Our columnist Grace Victory has experienced first-hand the alarming link between mental health problems and our insidious diet culture. But, she reveals, you won’t find real happiness and fulfilment in a smaller pair of jeans…

One of the many reasons for my past poor mental health has been the link between diet culture, fatphobia, and the incessant belief that I am not good enough. Do you remember the first time you saw something that made you feel terrible about yourself? I don’t. I just remember grabbing my tummy at age eight, and wanting to chop the chub off.

Diet culture is so subtle, so sneaky, that we digest it subconsciously throughout our lives, especially as children. It can be the ‘Are you bikini-body ready?’ ad on the Tube, the ‘Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels’ quote on Instagram, or ‘I just don’t think women with big thighs should wear mini skirts’ conversations you hear at the office.

Diet culture is everywhere, and deeply ingrained within our society, because someone, somewhere, is making big bucks from making women feel like shit. Keeping us hungry and counting calories keeps us small – not just physically, but mentally and spiritually, too. It keeps us focused on things that don’t actually matter, so that we don’t have the mental capacity or energy to take the patriarchy down, or question the beliefs that have been programmed into us.

Grace Victory

Photography | Paul Buller

As children, many of us inherited unhealthy thoughts and feelings towards food and our bodies. We were taught to count calories, no carbs before marbs, no eating after 6pm, and that apple cider vinegar would give us a six-pack. When Slimfast was out, Slimming World was in. When small bums were out, big bums were in.

The ideals of how we should look, and who we should be, change constantly, so that we remain in a vicious cycle of self-hate. And guess what? The money keeps rolling in to the corporations who sell us the products or services that will ‘fix’ us. This is a battle we never win, because we – and our bodies – are not the problem.

I remember a few years ago, after finishing treatment for an eating disorder, I was so incredibly angry. I had realised that falling into disordered eating and negative body image is almost inevitable if you simply look at the advertising and messages we see and hear.

There is a narrative that you are morally wrong if you don’t conform to look a certain way. That women should fall in line, and never dare to break free from the story that no longer serves them. Diet culture is just another tool to take away our power. We’ve been brainwashed into believing that our own intuition isn’t enough, and that we cannot trust our bodies to eat well. So, we allow things outside of us to do the work instead.

Happiness and self-actualisation cannot be found on the outside – it is about the inner you

This is why our relationship with food – and ourselves – becomes so skewed. We tear ourselves down in any way that we can, and even though 95% of diets do not work, we blame ourselves if we don’t lose weight. We exercise to look good, despite feeling like utter crap. We constantly think about our bodies in a negative way, and every day that goes past is another day of self-loathing and self-deprecating behaviour.

But we hardly see it, because it’s normal to hate who we are, and radical not to. We disconnect from parts of us in a bid to become smaller versions of ourselves. We shrink, pick, and even cut away at who we are, in the desperate hope that we will find happiness in a smaller pair of jeans.

And this was me, and sometimes, it is still me. I’ve been so much thinner than I am now, and it still wasn’t enough. I got to my goal weight and the goal changed, and then all of a sudden I was Googling boob jobs and bum lifts. It became apparent that no matter what I looked like, I still wouldn’t like myself. It wasn’t my body after all.

Happiness and self-actualisation cannot be found on the outside – it is about the inner you. It is about knowing who you really were before you internalised other people’s standards. It is about setting your own standards. It is about letting go of fear, and instead choosing love. Life does not begin when you’re thin. Life is happening now. So, stop engaging in behaviours, conversations, and diets that make you feel like you’re not good enough. You are. Love Grace x

Come back next month for more from Grace!