For many women, dieting has been part of their lives for pretty much as long as they can remember. Whether you have a lot of weight to lose or just want to drop a few pounds, losing weight is a seemingly ever-present goal to strive for.
And we only ever hear about the numbers before and after. But how does the body feel?
To get a real look at how diet culture affects us, we talked to 10 women about their experience with dieting, how the quest to lose weight has affected them, and how they found empowerment instead.
We hope these insights help you take a closer look at how diet culture affects you or someone you love, and that they provide the answers to help you gain a healthier relationship with food, your body, and women at large.
Ultimately, I feel like dieting puts a serious dent in women’s self-confidence.
I’ve been doing the keto diet for a little less than six months, which I’ve combined with lots of HIIT workouts and running.
I started because I wanted to make weight for a kickboxing competition, but mentally, it’s been a back-and-forth battle with my own willpower and self-esteem.
Physically, I’ve never been categorized as dangerously overweight or obese, but the fluctuations in my diet and fitness can’t be good for my metabolism.
I decided to quit because I’m tired of feeling so restricted. I want to be able to eat “normally,” especially at social gatherings. I’m also happy with my appearance (at the moment) and decided to retire from competitive kickboxing, so that’s that.
I’ve been calorie counting for a couple of months now, but I don’t really work out. This isn’t my first rodeo, but I’m giving it a try again even though dieting mostly ends up in frustration and disappointment.
I thought I’d left dieting behind, but I still feel the need to try something to lose weight, so I experiment with different types and amounts of eating.
When diets focus only on weight loss, it only leads to frustration or worse. When we understand the other health benefits and focus on those rather than weight, I think we can incorporate healthier eating habits long term.
I was obsessed with counting carbs and weighing food at first, but I’ve realized that was a waste of time.
The diet culture — don’t get me started. It literally destroys women. The industry’s goal is to focus on a problem it claims it can solve but can scapegoat women for not solving if results don’t pan out.
So I don’t consciously “diet” anymore. I think of it as giving my body what it needs to feel good and be healthy. I’m a diabetic who has insulin production problems and resistance, a type 1.5 rather than a type 1 or type 2. So, I created my own diet based on strict portion control, carb limiting, and sugar limiting.
To supplement my food intake, I used to make myself ride my exercise bike if I wanted to watch TV. I really, really like to watch TV, so it was serious motivation!
I don’t ride anymore due to my destroyed spine, but I do shop the local markets (meaning a lot of walking) and cook (meaning a lot of motion) to keep active. I also just bought a mare who’s being trained specifically for me so I can resume horseback riding, which is therapeutic.
Eating well made me healthier and made me happier with my body as I age. It also relieved pressure on my back. I have degenerative disc disease and lost 2 inches in height over a four-year period.
I feel like I’ve always tried a bunch of different things — never one set plan, but “lower calories” plus “try to minimize carbs” is a big one.
That being said, I don’t really work out. I’m unhappy with the way my body looks, especially after having a baby, but it’s really hard. I feel like I’ve always been on a diet.
As a teenager, I was more extreme about it, since unfortunately, I tied dieting with self-worth. The sad part is, I did get more attention at my thinnest than at any other point in my life. I often look back to those moments as “the good times,” until I remember how restrictive and obsessive I was over how I ate and when I ate.
I think it’s important to know what you’re eating and fuel your body with the best foods you can, but I think it goes overboard when women start feeling the pressure to look a certain way, especially since all bodies have different frames.
Dieting can become dangerous very easily. It’s sad to think that women feel as if their key worth comes from appearance, or that landing a significant other based on appearance, especially when appearance is nothing in comparison to a good personality.
I lost about 30 pounds about 15 years ago and have kept if off for the most part. This change has had a huge positive impact on my life. I feel better about how I look, and I went from being not very active to an avid athlete, which has given me many positive experiences and led to some great friendships.
But over the last 18 months, I put on a few pounds due to stress plus menopause. My clothes don’t fit anymore. I’m trying to get back to the same size as my clothes.
I’m terrified of that weight coming back. Like, pathologically fearful about weight gain. There is this huge pressure to be thin, which is justified as being healthier. But being thin isn’t always healthier. There’s a lot of misunderstanding by regular folks about what’s actually healthy.
I did it “old school” and just counted calories and made sure I got in my 10,000 steps a day (thanks to Fitbit). Vanity was part of it, but it was prompted by high cholesterol and wanting to get doctors off my back!
My cholesterol numbers are in the normal range now (although borderline). I have plenty of energy, and I no longer shy away from photos.
I’m happier and healthier, and because I’ve been at goal weight for 1.5 years, I can have a splurge meal every Saturday night. But I do think it’s very unhealthy that we prioritize being “thin” above all else.
Although I’ve lowered risks for some things, I wouldn’t say overall I’m healthier than those who are heavier than I am. I’ll have a SlimFast shake for lunch. Is that healthy?
Maybe, but I way admire people who live a truly clean lifestyle more than people who can stay at goal weight by living on Subway sandwiches and pretzels.
I spent years dieting and obsessively working out because I wanted to lose weight and look the way I imagine in my head. However, pressure to follow a restrictive diet and exercise plan has been detrimental to my mental and physical health.
