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Content warning: Mentions of eating disorders.

The voice in my head sneered, Still too high, you’re a failure, as I yanked on the fat of my stomach. I was in my bathroom, trying to calm myself down and stop the moisture overpowering my eyes. My mom had bought a different type of yogurt that week at the store because it was on sale, but it was 30 calories more than the usual brand. An unpeeled apple is 90 calories, six almonds are 42, one cup of cooked broccoli is 35, two eggs are 180… Total calorie intake: 650. My mind was scrambling to recalculate: Well, if I take out the almonds and exercise for an extra 20 minutes tonight, I can still make my calorie goal, I rationalized.

***

Last week, while scrolling through my Instagram Explore page to avoid homework, I came upon a video that showed how to make something called “nature’s cereal.” I was curious and so I did more research. Originally created by Tik Toker Sherwayne Mears, nature’s cereal consists of coconut water poured over a mix of blackberries, blueberries, raspberries and pomegranate seeds. This trend blew up when singer Lizzo shared a video on Tik Tok trying it for the first time.

Now, I love an unexpectedly delicious food combination (trying ketchup on mac and cheese was truly a life-changing experience). And if Mears and Lizzo love nature’s cereal, who am I to judge? But the underlying issue with the nature’s cereal trend is that it can be misinterpreted, especially by impressionable youth, to demonize regular cereal with milk for being unhealthy while inadvertently idolizing nature’s cereal for being lower in calories. If we are continuously bombarded with content proclaiming that cereal is making you fat or that switching from full-fat milk to skim milk will aid weight loss, we start to subconsciously label certain foods as “bad.” Gradually, we might start to avoid them or feel that we have to “earn” these foods through exercise. Even if we were able to enjoy these foods blissfully in moderation before, we might now feel guilty for eating them or that we need to substitute “bad” ingredients in a recipe like butter or sugar for “good” alternatives like avocados or apple sauce. 

Take, for example, the Instagram handle for the account on which I first saw the dish: @eatthisnotthat — a page is filled with posts that encourage you to suppress your cravings for unhealthy food with “clean alternatives” to cut calories. Nature’s cereal is full of antioxidants, vitamin C and other essential nutrients, but we should take it for what it is: fruit in water. We must avoid putting certain foods and meals on pedestals. To function, our bodies require many different nutrients that come from a balanced diet made up of a variety of foods, including ones that make us happy. 

The set of beliefs that idolizes thinness, perpetuates fatphobia and vilifies “unhealthy” foods is known as “diet culture.” It goes farther than to tell us to cut back on donuts and fried foods. Instead, it creates a fear of food and not exercising which can lead to disordered eating habits and potentially full-blown eating disorders. Diet culture taunts: “You can’t have a flat stomach if you snack in-between meals.” “Stop eating by 8 pm.” “Don’t eat fruits that are high in sugar.” “Keep away from unnecessary carbs.” “Never ever let your discipline waver.”

While writing this, I am reminded of a time when I used to spend every minute of every day fixated on food, calculating every calorie, every gram of carbs, ultimately telling myself what I could and couldn’t eat. All in the name of hitting a number on the scale, this toxic mentality stole my time, happiness and ironically, my health. Hours wasted poring over online restaurant menus, trying to decide what I would order the next day when I went out to eat with my family. If I couldn’t meticulously pre-calculate my calories for the meal based on grainy images of online menus, I would eat a small portion of it, feigning fullness. The next day, I would heavily restrict my food intake to under 900 calories and spend countless hours exercising, regardless of whether I really had the time to or not. Sometimes I would make excuses and cancel dinner plans altogether. Instead of studying for an exam, I would be googling things like, “How many calories are in toothpaste?”

When the numbers on the scale fell, my friends praised me for my “willpower” to be healthy. I was constantly terrified of losing control, but the truth was I already had. I liked feeling the gnawing hunger pangs in my stomach because I equated it to success. The first thing I did every morning was rush to the mirror to see if my stomach was flatter or my thigh gap bigger. What I saw would determine my mood, what I would be allowed to eat that day or how long I would spend on the treadmill that night. I thought that tracking every single calorie on calorie-counting applications and sticking to a strict two-hour workout seven days a week meant that I was strong. The reality was that I was being controlled by diet culture, brainwashed into thinking that once I hit a certain amount of pounds, I would finally love myself — that I would finally be happy. Growing up, I learned about how the media distorted our image of beauty, but that didn’t stop me from trying to conform to that “perfect” body type. It reinforced in me that to be “fat” was a fate worse than death.

