Image credit: Philippa Willitts on Flickr, used with Creative Commons license
I got on my computer this morning and came across a post in my social media feed tipping me off to the fact that today is International No-Diet Day. Awesome, right? So I went a-Googling for an image along those lines that I could post in my own feed along with another in my endless string of soapbox rants to try to dismantle oppressive, sizeist standards that are so deeply ingrained in our psyches that sometimes we don’t even notice that we’re clinging to them.
So this is what the top of my Google image search yielded. Behold:
In case you’re not sure what brought on that reaction, take another look. Do you see it?
Yep. The vast majority of those images incorporate indulgent food like ice cream, burgers, donuts, pizza. Because sure, that’s the point of International No-Diet Day– to use it as an excuse to gorge ourselves on “sinful” foods while laughing through a mouthful of frosting. And because sure, the goal of the body positive/fat liberation movement is to get the whole world to join us in “stuffing our faces with cheeseburgers”.
That’s it. That’s the endgame. You figured us out, internet images.
It’s super ironic– and yet not in the least surprising– that people would attempt to talk about an anti-oppression day like International No-Diet Day by playing into one of the worst and most persistent shaming ideas that our culture promotes about weight.
Strap in, friends. Let’s take a little journey.
The origins of International No-Diet Day
I’m not going to get too deep into the history of International No-Diet Day. It’s a quick read. The short form is that a British feminist and eating disorder survivor, Mary Evans Young, came up with the idea for the day in 1992 in the course of her work with women who suffered from the relentless pressure of dieting and weight-based oppression.
The day is a response to the diet culture that pervades Western society specifically, a culture that fixates on the idea of “thin at any cost” and promotes fad diet regimens that are unproven, obsessive, unrealistic, and often downright dangerous. We’re not talking about “eat lots of fruits and veggies and drink plenty of water” here– we’re talking about bullshit “cleanses” and fasts, eating cotton balls, and fixating on one food as some kind of miracle “cure” for fatness.
People have gone on various kinds of questionable diets throughout history, but modern diet culture is usually pinned on William Banting, a British retiree who wanted to lose weight and published a brochure about his experimental diet in 1864. It ended up turning him into the first diet guru as the idea of being weight-conscious caught fire– fueled by the presence of “penny scales” all over public spaces, where you paid a penny to weigh yourself. Suddenly people were getting self-conscious about their weight in a way they hadn’t before.
There’s a really important thing to point out about that shift in society– the fact that it made money. Banting made a lot of money off his pamphlet. Businesses that installed penny scales kept those pennies. Much the way that marketing is responsible for your worries that you smell bad, modern diet culture arose from the realization that there was profit to be had in pressuring people to feel bad about their weight until they were willing to buy any promising-looking quick fix. Nothing about that has changed to this day.
The other key feature of diet culture is that, although it claims the language of health and wellness, it’s not even a little bit about health and it’s absolutely the enemy of wellness. Diet culture is all about punishment for the “sin” of having fat on your body. It’s the most secular religious cult we have next to Republican bootstrap culture.
Lifestyle changes that are truly about the health and wellbeing of the individual don’t use weight loss as the first (or only) measure of success. They encourage eating sufficient calories in a variety of foods that are as pleasing to the senses as they are good for you, not restricting food intake to the point of malnutrition and starvation. And they’re not quick fixes with a 12-week endpoint, they’re a way of life that’s sustainable and rooted in genuine self-care.
Which brings me to why those Google image results infuriated me…
Here’s the thing: The opposite of “no-diet” is not “unrestrained disordered eating”. But one of the cruel and harmful ideas that we just can’t seem to shake as a culture is that 1) all fat people eat tons of unhealthy food, 2) ONLY fat people eat tons of unhealthy food, and 3) the body positive/fat liberation movement is about fat people trying to get everyone on board with eating unhealthy food.
It’s still playing into the hands of diet culture if your response to International No-Diet Day is “wheee, donuts all around! No rules! I’m eating NAUGHTY foods!” (Don’t even get me started on any business that tries to recognize the day by offering discounts on their most indulgent foods.) The point of the day is to embrace actual health and wellbeing, not to run amok like Amish teens on rumspringa because it’s a “day off” of dieting or some nonsense.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not down on indulgent foods. I hate the moralistic words we apply to food (“junk food”, “sinful”, “so bad” etc) and I think that, absent a valid reason to avoid it, you should be able to relax and enjoy your favorite not-very-nutritious treat just because it gives you pleasure. There’s a lot of ableism and classism wrapped up in the doctrine that everyone should be trying to eat super healthfully every minute of the day. My point is just that focusing on indulging in sweets or snacks or decadent stuff in recognition of International No-Diet Day steals focus from the important concepts behind the day as well as reinforcing the disordered ideas about food and eating that feed right back into oppressive body ideals and diet culture.
