What’s the Connection: White Supremacy and Diet Culture

First and foremost, I want to acknowledge and name that I am no expert when it comes to this topic. I am a curious learner, and am committed to learning more and more about this and my own privilege as a white person. I also want to name some of my other privileges, as there are many. I am middle class, cisgender female, able bodied, and thin. Therein, I hold a lot of privilege and potential for implicit bias that I continue to strive to uncover within myself. I also feel a deep calling toward social justice and toward naming things what they are rather than maintaining the status quo. This is what I talk with my clients about all the time in my office in Denver, and here is my attempt to do that in this blog. 

Speaking of status quo, can we all just agree white supremacy is it? It is woven through every single institution in our country and therefore currently how things stand. There is not a single aspect of American (and also many others) society that is not touched by white supremacy. 

I wrote a blog that talks all about diet culture and what it is a few weeks ago. Now I am going to talk about white supremacy, what it is, and how it is connected to diet culture. 

White supremacy is a social system in which Caucasian males hold primary power and predominate in roles of political leadership, moral authority, social privilege, and control of property. I think we can look around us and see examples of this interlaced in and through our relationships, communities, places of work, churches, schools, justice system, cities, countries, and even in our world. I see it in wage disparity between men and women, and even more so in white women versus women of color. I see it in political leadership, which is dominated by white males. These are just two examples, and for brevity sake I won’t go into the countless others. 

You can see that white supremacy is alive and well and all around us. What are some other examples that come to your mind? How does it show up in diet culture? Or maybe what I should really be asking is, how does it not!?

White supremacy, colonialism, and diet culture go hand in hand. If we take a look back at the history of dieting we can see that a white man by the name of Reverend Sylvester Graham propagated it. He actually invented the graham cracker as a dieting tool and believed that there was a strong link between morality and one’s engagement in dieting. I think Virgie Tovar does a better job of explaining this than I do – so for more on the history of dieting check out her column here! If you don’t have time to read her column the basic gist is that this particular white man felt the need to control people’s food intake, which he believed would in turn control an individual’s weight, sexual desires and make them morally superior. This primarily became a thing because he was frightened by women and their sexual desire (and probably his own) and felt the need to control it. 

Fast-forward 250 years and here we are, steeped in diet culture. Not a lot has changed from the days of Reverend Sylvester Graham. Sure, maybe what we call diets has changed. We now use terms like “wellness” and “lifestyle change” to reference the same types of restrictive behaviors around food that dieting has always represented. What has not changed is the message from diet culture that tells you that if you follow a specific set of rules related to food and exercise you will achieve a state of worthiness and moral superiority, and that these messages are by and large created to keep you distracted and disengaged from things like running for office, marching against racism, and ultimately challenging the status quo, i.e. white supremacy. 

As Naomi Wolf highlights in her book The Beauty Myth, “A culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience. Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one.” This sentence, although first published back in the 1990’s still rings true today. When we are sidetracked with counting calories, restricting certain foods, obsessing over our exercise routine, and aiming to achieve the perfect body (which actually does not exist), we cannot possibly have the time or energy to focus wholeheartedly on changing our political structure or anything else more important like relationships and enjoying life. Dieting is the patriarchy’s attempt to keep you preoccupied and ever disillusioned that perfection is within your reach and is also your life’s purpose. 

I believe it is important to understand the connection between diet culture and white supremacy because I hope it stirs something up within you, that the hierarchical structure (white men being at the top) of our society is wrong and something needs to change. We must be the change. In order to make change happen, we must let go of dieting and spend our energy and time focused on ways to fight against diet culture, which in turn means fighting against white supremacy and the ways in which it oppresses all of us. This is ultimately for the collective, not just for your individual recovery from dieting, disordered eating, or an eating disorder. If we want to achieve individual recovery from disordered eating, we must also fight for this for the most marginalized of bodies and identities. 

Diet culture and white supremacy say that the ultimate aim is thinness and whiteness. The opposing truth says that we need to fight for safety, autonomy, and justice for every body that is not thin or white.