Weight and body image are intrinsically linked in our diet-mad society. Perception of one’s own weight is a concern most frequently related to quality of appearance rather than health. The media presents an unobtainable body ideal which drives capitalist institutions; in the UK alone, the diet industry is worth a whopping 2 billion pounds. And what is this all centred around? Not being healthy, but losing weight.
Most recently, the phenomenon of “diet teas” has arisen, due massively to its promotion on social media and the packaging of products as Instagram-worthy fashion statements. Companies have created various brands of teas which claim to aid weight loss and “detox” the body. These tea kits can cost upwards of £30 for what a lot of people are calling dressed-up laxatives. Despite many health enquiries into the authenticity of these products, celebrity Instagram endorsement has seen more and more young girls getting sucked in. And this is just one of many examples pointing to the toxicity of the dieting market’s products. Health is a word far removed from the minds of the diet industry giants: our insecurity is their profit.
The repercussions of diet-culture go beyond just the physical; a society obsessed with achieving the perfect body inevitably leads to pressure and feelings of inadequacy and this is bad news for our mental health. Self-image and self-esteem are at an all-time low for most young adults. Psychologists have reported new symptoms of this, with large numbers of women partaking in ‘habitual self-body monitoring’, a phrase which describes a behaviour where women self-objectify and view themselves as others would, for example repositioning the angle they hold their body so it looks thinner. This behavioural quirk often leads to increased anxiety and self-loathing. Arguably, the pressure to have the perfect body is felt most prominently by women, but men too are starting to suffer the effects. Eating disorders are one of the more extreme examples of mental health being affected by these societal pressures to have the “right” kind of body. While they are still ten times more common in women, eating disorders in men are on the rise; since 2000, the number of men diagnosed with eating disorders has gone up by 30%. The severity of the problem cannot be understated; diet-culture has become so poisonous, it is affecting people’s emotional well-being.
The societal obsession with people’s figures completely ignores all the outside elements which can contribute to someone’s size. Body shape alone is not an indicator or someone’s health and lifestyle, yet larger people face preconceived ideas about their diet and fitness every day. It enters a paradoxical realm where someone will tut if a big person is eating junk food, yet scoff when they eat a salad. This problem can even stretch as far as fat people having health complaints written off because ‘hey, you should just lose weight’. Is health really such a black and white issue? Making direct and final decisions based on the correlation between weight and health completely ignores any other nuances and complexities. And this is something which works both ways: not all big people carry weight because they eat too much, and not all thin people are skinny because they don’t eat enough.
So what about if you are underweight? It may be due to a physical illness preventing you from eating or as a result of suffering with severe stress or anxiety. Whatever the cause, it can be just as worrying as being or feeling overweight. Your clothes may look baggy on you and you may be embarrassed to go for food with your friends due to a poor appetite. Trust me, pushing your food around the plate to make it look like you’ve eaten more than you have doesn’t fool anyone. Just like those who feel they are overweight, you begin to have feelings of inadequacy.
Ironically, although you are what society perceives to be ‘skinny’, people still feel the need to comment on your size with phrases like ‘you look ill, have you lost weight?’ or ‘you need to fatten up’. Then there are others who try to make you feel insecure by telling you ‘I don’t know why you’re complaining, most people would do anything to be your size.’ You can’t win! Yet because the body ideal depicted in society is unobtainable, people who are on the smaller side also come under pressure to measure up to the inexistent and horrible notion of ‘normal’.
In order to destigmatize our perceptions of body image, we need to be careful and selective in the language we use to describe ourselves and towards others. How about ‘you’re looking healthy’ as an oppose to ‘have you lost/ gained weight?’ Remember that language is loaded and what you say can really upset others even if you didn’t mean it in that way. Next time you go out for dinner with your friends, don’t ask if they are having cake afterwards, just order what you like. If you give the impression that you don’t care, it may help others feel the same way. The fact is, ‘skinny’ is just a word and our ideas of ‘beauty’ are corrupted by fakery and photoshop. People are beautiful, pictures are not.