I can’t pinpoint exactly when I started to think of myself as anti-diet, but I can tell you it didn’t happen quickly. I spent years believing that dieting and weighing less would solve most of my problems and lead to otherwise inaccessible health and happiness. (What that health and happiness looked like was totally unclear, but I never really questioned that part.)
Even after I managed to abandon actual diets and the pursuit of weight loss, I spent more years as a “healthy” eater who was vigilant about anything and everything I ate. I tried with varying degrees of success to limit or totally avoid “unhealthy” foods. It took up a lot of my mental energy to be so careful and so rigid about how I ate.
Eventually I started to wonder what would happen if I was a little less “healthy;” if I ate less salad (which I was sick of) and more pizza (which I love and missed). The more I wondered about what it would be like to have fewer rules, the more curious I got. So, I read Intuitive Eating, a book about letting go of external rules about how to eat and learning how to listen to your body and mind’s own hunger and cravings. I started to actually put it into practice. I stopped using almond milk and started using actual milk. I ate chocolate chip cookies instead of chocolate chip protein bars. I started putting cheese—which I had really been missing—on literally everything. My idea of healthy eating got more and more expansive, with flexibility that it never had before. Mind you, all of this took about a year, and it wasn’t without its speedbumps.
Intuitive eating helped me unlearn all the diet culture bullshit I had believed in for so long—that there are certain things I should eat and certain things I shouldn’t, that I should eat certain amounts of some things and other amounts of other things. And so on. Now I understand that health and nutrition are incredibly personal. That’s part of the reason that diet culture’s sweeping directives to “eat like this, not like that!” are useless and potentially harmful. After all, no one way of eating will work for everyone. (And that goes for intuitive eating, a way of thinking about food and eating that was developed to help people heal their relationships to food after years—or a lifetime—of dieting.)
Having said that, for me, intuitive eating wasn’t just about my own diet. It was one of the steps on my path toward embracing a true anti-diet mindset. So, what does that even mean, you ask? The anti-diet movement is about abandoning diets, food rules, and the idea that the only way to be healthy is to achieve and maintain a certain weight. Its leaders are mostly a combination of dietitians, therapists, health and nutrition researchers, and fat-acceptance activists who aim to help people establish a healthy relationship with food and their body, regardless of size.
But the reality is that, as of now, concern and handwringing about food and weight are still the norm in lots of different environments—as well as just, like, culturally. Friends and colleagues talk about their food guilt all the time. Body talk sneaks into conversations—weight gain, weight loss, comparison, self-criticism, not to mention blatant insults about other people’s fat bodies. And look, when you think about it, who wouldn’t be fixated on thinness when being thin affords you greater access to so many rights and privileges? We’re living in a society where thinness is exorbitantly valued and being fat really does make life harder, thanks to fat-shaming and weight bias.
Diet talk (and anti-fat talk) is also culturally normalized, especially among women, explains Joy Cox, Ph.D., an activist and researcher in New Jersey whose work focuses on fat acceptance and intersecting identities. Hearing her say this reminds me of that mirror scene in Mean Girls. Karen, Gretchen, and Regina are crowded in front of a mirror, each critiquing their own perceived body “flaws”—too-big hips, calves, “man shoulders,” weird hairlines, huge pores, nail beds that “suck.” They expectantly turn to Cady, who is new to American teenage culture and confused by the extreme negative self-talk. She scrambles to come up with a flaw of her own, but ends up with the mismatched, “I have really bad breath in the morning?” (“Ew,” and dismissive eyeroll from each of the other girls is the response.) Certainly, many of us have experienced that commiserating about diet struggles and body “flaws” is a reflexive way for women to bond with each other in our culture, and that refusing to participate in it can be difficult.
Given all of this, when I find myself confronted with diet talk, I’m so torn about what to say that most of the time don’t say anything. For one thing, the thought of opening up this giant and complex can of worms is intimidating. Then, there’s the fear that I might be wrong, that it’s naive and arrogant to stop striving for a better, smaller body, or some abstract concept of better health. I hate that diet culture normalizes such negative food and body talk, but I’m not sure exactly how to react to it in real time. Because really, pushing back on diet culture isn’t about just shutting down diet talk or making people who engage in diet talk feel singled. It’s about understanding that the value placed on thinness is oppressive for all of us, but especially for anyone living in a fat body. And, followup: how do you even begin to start this conversation in casual conversation? Here’s how that might go:
Unsuspecting friend: “I have to work off those cheese fries.”
Me: “OK, but have you considered the complex sociocultural ramifications of diet talk?”
Not exactly a friendly conversation starter, people.
I’m not alone in feeling this way. Even people who have been anti-diet for years, who have made careers out of it, have a tough time in these situations. So, I reached out to four of them and asked what to do, what not to do, and what to always keep in mind when you’re anti-diet and the people around you aren’t—whether they truly buy into it or have just internalized it to the point that it’s reflexive to them.
