A Brief History of Diet Culture

It feels like it’s been forever since I’ve sat down to really write to you. 

On Friday, I logged off of social media and won’t be getting back on for at least two weeks. I promise to share more reflections about the time away when I can look back but one of the main reasons for taking a little break was to get back to writing more. 

I don’t know exactly how or when it happened, but somewhere along the way I started writing less here and posting more there. 

This food freedom, body image, self-worth, self-compassion, releasing perfection work is so deep. And, the truth is that I’ve missed going deeper into topics with you all here and am so grateful to have this time to get back into it. ​

Let’s dive in. 

At the beginning of June we acknowledged the racist roots of diet culture. Today let’s talk about what that actually means.

When I first learned that ‘diet culture’ was a thing (aka the lens through which we, as a society, view our own bodies, health, morality, value, relationship with food, relationship with movement and a powerful indicator of the way individuals are treated in our society from access to medical care and beyond), I was a little floored. 

Before that moment of awareness of diet culture, I thought, ‘I have a food problem.’ 

I thought, ‘My body needs fixed. I have a body that I should be able to control and change and because I can’t do that without struggling, without binge eating, without ‘failing’ I have a food problem. I need more willpower. I need more rules. I need less socializing and celebrations and life so that I can focus more on following those rules.’ 

It was the CENTER of my thoughts, my actions, my world. It took the majority of my resources: financial, emotional, mental. All of it. (Psst… which is one reason why Christy Harrison refers to diet culture as the Life Thief). 

At that time, I did not realize that all of these beliefs I held about food, movement, my body, my worth, and health were the result of the diet culture narrative. 

I assumed these beliefs existed because I had a personal problem. I had a food problem. My body was a problem. That I was a problem. (A time in my life I share about in depth here in Letting Go of Leo: How I Broke Up With Perfection). 

I kept unknowingly looking to diet culture for more ways to fix it. And, to fix me. 


If so, let’s take a big deep breath together. YOU ARE NOT ALONE.

Education about and understanding why we experience the things we experience are empowering.

So, grab a cup of coffee and keep reading. 

In my opinion, understanding the history of diet culture should be required for anyone who has ever felt the slightest pressure to diet or to make your body smaller.

Which, unfortunately and understandably is the VAST majority of people living in our society (psst… I say people because it’s not just adults but kids, too! This article from Kelsey Miller shares some staggering stats, including that 80% of 10 year olds have dieted).

I remember feeling a strange sense of relief when I became aware of diet culture. 

All the pressure, all the internal struggle wasn’t just in my head! It wasn’t all my body’s fault! It wasn’t because I needed to have less pleasure or less plans with friends or more willpower. There was something bigger going on. 

At that moment in time, my initial understanding of diet culture was that it was a $60+ billion weight loss industry. 

The plans, programs, workouts, magazine messages, etc. telling us that if we didn’t eat the right things, move the right ways, have the right level of health, and / or didn’t see the right number on the scale, that something was wrong and we needed to be focusing all of our energy on making that happen (or else). 

At that moment in time, I believed diet culture existed for one reason: because there was money to be made. 

After all, if you make someone feel awful enough about themselves and scare them about their bodies and then make them believe that they don’t have to be scared or feel awful anymore if they just [insert the thing the diet industry was selling] then there is A LOT of money to be made. 

Humans are hard-wired to seek safety and belonging (you can check out Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs here). So, if you take that away from us and then sell us the solution… well, that’s pretty genius marketing, right? I’ll just speak for myself and say that I know it worked on me! 

And, all of this is true: there IS money to be made by making people feel that they are less than, worthless, unlovable, and unhealthy if they don’t look a certain way or eat a certain way or move a certain way, etc. (and then if you can sell them the solution). 

And, it’s deeper than that. 

Because we didn’t just wake up one day to a cultural aversion to fatness, a cultural obsession with thinness, and a $60+ billion dollar industry that capitalized on both of those things. It came from somewhere. ​

Where did this oppressive system of diet culture come from? Who? Why? How? When? 

As sociologist Sabrina Strings, Ph.D. lays out with such incredible detail and research in her book, Fearing The Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia, it went something like this:

  • Racism (more specifically, White Supremacy) —> 
  • fatphobia as a way of creating racial + social hierarchy by ‘othering’ first Africans, then Indigenous people, then other immigrants, and so on —> 
  • creation of diet culture / diet industry to profit off of that fatphobia and keep people (most prominently women) distracted 

So, at the root of diet culture is fatphobia (a fear of fatness, which can be intrapersonal, interpersonal, and institutional: you can read about the three layers of fatphobia here in this article from Virgie Tovar). 

And, at the root of fatphobia is racism. 

