Content Warning: In this blog post we discuss diet culture. There is mention of dieting, disordered eating, eating disorders, and body image. Please proceed with care.
I had an okay relationship with food, exercise and my body — until I had a baby. I’m a millennial that has been inundated with unattainable beauty standards and rigid notions of health just like the rest of you. When I was a preteen and teenager, I had a subscription to Seventeen Magazine, I watched all the teen movies and TV shows and so it’s not as though I’ve escaped diet culture, but rather I pushed it out until later in life. Or maybe it’s because I was “naturally” skinny and an athlete, so my body fit into those standards easily enough that I didn’t have to face it in the same way as my peers. So even though I never had an eating disorder and I never counted calories, it still affected me in the end, and that’s when I realised how unavoidable it is and how challenging it can be to unlearn.
When I was pregnant and in my third trimester, people started asking me if I was having twins. No, I was not in fact having twins. What I was having was 3 fibroids, placenta previa, a tiny baby and well, I had A BODY. Being pregnant is like being a walking sign that says “comment on my body and appearance please!” and generally, not ones you wanted to hear (Pro tip: don’t comment on people’s pregnant bodies, OR tell them your horrible birth or loss stories please! Unless you tell them how gorgeous they are, that’s allowed). Although I loved how I looked pregnant (fucking hot and fertile is what I looked like!), when I moved into the fourth trimester and postpartum, my body image—and the self worth that was tied to it—took a nosedive. I wasn’t particularly worried about “bouncing back”, as weight did come off naturally over time, but I didn’t recognize myself in the mirror anymore, and the person reflected back at me shocked me. I’d not been able to shop “off the rack” for some time and consider myself plus sized and curvy, but this new body was foreign to me. The changes I experienced were completely normal and natural, and mostly expected, but this intense shift coupled with my PPD and anxiety weighed heavily on me in more ways than one. This was magnified by the fact that my partner, unphased and unaffected in his own body by the pregnancy, was fitter and “more ripped” than ever!
Birthing people have SO much pressure to get back to their “pre-baby body”. You are constantly advertised on social media about weight loss and dieting, exercise moves and bundles that would bring me the body I had in the past back. And even though I can recognize these are snake oil offers (and seriously fucked up), the damage is done. Little by little, it eats away at you. I was thinking about food all the time. I was nursing so I needed more calories and then I started worrying about what to feed my little one in the days he began eating solids. So not only was I thinking about every meal and grocery lists and cooking (hello emotional labor), but I was also wondering if my kid was getting enough nutrients, enough food, the right kinds of food, at the right time, blah blah blah the list goes on and on. It is EXHAUSTING. There is so much pressure for parents to do everything right and I was getting stuffed and fed content all day long telling me I needed to try harder to make sure my kid had optimum brain health, gut health, and didn’t somehow get overstimulated from sugar because that would cause ADHD?! I had previously been in a friend group that denounced anything that wasn’t organic, farm to table fresh or from Whole Foods. This pressure, financially and emotionally, was just too much. This is when I realised something needed to change, for myself and for my kid.
“Right now, in America, we no longer think of food as sustenance or nourishment. For many of us, food feels dangerous. We fear it. We regret it. And we categorize everything we eat as good or bad, with the “bad” list always growing longer. No meat, no dairy, no gluten—and, goodness, no sugar. Everything has too much sugar, salt, fat; too many calories, processed ingredients, toxins. As a result, we are all too much, our bodies taking up too much space in our clothes and in the world. Food has become a heavy issue, loaded with metaphorical meaning and the physical weight of our obesity crisis. And for parents, food is a double burden, because we must feed our children even while most of us are still struggling with how to feed ourselves… The hardest part was letting go of my own expectations and judgments about what food should look like—so I could just let my daughter eat.”
― Virginia Sole-Smith, The Eating Instinct: Food Culture, Body Image, and Guilt in America
The effects of diet culture are not limited to personal well-being; inevitably they spill over into our parenting practices. As caregivers, our relationships with food, movement and exercise, and our bodies significantly influence how we interact with and teach our children about these aspects of life. When we internalise societal expectations about body image and food, we inadvertently pass on these beliefs to their children. Comments about “good” or “bad” foods, labelling bodies as “ideal” or “undesirable,” or engaging in restrictive eating habits can perpetuate harmful norms. These actions may unknowingly contribute to the development of disordered eating patterns or negative body image in children, impacting their relationship with food and self-esteem.
However, as we navigate this landscape, there’s a growing movement promoting body positivity and a more mindful approach to nourishment, and thank goodness! Embracing a non-diet mentality and fostering a more balanced, and mutually beneficial relationship with food, movement, and nourishment, can lay the groundwork for a more positive environment at home.
One vital aspect involves modeling behaviors rather than enforcing strict rules. Encouraging intuitive eating, where individuals learn to honor their body’s cues for hunger and fullness, and engaging in joyful movement that focuses on well-being rather than weight, can reshape our interactions with food and exercise. One of the things I’ve been practising at home is removing the word “treats” for things that may contain sugar. I also present my kiddo with the whole plate of food and snacks – fruit and veggies, proteins etc – rather than having “dinner and then a treat”. He gets to “choose” what he eats, in what order. Some nights we have cheerios with blueberries for dinner (many nights) or pizza (again).
Additionally, emphasising body diversity and celebrating all body shapes and sizes cultivates an environment where children learn to appreciate their uniqueness and develop a healthy body image. Every piece of content we consume (and there are a lot) informs our understanding of the world, so paying attention to what images and words we “feed” our children is equally important as the literal food on their plates.
As we strive for a more inclusive and trauma-informed approach, it’s crucial to create safe spaces for open conversations. Engaging in discussions that honor diverse experiences and emotions around body image and food can help break the cycle of shame and foster resilience. That’s part of the reason why I’m so excited about our newest workshop series with our friends at Bad Academy, our next workshop is called Bad Moms: F*CK DIET CULTURE, Unpacking Diet Culture & Fatphobia In Pregnancy & Parenthood
We are gathering experts and our community to unpack and begin to understand our world’s complex relationships with food, exercise and movement, fatphobia and stepping into parenthood. From a trauma informed lens, we want to uncover some of our own biases, through education and practical tips and ways to work through it. You’ll walk away from this 75 minute online workshop with resources, new thinking, and ways to have conversations with your family – and yourself – about your experience of parenthood and diet culture. Guests will have the opportunity to ask questions during the event, and afterwards, and connect with a community of like-minded people. Moderated by Bad Academy’s Amanda Kao, with an introduction from Brood’s Gill Damborg featuring speakers:
- Vinny Welsby (they/them) → Anti-Diet, Pro-Fatty Body Acceptance Coach, TedX Speaker, Best-Selling Author and human at @Fierce.Fatty
- Stephanie Dang, RD (she/her) → Co-Founder at CAYA Health Centre & Registered Dieticians @cayahealthcentre
- Dr. Thara Vayali, BSc, MA, ND (she/they) → Co-Founder & Chief Medical Officer of @heyfreya.co, Medical Advisor & Naturopathic Physician
DATE: Thursday, January 25, 2024 TIME: 10:00 AM PST – 12:30 PM PST LOCATION: Online (Zoom) – a recording will be available for replay Ultimately, by actively challenging diet culture’s influence and fostering a culture of body acceptance and nourishment, we can create a nurturing environment that empowers both ourselves and our children to embrace their bodies and develop a positive relationship with food and exercise, rooted in self-care and compassion.
We hope you’ll join us!
Are you interested in learning more on the topic? Here are some Brood-approved resources;
- Kids Eat In Colour
- Fat Talk: Parenting in the Age of Diet Culture ― Virginia Sole-Smith
- The Eating Instinct: Food Culture, Body Image, and Guilt in America ― Virginia Sole-Smith
- NPR Fresh Air Podcast: Diet culture can hurt kids. This author advises parents to reclaim the word ‘fat’
- How To Protect Your Kids From Diet Culture: An interview with parent coach Oona Hanson
- Trying To Raise “Normal” Eaters After A Lifetime Of Diet Culture
- How to Have the Fat Talk
- I was reminded of the value of body positivity after a friend called my toddler’s legs chunky
- What if we let our kids eat what they want? A radical new take on the weight debate
- How to avoid falling into the diet culture trap during pregnancy
- A Doula’s Thoughts on Rejecting Diet Culture in Pregnancy
- Learning to Reject Diet Culture, One Pregnancy at a Time