Diet culture has brainwashed many of us into thinking that a healthy lifestyle means salads, detox smoothies and always telling ourselves “no pain, no gain” when offered cake at a birthday party. It has convinced many of us that eating when we feel hungry is a failure and that we should instead distract ourselves to divert hunger cues and chug water to feel full. Our social media pages flood with infographics about the warrior diet, the egg diet, the baby food diet, the cabbage soup diet and the list goes on. Not only do these weight loss plans often contradict each other — the infamous IU diet calls for one apple for breakfast and two sweet potatoes for lunch while the keto diet tells you to avoid most fruits, potatoes and high-carb foods altogether — they are not sustainable. Being healthy entails not having to obsess over what foods you can and cannot eat.

Anyone can be manipulated by diet culture. Yet, disordered eating is frequently presented as an issue that solely affects white women. Research has shown that Women of Color in the United States are less likely to be diagnosed or receive treatment for eating disorders. Studies have also found that those who identify as LGBTQ+ are at a higher risk to develop these disorders. Nonbinary abolitionist and organizer Da’Shaun Harrison voices because they were Black, fat and perceived as male, doctors refused to acknowledge that an eating disorder was possible. They write, “Not a single doctor or other medical professional that listened to me talk about my relationship to food and eating considered that I might have an eating disorder. In fact, when my mom once named ED as a possibility to one of the doctors, without hesitation, he responded: ‘That’s not likely, as eating disorders aren’t typically seen in boys, especially when they are African-American and overweight.’” It is important to recognize that disordered eating has to do with more than just outward appearance but also mental health. You can’t tell when someone is struggling with a single glance. Often, diet culture works menacingly in the background, slowly poisoning our relationships with food and our bodies.

Particularly after New Year’s Day, diet culture becomes ubiquitous: ads for gyms, weight loss programs and pills that promise to “burn fat fast” appear as an ode to the infamous “New Year’s resolution.” Fitness influencers upload “How to Get that Summer Bikini Body” videos, implying that there’s some perfect body we should be striving to attain and that we are not worthy until we do so. Celebrities like the Kardashians promote waist trainers, “appetite-suppressing lollipops” and Flat Tummy Tea in spite of being notorious for editing their social media photos, having access to personal trainers and professional nutritionists as well as the many speculations of them undergoing weight loss surgery and other treatments.  

If you’ve ever seen a “What I Eat in a Day” video, ask yourself why they are always accompanied by thumbnails of girls in bikinis and include clips of body checking “progress” throughout the day, as if aesthetic pleasure is the purpose of self-care and exercise. Fundamentally, seeing a larger number on the scale doesn’t mean you aren’t healthy nor does seeing a lower number mean you are healthy.

Before and after diet photos” can also be problematic. On the left, there is a frowning individual. On the right, they appear to have lost weight and are smiling, seemingly much happier overall. These images may be motivating to some who want to lose weight out of genuine health concerns, but oftentimes, these comparisons portray individuals as “success stories,” worshiping thinness and equating it to happiness. But there is no one diet or one exercise regime that will give everyone a “perfect body.” Trends change and what society proclaims is the “perfect body” will always change. 150 pounds will look different on everybody, and no amount of weight loss will solve a lack of body appreciation as a result of society’s indoctrination of fatphobia. Here’s the truth: Even if we all ate and exercised the same, our bodies would still look vastly different from one another’s.

So, the next time your nosy Aunt Jenny feels the need to comment on how many potatoes are on your Christmas plate, remember that like our personalities, our bodies are all different and need different things in order to function. We will have less energy to work out sometimes, and we might feel hungrier some days and we don’t need to justify that to ourselves or anybody else. Our bodies are smart; we should listen to them. Eat more vegetables and fruits for physical health, and don’t forget the ice cream and potato chips for mental health too.

Diet culture is everywhere, but so is body positivity — if we know where to look for it. Despite the clickbait-y video titles and thumbnails, Linda Sun’s Youtube channel was one place that never failed to remind me that what made me special had nothing to do with what I looked like. Likewise, Victoria Myers’s Instagram account encourages intuitive eating and teaches us how to navigate a world obsessed with diet talk. Actresses Lana Condor and Gabourey Sidibe remind us that no matter how perfect someone’s life seems on the surface, body image issues are so much more common than we realize and that ultimately, we are not alone in our struggles. Model Ashley Graham pushes back at people who call her “brave” for posting her un-photoshopped bikini pictures. Catherine Pawley’s TED Talk, “Life’s too short to weigh your cornflakes,” reminds us how joyful life can be if we silence the poisonous voice in our heads that tells us we need to engage in destructive behaviors in order to feel safe and in control.

A slice of birthday cake is not a shameful 370 calories or 32 grams of carbs or 22 grams of sugar. That slice of cake is more than just numbers. That slice of cake is laughter with family, unforgettable memories with friends and happiness for the tastebuds. We must deconstruct and reconstruct our relationships with our food and our bodies and embrace that our bodies change over time. 

MiC Columnist Victoria Tan can be reached at tanv@umich.edu.