Diet Culture Edition Part 2: Three Writers Reflect on Learning and Unlearning

a hallway lined with mirrors representing unlearning fat phobia
Image created with Canva Pro License

[Note: This piece, along with the others in this series, refers to diet culture, weight stigma, fatphobia, intentional weight loss and disordered eating]

This is part two of our special After Party reflecting on diet culture. The Dismantle After Party is a long-running series where past contributors come together to share short stories and reflect on a common theme. Be sure to check out the whole Diet Culture Edition, including the introduction and parts one and three.

Amber M. Brown: Wearing What I Want

I started regularly tucking in my shirts in 2022 at age 40. It felt like a rebellious act. Now, I also buy cropped t-shirts in my 2X/3X size and wear them out; my favorites in the rotation are from Nooworks. I added dresses to my closet last summer with intentional peek-a-boo cutouts that expose the soft skin rolls of my back and the sheen of my stretch marks. I actually don those out in public, too! My summer beach bod is bikini-clad at the lakefront about 90% of the time. I still prefer high-waisted swim bottoms, but wish I could find something to show off my amazing fat butt that isn’t a thong. Bikinis are just one example of fashion that shouldn’t be reserved for thin bodies. Even with the accidental sunburns that can appear as crescent moons onto my skinfolds, I remember recent sunny summer days more fondly than the majority of my childhood memories of wearing a swimsuit. 

I often look back at photographs of myself and wonder what that girl would have been like if she had been given the opportunity to see bodies like hers represented in the pop culture she was avidly consuming. What could her teenage years been like if dELiA*s or Alloy carried sizes larger than 13/14? Maybe she wouldn’t have purged her lunch for the 6th day in a row, just so she could fit into her favorite camel-colored flared slacks ordered from one of their catalogs. Who could she have been if she had been given painting lessons instead of a Medical Weight Loss Clinic diet plan for her 12th birthday? If she had been told her straight A’s in grade school would earn her a summer-long membership to CB Swim Club to get vitamin D and socialize with her friends—not to “get in some regular exercise.” 

Instead, CB was where I would spend summer after summer secret-eating concession stand snacks in the fitting rooms away from my waifish bikini-clad friends. I no longer felt comfortable eating my Fun Dip in front of them. Who would I have been if the snack-filled cupboards at my dad’s house during my adolescent years weren’t out of reach, and off limits? Or if my own mother wasn’t constantly sinking her money into the latest trend promising to shrink her? It didn’t matter if it was Suzanne Somers’ Thighmaster contraption, Optifast, or those New Age ”hypnosis for weight loss” audio tapes; none of them did what they promised, even when mom followed them down to a tee. What if becoming someone who was fat wasn’t the worst possible outcome?

Understandably, it has taken nearly my entire life to accept myself just as I am: a fat, queer femme.

Self-acceptance and, in some ways, forgiveness, have become my greatest tools to combat fatphobia and diet culture. It also matters where, and how, I am consuming messages through the media. I stopped subscribing to fashion magazines. I don’t even look at them in the grocery checkout line. I don’t bat an eye anymore when I need to unfollow content creators (*cough* Garner Style *cough*) who are gleefully posting “before & after” shots of their “fitness journey,” on a platform originally created about fashion and body positivity. And I definitely try to save myself from doomscrolling through the comments. I report Instagram ads for dieting apps like Noom, or MyFitnessPal. 

I intentionally fill my feed with accounts with bodies that look similar to mine. Real bodies, in a range of sizes, shades and genders. I like and save the posts to help feed their algorithm monsters too. I signal boost accounts that get shadow banned, often photography or fashion brands who’s posts get flagged by fatphobic trolls. I prefer to disengage in conversations with friends and relatives about their diets, because I know it triggers ED thoughts and I have worked tremendously hard to quiet those thoughts. I confront comments made about my body, or the bodies of people around me when someone says something bullying and then follows it with a “…but I am just worried about their health.” 

These newer mindsets have allowed me to understand that it’s OK to dress however I want, and be who I am. To no longer subscribe to the belief that certain styles of dress, fabrics, or foods are off limits. This “bikini-wearing adult me” has only existed for about 9 years now; I love her. I dislike when I share a photo on social media and people comment to me that I am “brave” for simply existing; in a bikini, a form-fitted or revealing dress, a crop top, shorts that show my VBL (visible belly line) or anything else that isn’t covering up my roundness. A lot of people seem to prefer fat bodies dressed in potato sack-like garb, better to shield their eyes in drapery of fabric than see someone’s “bumps and lumps.” 