When I started talking to these folks, I expected tips and tricks that would help me navigate these situations. But, news flash, there’s no hack in the known universe that’s going to make a conversation that requires sensitivity, compassion, and nuance require…any less of those things. That said, the people I spoke to said a ton of helpful things that have really helped me think about and react to these situations.
1. Be aware of how your privilege informs the way you show up for the anti-diet cause.
As someone who is a white, thin, cisgender woman—who has a career in food media and is getting an advanced degree in nutrition, two relatively homogeneous fields—I certainly need to be careful not to make this anti-diet advocacy all about or only about me and my experiences and opinions. And, to realize that all of this is much easier for me than it would be for someone in a more marginalized body.
“If you’re someone in a thin body and your fat friend is discussing dieting, I don’t think it’s necessarily appropriate to call them out,” says Kimmie Singh, M.S, R.D., an anti-diet dietitian in New York City who focuses on intuitive eating with a weight-neutral approach. “There’s so much to consider. As someone who lives in a larger body, I’ll say that it comes with so many struggles that thin people just don’t have the lived experience of. And, the pressure to diet is a lot stronger for a fat person. A fat friend might feel attacked by anti-diet talk from a thin friend, because that friend just can’t know what it’s like for them.”
Cox agrees. “If someone who’s a size 6 says, ‘I’m not going to diet,’ the implications of that aren’t the same as they are for me, a black woman and a size 24. They don’t have to worry about bad reactions from physicians. Their access to services is not put on the line in the same way.”
Singh also points out that intersecting identities make things more complicated. “The fat positive, body positive, anti-diet movement hasn’t historically been very safe for people of color,” she says. “Generally, I try and put my energy into making the movement a safer place, instead of calling individual people out for diet talk.”
2. Remember that it’s also OK to not engage.
And, honestly, straight-up not engaging is probably the way to go in a lot of common situations. For instance, this is a great course of action to take when you hear a diet-y comment from someone you don’t feel comfortable disagreeing with. Think of it as planting a seed without ruffling too many feathers, suggests Amee Severson, R.D, a dietitian in Bellingham, WA whose work focuses on intuitive eating and body acceptance. By disengaging, you protect yourself from talk that makes you feel bad or angry without endorsing a point of view you don’t agree with.
“With a lot of people, I just don’t engage,” Severson says. “Especially with someone who doesn’t know a lot about the [anti-diet, fat-positive] work I do, or who is really rooted in diet culture. Opening up an anti-diet conversation is not emotional labor I’m willing to expend a lot of the time.” And besides, maybe whoever you’re with isn’t interested in having that conversation anyway.
3. That said, if someone is bashing another person’s body or food choices, it’s important to speak up.
“If someone is talking bad about someone else’s body, I do call that out,” says Devinia Noel, a psychotherapist and intuitive eating counselor in London. “I say that fatphobia is not acceptable, and I question why they’re concerned about what someone else’s body looks like. What does it matter to them? I have family members stuck in fatphobic beliefs, and I question those beliefs constantly.” The caveat here is that not everyone is in a position to do this—a person from a marginalized community might feel attacked or unsafe about speaking up. Or, if the person making the comment is in a position of authority, calling them out may not be socially appropriate.
“When I hear somebody body shaming or food policing someone else, that’s when I feel a bit more obligated to step in and speak up,” Singh says. “Or, if someone is talking about their child’s body, if I see that their diet mentality is causing harm, that’s when I try to provide more information.
4. Remember that everyone has the right to to treat and talk about their own body however they want.
“It’s so important to recognize body autonomy,” Singh says. “If someone wants to lose weight because they’re experiencing severe oppression in their life because of their body, that’s very real. I encourage my clients to make their own decisions, but to make sure they’re as informed as possible. I offer as much sound research and encouragement about the anti-diet approach as I can, but then I leave the decision to them.”
Of course, it’s not on any one of us to determine whether someone’s wish to lose weight is “valid.” The point is that your body is your body, and your choices about and for it don’t need to be justified to anyone.
This is even more relevant in social situations. When a friend complains about their body or brings up their diet, they probably aren’t looking for an anti-diet lecture from you. “Usually when diet stuff comes up in casual conversation, it isn’t the right moment to have the come to Jesus talk,” Singh says.
Ultimately, you can only control your own thoughts and actions. Make sure you’re living up to your own values.
I wish I could draw a clearer road map for how to exist as an anti-diet person in a diet-centric world, how to make change, and how to make the world a better place for all people, in all bodies. But the truth is that it’s complicated, and it’s naive to think that you can change everyone’s mind. Do what you can, lead by example, and cut yourself some slack for mistakes you’ve made and might continue to make. “There’s a misconception that we should always be fighting,” Noel says. “In reality, we can’t. It’s OK to protect yourself, to step away sometimes.”