Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Diet Culture, Individualism, and Fighting Back

When I was 12 or 13 years old I became extremely interested in nutrition and dieting. Unfortunately, a lot of the information I gathered came from my mom’s Glamour magazines.  This began an adolescence full of conflicting messages and unrealistic expectations. I am not unique in my experience of being swept up by diet and nutrition media.

What is referred to as “diet culture” is a phenomenon where claims and practices that would likely fail miserably in a scientific fact check are preached through different modes of media and absorbed by consumers of that media. Many aspects of diet culture are magnified by social media.

 My attention was initially called to the topic of diet culture by a documentary I happened to find through one of my nutrition-based searches. Hungry For Change discussed aspects of advertising and media promotion that make false or distorted nutrition claims. It promoted natural and organic foods as a weight-loss strategy and as a basis for a healthy lifestyle. However, as I watched this documentary, I noticed that the "experts" were "gurus" and "authors" rather than dietitians and doctors. Their health claims were vague and sensationalist and were not rooted in scientific research or known facts. There was also some repetition throughout the film that made it seem like they were running out of claims to make or evidence to support their claims. Because a documentary that was supposedly calling attention to the diet industry's faulty claims and methods was guilty of some of the same methods I decided to further investigate the diet industry and the entire culture that this documentary ended up being a contributor to.

Today’s “diet culture” is a force fueled by the fashion, food, and diet industries. Diet culture is an ideology that much of Western Society has adopted that gives set ideals for physical appearance and prescribes diet and exercise practices to achieve them. This culture is perpetuated through the media by sellers of product and nurtured by consumers of that media. It assumes that everyone wants to lose weight and encourages weight loss and improvement of aesthetic features through weight loss. This culture encourages achieving its ideals “at all costs” and nearly disregards proper nutrition and exercise practices that a medical doctor or registered dietitian would prescribe unless it sells a product or service. The diet and weight loss industry promotes surefire secrets to losing weight and losing it fast and their nutrition claims promise effective weight loss programs while referencing scientific facts loosely. Other factual information is misconstrued to sell the product. Sensationalist health claims are made, unhealthy exercise and dieting practices are encouraged, and all in the name of "looking hot". This is everywhere. In 20 minutes I compiled a full Pinterest board of radical health claims and links promoting methods to "get sexy fast".

Here's a link to my "diet Culture" Pinterest board:

Why is this kind of media effective?
Although facts abut physiology and nutrition are not common knowledge, there is not a complete lack of nutritional competence among the partakers of fad diets and quick weight-loss programs. So, what causes these consumers to fall under the spell of the diet industry's claims? I believe that it is an overriding principle of self-promotion that is a descendant of individualism.

Individualism has several historical and modern definitions, but I will refer to the Renaissance definition. This defines individualism as an ideology where the interest of the individual ought to take moral precedence over the will of any other entity. Today’s diet culture is enabled by every consumer’s manifestation of individualism.

Individualism began during the Renaissance period. Individuals began to set moral bounds for themselves rather than to comply to those taught by clergy. This allowed for a lot of thinkers to come forward with their ideas and their art. The freeing of the arts promoted a love for beauty and glorification of the human body came along with that. As the printing press allowed for affordable modes of information distribution, and thus, an easier way to spread ideas, beauty ideals were established.
Technology eventually led to many forms of media that we have today. Throughout the 20th and 21st century, developing technology has enabled advertising and further idea sharing that industries use to promote their products. In this case, the modern manifestation of individualism is individuals using their ability to think independently to take measure to achieve beauty ideals. Technology has allowed humans more time to focus on the cosmetic aspect of living and modern scientific research fuels the media’s “scientific” claims about nutrition and the human body. Prosperity has given the middle and upper class opportunity to invest time and money into their appearance. The pervading individualist mindset combined with desires to achieve ideals makes the average media partaker susceptible to trends.
Individualism fuels diet culture
We have inherited and perpetuated a sense of individualism that engages us in diet culture and this encourages the media and industry to continue providing its services. Without a consumer’s sense of self-promotion they are unlikely to participate in diet practices or partake of media presenting beauty ideals and diet information. I am proposing a new way to exercise this individualism. The type of individualism that fuels diet culture and results in yo-yo dieting and related health risk is concerned with self-promotion, and comparison to others. It encourages doing whatever must be done to achieve these goals. This is possible because individualism follows the self as the moral compass, a moral code based on self-interest.  

How individualism can change diet culture
If individualism was adapted on a large scale to use self-interest in the furthering of health and wholesome living (rather than competition with ideals and promoting of the self) the industry’s approach would change.  It would see the public’s interest in factual nutrition and promotion of health and would shift from appearance-based products and advertising to health-and-wellness-based products.  Other industries, like the fashion and food industries, would catch on and products and advertising would begin to change. This has begun to happen with the increased availability of vegetarian and vegan options in grocery stores and restaurants.  An increase in interest and demand forced the industry to adjust to the consumer’s needs. The same thing can happen with body and diet culture ideals. If we change what we want, the industry will give us what we want.

Works Cited:

1. Hungry For Change, Directors: James Colquhoun, Laurentine Ten Bosch, Carlo Ledesma. Can be found on Netflix.
2. Wardlaw's Perspectives in Nutrition, Ninth Edition, pg 340, "10 red flags"

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