Diet Culture to Body Joy

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Natalie Nation. Photo Sarah Whiting

Content warning: discussion of diet culture, body size, dieting, and disordered eating.

I have a vivid memory of being twelve years old, getting ready for bed. I put on my bright pink pajamas and noticed, for the very first time, the beginnings of an hourglass figure.

I immediately ran upstairs to show my mom. “Look, Mom, look! I have hips! Look at me!” The discovery of those hips was so exciting, that little bit of adulthood that I could finally claim for myself. It is one of the most joyful memories I have of my body.

Most of my memories of my body are not joyful. Nearly all of them are overshadowed by “diet culture,” which is rooted in the idea that controlling your body by controlling what you eat is normal. Diet culture emphasizes appearance over emotional and physical well-being, and it permeates every aspect of our lives.

Diet culture entered my life when I was in kindergarten. I do not remember why, but at six years old, I felt ashamed that I was taller and heavier than my twin brother.

Diet culture continued to impact me as I grew older. One of my childhood friends repeatedly talked about Weight Watchers, which her parents participated in. Another friend encouraged me to exercise with her so that we could lose our “baby fat.” Family members praised me for being thin. These comments warped in my mind, turning from “I am thin” to “Thin is good” to “If I am not thin, I am bad.” Over time, I began to struggle with my mental health and my relationship with my body.

By the time I decided to study nutrition in college, diet culture had created my insecurities and offered me the “solution,” which was to scrutinize everything I put in my body. It made me believe that there was a perfect body shape and size, and if I achieved that, I would be happy. In pursuit of this happiness, I underate and overexercised to the point of detriment to my physical and mental health.

I am grateful that one day, I finally said “Enough.” Diet culture had lied to me — treating my body this way would never make me happy. I was miserable, and I needed help. I understand now that I was struggling with disordered eating — obsessive, harmful, or abnormal behaviors around food and eating that do not quite meet the diagnostic criteria for an eating disorder.

My healing journey began with therapy. I worked to unlearn my disordered eating thoughts and behaviors, while also caring for my physical and mental well-being.

Relearning how to care for my body has not been easy. My healing has been supported by loving family and friends, a strong relationship with my therapist, mental health medications, and years of self-work and reflection. But my journey is also marked by my privilege as a white, straight- sized, able-bodied, and cisgender woman with access to medical care and a comprehensive college education in nutrition.

My healing has focused on allowing my body to exist exactly as it is, as opposed to critiquing it. I have come to accept certain truths about my body that have helped me heal.

  • Bodies are not good or bad, and they are meant to change over time. The body I had as a 15-year-old and as a 20-year-old is different from the body I have now as a 25-year-old. My 30-year-old body will change even more.
  • Diet culture ignores the fact that food and mental health are connected. Food is more than just fuel for our bodies; eating is an emotional experience. When we eat, we feel comfort, pleasure, joy, and connection to others. We cannot separate food from how it makes us feel.
  • One of the kindest things we can do for ourselves is to give our body the nourishment, hydration, movement, and rest that it needs. We are always deserving of that care.

As I continue to foster these truths within my life, I have also been striving to rediscover joy in my body. Where can I find that same genuine joy that 12-year-old me felt when she discovered her hips? How can I bring that joy into my life without the influence of diet culture?

One way I seek out body joy is by appreciating what I am calling my “pandemic curves.” My body is a different shape and size than it was pre-pandemic. Diet culture would say that I did something wrong, that I need to fix myself, that my previous body was better than my current body. Diet culture does not want me to find joy in my body.

So screw diet culture.

Instead, I am honoring my body by giving it the care that it needs. I bought jeans in a new size and I love how they fit. I am confident in my relationship with food and my body in a way I have never been before. And, for the first time in my life, I have cleavage. My 12-year-old self and I are celebrating together.

Natalie Nation (she/her) is a registered dietitian. She currently works in adolescent health, providing nutrition education and counseling to teens and young adults in the Minneapolis area. Nation lives in the Twin Cities with her husband, Paul, and her cat, Sweet Pea. She can be found on Instagram at @feedthatnation.