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Nutritionist 'I'm calling BS on toxic diet culture'

Niamh Orbinski’s new book, No Apologies looks at the power of diet culture to negatively affect how we see ourselves.

HOLIDAYS ARE A time when many photo opportunities arise – in front of monuments, on the beach, while out for dinner, hiking a mountain: this is when the camera often comes out.

If I have learnt one thing over the years working with people who struggle with body image (spoiler alert: this is most of the female population and a large percentage of the male population), it is that photos are a tricky subject. They can trigger a whole host of insecurities and inadequacies a person feels about their appearance, size, or body shape.

I have personally fallen victim to becoming consumed by thoughts over a particular photo and how I appear in it. Many clients have shared the same experience, not to mention the number of times I’ve witnessed friends and family agonising over photos too. The phrases I often hear (and have said myself) are:

‘Ugh, that’s an awful photo.’

‘Delete that!’

‘I look huge!’

‘I can’t even recognise myself.’

‘Do I really look like that?’

Have you ever questioned where these insecurities or perceived inadequacies come from? If you think about it, do young children dwell on photographs in the same way we do as teenagers or adults? Do they poke at their dimples, belly rolls, or double chin, proclaiming how awful they are?


Of course, they don’t, because they have yet to learn that there is such a thing as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ bodies. Disliking your body is not something you are born with. It’s something you have been taught to do.

We are a species that has become obsessed with external appearance. The age of social media has only exacerbated that, and few people are immune. I suspect too that the ramping up of diet culture and the strive for perfection in recent decades correlates nicely with the now prevalent consumerist and capitalist systems. Let’s be honest, when we are happy from the inside out, we are less inclined to buy products we don’t need.

2018-victorias-secret-fashion-show-runway Models at the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show at Pier 94 on November 8, 2018 in New York City. The brand cancelled the show in recent years after criticism over an implied lack of inclusivity of size and gender. Hahn Lionel / ABACA Hahn Lionel / ABACA / ABACA

In order to live up to the standards society has set for us, many of us resort to all kinds of measures – I could fill a book with these measures alone. Despite your best efforts, it will never be enough though because we have been conditioned to look for flaws; God forbid you accept the body you have today and live a fulfilling life regardless – that is sacrilege! No, you should always strive to enhance, tone, slim, and change your body, as well as defy ageing.

Relationship with food

As I write this, I can feel my heart beating and tears forming in my eyes for two reasons: I feel both sad and outraged that this is what we are subjected to. This is the core of why so many of us have such a messed-up relationship with food in the first place.

Controlling your food intake has been sold by this toxic messaging as the answer to living up to society’s thin ideal. This skewed thinking implies that you will only be deemed worthy when thin. I call bullshit. There are so many people with whom I speak who feel inadequate and are under so much pressure to fit in. 

The issue here is that, in our quest to attain the beauty ideal, we say no to things we truly desire and instead remain consumed and distracted by a journey with no destination.

There is no destination because no amount of changes you make to your body will ever be enough. It’s as if just before you reach the finish line, the finish line shifts, and there’s a new one to aim for.

We know that weight loss, for example, does not guarantee an improvement in negative body image. Some people have lived their whole life this way – maybe you, reading this right now, have too. This is not your fault and there is a way out.

Beauty and appearance ideals

I was 15 when I had my first experience with dieting, a tender age for most young girls. I felt as though my body wasn’t enough, and I would be happier when I was skinnier. I believed this with a vigorous intensity – nobody could have convinced me differently.

I thought that any worries, fears, or insecurities would evaporate if I could just be smaller.

Alas, even when I did become smaller, that never happened – shocker! Most people, especially women, have had a similar experience to mine in their life, some at a much younger age than others. I have worked with people who have memories of feeling this way from as early as age four.

Thankfully, I had a very healthy relationship with food growing up (thanks, Mam and Dad – they’ll be delighted to get a mention). I believe that this, along with my ‘thin privilege’, protected me in part from an escalation of those early experiences with dieting in my teens.

As a teenager, I was influenced by the many unattainable appearance ideals in mainstream media at the time. This drove my focus on dieting. The next step in removing what you have learnt from diet culture is to honestly examine the appearance and beauty ideals that we’ve all been subjected to and the role that these unattainable ideals play in keeping you stuck chasing a specific body size or shape.

Without challenging the status quo and working on respecting and accepting your here-and-now body, you will struggle to truly reject the diet mentality, find food freedom, and feel better about yourself as a person.

Firstly, what’s wrong with chasing beauty ideals? Well, for one, it can be pretty damn miserable, but apart from that, they constantly change, so it’s impossible to reach them. Our bodies are not lumps of clay we can sculpt and mould to any size or shape, despite what we’ve been led to believe. Prior to the 1900s, the beauty ideal for women in Western culture was voluptuous and soft – a larger body was seen as beautiful. This beauty ideal began to shift once we entered the twentieth century.

Chasing beauty ideals keeps us distracted and suppressed because of the time and energy required to diet. We cannot buy any more time or energy; it is a finite resource. If the majority of it is given over to dieting, it has to be taken from somewhere else. Not to mention the money spent on diet products; many of my clients tell me they could buy a small car with the money they’ve spent on dieting.

When we spend our time trying to mould and shape ourselves into an acceptable physical form, we lose sight of the things that truly matter and lose time playing a game we can never win.

Thinness in some form has dominated beauty ideals since the 1900s, but a thin body is not earned. You cannot will yourself thin. Of course, your body shape and size are influenced by the food you eat and the lifestyle you maintain, but they’re not the only things that have an impact.

Life is short, and every day you spend trying to live up to an unattainable ideal is time wasted. This pursuit distracts you from focusing on things that make you truly happy, such as inner health and contentment, nurturing relationships, or a fulfilling career.

The pursuit of the beauty ideal does not come without sacrifices. As you continue to opt out of diet culture, you might need to come back to this point again and again. What are you giving up to pursue thinness and are those sacrifices worth it to you? Only you can answer this question.

Niamh Orbinski is a nutritionist, certified intuitive eating counsellor and yoga teacher. She runs a weight-inclusive, virtual online practice specialising in intuitive eating, disordered eating and body image. Her work is HAES (Health At Every Size) aligned, meaning that she encourages health-promoting behaviours, regardless of their outcome on weight. No Apologies by Niamh Orbinski is published by HarperCollins Ireland.

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