Diet culture is a cult.
We get lured in by the promise of weight loss (and the better, easier, more incredible life that comes with it!) and then we stay stuck - our bodies deprived and abused. Our food restricted and moralized. We are taught that we can NEVER be trusted on our own - we require constant, militant guidelines and external input. We think we're making decisions but really, we're making the same decision over and over and over again - follow the plan to lose the weight.
And life never gets better, or easier, or more incredible from following food plans or daily weigh-ins but we're so brainwashed in to believing that THIS IS THE GOAL that we never question the process or the purpose. We think that, if the promised results aren't coming, WE need to work harder at it. We need to devote ourselves more intently. We need to sacrifice more.
The similarities between regular old everyday cult characteristics and those of the diet cult we live in are frightening.
Don’t believe me? Here is a summary of Cult Characteristics (CC) by Janja Lalich and Michael Langone (Janja Lalich PhD is one of the world’s foremost experts on cults and cultic behavior and author of Take Back Your Life: Recovering from Cults and Abusive Relationships) followed by my take on twin diet culture (DC) characteristics.
CC: “The group displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader, and regards his belief system, ideology, and practices as the Truth, as law.”
DC: In this case, the leader is WEIGHT LOSS. I have yet to encounter a woman who has not absorbed- and potentially committed herself completely - to the LAW that being fat is one of the worst things a woman can be and if she gains weight SHE MUST get it under control. The "law" states that a leaner body is the right kind of body. It is, without a doubt, healthier and more desirable within the cult. Weight loss becomes the leader/tyrannical dictator of all daily activities – from how a woman eats and moves her body to what supplements she takes, whether or not she has sex, if she is allowed to have fun, wear stylish clothing, eat in public, and if she can be considered successful. The leader is in control.
CC: “Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.”
DC: Have you been on an anti-diet, body acceptance social platform lately? The RAGE that is triggered by those who dare doubt the leader “weight loss” is incredible. From the book FatSO?! by fat activist Marylin Wann, on talking about how she is 270lbs AND HEALTHY on the radio: “the minute I say that I am not trying to lose weight, that I have no interest in losing weight, the response of the average American talk-radio caller is to attack me vigorously and insist that, despite all of my healthy habits, I am going to die, preferably sooner rather than later. […] Perhaps these angry people don’t really believe that you can’t be fat and healthy. They just believe – deeply, self-righteously – that you cannot be fat and get away with it. The very idea of me, a fat chick, enjoying life, getting away with it sends them into attack mode".
CC: “Mind-altering practices (such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, or debilitating work routines) are used in excess and serve to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s).”
DC: Read the Minnesota Starvation Experiment. Read about the psychology of deprivation (on 1200 calories/day!) and tell me that dieting isn’t mind altering. That it doesn’t affect the thought process and behavior of women engaged in cutting calories and food groups…..not to mention what happens when you throw in some punishing exercise.
CC: “The leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel.”
DC: When it comes to weight loss, there is always a leading expert and a detailed plan. Whether it's South Beach or the Whole 30 or "meditate yourself thin", women are prescribed explicit directives on how they should feel every day of the plan and how to best override feelings of discomfort and doubt.
CC: “The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s), and its members. The group has a polarized, us-versus-them mentality, which may cause conflict with the wider society.”
DC: Ummmm, I’m a bit embarrassed to say that I, as a naturopath, participated in a number of educational courses on how to go Paleo or get a 4-hour body or detox (with "slimming down" as a side goal) and while, YES, there are potentially health benefits to some of those things (if and only if weight loss is taken off the table!), there was, without a doubt an us vs. them mentality that is 100% unhealthy. A “superior if you eat a certain way and/or live a certain way” message that I was uncomfortable with but couldn’t quite define. I saw this over and over again in my naturopathic office – whether the patient was vegan or gluten-free or fruitatarian. Eating a certain way wasn’t just an "I feel better" thing it was an "I AM better" thing.
CC: “The leader is not accountable to any authorities.”
DC: When it comes to diets, the “experts” use shoddy research to support their weight loss claims, despite there being not ONE SINGLE piece of evidence that weight loss plans work for any but the smallest percentage of people, long-term. “If dieting programs had to stand up to the same scrutiny as medications, they would never be allowed for public consumption” – Tribole & Resch. And, in this case, the authorities are often IN on the reporting of shoddy evidence. Like that time the CDC invented an obesity epidemic or when the NIH inappropriately changed BMI standards, despite overwhelming evidence that suggested the opposite. Who’s in charge here? Who is monitoring the collateral damage?
