For most of my life, my relationship with food has existed within the dichotomy of restricted eating and guilty indulgence. I was raised in a home of careful eaters, our fridge usually stocked with low-fat versions of the real thing, where the occasional use of butter instead of margarine was always pointed out with guilty glee.
Living inside of my body has been a tumultuous experience. Intense periods of dieting, of burning more calories than I consumed, would inevitably spiral into exhaustion and mind-numbing hunger. In college, I would go entire days without eating until I got home from classes in the afternoon, my eyelids heavy and pinched with the strain of trying to focus while running, literally, on empty.
While my body softened and curved as I grew, my heart remained hardened to it. I resented the skin rolling over the waistband of my jeans. I would stand in front of the mirror and stare at a body I felt distant from, making eye contact with myself as if to say, “Do you know her?” But when I took my first women’s and gender studies class in college, something started to shift. I was given better language to describe these painful feelings and, perhaps more importantly, articulate my own mental counter-argument when I felt myself getting lost in the rabbit hole of things I wanted to change about my body. Soon after, I discovered a legion of women on Instagram preaching these same ideas — a community that encouraged me not to pinch the swell of my stomach and imagine what I would look like if it shrunk, but to hold it in both my hands, tenderly. To remind myself that it was mine. And in these individual moments of reattaching myself to my body, it became easier to live in.
These were my first steps towards embracing the body positivity movement, a belief system rooted in the idea that I could accept my body, as is. The concept felt like a life raft. Something I could clutch to keep my head above water in the social media sea of flat tummy teas and #fitspiration posts. Though it seems counterintuitive — Instagram often acting as a manifestation of the Theodore Roosevelt quote, “Comparison is the thief of joy” — the platform has become a key resource in my ongoing deconstruction of the social constructs that formed my relationship with eating: diet culture.
Caroline Dooner, author of The F*ck It Diet, says diet culture refers to the beliefs and myths about food and weight that have become ingrained in the fiber of our culture — “not only [in] the way we think about ourselves and the way we talk to each other, but also the way doctors are taught and the way scientists publish data,” Dooner says. “Being thin has become one of the core-underlying values of our society, and that has become infused into everything.”
I discovered Dooner through her Instagram account @thefuckitdiet. Once I hit follow, my feed was inundated with revolutionary messages like “Food isn’t bad for you” and “You are not alive to just pay bills and lose weight.”
Dooner’s page then led me to the work of other authors and anti-diet culture activists, including Megan Jayne Crabbe, whose account, @bodyposipanda, is a cotton-candy-hued treasure trove of tools and reminders for understanding the cultural conditions that impact our relationships with food, our bodies and our self-worth. Crabbe’s page also features intentional representations of bodies not typically visible or celebrated in our culture: fat bodies, bodies of disabled folks, bodies of people of color, and people with bodies that sit at intersections of these marginalized identities.
Another account that has served as a cornerstone on my journey towards body acceptance has been Sonalee Rashatwar’s @thefatsextherapist. Rashatwar is a licensed clinical social worker with a master’s degree in Education, and her advocacy has helped me understand the connections between fatphobia, white supremacy, homophobia, and misogyny. Her feed is a grid of earth and jewel-tone tiles, each with a bolded statement — “6X isn’t the ceiling of size inclusivity;” “Food addiction is a fatphobic myth;” and “Is future-you as fat as you are now?” — along with a caption that explains the sentiment’s context within systems of oppression.
One of Rashatwar’s posts, which reads: “Equating thinness and health is fatphobic,” addresses a concept within our society, especially within the medical industry, that conflates thin bodies with healthy bodies. Dooner agrees that the idea that weight is the cause of most health problems — and that weight loss is the cure — is one of the most harmful myths that perpetuates diet culture.
“We tend to think that everyone is supposed to be tiny, without understanding that weight and body diversity have always existed, and actually are completely independent from health,” Dooner says. “People can and do improve their health by focusing on health habits and self care, even if and when their weight doesn’t budge. Weight is not the indicator of health we think it is.”
Per Crabbe, Rashatwar, Dooner, and their contemporaries, a key component of diet culture that ensures its continued existence is that it’s a function of our patriarchal, capitalist society. It thrives because convincing people they have to change their bodies to be desirable and acceptable means those people will pay money to change them.
“When you’re desperate to fit in, and to be socially acceptable, it’s easy to sell you miracle cures,” Dooner says. “The luckiest thing for diet companies is that diets backfire, but instead of us seeing clearly that it’s the diet’s fault, and [that it happens because of] the way our body is wired, we blame ourselves. We assume we have a food addiction, without understanding how restriction wires us to feel more and more out of control with food.”
Dieting makes us hungrier simply because it is the act of denying our bodies sustenance. “We are wired against it for survival, but we keep forcing ourselves back on diets because we assume we aren’t doing it right,” Dooner says.
This idea — that diets don’t work because they’re not supposed to work — was hugely enlightening for me. All those lunch periods during my senior year of high school spent eating carefully pre-portioned bags of almonds and a single granola bar before frantically burning off all the calories I’d eaten that day in after-school sessions on the elliptical, as well as the weight gained back after this routine inevitably became unsustainable, suddenly made so much more sense. It was not a personal failing, but a biological roadblock.
On her website, Rashatwar says she is a fat, queer, non-binary therapist, and her posts often include personal connections with the subject matter she’s exploring. I find all of her content enlightening and profound, but it was a recent post of hers that made me pause, put my phone down, and completely reconceptualize the way I think about my body.
In a post that reads: “Your body is an heirloom,” Rashatwar describes a photo of an older family member “when she was at her healthiest and her fattest” and then writes: “Seeing this image made me realize my body is a family heirloom, passed down to me to survive famine and colonization, just as my ancestors dreamed. My body is supposed to look exactly like this.”
While my family’s history is different from Rashatwar’s, this sentiment still helped me look at my body in a new and forgiving way — with pride for how far I’ve come. I thought of my great-grandparents, who lived through the Depression, and of deep South matriarchs with aprons slung across wide hips, sweating over stoves in farmhouses during sticky Georgia summers. This body is as much an inheritance as it is an ongoing act, and this gives me something I didn’t know my understanding of my body was lacking: historical context.
The greatest gift of stumbling across this truth, that my body looks exactly the way it’s supposed to, is long-coveted and liberating: it gives me permission. Permission to move through the world in my fat body without a constant, aching desire to change it. Permission that manifests in a reinvigorated interest in dressing myself, in focusing on my joy in a picture of myself laughing instead of lamenting my double chin.
And ultimately, permission to be a flawed but active participant in the pursuit of loving myself. Just as I am, and just as I’ll be.
Rebekah Hall is a journalist living and writing in Little Rock, Arkansas. Keep up with her work on her website, or follow her on Instagram @beknasty for pictures of her outfits and her dog.
Photos by Louisiana Mei Gelpi.