My Cultural Background is ‘Diet’

Written by Tania Coats | Founder & Clinical Psychologist

If someone was to ask me “What is your cultural background”, I could say “Jewish” or “Anglo-Australian”, and maybe I’d waffle a bit about the fact that one of my grandparents escaped Hitler, and one grew up in the poor part of Glasgow. But if I was honest, and had a bit of time to think about It, I would have to say that my cultural background is ‘diet’.

When I think of the customs, traditions and beliefs that were part of my heritage and history and passed down by my ancestors, they were mostly centred around the belief that ones appearance was inherently not good enough, but – we could all achieve worth by adjusting our appearance to match the cultural ‘ideal’.

As a white, cisgendered middle-class Aussie girl growing up in Melbourne in the 90’s the ‘ideal’ was the classic 90’s supermodel, the then-equivalent to the Hadid sisters, Kia Gerber, and Hayley Baldwin-Beiber. Back then, our cultural influencers had written a step-by-step guide about how to ‘become’ that – it was a Bible titled “The Atkins Diet”.

The print was tiny, and the book was thick, but it taught us how to count calories, eliminate carbohydrates, and how to distinguish between “good” and “bad” foods. My mum used it. It sat next to the pens and tissues in the kitchen for quick reference.

For two weeks before we went on any holiday, Mum would go on a ‘crash diet’ (by announcing “RIGHT! That’s it everyone! I am going on a CRASH diet”). And that she did. She drank lemon juice in the morning and often skipped meals. Her body would drop from a size 10-12 to a 6 as she feverishly power-walked her way around the neighbourhood with us four little kids in tow. We’d take turns using the ‘wobble machine’ that Mum would rent from ‘Be-Fit Hire’, and watch her march in front of the mirror chanting “I must, I must improve my bust!” – we’d all copy her and laugh. She was super young and trendy back then, and my friends would always say “I wish my mum was as cool as yours”. She had done it! She’d become the ‘ideal’. And I’d been her most conscientious understudy.

It’s funny though, after all this time, writing this blog is the first time I’ve ever truly reflected on my own personal experiences of diet culture. I mean, I’ve thought a lot about how I feel about myself and my body, my worth, and all of that. But I’ve not ever really considered the influence that diet culture has had on who I think I am as a person; my own sense of self-worth.

And sadly, I feel robbed. I think we all have been. We’ve been robbed of the chance to approach this world with freedom to live in our own skin without fear of judgement or ridicule. It’s sad to think that never once did I question any of it. Not once. No one ever explained that my worth existed just because I did. No one ever shared that our uniqueness and diversity as human beings was essential to our survival – it was our magic – our gifting. No one explained that our purpose in life was to find out who we truly were – our most authentic self – and find the courage to express that fully. Instead, my mum and I, and the generations before and after us fell victim to the coercive control of diet culture. Across genders, bodies, sexes, ethnicities, and races, so many of us inherently own an internal sense of inadequacy and shame based on our appearance. So many of us have fallen victim to the vexatious whispers of self-criticism, the blows to our self-confidence, and the limiting beliefs that stop us from fully showing up in our world. This culture, now that I truly think about it, is abusive.

So, how do we break free from it?

Well, it’s a process – but awareness and insight are great first steps. Be aware that you’ve been brainwashed by diet culture to measure your worth based on your appearance and decide that you want something different for yourself. Reflect on how diet culture tries to keep you small by knowing how that cheeky bugger shows up in your life: How does it make you feel? What does it tell you to do? What nasty stuff does it say to keep you feeling inadequate? And then learn the skills to call it on it’s bull shit.

It’s not easy to jump ship, culturally. But it is absolutely possible to feel worthy beyond your appearance and be free to live authentically and proudly in your own skin.

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