As Dr. Strings shares in the epilogue of Fearing The Black Body,

‘[D]iscussions about racialized and gendered fat/slender bodies circulated largely in elite white spaces, and among white persons, prior to the mid-twentieth century. They served as a mechanism for white men and women to denigrate the racially Othered body. They also worked to police and applaud the “correct” behaviors of other white people, especially white women. 

This is the crux of the issue. The image of fat black women as “savage” and “barbarous” in art, philosophy, and science, and as “diseased” in medicine has been used to both degrade black women and discipline white women.’


I want to share a few of the prominent moments in history that have shaped and created diet culture as we know it today. ​

From using physiognomy to attempt to create social distinctions between enslaved African woman and their European counterparts through art and literature in The Renaissance era when slave trade was rapidly increasing in Europe…

To demonizing indigenous food in early modern colonialism when Spanish colonizers tried to create a distinction between them and the indigenous cultures they came in contact with and to explain the physical differences they saw…

To theories about racial hierarchy in the 1800s by names like Charles Darwin (to determine who was civilized v. savage) which led to the demonization of fatness…

To advocating for a bland diet and thinner body by Sylvester Graham (a Presbyterian clergyman and creator of the Graham Cracker) as a way to ensure purity, morality, self-control, and the denial of pleasure and demonized fatness as a sign of being uncivilized and immorality…

And more. 

These are just a few prominent examples of how, for centuries, physical features, body size, physiognomy​, and food choices have been used to create social distinction, enforce social status, define morality, and assert dominance.​ 

They were weaponized, as Christy Harrison puts it in Anti-Diet, to ‘justify the white Anglo-European male domination of other cultures and genders that had been going on for centuries’…​

And all of this happened before weight was tied to ‘health’ arguments. ​

In fact, as Dr. Strings explains, our fatphobia ‘precedes the medical establishment’s concerns about excess weight by nearly 100 years’ and is ‘actually rooted in the trans-Atlantic slave trade and Protestantism.’ 

Of course, our modern day diet culture messages are now also deeply entrenched with messages of ‘health’ and ‘wellness’ (including the deeply flawed and rooted-in-racism BMI measuring system). 

They also carry with them even more impossible-to-meet and ever shrinking beauty ideals, not to mention sneakier messaging and with a lot of money to be made in the ‘how’ we try to meet those ideals. 

HELLO $60+ BILLION DOLLAR INDUSTRY (which is just the tip-top of the iceberg). 

Deep breath together. 

And we don’t even think to ask ‘why’ or ‘how’ or ‘when’ or ‘who’ when we feel like we have a personal problem! When we feel like we have a food problem. When we feel like our bodies are problems. 

As Christy Harrison writes in Anti-Diet, diet culture ‘keeps us too hungry, too fixated on our bodies, and too caught up in the minutiae of our eating regiments to focus our energies on changing the world.’ 

And, as Christyna Johnson shares here on her IG, ‘it’s hard to dismantle systematic oppression on an empty stomach.’

All the while, the deeply oppressive, racist roots of fatphobia are as present as ever.

Diet culture is oppressive to everyone.

Within the diet culture narrative, some experience more privilege (i.e. if you live in a white body or thin body) and others more oppression (i.e. if you live in a larger body or if you are BIPOC). 

For you personally: What has diet culture taken from you? Distracted you from? Caused you to miss out on? How has it shaped the way you’ve viewed yourself? Others? The world?

For me, learning about the history of diet culture made me even more committed to the work I do here with you all. 

The shift is internal first: healing and changing the way you see yourself, care for yourself, show up for yourself, creating mindset shifts, developing new practices, and healing the pain. 

In Rachel Ricketts powerful workshop Spiritual Activism 101, she discusses how trauma and pain can be passed down through generations. For many, this ‘food stuff’ and ‘body stuff’ is not just something we are dealing with but may be something that has also been passed down through generations of oppression. 

And, the shifts are also relational (how you see and treat others) and cultural (health care, food access, systematic + institutional fatphobia and racism). 

I hope this email has helped you to understand why our cultural obsession with controlling our bodies has felt so oppressive. I hope it’s helped you to feel less alone. 

The more we talk about these real, deep layers, the more we can feel empowered with the knowledge, understanding, and truth necessary to shift this narrative. For ourselves and as a whole.

Here for you. And so grateful we got to do deep together today!

Eager to learn more? If you want to read more of the studies, the research, and more details about the history + iterations of diet culture, you can! There is so much more to learn. I highly recommend starting with Fearing The Black Body and then Anti-Diet. Looking for somewhere to order them from? Here’s a list of 22 Black-owned bookstores that are taking online orders.

xo, Sim

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