Diet Culture Edition Introduction: Reflecting on the Power of Stories

glass cubes mounted on the wall reflecting diet culture
Photo by Maria Fuentes on

[Note: This piece, along with the others in this series, refers to diet culture, weight stigma, fat phobia, intentional weight loss and disordered eating. We are consciously not linking potentially triggering material.]

I want to tell you my story about surviving diet culture, but honestly, it isn’t anything special. Maybe some details of my story are even the same as yours. Maybe in middle school, you also begged your mom to let you join Weight Watchers with her (whether or not you were what the medical establishment deemed overweight is beside the point). Maybe she hesitated, but thought it would be a way to learn about nutrition and meal planning. And with you entering your teens and all the demands on her energy, it was a rare opportunity to squeeze in mother-daughter time. Maybe you started to see food as math. Instead of sustenance, it became a frightening spreadsheet of calories and nutritional values. Maybe, too, you began to associate dieting with a kind of feminine bonding that was messed up, but available.

If you were also in your mid-20s in the 2000s—that time of tiny tank tops and hip-baring jeans— maybe you decided to “take control once and for all.” In your youthful naivete, you believed stories telling you the body was a malleable object, something you could will into an entirely new shape. Maybe you dieted and exercised with a fervor that took over two-thirds of your brain. When you visited a friend in New York City, her best friend, the witty, cool gay man everyone wanted at their party, greeted you by saying, “Hey there Skeletor, what happened to you?” And it was your proudest moment. You thought, if I can be a size 6, why not a size 4

But then maybe that same year you were at a wedding and the photographer whispered in your ear—just yours—“when I count to three, suck in your stomach. You’ve got a pooch.” And you were humiliated, but you did it. That was nearly the thinnest you’d ever be, and you were still a sturdy working-class Slav in a room full of—you thought—willowy, wealthy, Western Europeans. 

A few months later, your younger sister came to visit because she was going through a hard time, and the only support you could think to offer her was exercise and steamed vegetables. 

Maybe it would start to eat at you that in order to value and maintain this thin body, you had to draw lines between yourself and people you loved. Also you were hungry. So. Hungry. The signs were piling up that there was no winning this game. You’d read them later. 

For me, “later” was an ever-moving target, one made harder to find because of the conflicting messages around me and inside my head. Education helped in some ways, but it also hurt. There was a part of me that thought, I teach feminist theory. I’m supposed to be smart. How can I still struggle with something this basic? Of course I struggled, though. I still do. Diet culture is a trap and it’s the water we swim in. There are rewards if we play, punishments if we stop. 

Maybe none of what I described was specifically your experience, but it’s likely close enough.  

Here’s where I am now, as a chubby, middle-aged, white and able-bodied woman who grew up during a particularly insidious era: I have not made any kind of real peace with my body. But I am making peace with that lack. The truth is, even in the larger body I have now, while I’ve been made uncomfortable and struggled to find clothes I like, I haven’t faced discrimination at work or in my healthcare, or just existing in a space. 

For me, the real damage of diet culture was isolation and self-absorption. (There’s a reason we have “hangry,” but no portmanteau that means hungry and happy, hungry and a good listener, hungry and empathetic.) So, I’m trying to focus on how I can support fat activists and speak up when I hear words or see practices that draw lines between good and bad bodies. I’ve benefited and learned a ton from friends, family and other figures who got here sooner than me, and I want to do right by them. I’m maybe going to feel weird about my own body forever. Whatever. That’s not why I want to dismantle diet culture and fat phobia. It’s well documented that fat phobia is rooted in racism, classism and misogyny. As I get older, I’m finding it harder to reconcile a commitment to resisting those forms of oppression with striving for the elusive benefits of thin privilege myself. I want to fight because life is short and we have enough problems without categories like size and “health” (whatever that means) acting as barriers between us. 

Elise and I didn’t plan to devote this issue to diet culture. After Parties are usually short and light. That’s why we call them parties! And diet culture is an exhausting and triggering topic that  encourages even the most progressive minds to seek individual solutions to political problems. But we were so blown away by the passion, vulnerability and thoughtfulness of these responses, we wanted to give them all the space they deserved. We hope you enjoy parts one, two and three.

In the midst of the return of heroin chic, Ozempic frenzy, the American Academy of Pediatrics’ revised guidelines on treating obesity, and so on, our hope is that telling these stories, in their sameness and their specifics, can turn diet culture on its head. Instead of a tool for disempowerment, it can become a catalyst for coming together in a community of care and resistance. 

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Sara Tatyana Bernstein
Sara is the co-founder of Dismantle Magazine. You can also find her writing on Longreads, LitHub, Hippocampus, Catapult, The Outline, Racked, BuzzFeed Reader, and more.