Have you ever felt pressured to achieve an ideal body type? Have you felt a cultural nudge to be the woman with a lean hourglass shape or the man with a broad, muscular chest and thin waistline? If so, you’ve experienced the influence of diet culture, which can be defined as the socially prevalent worship of thinness and the belief that body size is the measure of health, beauty, or morality.
In the Western world, diet culture, which is amplified by social media, is a popular set of ideas that cause many people to feel pressured to push themselves to achieve an idealized physique. Diet culture is a hot-button issue and many people attack it for its negative influences. How can individuals shield themselves from these adverse effects and establish more productive health and fitness goals?
Diet Culture Is an Ideology
To guard yourself against the negative influences of diet culture, you must understand what it truly is: an ideology. Diet culture is a set of beliefs promoting a one-size-fits-all standard of the “ideal” human form. Its proponents imply that they know the type of physique you should value and aspire to, regardless of the context of your individual circumstances.
Diet culture is the dogma upon which many different diet and exercise programs are founded, but the aim of these programs is to achieve the “ideal body.” The problem is that, ultimately, only you can identify what is truly best for your life, not other people or groups. Others can provide helpful information and advice, but they can’t say what is right for your life—only you can.
The Diet-Culture Counterculture
While diet culture is currently (and rightly) under attack in the public sphere, its attackers generally fail to pinpoint the underlying problem. A common approach to diet culture is to attack the diet and exercise methods promoted by its advocates.
But how does attacking the methods (e.g., starvation diets, overtraining) help diminish the ideology (fixed conceptions of the ideal human body)? Would you prosecute a murderer by criticizing his choice of murder weapon? Of course not; you would criticize his motive, his violent ideology.
Likewise, the influence of diet culture can’t be subdued by criticizing crash diets and workout fads—we must quash the underlying ideology. Some in the health and fitness community recognize the ideological problem, but they oppose diet-culture dogma by denouncing all standards of health and fitness. Their solutions imply that there should be no standards of health or fitness; a healthy or fit body is whatever you want it to be.
By the logic of “no standards,” we could say that John, an adult man of average size, can be equally healthy and fit with a body weight of ninety pounds or nine hundred pounds, but this would be false. At five feet ten inches tall, John would obviously be at extreme risk of life-threatening disease at either weight. This example illustrates why the “no standards” approach doesn’t help people interested in getting healthier or improving their physical fitness—it gives them no guidance.
Setting Health and Fitness Standards
If dogmatic one-size-fits-all standards don’t work and complete subjectivism doesn’t work, what is the solution? The answer is setting individual standards based on objective conceptions of health and fitness. Health is a physical state (or status) characterized by well-functioning bodily systems that are free of disease and not at high risk of disease. General physical fitness is the capacity of the body to maintain health; it is a measure of bodily capacities and resources.
With the right conceptions of health and fitness, we can rely on experts (scientists) to tell us what the basic standards of health are. We know that all humans must stay within scientifically definable ranges for a variety of measures (e.g., body fat percentage, blood pressure, and blood sugar levels) to maintain health. For example, high blood pressure is unhealthy because it puts one at a significantly higher risk of heart attack or stroke. Science can also tell us what methods will be effective at improving fitness. For example, doing moderate or vigorous exercise regularly can lower blood pressure, which will improve health. These basic health measures and fitness methods are not subjective; they are scientific.
Where, then, does choice come in? Choice becomes a factor when you consider the context of your life. Your primary choice is deciding where to place health on your list of priorities. Once you decide where health ranks compared to other priorities, you can then select compatible fitness methods.
Being confident that your personal plan is right for you is the best remedy for diet culture, but building a reasonable plan requires serious thought. What type of health and fitness commitments make sense based on your hopes, dreams, and plans? How much time and energy can you reasonably devote to diet and exercise? Putting serious thought into these questions will help you form a health and fitness standard tailored to your life.
Does having a reasonable personal standard and personalized fitness plan mean that you’ll never be affected by other people? No. You may still occasionally feel envy when you see celebrities and influencers with great physiques and may continue admiring the commitment level and achievements of others, but you won’t feel compelled to adopt the standards and lifestyles of others because you’ll understand why their priorities and fitness commitments aren’t compatible with your life. This understanding increases your confidence in why and how you’ve prioritized your health and fitness; it’s the magic bullet for fitness motivation and the shield we need to protect ourselves from bad ideologies such as diet culture.