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Diet Culture and Weight Loss Programs Are A Scam

Those who have a vested interest in diet culture are investing in systemic anti-fatness, anti-Blackness, ableism, misogyny/-noir, and capitalism.

TW/CW: this article discusses fatphobia, diet culture, and Weight Watchers 

In September of 2018, Weight Watchers—now known as “WW”— published a press release that showcased the company’s new name, new tagline, and its overall “new” focus. The focus, according to the release, was “no longer weight loss” but rather “all around health and wellness.” The reality, however, is that a rebrand only in name does not shift the material reality in which Weight Watchers is just another result of a 200+ year phenomena: diet culture and the diet industrial complex—which I define as the written and unwritten pact between food, medical, and healthcare industries and billionaires with a vested interest in building and sustaining a socioeconomic system under which fat people are stolen from and harmed through dieting.

To say it another way: the diet industrial complex—and multibillion-dollar weight-loss industries like Weight Watchers—is a project that thrives only on our (societal) commitment to anti-fatness.

Dieting, or yo-yo dieting as it’s more accurately referred to, is but a temporary food plan with only temporary solutions to something that is not inherently a problem. By this, I mean: diet culture was never intended to successfully help anyone lose weight, and our commitments to weight loss are inherently anti-fat. On diet culture, Virgie Tovar once wrote:

“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.”

But we don’t need diets or diet culture to do this. In fact, 95%-97% of people who diet tend to “fail.” Not because they aren’t committed, not because they are doing them incorrectly, but because dieting demands that you do whatever it takes to shed pounds—even if what it takes requires you to harm yourself—instead of encouraging one to do what makes them feel good in their body. Especially if whatever that is does not require them to lose weight. Because the capital is in teaching people to hate their bodies; how much we value thinner bodies; and how much guilt we associate with foods we enjoy.

Diet culture creates language like “guilty pleasure” and “cheat day,” which teaches us to associate foods that we love, that make us feel good and that we actually find enjoyable, with harm. And while we are being taught that diets are necessary for our survival, many of these short-term diets can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and more. In fact, one study found that men with a fluctuating weight were at an 80% higher risk of dying than men who are “overweight.” Another study found that women who were yo-yo dieters were ~82% less likely to reach and maintain their ideal weight.

Recommended: THERE IS NO LIBERATION FOR ALL BODIES WITHOUT THE LIBERATION OF FAT BLACK WOMEN AND FEMMES

None of this is to shame anyone for any health concerns or complications they may encounter in life. I am both fat and disabled, and not only disbelieve and denounce the total idea of “health” itself but also believe that it holds no merit in determining how one should and should not be treated. Instead, this is all to say that it is precisely because health is so limited and fickle that this commitment to holding others to a fire that you cannot walk through yourself is both counterproductive and unintelligible. 

But with this, if we revisit Virgie’s quote, what I find is at the core of diet culture are two very specific forms of structural violence which already plague our society: patriarchy and purity culture.

bell hooks defines patriarchy as “a political-social system that insists that males are inherently dominating, superior to everything and everyone deemed weak, especially females, and endowed with the right to dominate and rule over the weak and to maintain that dominance through various forms of psychological terrorism and violence.” Purity culture emphasizes the evangelical Christian teachings that girls are supposed to be abstinent until marriage and that gay boys are supposed to be “freed from all sexual immorality.”

These two things matter in the conversation of diet culture because at the crux of this industrial complex is the idea that dieting is for the weak to become strong—associating weakness with femininity, hence diets being marketed mostly to women, and strength with muscularity—and for fat people to deny our appetite. In a literal sense, it is psychological terrorism. From its origins, diet culture was intended to force fat people to deny our desires, and the concept was introduced by Sylvester Graham who insisted that sex was immoral and food could control morality. In this way, diet culture and the diet industrial complex is a prison; the same prison that keeps us caged in the proverbial “closet” and locked behind the bars of purity.

In ‘Flaunting Fat: Sex with the Lights On’, Jenny Lee talks about ‘the closet’ as it relates to fat queer people’s bodies. I think it is so brilliant and important, not only to this conversation but for (prison) abolitionists at-large. In this essay, she talks about how fat people are often forced into a ‘closet’ through diet culture, specifically, in the same way that people who are deemed—or self-identify as—sexually deviant often are. Diet culture imprisons our bodies; it confines us to a cell—one which we are never able to escape—with the intention to keep our fatness hidden/unseen/behind bars. It is not about our health, but rather the repulsiveness which fatness is seen as by others. For this reason, fat liberation is an abolitionist affair, abolition is a queer affair, queerness is a fat affair. Liberation for each of them is linked.

What can be added to this, though, is just as ‘the closet’ is a room which many feminine gay men and butch lesbian women can rarely take rest in for safety, it is also a room that many fat people cannot fit in. Meaning: ‘the closet’ is always already deadly and antagonistic, whether you are in it or outside of it. No one can sit comfortably inside of diet culture. It is the prison. It is ‘the closet’. It’s fixed/designed, specifically, to be uncomfortable. Its sole purpose is to incarcerate; to make sure that no fat person has the freedom to just be—whether they are dieting or not. 

Recommended: REFORMING MY RELATIONSHIP WITH FOOD AND EXERCISE

In case by now it is unclear: a company like Weight Watchers capitalizing off of the fear and hate-mongering of the “obesity epidemic”—which does not exist—is institutional anti-fatness and capitalistic. Billions of dollars are spent on these weight loss programs to maintain diet culture while the vast majority of americans are “obese” or “overweight” (both of which are slurs, by the way). Not only does this mean that intentional weight loss is a scam, but it also means that diet culture is a scam. Especially when considering that more and more studies are finding that weight loss does not improve health biomarkers.

To be even more clear: anyone who still has a vested interest in diet culture, intentional weight loss, and/or these types of programs is making the active decision to invest in systemic anti-fatness, anti-Blackness, ableism, misogyny/-noir, and capitalism.

When capitalism burns, much like calories, so must the diet industrial complex.

Da’Shaun Harrison is a nonbinary abolitionist and organizer in Atlanta, GA. They write and speak publicly on race, sexuality, gender, class, religion, disabilities, fatness, and the intersection at which they all meet. Harrison is the author of the forthcoming book, “Belly of the Beast: The Politics of Anti-Fatness as Anti-Blackness,” which is expected to be published in July 2021. Their portfolio and other work can be found on their site: dashaunharrison.com.

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