© Illustration by INJECTION - Alicia Lupieri
Unraveling the Impact of Diet Culture: How My Upbringing Shaped My Relationship with Food and Self-Esteem.
Submitted by Caitlin (20), UK.
TW: eating disorders
Throughout my life, from as young as I can remember, I have struggled with self-esteem surrounding my weight, which in turn affected my eating habits. My earliest memory of this was in the primary school playground when I asked my friend, a girl who seemed to eat whatever she liked and remain slim, how to lose weight. Looking back now, I can’t believe that at the age of seven or eight, this was something that concerned me so much, but at the time, I remember thinking that losing weight was a priority.
From a very early age until just last year, I was constantly trying calorie counting, fad diets, and Weightwatchers, going from starving myself to bingeing every other week.
The most worrying thing about this behaviour is that, until very recently, I had no idea it wasn’t healthy. I didn’t believe that I could be fat and struggle with disordered eating at the same time. I assumed that unless I became incredibly underweight, what I was doing could only make me healthier. I never sought out any help for this as I believed that my relationship with food wasn’t an issue, only my weight was.
It wasn’t until a conversation with a friend that I realised where these issues stemmed from.
“Did you grow up in a Weightwatchers household?”
I had no clue what she meant by this. She explained: that growing up around constant dieting, being told that foods are good or bad, and being restricted in what you can eat and when you can eat it are all factors that can shape the way you view food and your relationship with it.
It then dawned on me how much my upbringing had affected the way I view myself and my struggles with eating. My mum has spent her life on and off Weightwatchers, utterly convinced that it’s the healthiest way to view food and lose weight. She included their ready meals and snacks in our weekly shop and, for a short while, only allowed my sister and me to eat sweets and chocolates one day a week.
Years later, I now live away from home and do all my own food shopping and cooking, and yet my relationship with food growing up can still creep into my thoughts. For example, having a designated sweet and chocolate day as a child was an attempt to have me eat more healthy foods, but now as an adult, it has meant that I struggle to open food without finishing it that day. I’m still programmed to believe I won't be able to enjoy the rest of it tomorrow. This is just one of many ways that diet culture has followed me into adulthood.
I have managed to unlearn a lot of awful thoughts I had about food and my own body as a teenager, but I still have some way to go.
Of course, I don’t blame my mum for any of this. She, like many others, is simply a victim of diet culture and these companies, caught up in the intergenerational cycle. When you begin to examine the way they work, you can understand why they can take such a toll.
Describing some foods as ‘free’ and others as ‘syns’ only reinforces the idea that some foods make you slim and others make you fat. From that, you can experience so much shame and guilt around eating ‘bad foods,' and it becomes easy to blame any slight fluctuation in your weight on eating those foods. Seeing this from such an early age cements this ideology.
In reality, food isn’t good or bad and shouldn’t be viewed this way. Of course, some foods contain more calories, fat or sugar, but because of the negativity surrounding them, it is easy to forget that we still need them to live. Slimming companies and diet culture thrive off convincing us that we need to eat as little as possible and exclusively ‘good’ foods, when in reality, food is fuel; we should eat until we are satisfied and allow ourselves to enjoy any foods that we like.
Growing up surrounded by negative talk about food and body image did take a huge toll on me, as I am sure it did for many others in the same situation. Until you look back, it’s hard to believe how viewing dieting through childhood and adolescence can influence your thoughts and feelings about food years later.
However, as time has gone, I have become aware of these thoughts and behaviour patterns in myself, and little by little, I am able to unlearn them, but of course, this does take time. Whilst I still have some way to go, I have realised that my relationship with food is far more important for my health than the number on the scale.