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diet culture

Dear Virgie,

I saw you at the live recording of Call Your Girlfriend at the Jewish Community Center on Friday. You were awesome, by the way. The part where you were talking about the history of dieting and graham crackers was super interesting, and I was hoping you could go over what you said on Friday and talk (errr, write) more about your opinions on the history of dieting.




Dear Amanda!

You’re in luck because I luuurve few things more than telling people about the wackadoodle history of diet culture.

Let me back up for one second and get everyone on the same page. If you’ve never heard of Call Your Girlfriend, look into it! It’s hosted by long distance besties Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow. It’s a podcast dedicated to discussing bestie things, period pain, how to smash patriarchy with snark and grace and current events as they relate to RBG.


Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

They invited me to be a guest for their first ever live taping of the show. Click here to see my show look.

I gave a 10-minute talk on 5 Tips for Surviving the Dietpocalypse – including Tip #1: Recognize that dieting suuuuuucks.

Related: Dear Virgie: Is There Room for Women of Color in the Fat Movement?

Ok, now everyone’s caught up,  on to the history lesson:

Today on #DearVirgie I’d like to highlight the unfortunate diet culture history celeb – Reverend Sylvester Graham – and the relationship between his 200 year old ideology and modern day diet culture.


I actually first learned about RSG while in grad school for Sexuality Studies. He was a bit of a fanatic when it came to the sex (he seemed to pretty much hate it), and he was pretty obsessed with food too.

Ralph Waldo Emerson called him “The Prophet of Bran Bread,” and he was a pivotal leader of the Dietary Reform Movement. Graham was born in 1794, and by the 1830s he had a group of disciples known as Grahamites. He was a fan of bland food, hard bedding and cold baths.

He’s famous for one culinary invention: the graham cracker. If you can believe it, back in the 1800s graham crackers were actually more bland than they are today.

His riveting works include A Treatise on Bread and Bread Making and A Lecture to Young Men (read this if you want nightmares/to understand all of patriarchy and American sex negativity), in which he excoriates masturbation and recommends curing chronic masturbators with aggressive circumcision. Super aggressive circumcision, girl. Think: painful erections for life.

For girls who were chronic masturbators, he recommended the administration of pure carbolic acid to the clitoris.

For real. Ouchykins.

Graham believed that through food we could control morality. He felt that delicious, spicy and even hot food led to a temperamental disposition and libidinousness.

His followers insisted there was a strong link between diet, health and morality.

In case this doesn’t sound familiar to you, the premise of modern day dieting is that if you work hard enough and exercise discipline, you can deserve to have all the things that make life worth living.

Almost all of the principles of modern day dieting date back about 200 years, concocted in the brain of a clitoris-hating dick butcher who would have hated sriracha.

RSG seems kind of ridiculous in retrospect, but, like so does paleo … right now actually. I think the important takeaway from his story is how explicit the connection between sexual prohibition, moralistic attitudes and the cult of food restriction truly were in his mind, while recognizing that the core of contemporary diet culture still espouses many of the same principles. Our food fads and weight loss schemes change all the time, but at the core, they posit that through controlling food we can achieve a heightened moral state.

Before I go eat some beans, I wanted to share the exact words I did on Friday.

Diet culture does one thing very successfully: it alienates us from our natural relationship to food and movement, things that we as human beings have had a relationship to since the beginning of time, and which we cannot live without, and it sells them back to us as “diet” and “exercise” with the promise that with hard work and self-denial we can achieve a state worthy of love, respect and admiration.

Controlling your diet isn’t the key to achieving these things, though.

Sorry, diet culture. You were weird and creepy 200 years ago and you’re still weird and creepy today.




Dear Virgie is a weekly advice column by Virgie Tovar, MA, author, activist and one of the nation’s leading experts and lecturers on fat discrimination and body image. She is the founder of Babecamp and the editor of Hot & Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love and Fashion (Seal Press, November 2012) and the mastermind behind #LoseHateNotWeight. She holds a Master’s degree in Human Sexuality with a focus on the intersections of body size, race, and gender. Virgie has been featured by the New York Times, MTV, Al Jazeera, the San Francisco Chronicle, NPR, Huffington Post, Cosmopolitan Magazine Online, and Bust Magazine. Find her at www.virgietovar.com.