CC: “The group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends justify whatever means it deems necessary.”
DC: Eat Olestra! Who cares about the un-godly gas pain and anal-leakage?! You’ll be skinny and un-endingly admired when you get there!!!!!
Take the amphetamine diet pills!!! What? You’re addicted and having heart palpitations and hallucinations? Oh well, you’re THIN!!!! Be thankful.
Have the gastric bypass surgery! No ones cares if you’ll likely be malnourished for the rest of your life and at an increased risk of "dumping" (aka pooping your pants) and death because you WILL LOSE WEIGHT (at least for a little while).
CC: “The leadership induces feelings of shame and/or guilt in order to influence and control members. Often this is done through peer pressure and subtle forms of persuasion.”
DC: Despite the fact that the evidence tells us that only 5% of people will actually succeed at weight loss long-term, what happens when a diet plan falls apart? When a woman can’t lose weight? When she can’t stick with it? I’ll tell you what happens - SHE feels like a failure. She feels shame. She feels like she can’t get it right and that there must be something wrong with HER. How is that even possible?? …..I'll tell you! Subtle (constant, life-long) persuasion.
CC: “Subservience to the leader or group requires members to cut ties with family and friends, and radically alter the personal goals and activities they had before joining the group.”
DC: What is most apparent in women who have dedicated themselves to the leader of weight loss is this – they want to lose weight because the leader promises that when they do they will have more fun and make more money and be more loved and life will be infinitely easier. Life in a thin body is portrayed as one long bullet-proof coffee and avocado toast-filled morning in yoga pants, bleeding perfectly into a well-styled, sugar-free cocktail hour, followed by a perfectly constructed salad + palm sized protein. You'll have the perfect job and children that never argue and you'll get to wear a romper (with pockets!) every day, while cash and hot potential partners rain down. It's a story of ease, confidence, socializing, and sparkle. AND YET, those trying to lose weight often avoid social events, hide from romantic relationships, avoid shopping or dressing their bodies well, and put off life goals and dreams until they lose the weight. All the things they hope to get in life via weight loss are mercilessly cut off by the pursuit of weight loss.
CC: “The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members. The group is preoccupied with making money.”
DC: Sell books! Sell shakes! Sell plans! Make money money, make, money money make.
CC: “Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities.”
DC: The #1 complaint I hear from women who are ready to escape diet culture?? They are EXHAUSTED. They can no longer conjure up the energy or time required to continue to pursue weight loss.
Here is the one striking difference I see between leaving a cult and leaving diet culture:
While the definition of cult is somewhat unclear and controversial there is a widely accepted understanding that a cult is a social group with socially deviant or novel beliefs and practices.
But diet and weight loss thoughts and ideals are NOT considered socially deviant by the masses, nor are they novel in our culture. THEY ARE THE NORM.
If you were to escape a cult, you'd be FREE. You'd begin to heal and recover and reclaim your life and most of the people around you would be supportive. They'd be appalled by what you had to endure, enraged even. You'd receive confirmation that what you went through was traumatic and immoral and that by walking out on your cult community, you were doing the right thing. The thing that is best for YOU.
Bonus! You might even get to go on Oprah! But not if you leave diet culture...oh no....when you leave diet culture not only is O not interested in an interview, the next thing you know, she's selling you (and your teen daughter) the newest diet-disuguised-as-health.
When women are finally able to see diet culture for what is and WALK OUT of it they are not often met with applause (or even compassionate understanding). Instead, what they find is that – to their horror - the world we live in IS the cult. And while they’ve walked out, everyone around them is still resolutely bought-in. Their school system is the cult, their doctor’s office is the cult, their gym is the cult, their grocery store line and coffee shop and favourite television shows and fiction books…they are ALL the cult. And instead of feeling like they’re finally free, women realize that they will never be fully free. That they are going to need to cultivate their own freedom daily, while enduring side-eye from their sister-in-law and comments from well-intentioned acquaintances and strangers that love to give free advice on all the ways you could, and should!, buy back in......
It's worth it though. Because the best thing about leaving this cult is that you reclaim personal power. You make the statement that you will no longer participate in your own abuse or oppression....and THAT is the moment that life gets infinitely better, easier, and more incredible.