Why Dieting Can Rarely (If Ever) Be Body Positive
"Diet culture is inherently not body positive," plus size vlogger and blogger Corissa Enneking of Fat Girl Flow said in her video "Dear Body Positive YouTubers: That's Not Body Positive." "I’m not saying that you personally should not go on a diet, or lose weight, or do whatever the f*ck you want with your body. Absolutely, do whatever you want with your body. But do not look me in the eye and tell me you are on Weight Watchers, and then in the next breath say you are body positive."
Posted on Sept. 1, Enneking's video has been met with no shortage of backlash from internet writers and commenters alike. In it, she noted that her understanding of body positivity is recognizing a systemic oppression of bodies that exist outside of what society largely considers the norm. In addition to diets, Enneking touches upon how one cannot be body positive if intersections of gender and race are not considered. Judging someone's sexual habits, according to Enneking, isn't body positive either.
But it was her stance on diet culture and dieting — further elaborated on in a follow-up video "Is Dieting Body Positive?" — that was met with the most critique from folks who largely believed her to be bashing their individual choices to diet and lose weight, even if those choices were orchestrated as acts of self-love. Many simply didn't understand how Enneking could claim that diet culture (specifically as it pertains to weight loss and "ideal beauty" ideologies) and body positivism never go hand in hand.
It comes down to this: While a practice might feel empowering to an individual (which is great), its origins and grander role in a culture might not be empowering at a core level (which is not so great). This is the case with diet culture — an industry that one could undoubtedly argue is built and rooted in the perpetuation of fat-phobia — and, unfortunately, much of the weight loss dieting that is born of it.
As Enneking explains in an email to Bustle, her aim was to remind us that the diet industry still largely thrives off of the belief that one body type is always inherently superior to another, and to implore viewers to think critically about the reasons behind their own diets.
Dieting and diet culture are intrinsically tied to notions of aesthetic superiority. "Bikini body" or "beach body" season is perfect proof of that, as are tag lines that suggest that to feel great, one must lose weight, and best-selling diet books flooded with fat-phobic language that prioritize achieving aspirational beauty while offering very little in the way of health rhetoric.
These core beliefs lie in opposition to those of body positive activism. Body positivity is a movement founded by individuals fighting to prove that there is no superior body type in order to break down the socially ingrained fat-phobia and body shame prevalent in our culture (and diet culture) at large. It's a movement that wants us to think about health outside of BMI alone.
When reading through the comments on Enneking's videos, however, it's evident that many folks still cannot conceptualize a happy or positive, let alone healthy, life outside of weight loss. Messages like, "Striving to be fit and healthy is the most positive thing you can do for your body," "I'm also a fat girl, but last year I came to the realization that I love myself and my body and because I love myself and my body I started to eat healthy, exercise, and I lost weight," "OK so promoting weight loss is not body positive but promoting morbid obesity is body positive?" and "I believe that treating your body as a temple versus treating it like a garbage disposal is the difference between people who eat healthy and exercise and you," make it clear that most folks still don't want to question or think critically about the ingrained teaching that fat always equals unhealthy, undesirable, and intolerable.
Plus size blogger and vlogger Stephanie Yeboah of Nerd About Town offers a slightly different perspective to Enneking's, telling me over email that she actually believes the "choice to diet can be body positive if the reasons for doing so are attributed to health reasons and wanting to feel better from the inside."
This is where diets that cut out foods one is allergic to might come in, or the choice to become a vegan or vegetarian for ethical or physical reasons. Although not doing much for body positive activism at large, such decisions are likely to feel like body positive acts to the individuals at hand.
When it comes to weight loss, however, we cannot challenge the harmful ideas and power structures Enneking outlined in her videos without first moving past fat-phobic ideologies that use health and weight as monikers of acceptance. We need to do this so that health (mental and physical health alike) can be explored outside of weight biases, and the notion that "weight loss will always fix every ailment," can be shattered.
Enneking has been genuinely surprised by all of the negative attention to her posts, especially the responses that equated being healthy to being body positive. "My body positivity includes all bodies, even those that are unhealthy," she tells me. In the comment sections of her videos as well as her social media feeds, it soon became clear that many people still think of weight loss as a cure-all for every ailment — a subject her posts specifically tried to tackle.
"A person’s autonomous choice to diet can negatively (and directly) impact another person’s ability to exist peacefully in their own body," Enneking tells me. "When the dieter perpetuates diet culture by being ableist, anti-fat, or classist, their autonomous choice becomes oppressive and therefore not body positive."
It's not that every diet is inherently negative, unhealthy, or harmful. It's not that all dieters are immoral or promote anti-positive body image. It's not that every human should want to be fat, either. The issue is simply that many diets, along with the language of diet culture, still suggest that body types exist in a hierarchy. And thus, justification for the intolerance of certain body types can be easily fueled.
Enneking also noted in her second video that "participating in a diet that says you must lose weight to be more worthy is not body positive. Being forced to lose weight for medical reasons, and enduring the pain of not getting diagnoses because you have not first lost weight is not body positive. Believing that only healthy bodies and bodies that are in good shape are 'good' bodies is not body positive."
As further proof of how diet culture can so poignantly harm us, Enneking offered her own story. At age 22 and on a diet of "a handful of nuts and a smoothie a day," the blogger's eating disorder went unnoticed (since she wasn't "too thin") despite the fact that her body was shutting down, unable to absorb certain nutrients while her stomach was atrophying.
The experience is not foreign to many individuals who develop eating disorders but whose BMI is still in the "overweight" or "obese" categories, myself included. At 5'9", it was only when I went from 200 pounds to 130 at age 14, and began fainting upon the slightest physical activity, that anyone questioned whether I had an ED. Writer Amy McCarthy has also written on being a fat girl while having an eating disorder, and the phenomenon of doctors not particularly caring how she was losing weight, so long as she was.
Despite Enneking's intended message, a scroll through the comment sections of her posts will quickly reveal that a main qualm has arisen from viewers who are on diets, but still consider themselves to be body positive. This is where the difference between "body autonomy" and "body positivity" is key, according to fat positive writer and editor Lesley Kinzel.
"Body autonomy is a crucial piece of the fat acceptance activism that precipitated body positivity, but they are not the same thing," Kinzel tells me via email. "Body positive activism should advocate for everyone's body autonomy, but it should not conflate the two. Yes, you get to do whatever you want with your body! You can diet to lose weight, or you can refuse to do so. But 'doing whatever you want with your body' is not intrinsically body positive, as we can and do choose to do lots of terrible, destructive things to our bodies."
Kinzel feels that separating dieting from diet culture is so difficult because we don't live in a world where the decision to diet is a neutral act. We don't live in a world where people could diet without others congratulating them on losing weight. We don't live in a world that completely separates moral value and character assessment from what we eat or how our bodies look. Instead, the diet industry is ultimately so pervasive (and so financially successful) that it seeps into everything: Media, the medical community, education, and our own psyches.
There are many reasons someone who believes themselves to be body positive might participate in a diet. The issue, Kinzel says, is when that person believes that since they are body positive, everything they do is body positive. "This dilutes fat/body positivity and undermines the broader movement," she adds. Body positive activism, although striving for the tolerance of all bodies, actively addresses how certain social structures perpetuate the oppression and marginalization of entire communities and body types. The diet industry — and the personal dieting it so often encourages — does not have the same goal.
Yeboah further puts this into perspective, telling me, "A a lot of the time (if not all the time) the diet industry's focus is solely on the appearances of people and not the health benefits of dieting. That alone makes it clear to me that [its] agenda is all about trying to lure people into fitting in with society's standards of beauty under the guise of, 'Well, this is good for you.'" When one conducts a simple Google Image search for "diet advertisements," the aesthetic goals of the industry become all too clear.
Health professor and researcher Dr. Linda Bacon has written extensively on the destructive nature of the diet industry and on the psychological consequences of believing that weight loss is a cure-all to any and all physical or mental ailments. Like Enneking and Kinzel, Bacon does not believe in the separation of diet culture and dieting when it comes to body positivity.
"Dieting teaches disconnect," she tells me via email. "Its message [is]: 'Do what we tell you, don’t pay attention to what your body needs. Control yourself.' Any system that teaches external processes to determine what to eat is fragile and ineffective. It takes away our agency and self-trust. It also starts from a place of 'You’re wrong.'"
Similarly, "Dieting teaches us to control and restrict ourselves and is supported by a culture than normalizes this, and even views it as righteous," Bacon adds. "In contrast, the fat-pos, body-pos message is to start from a place of encouraging self-acceptance and body trust, which supports us in being able to take care of ourselves and make better choices."
When many people discuss dieting or improving their health, the reality is that they often translate this to "losing weight," no questions asked. And when many people discuss losing weight, they are ultimately talking about striving for an image that will, at its core, place an individual closer to the standard of beauty and health set by a culture that has proven to maintain very ingrained weight biases.
Virgie Tovar, one of the nation's leading experts and lecturers on fat discrimination and body image, seems downright perturbed about the reactions to Enneking's work. "Dieting is about intentionally controlling food intake in an attempt to get to a low weight," she tells me in an email. "Dieting is premised upon the idea that the individual bears the responsibility to mold herself to external standards, and in so doing she both upholds and is benefited by the systems that maintain those standards."
Tovar adds, "The more interesting question is why people can't imagine body positivity without dieting in it. I want to encourage people to look past the walls that have kept them trapped rather than simply re-decorating the room [...] The idea that you can 'love yourself into weight loss' is not a new one, but this paradoxical idea fundamentally undercuts what is at the heart of body positivity: A life beyond the one we know, beyond the idea that weight-loss is our path to beauty, wholeness, and freedom."
This was ultimately the point of Enneking's videos: To remind people that although it's "hip to be body positive right now," as she noted in her first posting, it's not remotely hip to forget that the language of body positivity was never meant to exist to further fuel oppressive industries, but to help individuals who suffer because of those industries break free from them. When we conflate body positive rhetoric with autonomous acts that arguably conflict with the work so many activists are fighting to do, we lose what it is we're supposed to be fighting for.
"This movement is not about any one individual, it’s about challenging the ideas and power structures that oppress so many bodies," Enneking tells me.
When thinking about the backlash that Enneking's videos received and the conversation they sparked, it's crucial to recognize that as body positivity becomes a mainstream concept, the activism it originally stood for will largely be diluted. These days, the label is seemingly pasted onto everything: Including an industry that still suggests, at its core, that one body type is inherently preferable to any other.
Dieting does not yet exist in a separate realm to the industry that perpetuates the alleged necessity for it. It does not exist in a world where body shaming has become irrelevant. And it does not exist in a world in which fatness has ceased to be an "epidemic" that can be "cured" through a simple diet. So while the choice to diet for weight loss might feel empowering to an individual who considers themselves to be body positive in other areas, and it is no one's place to police the decisions of that person, it will likely never move the mission of body positive activism forward.