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Written by Dr. Shawnee Brew​​

Hey Kitty Cats, your resident down with the system Doc here,

It’s about that time of year that social media will be flooded with all the best ways to lose those few extra pounds just in time for “bikini season.” Posts suggesting that if you can just find the right cut, tan the right places, tone the wrong ones, and get enough hair removal to resemble your prepubescent self, then everyone at the beach will simply forget you even have a body. And if all else fails, “nothing is sexier than confidence!” (Beachbody on Demand 2015)

What these influencers and companies forget to tell you is that the diet industry made $946 billion dollars in 2020; making it one of the few sectors that maintained positive growth during the initial stages of the pandemic (Global Wellness Institute). These numbers continue to grow each year as companies continue to profit off of people feeling like their bodies need to change in some way. We live in a society that has deemed thinness the ultimate social capital; from the minute we’re born, we’re being fed media about maintaining the smallest body possible (NY Daily News). The diet industry preps us for failure by consistently selling “quick fixes” that result in weight coming back causing folks to get caught in a perpetual cycle of yo-yo dieting. However, we have extensive research indicating that diets are not effective and do not work in the long term (Ge et al. 2020). Name another industry out there with a 95% failure rate that is still being lauded as successful…no, it’s fine, I’ll wait.

There are many physical health concerns noted with chronic dieting including: unhealthy changes in body composition, hormonal changes, reduced bone density, menstrual disturbances, and lower resting energy expenditure (Lindner Center of Hope). Beyond physical health concerns there are a number of ways dieting can impact our mental health over time as well. Chronic dieters report feelings of guilt, self-blame, anxiety, depression, difficulty concentrating, and fatigue. Dieting in adolescents is a known precursor to disordered eating; statistics indicate that moderate dieters are five times more likely to develop an eating disorder than non-dieters (Berkeley kNOw Dieting).  

We’ve clearly made a case for the fact that diet culture has trapped us into believing that thinness will be our savior while prepping most of us for a disordered relationship with food and our bodies. So, what the heck do we do about it? The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) suggests starting by imagining all the time and energy you could save by decreasing the amount of time spent thinking about dieting. This may seem trivial but really take a minute to examine how much time is spent thinking about your body, the food you consume, the amount of time spent exercising, etc. Is this really a values consistent way for you to spend your precious minutes? If so, congrats! You’ve probably done some really tough unlearning to arrive at this place. If no, awesome, let’s hang out a bit more and continue this chat.

Everything we’ve spoken about until now is a result of diet culture. Christy Harrison, author of The Anti-Diet, defines diet culture as, “a system of beliefs that equates thinness to health and moral virtue, promotes weight loss as a means of attaining higher status, and demonizes certain ways of eating while elevating others. It’s sexist, racist, and classist, yet this way of thinking about food and bodies is so embedded in the fabric of our society that it can be hard to recognize. It masquerades as health, wellness, and fitness, and for some, it is all-consuming.” Her book was released in 2019 and offers its readers “a radical alternative to diet culture, and helps readers reclaim their bodies, minds, and lives so they can focus on the things that truly matter” (Anti-Diet, Christy Harrison). For many, this journey begins with the unlearning. Unlearning of the ways we’ve been taught to exist in the world. Unlearning of who and what we’re supposed to be based on Eurocentric standards of beauty. 

My own journey began here in 2020 when a (now ex) friend of mine shared that my social media was a wasteland of triggers and inappropriate content. My initial reaction was to scoff, get angry, and completely dismiss that which she had shared with me. I sent it to my best friend saying something along the lines of “WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK?!” She gently replied, “well, I actually don’t disagree with most of this…” and I remember it being a punch to my gut. Here I was, a very thin, very white, very privileged being lording my weight loss all over my social media like I was some kind of success story. Meanwhile, the people closest to me were being harmed by these actions. This was the impetus for me to start my own unlearning. I turned to fat activists and their work to start unlearning all the things I had deemed health, success, etc. 

Sabrina Strings’ Fearing the Black Body was my entry point. Her 2019 book details the 200+ year history of demonizing Black women’s bodies, especially fat Black female bodies. From here I turned to Sonya Renee Taylor and her radical self-love narrative The Body Is Not an Apology where she “invites us to reconnect with the radical origins of our minds and bodies and celebrate our collective, enduring strength.” This work was slow and arduous (It still is, this is work I continue to do daily even now). I found myself angry and resistant more often than not. How could these things be true in a world where weight is the center of almost all discussions around health; I felt like I had to be missing something. 

This was a pivotal time for me in many ways, it was also height of the protests around the murder of George Floyd and a time where race based oppression was on the minds of many. As a person who has self-identified as a feminist all my life, I was coming up against all the ways that I have perpetuated harm. I was learning that my need to center myself and my feelings is a symptom of the white supremacy that lives in my bones. It feels so clear to me now, being on the other side of the this learning (not at the end of, simply viewing from a different angle for the first time), that all the things I believed were put in place by a system to keep minoritized folks down. The more unlearning I do, the more I realize how sick our systems are and the amount of work we have ahead of us to realize a different world.

If you’ve ever had the pleasure (lol) of being in the therapy room with me, you know my ask at the end of every session is, “what are our action steps?” This is a way of consolidating the work that we’ve done in a session into tangible tasks that we can do throughout our days/weeks that will be in service of this growth. So I’d like to offer some action steps for getting at to the root of our unlearning around diet culture and disordered eating.

  1. Diversify your social media feed: I offer this to almost all of my clients regardless of the type of work we’re doing. So much of my unlearning has taken place by seeing the way that all types of people live their lives. I got rid of every influencer that didn’t align with my values and stopped following anything and everything pertaining to diet culture. I started following fat folks, queer folks, disabled folks, neurodivergent folks, folks of color, and all walks of life. I had to put shame aside and be okay with the fact that I was coming to this work “late.”
  2. Read (and pay for) the work by activists: If we are truly to do the work of unlearning we have to center and uplift the most marginalized in our communities. Once you’ve done the work of diversifying your feed, seek out the things these folks have written. Pay for the labor they offer by giving you free access to their social media musings. Listen to the voices who have lived these experiences. 
  3. Seek additional support: As mentioned above, chronic dieting impacts our physical and mental health in a litany of ways. If you believe you have a problem with your relationship to food and body (and if you have the resources to do so), try finding a therapist or nutritionist to guide you through this work. I suggest looking for providers who align with anti-diet and health at every size doctrines. If you do not have the resources to access psychotherapy, consider checking out some of the books mentioned from your local library as a starting point. 
  4. Share your story: The more folks who are willing to come to this work messy and imperfect, the larger impact it will have over time. I have lost many “friends” and even more followers over the years as I have become more and more outspoken about my beliefs. However, I have also had countless folks share that my willingness to talk about these things publicly has impacted them in positive ways. 
  5. Be gentle with yourself: This is hard work, unlearning in a world that tells you not to. Focus on self-compassion and moving through this work in a way that will be sustainable for you. 

We are all imperfect in a society that deems perfection the ultimate goal. So as we move through this work, this great unlearning, we will come up against many road blocks. But one way to start, is by going immediately from this blog post to a store, buying the fucking bikini, and wearing it this summer; no matter what your body looks like. Because you deserve liberation, we all do.

Until next time,