Diet Fads and Fatphobia: The Irresponsible Influence of Social Media


(cw: disordered eating)

Diet culture is an ugly, false-faced friend to society, and has unsurprisingly birthed debates that have polarized the Internet since its infancy. Scroll through the lifestyle, fitness, or fashion feeds of Instagram and you’ll find an ocean of glowing girls gushing about their (sponsored) experience with ‘fit teas’ that bear the promise of quick weight loss and reduced bloating; preaching about the miracle of waist trainers to achieve that contortion waist-to-hip ratio the Kardashian brand is built on; fawning over vitamin-laced gummy bear candies that supposedly strengthen your hair; all tools to prod your body into the mold of the ‘perfect woman’. Peruse some other online haunts, though, and you’ll find communities of soft pastel body-positive slogans championing philosophies of ‘health at every size’ and a cohort of ticked off young people supporting each other to give the finger to societal pressures and recover from the eating disorders that diet culture has gift-wrapped for them.

Pseudo-celebrity endorsements of weight loss fads are nothing new. The shiny, buns-of-steel fitness icons of the 80s and 90s (Cindy Crawford, Jillian Michaels, Jane Fonda even) that built their fortunes on perfect-smile promises of gifting you the best version of yourself for the most part promoted staying fit through constant exercise, motivated by health or aesthetic reasons. Social media platforms today, especially Youtube and Instagram because of the reach of their ‘influencers’ and their advertising appeal, have really just replaced the five-piece butt-shaping DVD sets and the shadier, colon-loosening Oriental pharmacopeia ‘miracle slimming teas’ that my mum and her friends admit to seeking out in their student years.

The psychological ramifications of this barrage of fatphobic propaganda and pseudo-health practices aside, weight-loss shortcuts and health hacks that aren’t scientifically backed or doctor-approved essentially remove us as much from a tradition of eating a healthy, ‘balanced’ way and moving as regularly as possible to maximize health, under the guarantee that we can bio-hack our metabolisms or muscle growth or fat-storage processes by abusing laxative concoctions or embarking on week-long juice cleanses or subsiding on shots of apple cider vinegar or contorting ourselves into unnatural angles for the Aesthetic™, without really reflecting on how this could damage our insides, our digestive systems, the lining of our organs, etc. in the long term, not to mention the unsustainability of these fads – there’s no conceivable scenario where the potential harm to your body is worth it.

On the less technologically-dependent side of diet culture, cult-like programs such as the Dukan Diet and Weight Watchers continue to foster book sales and conversation topics, but millennial diet culture, despite the best efforts of the body positivity movement, is very much interdependent on brand ambassadors and fitness gurus who are getting younger and younger and therefore less and less officially qualified to actually be trustworthy sources of health and exercise information. This mass distribution of tidbits of nutritional info is often in line with promoting a more ‘strong not skinny’ aesthetic over heroin chic, but has also fueled our misguided obsession with protein, ‘superfoods’, the juice cleanse phenomenon – and these are just the fads that experts have actually given input on.

Not to say that things haven’t, in some respects, gotten better. ‘Best’ used to mean slimmest but there’s been a gradual shift in consensus (albeit superficial) to your best self now being your healthiest. Between the palatable slogans of body positivity, the variety of exercises greater than ever and unprecedented dissemination of more complex nutritional information thanks in part to more platforms for health and exercise professionals but also largely from the armies of gym bros and lululemon-clad yoginis that flood the fitness communities of the Internet. Companies can no longer get away with being blatantly fatphobic or advertising unhealthy behaviors without significant backlash and a slash in profits. Eating disorder awareness and the availability of treatment out shadows what it used to be, and the plus-size model industry has been growing steadily over the last decade, in line with a general demand for more diversity in media. But as long as social media icons such as Kim Kardashian, who has a following of over 112 million people on Instagram, continue to be able to bear such an incontrovertible influence on societal diet trends and use that sway as a soapbox for paid advertisements for appetite-suppressing lollipops, even in the new era of privacy policy transparency that the platform has imposed to the annoyance of its bigwigs where a post must be declared as an ad if it’s sponsored, sponsorship and marketing of faux health enhancers do significantly more harm than good to the societal cause of healing our relationships with our bodies.

[Tasha Baldassarre]

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