My Mum, Diet Culture & Me
I was sat at the kitchen table with my mum when she announced that she was joining a weight loss programme in a bid to feel good about her body again. What followed was a conversation about diet culture, one that wandered into the kitchen, pulled up a chair, and hasn’t left since.
My immediate reaction was pity. Pity that she felt as though her worth was dependent on her weight. That she could only feel good if she dropped three dress sizes and reclaimed her pre-childbirth body. It became clear that I, as an 18-year-old who had grown up around the body positivity movement, was much more aware of the tactics used by society and the beauty industry to push insecurity onto women than mum was. This is understandable, given that heroin chic was the beauty standard of her teenage years. When I asked her why she was losing weight, she insisted that it was so she could feel good about herself; she couldn’t seem to comprehend that “feeling good” was for everyone, not just a luxury afforded to those who wore a size 8. Pity turned to frustration, then pity again. Not matter how many ways I tried to tell her, she was insistent that she couldn’t be beautiful until she’d lost a few stone.
While having these, often frustrating, conversations with mum, I couldn’t help but feel hypocritical. Here I was, trying to convince her that she didn’t need to spend 10 minutes counting calories before a meal, despite not having had a particularly healthy relationship with food myself.
Diet culture is inescapable. It targets anyone, regardless of age - I'm victim to it at 18, my mum is at 41.
My battle with food did not stem from a place of wanting to lose weight, but rather from a place of wanting to be “healthy”. I am recovering from what I now know to be orthorexia, an obsession with clean eating. It started with me cutting out certain food groups, specifically dairy and refined sugar, and quickly became obsessive. Reading ingredients lists became as much a part of my daily routine as showering and brushing my teeth, and looking up restaurant menus in advance was a prerequisite to eating out with friends. Countless articles had promised that a dairy-free, sugar-free diet would bring with it increased energy, clear skin, and all-round improved health. But my pursuit of a healthy body and the perfect complexion left me with a fear of food. Even so, I was praised as the “healthy friend” for my “self-control”, told how people wished they could eat the way I did. These unhealthy habits, as with so many eating disorders, became idolised and romanticised.
I don’t recall at what point I realised that my quest to be healthy was actually quite the opposite. But I promised myself that I would heal my relationship with food.
So, while preaching to my mum that she shouldn’t refuse to let her body eat just because she’d reached her calorie limit for the day, I too had been restricting myself, refusing to let my body eat the foods that it once loved. Perhaps this is why I was so determined to have these conversations with mum, because I could see the worry that she felt when she typed those numbers into the app on her phone - calories, fat, saturates, carbohydrates, sugars, protein, salt - I recognised it. While I was focusing on thinking less about food, mum was thinking about it more and more every day.
And so I was struck by the fact that diet culture is inescapable. It targets anyone, regardless of age - I’m victim to it at 18, and mum is at 41. Despite being very much aware of diet culture and the way it is perpetuated in society, I still occasionally feel anxious or guilty after eating the foods that I once cut out of my diet altogether. And it will take more than just my words to erase the years of body shaming by the media that have caused mum to dislike her body. Awareness of the toxicity of diet culture does not make you immune to its effects. So the conversation isn’t over, it’s still sitting at the kitchen table.
Molly-Anne Yarwood is a bookseller and writer from the UK. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter @molly_yarwood.