up, head to toe, and I would go on an elliptical for an hour. My uncle would drop me off and then come back and get me. I did two sessions, both without my parents knowing. I remember after my first session, I was so excited to see any kind of result, I ran straight to my room and tried on the skinniest of skinny jeans I could find. My uncle came down the hall, knocked on my door, and said, “What are you doing?” and I responded with, “Trying on my jeans.” and he laughed and said, “I knew you’d do that.”
Sarah: A lot of our childhood was before social media-do you think it [social media] has impacted diet culture?
Saleena: Yes, 100%. I see all these beautiful women who are so incredibly fit and toned and it can absolutely get discouraging to look at all day long. My sister, who has always been small and has never had a problem, or even cared, about weight, is now obsessing over new workouts and waist trainers because of social media.
Sarah: How has recovery been?
Saleena: Recovery is hard. Really freakin hard. I have recovered from a lot, but it’ll always be there. I cannot stress this enough: it’s an every day battle. I think about my body and weight all day long. Every bite I take, ever meal I pack, every time I put clothes on, when I look at my neighbor— heck— even a stranger! It’s all I think about. Recovery is a long term commitment.
Sarah: Do you have any tips on those who many be suffering from an eating disorder or body insecurities?
Saleena: My tip is to learn about yourself. Get to know who you are, to your core. Because once you understand how you tick, you can understand when it’s your voice and when it’s not. And when you truly love yourself, you WANT to take care of your body. It’s your temple! You need a healthy foundation— and when you care about yourself, you’ll want that foundation to be nice and healthy. Also, for me, faith has been a major life saver. It helps me to remember who I am by knowing who God is. When I read and remember that I am beautiful and made in a pristine image, it’s hard for those negative thoughts to win. Those words always encourage me and remind me to stay on course. My two last tips are to seek a therapist and to get into a routine that works best for you. And that of course can only come after you get to really know YOU.
We all want to believe in that one cure, that one secret, that one way to hijack our bodies that we just haven’t quite figured out yet. What we don’t remember, is that our bodies have done exceptional work in evolving to make sure we survive, whether that’s the hunger hormones that tell us to eat, or the extra layer of fat on us to make sure we survive when we don’t have access to food. Our bodies truly know best and it’s silly to try to alter nature because when we do, we end up with a more messed up metabolism, confused hunger hormones, and a more complicated relationship with food. Put simply: there is no quick fix. You cannot change overnight what was created over years of bad habits. It takes mindful decisions each and every time you eat, and no amount of celery juice can make up for that.
Personally, I’ve done it all. The meal replacement shakes, the South Beach diet, the workout routines, and I genuinely hate to admit it, even Slim Fast. And sometimes, they even worked and I lost some weight. Yet, here I am today, well over my preferred BMI and still searching for the best balance of intuitive eating and exercise— for me.
It’s taken me my entire life and the active choice every, single day to remind myself that my worth is not in my weight. I’ve learned to thank my legs for giving my the ability to walk, my stomach for insulating my most important organs, and my love handles, the proof of living my best life, which sometimes means an extra slice of cake. It will take a continuous effort to practice mindfulness, patience, forgiveness, and love, in order fully accept that my body is so much more than it’s relationship with gravity and I am so much more than just my body. It’s time to finally, once and for all address that responsibility and move on from diet culture. It’s time we embrace our bodies and ourselves at our most authentic, most comfortable, and happiest.
***If you or someone you know is suffering from an eating disorder, please contact the National Eating Disorder Association at 1-800-931-2237 for additional resources. You can also text “NEDA” to 741741 to be connected with a trained volunteer at a crisis text line.
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