This post was updated Jan. 14 at 6:52 p.m.
Late-night coffee sessions and a constantly looming sense of stress may seem synonymous with the college lifestyle – but it doesn’t have to be that way. In her series Inner Peas, Daily Bruin contributor Kayleigh Ruller will explore different ways students can easily practice various wellness tactics in their busy day-to-day lives.
A few months ago, I sat in Bruin Plate and ate Monday’s dessert special: a warm and crumbly vegan chocolate chip banana bread. At first, the sweet, buttery chocolaty flavors sent me to my happy place. But it didn’t last long – I felt the guilty thoughts start creeping in slowly. Did my friends eat as much as I did? How many calories are in a quinoa bowl?
Diet culture is a belief system that equates thinness with health, morality and social acceptance, using food rules to manipulate body size. The culture which persists due to in diet and fitness programs has perpetuated the “war on obesity” – a way the government has denounced certain foods and fat bodies.
Diet culture has its roots in a complex brand of prejudice called “fatphobia:” the fear, stigma and discrimination against fat people and individuals with bigger bodies. It is not just a harmful way of thinking, but a system of oppression that intersects with classism and sexism perpetuated by the privilege-ridden wellness, media, medical and public health industries.
There are plenty of factors that have contributed to this perception of differing body shapes and sizes, one being the classist and unequal structural systems throughout history that have led higher body weight to be associated with earning less, marrying less and general downward mobility.
UCLA sociology professor Abigail Saguy said that, on the other hand, flaunting thinness is a mechanism by which elite groups distinguish themselves from others and justify their thinness as deserving, virtuous and well-earned.
Body size is seen as a social label, where thin bodies are seen as healthy and virtuous and fat bodies are seen as lower class and lazy. Given that physical appearance and body size seem to say so much about a person in our society, it’s no surprise people are obsessed with body image and looking thin.
For many years, the mainstream media’s perfect girl was a white, thin woman – a standard unattainable and isolating for women of color and/or fat people. Think Brandy Melville’s “One Size Fits All” – that really means “One Size Fits 0-4 (Barely).”
Those who are told to believe they fall short of society’s beauty standard experience a biased perception of the clothes they should wear or the amount of food they must eat.
The result is a toxic environment in which everyone wants to avoid fatness, where losing weight through unhealthy avenues becomes commonplace. Giving in to societal pressures has come to mean counting calories, giving up carbohydrates, going through diet trends like Atkins, South Beach or the Grapefruit diet.
Fad diets may be “trendy,” but they have one thing in common: guilt and shame as motivators which have led to weight cycling, or yo-yo dieting, posing increased risks of disease and disordered eating.
Companies and corporations are cashing out on Americans’ fatphobia, using it to sell diet and lifestyle products like Keto Protein Powder, MCT oil and Keto Pancake mix to name a few. Large industries have co-opted this term of wellness, once associated with intuitive eating and exercise, to become a virtuous and elitist social norm.
Helen Zhong, a fourth-year gender studies and sociology student and co-director of UCLA’s Body Image Task Force, is frustrated by the hierarchy of human morality deemed by way of food choice.
“By labeling foods as good or bad, or even clean, it amounts to the same thing: the moral dimension of food,” Zhong said. “It’s linked to a very puritanical view of looking at bodies and pleasure, as if you can’t eat something because it tastes good, and you only can eat it if it serves a purpose or contributes to your productivity.”
This corporate habit of fat-shaming disguised as health-promotion can be seen in UCLA’s own dining halls.
For example, Zhong points out one particular nutrition tip posted directly on dining hall websites that reads: “Dining halls should be just that, where you eat. Although it’s great to chat with friends while you eat, avoid staying for long periods of time to reduce your temptation to keep eating.”
The desire to eat with others for an extended period of time and enjoy the experience of meal should not be shamed as it is in the nutrition “tip” above, Zhong said.
Emily Davidson, a third-year human biology and society student, also felt that the UCLA dining hall environment made her feel uncomfortable in choosing how much and what to eat. At some meals, she said she would look at what everyone else was eating.
Davidson said this comparison behavior is always present, especially for young women, and given the broadcasting of nutrition labels and sugar content throughout many of UCLA’s dining halls. Putting her food on the table felt like an opportunity for judgement, she said.
Furthermore, Davidson points to the impact of social media, and misinformed influences on her personal health journey.
“I love following foodie accounts, but I realized a lot of these accounts portray an ultra-healthy, fatphobic idea of what health is,” Davidson said. “This health food media culture fetishizes a perfectly portioned plate, that lacks a diversity of foods and experience that make a meal healthy.”
After all, a plate of food is so much more than the sum of its calories, sugar and fat. Sometimes, it is an experience to be enjoyed and appreciated without judgement of self or others.
Saguy suggests adopting a critical view of corporate “wellness” industries, and looking to movements such as Health At Every Size which promote health without sizeism. In addition, seeking out communities that go beyond weight obsession, food restriction and fatphobic size shaming makes for truly sustainable health, Saguy said.
Many studies suggest mindful eating as a way to embrace this experience of food that Davidson describes. Mindful eating isn’t advertised as fat shaming or skinny promoting and, most importantly, is free.
Mindful eating can steer you away from judgement when sharing a meal in the dining halls with friends. According to studies by the American Diabetes Association, the process allows you to appreciate the experience of food with awareness.
Appreciating the experience of a meal with fellow diners can invite a reacquaintance with the pleasure of food, minus the guilt and shame.
“The practice of eating things that might not be labeled as clean or healthy is important,” Davidson said. “(If someone is able), it’s ultimately important to eat food that makes us feel good.”