Content warning: This article discusses eating disorders
The extent to which America’s relationship with health and nutrition is staked in consumption is ironic.
I’m not referring to consumption as in eating, although that’s no small element. No — in America, practicing personal health has largely been reduced to purchasing access to machinery, supplements, programs, and outfits. For the grain of free content that’s out there, the “marketplace of ideas” prevails — one where it’s not the most well-researched and substantive content that gains popularity, but that which is the most marketable that makes it into the mainstream. All of these factors, and more, coagulate to form widely held notions of what it means to exercise, to eat “right” or “wrong,” and to otherwise be “healthy” that does more harm than potential good.
So why is this paradigm so strange, why are things the way they are, and how do we make them better? Furthermore, why would we even care? Exercise is such a wonderful thing, and should be accessible to all; but when we place strict aesthetic, financial, and procedural definitions on it, people who do in fact practice health in their own individually-tailored ways might be led to think they don’t exercise at all. This, married with the pervasiveness of white, Eurocentric beauty standards as well as the value that society places on thin, muscular, normatively proportioned bodies. A real critique of diet and exercise culture is worthwhile because it helps to dispel the ableism, transmisogyny, fatphobia and other forms of prejudice embedded into it by the world around us.
In 2017, more than 60 million Americans (about 18.5% of the US population) were members of a gym or fitness club. These include your traditional gyms as well as spin classes and yoga studios. Most, if not all, of these services are put behind a paywall for access to technologies, space to exercise, and knowledge. I don’t think there’s anything inherently harmful about people gathering in a shared space to exercise their bodies. What I do find absurd is the industrialized fitness-as-a-commodity model that is by no means unique to the United States.
When fitness becomes something on which you can profit, it can quickly turn toxic as marketing agencies and public relations firms push exercise as something it’s not. Lifting weight turns from a fun aspect of a broader life to a lifestyle in itself. “Hitting the gym,” buying a Nordic Track, or paying for yoga classes become a simulacrum — a symbolic representation, but not quite the same thing — of the healthy lifestyle paraded by social media influencers. Because of the power of marketing, which is a uniquely capitalist phenomenon, there forms a tight association between buying the thing and doing the thing, which might explain why four-fifths of people who purchase a gym membership for the New Year quit after around five months. This is what happens when purchasing some sort of fitness option is portrayed as the only option to a “healthy” (see: good and valuable) life by popular media.
The same can be said of diet culture — and yes, it is a culture. The major distinguishing factor, however, is the far more personal nature of changing your eating habits.
According to National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD), more than 28 million people in the United States will develop an eating disorder in their lifetimes, a tragic number that does not even take into account the amount of people whose eating is disordered as a factor of social pressures or systemic food insecurity. While it would be extremely reductive to write off all instances of disordered eating as an issue of body image, as they occur in many forms and for many reasons, the nearly ubiquitous standard of beauty that values leaner, more toned, and often lighter-skinned bodies over those that don’t fit this mold is a surefire way of telling millions of people that they aren’t as accepted as their “fit” counterparts, whether they have disordered eating, a hereditary condition, a physical disability, or just aren’t that into working out and dieting. All peoples deserve to feel included by our society concept of beauty and fitness, which might require discarding these concepts altogether.
Dieting programs feed on these socially-injected concerns by presenting themselves as an easy path to weight loss, thus valorizing weight loss as a means of practicing health. The way diet program commercials juxtapose sultry and depressed “before” photos to chipper and enlightened “after” photos, you might forget that measurements like Body-Mass Index (BMI) are largely arbitrary bellwethers of health before certain extremes, and that being fat does not necessarily mean being unhealthy. It is misconceptions like these, as well as the generalized conflation of fatness and obesity, that lead to fat people experiencing discrimination in medicine, and frequent misdiagnoses due to the assumption that fatness is at the root of all health issues as opposed to chronic conditions or other circumstantial health issues. Dieting culture — that is the socially accepted prognosis of how diets should and shouldn’t be practiced — maintains a harmful stigma against gaining weight even when weight gain is necessary.
Take, for example, the upsurging “weight-loss program” Noom. It is well understood in communities that study behavioral nutrition that dieting is likely to lead to pathological dieting (35% of dieters) and disordered eating (20 – 25% of dieters). Noom, whose main gimmick is that it uses the cutting edge of psychology to develop a personalized weight loss track plays right into this. A common experience with the app involves a drastic cut to their required daily caloric intake, which encourages users off the bat to engage in unhealthy eating habits. It legitimizes this approach through its overhyped psychological accreditation, championed by its founders — one of whom is a self-proclaimed “entrepreneur,” the other a software engineer, neither of which have a robust understanding of psychiatry, nutrition, or eating disorders.
Under capitalism, corporations are incentivized to sell you their product by any means, such as tacking on a pretty graphic user interface and catchy buzzwords to their product. What this results in in the context of nutrition is harm to users who may benefit from alternative forms of practicing health.
Around the world, social and accessible modes of exercise include tai chi, cycling on bike-friendly streets and ungentrified (non-corporate, non-colonized) yoga. Diets that consist less of highly processed factory-farmed foods also have an outsized benefit on health outcomes. Being less glitzy, however, these options become invisible to us in capitalist society in the name of profit and marketability. We need to realize that everyone is worth a society that promotes health freely, accessibly and with versatile alternatives.