It makes me feel seen when I browse the racks at Target and the latest Kona Sol’s fashion campaign is stretched widely above my head featuring a variety of body sizes and shapes. Inclusive sizing in big box retail stores is becoming more common, and fat-bodied people are no longer restricted to shopping at “plus size” specific clothing stores. What’s perhaps more awesome is that ethically-made indie brands like Chicago-based Wulfka, and the unisex, LA-based brand, Big Bud Press, have been building their lines to fit larger-sized bodies since I started shopping them pre-pandemic. Shopping where I want, choosing inclusive and ethical brands, and buying whatever I want to wear—versus “whatever fits and doesn’t look like shit on me!”—means that I can make fashion choices that bodies my size didn’t have when I was a teen and younger adult.

Living fully in a fat body also means freeing myself of the shame of existing just as I am. To move my body for pleasure and not for the intention of a smaller frame. To eat what I want, in the amount that feels right for me, and when I want it. To dress myself in ANYTHING that makes my brain and heart happy! To say this whole process hasn’t been a mind-fuck that has seismic magnitude would be untruthful. It’s hellish at times (although I am fully aware that my white, cis, able-bodied, hetero-passing self has immense privilege on her side). Even with lots of body-love focused self-acceptance work—happening both in and out of therapy—there remains a sort of prerecorded audio tape which still plays in my head sometimes. It makes me question myself some days when I am getting dressed, “Will people look at me and judge me if I wear this?” 

Again, it’s practice, but I am fully committed!

Justin Duyao: Eating What I Want

For as long as I’ve been a runner, I’ve told people that I run a lot, because I eat a lot. Usually, that joke gets a lot of laughs. If you know me at all, you know both are true: I do run a lot, and perhaps more importantly, I reserve a very special place in my heart for food. Not to mention—both traits run in my family. 

Every morning, rain or shine, my uncle jogs through Portland’s iconic “Forest Park” before starting his day. My cousin was a collegiate track star. And my sister was one in high school. I usually tell people it’s her fault I joined the cross country team as a kid.

As far as food is concerned, my dad is my biggest inspiration there. Anytime I come home from a trip, the first question he asks me is “How was the food?” Rumor has it, he eats upwards of five meals a day; ergo, whenever I spend any time with him, it’s more than likely around a piping hot meal and an ice cold beer.

I love these parts of myself. And for years, I loved them effortlessly—until I got injured.

In September 2021, I finally did the thing I’d dreamt for years of doing: I ran an ultramarathon. Alongside a few daring coworkers from REI, we ran the length of the Loowit Loop Trail, which circumnavigates Mount St. Helens, in a single day. In total, we conquered all 7,000 feet of elevation and 50 kilometers without a single hitch. By far, it was both the hardest and most rewarding thing I’d ever done. 

The error I made afterwards was that I didn’t stop running. Typically, after completing a race of that intensity, it’s recommended you take at least a week off running to let your body heal. But I was too excited—I was an ultrarunner, I told myself. And, like my running partner in college always told me, “Runners run.” 

Less than a week later, in the middle of a rainy October jog, my suddenly throbbing knee stopped me in my tracks. The IT band in my left leg had given out completely. I couldn’t take another step. And even though I iced, stretched, massaged, and desperately attempted rehabilitation, over the next few months, I wouldn’t run again for a full year.

In that year, I learned a lot about myself. I realized, for example, that I don’t eat because I run; I run because I eat. Every day that I couldn’t run, long-buried advice from my cross country echoed in the back of my head: “If you eat Burger King after you train, you negate every ounce of effort you just put into your conditioning.”

Suddenly, I felt guilty for loving food because I couldn’t “run it off,” directly after. At first, I cut back, stripping my diet down to yogurt for breakfast and nuts for lunch. The only time I’d eat a full meal was when I was out with friends and felt I had to keep up my “foodie” reputation. But every time, after getting home, I’d take my shirt off and lament my steadily growing beer belly. I missed my runner’s legs. I missed my old body. And the more weight I gained, the worse I felt about myself. Eventually, I stopped looking in mirrors altogether. 