It puts emphasis on numbers and “progress” instead of doing what is best for my body in any given moment. I no longer subscribe to any sort of diet and have begun to learn how to eat intuitively by listening to my body’s needs.
I’ve also been seeing a therapist for my body image issues (and anxiety/depression) for two years. She’s the one who introduced me to intuitive eating and Health at Every Size movements. I’m working hard each and every day to undo the damage done to me and so many other women by societal expectations and beauty ideals.
I think women are made to believe they are not good enough if they don’t fit into a certain pants size or look a certain way, and ultimately dieting doesn’t work in the long run.
There are ways to eat “healthy” without restricting your body or allowing yourself to enjoy food, and diet fads will always continue to come and go. They are rarely sustainable in the long run, and do little but make women feel bad about themselves.
Every other diet I have tried has either resulted in weight gain during the diet or hypoglycemic episodes. I’d decided not to diet because they never work for me and always backfire, but my weight had started to steadily creep up over the last year and I hit the weight I promised myself I wouldn’t hit ever again. So, I decided to try one more time.
I started following the military diet coupled with working out a few times a week. It was stressful and frustrating. While the military diet helped me lose a few pounds, they just came right back. It’s the exact same results as all the other diets.
Diet culture is so negative. I have co-workers who are constantly dieting. None of them are what I would consider overweight, and most are skinny if anything.
My aunt almost killed herself trying to lose weight before finally agreeing to try weight loss surgery. The whole thing is just overwhelming and sad.
I’ve been dieting since high school. I wanted to lose weight, and I didn’t like the way I looked. I went online and read somewhere that someone of my height (5’7”) should weigh around 120 pounds. I weighed somewhere between 180 and 190, I think. I also found information about how many calories I needed to cut to lose the amount of weight that I wanted to online, so I followed that advice.
The impact on both my mental and physical health was extremely detrimental. I definitely lost weight on my diet. I think at my lightest I was a little over 150 pounds. But it was unsustainable.
I was constantly hungry and constantly thinking about food. I weighed myself multiple times a day and would feel really ashamed when I had gained weight, or when I didn’t think I’d lost enough. I always had mental health issues, but they were especially bad during that time.
Physically, I was extremely tired and weak. When I inevitably quit, I gained all the weight back, plus some.
Dieting was never about health for me. Dieting was about being thinner, and therefore prettier, and therefore happier.
Back then, I would have happily taken a drug that would have taken years off my life to become thin. (Sometimes I think I still would.) I remember someone telling me they lost weight after taking up smoking, and I considered smoking to try and lose weight.
And then I realized I was completely miserable when I was dieting. Even though I still didn’t feel great about how I looked when I was heavier, I realized that I was considerably happier as a fat person than I was as a starving person. And if dieting wasn’t going to make me happier, I didn’t see the point.
So I quit.
I’ve been working on self-image problems, but I’ve had to relearn how to interact with food and with my own body. I realized that I also had support from some friends who helped me realize that I could like myself, even if I wasn’t thin.
These thoughts about what your body is supposed to look like become completely ingrained in you and are almost impossible to let go of. It also damages our relationship with food. I feel like I don’t know how to eat normally. I don’t think I know any women who unconditionally like their bodies.
I never called it “dieting.” I followed chronic calorie restriction and intermittent fasting (before that was what it was called), which led me to have an eating disorder. The amount of lean muscle in my body dropped so much I later needed the help of a nutritionist to help rebuild it.
I lost energy, had fainting spells, and was afraid of food. It significantly decreased my mental health.
I knew it came from a complicated place in my mind. I needed to be thin more than anything and never lost a substantial amount of weight because, despite my intense calorie restriction, my metabolism had slowed to a point where weight loss just wasn’t happening.
I learned this after seeking help for what I thought could be an eating disorder. Knowing weight loss wasn’t working had a big impact. Also, learning that it was negatively impacting my health, understanding concepts like intuitive eating and Health at Every Size (that weight has a lot less to do with health than we think), and learning how much popular nutrition “information” is inaccurate also helped my recovery journey.
Health goals should never be just about weight
Emma Thompson told The Guardian, “Dieting screwed up my metabolism, and it messed with my head. I’ve fought with that multimillion-pound industry all my life, but I wish I’d had more knowledge before I started swallowing their crap. I regret ever going on one.”
But this knowledge doesn’t seem to stop us from shelling out cash. The diet industry is worth more than $70 billion in 2018.
Perhaps this is because the idea that our bodies are never good enough unless we meet the media’s latest beauty standard also affects our minds. Wringing our bodies through the diet machine only leaves us feeling unsatisfied, hungry, and not exactly that much closer to our goal weight. And by addressing only part of ourselves, like your weight or waistline instead of the whole body, leads to unbalanced health.
Healthier, holistic ways to approach weight loss and eating habits include intuitive eating (which rejects diet culture) and the Health at Every Size Approach (which considers how different every body can be).
When it comes to your health, body, and mind, it’s truly unique and not one-size-fits-all. Aim for what makes you feel good and fuels good, not what only looks good on a scale.
Jennifer Still is an editor and writer with bylines in Vanity Fair, Glamour, Bon Appetit, Business Insider, and more. She writes about food and culture. Follow her on Twitter.