Racism Needs to Be Part of the Conversation About Dismantling Diet Culture

Read more to understand why diet culture's rejection of larger bodies is inherently racist.

It's been more than five years since I became a fitness and strength coach. Since then, I've become very well-acquainted with body liberation and the general body positivity space. But to this day, I can't help but notice that this space continues to be overwhelmingly white.

Body positivity was originally created as an antithesis to diet culture and to help marginalized people (read: fat, queer, trans, bodies of color, and more) feel worthy of self-love because, for too long, society told them they weren't. These days, however, "body positivity" hashtags on social media are often flooded with photos of non-marginalized bodies (read: cis, thin, white women), and the movement has been co-opted by people who were never intended to be the center of these conversations.

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Not only that, but the body positivity movement tends to hyper-focus on individual self-love without acknowledging the intersections of identity that can make it more difficult for some people to feel safe in their bodies. And trust me, we need to talk about those intersections. I've been writing about wellness and anti-racism education for years now, yet I still get nasty DMs and emails from people who are upset that I'm discussing these topics. It's not fun, but it further solidifies that I need to continue — because Black bodies, including my own, are being harmed within a space that was created to center us. As such, we have to question our cultural obsession with thin, white bodies and our incessant desire to pursue that status quo.

In part, that desire stems from the fact that diet culture is heavily rooted in racism.

As Sabrina Strings, Ph.D. discusses in her book Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia, Black people have historically, and intentionally, been linked with fatness dating as far back as the 19th century. "One of the things that the colonists believed was that Black people were inherently more sensuous, that people love sex and they love food, and so the idea was that Black people had more venereal diseases and that Black people were inherently obese because they lack self-control," writes Strings. "And of course, self-control and rationality, after the Enlightenment, were characteristics that were deemed integral to whiteness." (Related: How Racism Affects Your Mental Health)

Over time, this connection between Black people and gluttony has become internalized and upheld, making diet culture's rejection of larger bodies inherently racist, argues Strings.

Today, many of us learn to internalize these beliefs from an early age. For example, Lauren Leavell, N.A.S.M., C.P.T., a Philadelphia-based body positive trainer and coach, says diet culture has influenced her for as long as she can remember, particularly "as a Black woman who has a white mom and was raised in white-centered spaces."

"I spent much of my life believing the lies of diet culture, and the reality is that no amount of thinness was going to make me more aligned with whiteness," says Leavell. "I could be thinner, but I couldn't ever truly attain Eurocentric standards of beauty. I could never be white."

Plus, mainstream nutrition advice often leaves out Black people.

The dietetics industry in the U.S. is overwhelmingly white. Roughly 78 percent of all registered dietitians are white, while just 2.6 percent are Black, 3.3 percent are Hispanic or Latinx, and 3.9 percent are Asian, according to statistics from the Commission on Dietetic Registration. (Related: Why the U.S. Desperately Needs More Black Female Doctors)

With little diversity among RDs, the advice they dole out tends to be non-inclusive as well. "Diet culture is rooted in racism in multiple ways, from the ways people talk about fat bodies to the ways mainstream dietitians and wellness professionals deem certain foods 'bad' without considering the cultural implications," says Kanoelani Patterson, a fat-positive activist and powerlifter. "The nutrition advice given is often centered in whiteness without acknowledging the ties of capitalism, racism, and white supremacy, which all lead to a lack of accessibility as well as food deserts."

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Food deserts, ICYDK, are areas where access to affordable, healthy food options (fresh fruits and veggies, whole grains, lean meat, etc.) is limited or, in some cases, nonexistent, because grocery stores are too far away or too expensive. Communities of color tend to face the most difficulty accessing grocery stores: Only 8 percent of Black people in the U.S. live in a census tract (a region defined for the purpose of taking a census, with an average population of 4,000) with a supermarket, compared to 31 percent of white people, according to statistics from the Southern Poverty Law Center's Teaching Tolerance program.

Dalina Soto, an anti-diet dietitian who specializes in helping Latinx people end chronic dieting, says she experienced a disconnect between nutrition in her own home and diet culture's take on food firsthand. "Growing up in a Dominican household, my main vegetable sources were lettuce, tomato, and cucumbers," shares Soto. "When mainstream wellness talks about what it means to eat 'healthy' and have 'lots of colors' on your plate, it didn't resonate with me. Our food wasn't 'colorful.' I was exposed to more root vegetables that aren't very colorful, but full of nutrition, so my vegetables were just different than what is mainstream in the U.S. The hierarchy of food and what we value as 'healthy' in mainstream fitness and wellness is often based in Eurocentric standards."

Additionally, the narrative of "food is fuel" is often pushed without considering that, for many BIPOC cultures, food represents a place of gathering and community, notes Patterson.

"It's not just about 'fueling' our bodies," explains Patterson. "It's also about nourishing our bodies and our spirits. Food is culture. White culture tends to focus more on the individual, while BIPOC culture is rooted more in collectivism and community." (Related: Why Wellness Pros Need to Be Part of the Conversation About Racism)

If the body positivity movement ignores these connections between diet culture and racism, then what is the movement actually accomplishing?

It's great that body positivity inspires so many people to love and accept themselves. But the fact is, body positivity isn't just about loving your own body. It's about demanding justice for all bodies, especially those who face the most discrimination. Body positivity must not only acknowledge, but celebrate the intersections of identity that, too often, make it harder for people to arrive at a place of self-love, particularly within a society that caters to Eurocentric beauty standards. If we aren't dismantling diet culture and the systems of oppression that uphold it — the same systems that make it difficult for BIPOC to feel safe in their bodies, whether they're simply out bird-watching in Central Park or seeking help from an RD — then the body positivity movement is meaningless.

"I think body positivity has definitely been co-opted, which is a huge part of the reason I don't center myself as part of my Instagram page," says Soto. "I realize that I do fit some of the ideal Eurocentric standards of beauty and I check some of the boxes, so instead of centering my body and myself, I elevate the voices of those who don't have as much privilege as I do. I think it's important that we begin to acknowledge our privilege within the space and understand the roots of the movement."

Collectively, we can all take steps to educate ourselves, and others, about systemic racism in diet culture.

The truth is, we all have unlearning to do. Whether we consciously realize it or not, we're all influenced by diet culture, racism, and the inextricable links between the two. It's not easy, but we have to recognize this in order to understand their roots in anti-Blackness and fatphobia.

"I would start by realizing where the 'thin ideal' beliefs stemmed from," suggests Shana Minei Spence, M.S, R.D.N., C.D.N., a Brooklyn-based nutritionist. These beliefs are ingrained in us because of what we've seen in mainstream media our entire lives: lots of thin, white bodies, and not as many marginalized bodies or people of color. Add to that the centuries-long connection between Black people and gluttony that Strings discusses in her book, and it becomes clear why there is so little representation of Black people in wellness culture.

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"[We have to] recognize this concept, which is new for many," says Spence. "Do research. Everyone has social media now, especially Instagram. I suggest following Black content creators and diversifying your feed. There is so much to learn." (See: Black Trainers and Fitness Pros to Follow and Support)

There are also plenty of hands-on tools — from interactive webinars to online tests — to help you uncover your implicit biases and avoid stereotyping people based on their appearance.

If you're looking to dive even deeper into the connection between racism and diet culture, be sure to read books including Strings' Fearing the Black Body or Fattily Ever After: A Black Fat Girl's Guide to Living Life Unapologetically by Stephanie Yeboah.

Chrissy King is a writer, speaker, powerlifter, fitness and strength coach, creator of the #BodyLiberationProject, VP of the Women's Strength Coalition, and an advocate for anti-Racism, diversity, inclusion, and equity in the wellness industry. Check out her course on Anti-Racism for Wellness Professionals to learn more.