Everybody exercises for different reasons. Some do it to lose weight, others do it to stay sane. For me, I realized I’d fallen in love with running, so long ago, because it allowed me to achieve both. So, in a way, I’m thankful I was forced to take a break from both obsessions. 

Today, I’m happy to report that I have lost very little weight. Just about every ounce I put on during my year-long hiatus, I realize, I gained because I had been underweight for years. And so, because I’m still deeply in love with food, I try my hardest to cook and consume as ethically as I can; but I don’t stop myself from eating because I can’t burn it off anymore. My body has changed. So has my metabolism. And that’s normal.

I still run, too. But I do it because getting outside and staying active makes me happy. And, even though mirrors still feel a little like the enemy, I try to see them now as windows of opportunity to change the way I think. 

Olivia Pace: Filtering Out the Noise and Caring For Myself

I grew up in both an intensive pre-professional dance environment and under the watchful eye of doctors due to a Cystic Fibrosis diagnosis. The latter pushed me to maintain, and often increase, my weight because of my illness, while the dance world encouraged thinness. These two contradictory spaces left me so squished that the way I processed my body’s need for food would be forever distorted. 

One day, my dance director is zooming in on a snapshot of me during a photo shoot to show me how too-big my stomach looked. The next day, my doctors are telling me about new supplements and protein bars to replace the five pounds I had just lost. I was ridiculed by classmates for not maintaining the diet that was expected for us. I was always hiding from someone—what I ate at home from my peers, and the body I strived for to please doctors. 

It would take me years to realize how much the dance program at my little public arts school distorted my body image. I identified that I may actually have something like an eating disorder by the end of 2019, five years after graduating high school. After being sexually assaulted, I stopped eating as a method of control, and as I watched my body wither away I felt a sick satisfaction that I had yearned for since my days in ballet class. I had defied my doctors. I was skinny. I had defied my former teachers. I had achieved an aesthetic I never had in my dance days.

The lack of knowledge or protocols around eating disorders in the world of chronic illnesses is so deeply unnerving. It is obvious to me now, that anytime someone is experiencing a chronic health issue which requires them to restrict, or even in my case expand, their diet, health practitioners should be on the lookout for an eating disorder. A doctor’s guidance cannot override messaging that is embedded into every facet of our world, from media, to friends and family, to restaurant menus. Navigating completely different messages about diet culture at the same time can bring about a world of confusion. 

Eating disorders need to be understood as an expected outcome of a society which only offers one standard for how to eat and look. Those who have a more complicated set of rules due to a chronic illness will constantly catch strays from diet culture’s messaging, and experience guilt for prioritizing their medical health over fitting into a certain aesthetic or cultural norm.

Prioritizing my health and well being based on my specific medical needs reminds me of the faultiness of diet culture every day. For my Cystic Fibrosis-having ass, I am at my best and most energized when I am maxing out on calories and treating myself to fast food once in a while. When we begin to appreciate the nuances of every body’s individual needs and system, diet culture is illuminated as the needless and oppressive ideology it is.

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Amber M. Brown is an emerging writer and artist. When she's not working her 9-5, she’s gigging as a freelance creative consultant focused on women-owned and operated small businesses. Ask her, and she'll tell you everything you need to know about the best shelf-stable cheeses for at-home movie nachos. She often daydreams about publishing a memoir that touches on her experiences with death, grief, and forgiveness. Amber holds a B.A. from The University of Michigan-Dearborn in Humanities, with a focus on Gender Studies and Art History. She spends her personal time rewatching 90’s rom-coms, documenting her daily life and travels through iPhone photography, and volunteering to help end food insecurity in her community. Amber lives in Chicago, Illinois with her husband, and their adorable gray cat.
Justin Duyao is a writer, editor and creative director with experience in journalism, art criticism, copywriting and creative editing. He holds an MA in Critical Studies from the Pacific Northwest College of Art (PNCA) at Willamette University, as well as degrees in English Literature, French and Religious Thought from Harding University. He is the recipient of a Make | Learn | Build grant from Oregon's Regional Arts and Culture Council, as well as a Writing Fellowship from the Hallie Ford School of Graduate Studies at PNCA. His art writing has been published by Oregon ArtsWatch and Variable West, and he has non-fiction essays published in Dismantle Magazine, Weathered and the Clackamas Literary Review, among others. He lives in Portland, Oregon. LinkTree: