My postgraduate research is focused on social media and dieting. I have looked at the history of dieting and the role of social media in reinforcing the ‘thin ideal’, and I am now beginning to look at how social media is used by people with or in recovery from an eating disorder and how social media is used for body image activism and education. For my final research project I will be looking at the impact of female fitness and dieting accounts on social media users.
There is a reason I am so passionate about this topic, and that reason is connected to having had anorexia nervosa, but it runs so much deeper than that. My experiences of anorexia as a teenager, developing into an adult, have seen me become very aware of the messages that the diet industry puts out there. I do not buy into any of it. Living with an eating disorder has made me less immune to the diet industry than the typical person is, of that I am sure.
What I have become most aware of goes beyond the impact that diet culture has on people with eating disorders, and my interest now is heavily on the impact of diet culture on everyone. Being surrounded by other people my age (and of all ages) has made me extremely aware of this; as someone in recovery from an eating disorder I often find myself questioning who is the one who has had the disorder. It often feels like the people around me are now more disordered than I am.
I am anti-dieting. Ridiculously anti-dieting. This does not mean I am against weight loss. It does not mean I am against healthy living, nor does it mean I am against exercise, weight lifting, or most other things. It does mean I heavily question standard approaches to weight loss, and how we are defining healthy. It does mean I am against diet pills, valuing ourselves based on our weight or shape, and denying ourselves pleasures in life.
The dieting industry is primarily a money making industry. I often remind myself of that. Those diet plans you pay for? Yep, they care about money above anything else. The message is that if you spend enough money, you can be perfect.
Diet culture has been built around the ‘thin ideal’ that tells us that in order to be happy and healthy we need to be thin; it leads us to judging our self-worth on how we look and what we weigh, and often it even leads us to judging other people in this way too. Weight gain is seen as being related to a lack of self-control and so we see ourselves and others as flawed when they gain weight, and yet often when people gain weight it is because they have learnt to let go of the strict rules and boundaries dieting places on our lives. Do not feel guilty for falling into this trap – sadly, I think we all are guilty at times, and this is because of the messages we receive.
The reality is that bodies come in all different shapes and sizes based on a multitude of factors beyond lifestyle choices; genetics, age, gender, race, physical health, mental health and hormones. Our size changes over time, and it is not something we can always control.
Health is so much more than a number on a scale, and happiness is never going to be found in pounds lost.
We need to learn how to trust ourselves and our bodies. We need to get angry. We need to get angry at a society that dictates how we should live our own lives. Angry that we are sent mixed messages. Angry that we feel bad for eating chocolate, and feel that we are better people for eating “clean”. We need to be angry that we can book a consultation with a plastic surgeon who will point out all of the surgery we need to look better like we are not enough as we are. We need to be angry that our body dissatisfaction is now affecting the younger generations. We need to be angry that we are being pushed down a road into a way of living that can ruin the happiness of our children. We need to be angry that when we exercise we are thinking about how many calories we burnt rather than running like we did when we were young; for fun.
Health is important, but health does not equate to thinness. We need to be approaching our lifestyle in a way that is sustainable – and dieting is not. We need to be leading a lifestyle that is in balance, and that enables us to eat and exercise and enjoy ourselves.
I always remind myself that nobody is on their death bed thinking that they are glad they said no to dessert every now and then.