But how exactly does diet culture uphold white supremacy?

This week we are delighted to feature a blog by Kenzie Provencher. Kenzie is a student in the Simmons master of science and dietetics internship class. She recently completed this blog as an assignment in her Nutrition Therapy for Eating Disorders class.

*Disclaimer: this is an immense topic, and I have most likely have left so much information out! This is a quick dive into this topic, but it deserves a full explanation. I look forward to exploring this topic more!
**Disclaimer number two: I am a white, heterosexual female, and I would like to state that this writing comes from a place of privilege.

Since the murder of George Floyd over the summer and the new Civil Rights Movement that has been awakened, I have seen many social media posts from anti-diet dietitians suddenly exclaiming “diet culture upholds white supremacy” and “healing from disordered eating is inherently political work.” I completely agree with these statements, but me being me, I needed more information. How exactly does diet culture uphold white supremacy? I asked myself. For this blog post, I will explain my brief and fascinating research on this topic. Just know that I will have only scraped the surface! To truly do this topic justice, I would probably need multiple books.

Sabrina Strings

Author of Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia NY Univ. Press 2019

To begin my research, I turned to Christy Harrison’s FoodPsych episode with sociologist and author, Sabrina Springs.1 Springs quotes her grandmother, who grew up in the Jim Crow south saying to her, “these white women are killing themselves to be thin. Why are they doing that?” This is a great question. Why are people willing to go to extreme lengths to have a certain body size? Not unlike most things in our country, which was founded on racism, the desire to be thin originated during the slave trade. Fatness became equal to Blackness when white race “scientists” were trying to come up with creative reasons for why Black people were inferior to white people, and therefore should remain enslaved. Race scientists decided that since Europeans were restrained, logical, rational, and could control their appetites, Europeans were superior to Black people, who were dumb, lazy, unmotivated, and unable to control themselves or their appetites. Thus, Blackness became associated with laziness, stupidity and fatness. These attributes persist today. Much of the negative rhetoric surrounding fatness and “ob*sity” today stems from racist roots of white people wanting to prove that they are superior to Black people through their size. Today, a slim body is a more privileged body than a larger body. The ability to control weight through diet and exercise is seen as a moral pursuit because people are able to control their own “animal” instincts for nourishment.

Throughout her research, Springs found that much of the rhetoric in women’s magazines throughout the 18th and 19th century implied that women must stay slim in order to stay the superior race. Staying slim was the epitome of “American” or “Nordic” beauty. We still believe this today! It may not be outwardly stated in racialized language, but the majority of people prized for their beauty today still conform to the same tall, slender and white beauty norms of 100 years ago. Diet culture upholds white supremacy because the desire to shrink bodies comes from the need for white people to prove themselves superior to Black people in every way possible. Demonizing fatness is inherently racist because of race scientists arbitrarily deciding that fatness was associated with Black people and their inability to control themselves due to their animal nature. Rejecting the diet culture and accepting all sizes without discrimination is inherently anti-racist work.

The piece “Race, Online Space and the Feminine: Unmapping Black girl Thinspiration,”2 by Nicole Danielle Schott also explores similar themes in an opposite way. In the pro-eating disorder online culture there are popular “thinspiration” blogs which glorify extreme thinness and give motivational mantras for overcoming a body’s need for nourishment. This author argues that Black girl thinspiration, and the desire for Black women to be thin and conform to the same beauty standards and racist diet culture as white women, actually comes from their oppression. It’s a widely accepted fact that Black women are diagnosed with eating disorders at far lower rates than white women, not because they suffer at lower rates, but because their suffering goes unnoticed by medical professionals.2 In an attempt to gain some semblance of white privilege, Black women feel the need to shrink their bodies to fit white beauty standards. In fact, Schott points out that Black women who have slim bodies are less oppressed and given similar opportunities as thin white than their Black counterparts in larger bodies. Not only is diet culture a racist concept but conforming to diet culture ideals can actually give Black women more privilege. The privilege that comes from thinness even in a Black body proves the immense amount of fatness and Blackness discrimination in our society.

In order to fully reject the diet culture and reject the desire to shrink our bodies for another’s benefit, we must understand the racist roots of diet culture. Black bodies and fat bodies have been turned into a political agenda. Public health campaigns to fight the “ob*sity epidemic” and attempting to control bodies that do not conform to the white, heterosexual norm, is our government “ensuring that bodies will behave in socially and politically accepted manners.”3  Rejecting the desire for thinness and accepting larger bodies is rejecting a socially accepted norm. Fighting diet culture is another way that we can reduce racism and create a more equal society for people of all sizes, colors, shapes, genders or non-genders, and sexual orientations.

References:

  1. Christy Harrison: Diet Culture’s racist roots with Sabrina Springs.
  2. Schott ND. Race, Online Space and the Feminine: Unmapping ‘Black Girl Thinspiration.’ Critical Sociology. 2017;43(7-8):1029-1043. doi:10.1177/0896920516652456.
  3. Brown N, Gershon SA. Body politics. Politics, Groups, and Identities. 2017;5(1):1-3. doi:10.1080/21565503.2016.1276022.
  4. Sabrina Strings: Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia.