Perhaps in my busy schedule I had become oblivious to the persistent messages attached to food, health and fitness advertising. Or maybe I had simply learned to ignore it. But with a little extra time on my hands right now, I have been focusing a lot of energy on healing my relationship with my body. And in doing so, I’ve uncovered something that I’ve always known to be true: our society not only romanticises poor self-image, but profits from it.
In the past, I had explained my heightened sensitivity to this issue with my history of low-esteem and disordered eating. Now I realise that my issue lies not in the promotion of exercise or eating ‘healthily’ but the extent to which this is done and the way the health & fitness industries target the insecure. Every nook and cranny is crammed with low-cal, low-fat, hate yourself culture that persuades us that we aren’t good enough. Self-deprecation is not a congenital condition. Instead, we are besieged with esteem-quashing propaganda until we not only feel unworthy but begin to believe it.
With gyms currently closed, my social media has been inundated with adverts for the latest fitness apps. “Abs in 14 days”, “Bigger booty in 30 days”, “Lose weight in 4 weeks”. Apart from a few yoga and running apps, to whom I am eternally grateful, these adverts solely focus on the aesthetic results of exercise. Not one mentions the benefits of exercise for your mind and soul, the sweet release of endorphins post workout, the sense of achievement as you collapse in a sweaty heap. Nor the advantages of regular exercise for general physical health, like heart condition or blood pressure. Some people need to lose weight for medical reasons. But for the majority of the population, weight will fluctuate a little either side of their ‘set weight’ in accordance with lifestyle and genetically determined biology. For these people, losing weight is a goal they think they should have. As are toned legs, bums and tums.
Last week, I saw an Instagram post captioned: “Are you ready & motivated to start working on a flat tummy?”, yet another ideal instilled in us by the health and fitness industry. This one hit a little close to home, because the thing I have always berated my body for is not having a flat stomach. My body composition means I’m perhaps slightly ‘curvier’ than average and what on some days is a curved posture, on other days is a small pouch. Here I store my food, my appendix, my intestinal tract and my uterus. I know a lot of women who have flat stomachs because they have an entirely different genetic makeup that allows them to. But I also know a lot of women who don’t, and struggle with this. Yet there is absolutely zero evolutionary advantage to having a flat stomach, unless of course your life goal is to be flat-packed enough to slide through letterboxes in your spare time. This brings me to question how ab-focused workouts and flat-tummy teas have somehow conditioned us to believe that our worth is based on our ability to linearise our lower abdomens. I like to think of self-love as a rebellious feminist act. If we choose to define ourselves by whether we have a thigh gap, or a flat stomach, rather than a degree or a job promotion, we allow ourselves to be reduced to mere aesthetics, essentially unravelling the work of all the feminists that came before us.
Though the health industry doesn’t only target women, it appears that we struggle more openly with body image. The constant focus on improving physique can make exercise and fitness a difficult area to navigate for those struggling, regardless of gender. How can someone be expected to appreciate their body if they are constantly being encouraged to change it? But trying to avoid this culture of body-shaming becomes difficult when it is so deeply engrained in our society. Decoupling food and exercise from your esteem is a long and difficult process, especially whilst constantly being told to tone up, slim down, never stop striving for your goal. Lately, I have tried moving towards more fitness-based goals, such as being able to run a certain distance, or lift a certain weight, or hold a headstand for a certain amount of time. Still, I often feel bombarded with diet culture content, and the sense that the industry is taking advantage of our insecurities.
And how can we blame them? When we so often treat our bodies with unrivalled disrespect. Not small enough, not big enough, too much muscle, too much skin – we never allow ourselves to be sufficient to fit the mould our bodies create. When we don’t adhere to society’s beauty ideals, we turn to exercise to change our bodies, in a futile attempt to become happier in our sense of self. And then we commit the ultimate crime: we starve ourselves not only of self-love, but of all our favourite foods.
When it comes to the health & fitness industry, food and exercise go hand in hand. Any fitness freak will tell you that ‘bodies aren’t built in the gym, they’re made in the kitchen’, which I’m sure is true to an extent. There is plenty of research to suggest that specific diets will make you run faster, lift higher and grow stronger, and others to make you lose weight, lose fat and lose sight of your healthy relationship with food. My point is not that these extreme diets don’t work, but that they encourage unhealthy eating habits and attitudes toward food. Constant talk of calories in vs calories out, a concept with a lot of genuine science behind it, has taught us to fear kJ and kcal to the point of restriction. Food is reduced to fuel, disregarding hundreds of years of culinary mastery. Sugars are suicide, and carbs a catastrophe.
However, this negative attitude toward food extends beyond the gym. Marketing companies use ‘guilt free food’ to entice consumers looking for low-calorie, low-fat versions of foods they usually consider ‘treats’, reinforcing the idea that food is the enemy. Even the lexicon used within certain weight-loss groups reinstates food as the antagonist. One fat-phobic club allows members to control their diet by counting ‘syns’. I wonder if, once brainwashed to understand eating as a crime, they are sent straight from this weight-watching, world slimming cult to the eating disorder unit. I’d argue that it is no less healthy to entirely restrict any food you deem to be too fatty, sugary, or downright unhealthy than it would be to eat those same foods everyday for the rest of your life.
The beauty industry is trying to remove all remaining enjoyment of food. Take inspiration from personalities like Ruby Tandoh, who reminds us of “good food things”. Ignore less prophetic personalities that say: “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.” How wrong they are! I know, because I pushed myself to skinny and back. Some people are naturally slim, but I mean the unhealthy, bone-bearing, skeletal ‘skinny’. Despite struggling daily with self-image, I’d choose this every day over depressions and eating disorders, along with all the side effects that those entail. ‘Skinny’ doesn’t feel that good, it leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. ‘Skinny’ feels like constant fatigue, heart irregularities and weak bones. It feels like shame and disgust, and ceaseless secrecy. It is insomnia, and irregular periods, and irritability. So, what tastes better than skinny feels? Salty, buttery popcorn fresh from the microwave. Raw cake batter licked straight off the whisk. Crisps, crackers, carrots, cucumber – dipped, dunked or smeared in hummus. Anything fried with garlic and onion. The sweet taste of being healthy and confident in your own skin.
At this point in time, there is an increased pressure on us to be ‘productive’. To use this excess of time to achieve something profound, to prove ourselves to our peers. The health and fitness industry is using a global pandemic to profit from our lack of confidence and self-assurance. When are we going to start calling out the diet culture that is slowly bullying us into hating ourselves? If you take anything from this article, let it be that whatever goals you have set for the coming weeks, the you that exists now is enough. You are enough and nobody can tell you otherwise. Not least these mass corporations and businesses looking to make an extra buck. I have seen one too many ‘paid partnerships’ with appetite-suppressing lollipops and flat-tummy teas on my timeline to allow you to believe that the latter achieves anything more than diarrhoea. Exercise for endorphins, eat food to feel nourished, stop hating the body that does so much for you. Diet culture has been preying on our insecurities and only we have the power to resist.