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The Dangers of Diet Culture: Diet culture's roots in church and racism

We're taking a deep dive into diets and our society's obsession with weight. This week, an author and professor says these beliefs are rooted in the church & racism.

TEMPLE, Texas — This month, we’re taking a deep dive into diets and our society's obsession with weight loss. Last week, we talked about diet culture, what it is and why it's so damaging. In this week's Your Best Life, we explore where diet culture came from and how you can spot it?

Diet culture is a system of beliefs that equates thinness and smaller bodies to health, happiness, worthiness, and respect. And it's everywhere.

“By like seven and eight years old, about 50% of little girls already have this idea that they need to change their bodies,” says registered dietician and body positive advocate Dalina Soto. “Like the minute that we can understand that we have a body we're being told that we need to change it."

Soto grew up seeing the many ways diet culture impacts people of color. "In the Latinx culture is very much like you have to be thin but you need to have a small waist and a big butt. It's again mimicking that Eurocentric view, but some like a Latinx perspective. You know, it's very unfortunate because that's what we grow up thinking that we need to look like."

But where did diet come from? Dr. Sabrina Strings is a UC Berkeley Chancellor’s Postdoctoral fellow, an associate professor of sociology at U.C. Irvine and the author of Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fatphobia.

"When we think about diet culture, specifically the idea that we must continue to routinely work on taming our bodies, that has a roots in the fatphobia that was generated in the western world as a result of slavery."

Strings says modern ideas about weight, began hundreds of years ago with race scientists who argued that white people were more slender while black people were excessively fat and it was also being preached about from the church pulpit. "In terms of Protestantism what they argued was that obviously you wanted to eat appropriately for God and so one way in which you can do that obviously not being greedy, not being gluttonous so they had what they called at the time 'temperance at the table, "said Strings.

Strings says while researching her book she found diets discussed in some of the earliest women's magazines and the reasons for dieting were very clear.

 "In the U.S. some of the earliest diets were undertaken by women who identified as white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. And they would say very clearly, ‘we have to eat right for God. And also because it is the proper thing to do for our race’," said Strings.

And while diet culture's roots aren't as well-known now, the effects are felt by everyone no matter if you're dieting or not. According to Strings, "even those of us who have never gone a formal diet are always aware of what we weigh. We're always told to be aware of what we weigh. We're always told to be aware of how much we're eating, what we're eating." 

Strings adds that diet culture oppresses us all but especially black women, who've been the targets of fatphobia historically and today. ”No matter what our orientation to diet culture is intellectually, practically we are swimming in it. And so it's damaging to everyone but it is specifically damaging to fat women of color and to fat black women, owing to the history of these relationships. Black women are the prime targets because they are frequently told that they are too fat," said Strings.

That's why Strings believes the only way to stop diet culture, is to go to back to the source. 

“What we would actually have to do as a society is work toward the elimination of racial oppression. Because this is what fatphobia is rooted in. It's rooted in the idea that we can look at a person and tell whether or not they are healthy and worthy of being considered equal citizens, right. And at roots that ends up being a form of racist judgment. So if we are truly interested in getting out of diet culture, what we need to do is work on the eradication of racism in our society. And that is something that will not take place, obviously overnight," said Strings.

So how can you start to check out from diet culture? A great suggestion is to unfollow social media accounts that promote dieting or thin bodies. 

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