Here’s 10 better ways to celebrate International No-Diet Day
You know what does honor the activism and ideals that brought about International No-Diet Day? Working to dismantle the oppressive language and structures that keep us all locked into diet culture. These are things you can do any day, every day. If you’re fat or struggling with your weight, hopefully they’ll help you understand that you are not to blame for your oppression and you don’t deserve the cruelty of a fat-negative world. If you’re not, you can be a better ally by tackling some of these– and sometimes, your words will have more effect than those of a fat person, sad but true. And who knows, you might also find yourself healing some of your own body anxieties in the process.
- Stop using moralizing language. Food is food. Rid your vocabulary of toxic terms like “junk food”, “clean eating”, “sinful”, or even just “good” or “bad”. If you mean “nutritious food”, say so. If you mean “indulgent food”, say that too. When you assign moral value to food, eventually you assign moral standing to people based on the perceived moral value of their food, and that’s shitty.
- Never fat-shame someone because you don’t like who they are. Perfect example of this is mocking a politician or pundit for being fat because you don’t like what they say or stand for. It’s NEVER okay to fat-shame, even if the person is terrible. Also: Call this out in others when they do it.
- Stop assuming that fatness is always linked to “junk food”– and especially stop making jokes about it. Every fat person knows this old chestnut: “Put down the cheeseburger and [exercise, diet, etc]!” You’ve almost certainly seen a meme like the one that says, “If Wendy ate her own food” and shows the Wendy’s girl but fat. Reality is that a lot of thin people subsist on “junk food”, and a lot of fat people eat healthfully. Body size is the result of a lot of factors, and linking it to eating “bad” food is lazy and harmful. Do better.
- Stop making cracks about how one meal will affect your weight. Stuff like, “Oof, they’re gonna have to roll me out of this restaurant!” or “Ugh, I might as well just rub this cheesecake on my thighs” are super fatphobic, not even a little bit clever, and also (obviously) not true.
- Challenge clothing stores that only carry small sizes. This is one that’s more effective if you yourself fit within the store’s range of sizes, sadly. Don’t harangue the store clerks or managers, but maybe contact corporate and tell them you’re not going to shop there until they carry a bigger range of sizes. Are you worried that following through means you won’t have many places to shop? Welcome to fat people’s reality. Sucks, doesn’t it?
- Celebrate other things at least as much as you celebrate weight loss. Honestly? I’ve seen people get more attention for their weight loss posts than for posts about career or academic success or any other achievement– especially women. It’s up to you whether you keep celebrating weight loss (though I’d encourage you to think about whether you’d be as enthusiastic about someone’s weight gain and why not), but at least make an effort to hype the people in your life for non-appearance-related accomplishments or qualities.
- Don’t contribute to the diet economy. It’s a $71 BILLION/year industry that sells bullshit and false hope, and preys on your mental and emotional health to do it. I’m not saying don’t ever join a gym or buy a juicer. But don’t buy fad diet books, or weight-loss shakes, or diet supplements, or shirts with fatphobic slogans– the stuff that’s obviously about fat panic and quick fixes and snake oil. Don’t watch weight loss competition shows. Complain to stations that carry those shows or stores that carry those products. Take your dollars elsewhere because that’s literally the only language these predators speak.
- Put your energy toward food waste, food distribution, and hunger. If we as a culture obsessed half as much about finding a way to connect our sheer abundance of food to the people and communities living in chronic hunger as we did about whether we have a thigh gap or a sixpack, we’d have solved world hunger decades ago. The fact that we allow people to live in food insecurity and poverty– even blame them for it– is a far more horrifying social scourge than “the obesity epidemic” could ever be.
- Reclaim the word “fat”. Every time you use the word “fat” disparagingly (yes, even about yourself), or as an insult, or just assuming it’s a negative thing, you’re reinforcing body oppression. People who have reclaimed “fat” for themselves use it the way you’d say “tall” or “left-handed”. Neutralize it in the way you use it– the side benefit is that when people try to insult you with it, it loses much of its power to hurt you.
- Treat yourself lovingly. I didn’t say “love yourself” because let’s face it, that’s something that’s difficult and fraught for a lot of us. But even if you can’t yet change your feelings about yourself, you can change your behavior toward yourself in a body-positive and caring way. And the source of the diet industry’s power over us all is shame and self-loathing. Get better at treating yourself with respect and love than they are at undermining you, and slowly we will wither and destroy that industry at long last. You deserve sufficient food, adequate rest, joyful movement (to the extent your body is able), loving touch, accessible health care. You deserve fun, and treats, and joy, and peace of mind. You deserve clothes that fit and that feel good, and you deserve to get through the day without being treated cruelly or excluded from normal life functions. Give yourself as much of these things as you can, and over time, you’ll find that you start to believe that you have a right to them– as you do.
Obviously, I’m just touching on a tiny fraction of the things that we all can and should do to end diet culture and develop healthy, body-positive ideals that enrich our lives. But it’s a start. And it’s far more effective than sharing cringe-worthy, fat-phobic “celebration” memes and images for one day.