In this body positive age, dieting has become a dirty word, incompatible with feminism. Here, writer Katie Antoniou explores our complex relationship with weight loss.
When we started Stylist over 10 years ago, we made a firm promise to never feature diets in the pages of our magazine or website.
At that point in time, this was quite a statement. So many magazines aimed at women were sold off “lose 10lbs in a week” and “bikini body” promises that brazenly leapt off the cover, and thus straight off the newsstands.
Most publishers wouldn’t have dreamt of making an issue that didn’t have a weight-loss plan, while gossip magazines that quizzed celebrities about The Master Cleanse (aka the lemonade and maple syrup diet) or flagged the latest diet fads (remember the baby food one?) dominated the market.
Diet books front-loading protein (from Atkins to Dukan) rocketed in popularity, TV stars who’d drastically transformed their bodies raked in six-figure sums selling weight-loss DVDs, and “I’m on a diet” office culture was rife. We didn’t believe the world needed any more of that loaded message.
But then the world started to change, again. Fourth wave feminism exploded into the mainstream and women revolted against gendered ideals and rules. One of the biggest shifts as a consequence of this has been in how we talk about our bodies.
Of course, the anti-diet revolution is not new: we have Susie Orbach’s seminal 1978 book Fat Is A Feminist Issue to thank for exploring the ‘fat equals bad, thin equals good’ associations that are so entrenched in our society and providing a groundbreaking model for a different kind of eating. But it’s only recently that it’s really taken hold. During the past decade we’ve seen broader education from nutrition and fitness experts, social campaigns like This Girl Can and a worldwide body positivity movement – and suddenly talk of diets seems outdated, unfashionable and superficial.
In a landmark move in 2018, we even saw Weight Watchers ditch the ‘weight’ from its name, rebranding to WW. Today, in general, women’s magazines, websites and the many wellness influencers who have sprung up around the movement rarely talk about, or credit, diets. Instead, most of us talk of wellness, energy and strength when it comes to our bodies, what we eat or how we exercise for our health. And, armed with a greater knowledge and awareness of our health, we’re powerful consumers too: the wellness industry is now worth over $4.5 trillion, according to the Global Wellness Institute.
The diet industry ‘taught’ us that what matters most is how we look, and we’ve all seen the backlash: triggering ties to self-worth and eating issues on a disturbing scale. It means the vernacular around dieting has become so loaded, it’s a complex beast to discuss in this emboldened world.
But what happens when you don’t love your body exactly as it is and want to do something to change that? When however much you believe a woman should be equal, that she shouldn’t have ‘rules’ about her looks, body or behaviour, you simply want to lose some weight?
Below, writer Katie Antoniou explores whether being on a diet makes her a bad feminist.
I’ve been keeping my New Year’s resolution a secret because I’m ashamed. I’m overweight, but that’s not what I feel embarrassed about. My dirty secret is that I’m on a diet. I’ve been hugely grateful for the body positivity movement, but now I worry that I’m going to disappoint Lizzo and co by trying to lose some weight. Because while I am truly grateful for my body and everything it can do, I don’t love it. And that makes me feel like a bad feminist.
Let me be clear: I don’t hate my body either. I’ve unpacked enough patriarchal and capitalist baggage to know that’s what I’m supposed to do, but I’m perfectly at peace with the idea that I’ll never be thin. I’m 5’9” and I currently weigh 15st 10lbs. I used to be a size 14, and now I’m a size 18. And what I’m most tired of is being uncomfortable. I’m tired of my inner thighs wearing right through denim in the winter and rubbing each other raw in the summer. I’m bored of living in leggings when I have a wardrobe of clothes that I love and I want to wear again.
There are plenty of ‘flaws’ in my body that I don’t feel the need to fix. I have no ambition to ‘get my pre-baby body back’. I’ve grown used to the stretch marks that remind me of the extra two weeks past her due date my daughter decided to shack up inside me. I don’t blame my boobs for losing the 16-month breastfeeding battle against gravity. I’m even OK with the wrinkles and grey hairs that have sprung up this side of 30. But I am fed up of not being able to paint my toenails because my belly is in the way.
Let me get one thing straight though: this isn’t about health. As I regularly prove to doctors who insist on having me tested for high cholesterol or blood pressure, I am extremely healthy. I don’t drive, so I cycle or walk every day. I do pilates and swim daily in the summer. I don’t eat red meat or fried food. And honestly, if there’s one thing that annoys me, it’s people thinking that they know anything about someone’s health just from looking at their weight.
If you saw that picture of Phoebe Waller-Bridge celebrating her awards win with booze and a cigarette and your first thought was not, ‘Hmmm, I’m worried about her health’, then don’t kid yourself that health is your concern when commenting on people’s weight. No – it’s fatphobia. Something the body positive movement has been great at teaching us about; we’re all battling our internalised sexist and fatphobic feelings.
With social media, we’ve never had so many people to compare ourselves to. According to the Mental Health Foundation, images on social media cause one in five UK adults to worry about their body image. A survey by the Royal Society for Public Health found that Instagram is the worst platform for people’s mental health.
Conversely, a study by the Centre for Appearance Research showed that people had improved body image and a positive mood after looking at body positive material. I can wholeheartedly relate to this. I think one of the reasons I’m so comfortable with many of the changes in my body is due to the new breed of Instagrammer – those who show us that Saggy Boobs Matter and that stretch marks and cellulite are normal. The only models I follow are plus size, which still only makes them a size 14 most of the time, but that’s an achievable goal for me to aim for while still eating healthily and enjoying my life.
I’m also a big fan of nutritionist Laura Thomas from the London Centre for Intuitive Eating. I often feel guilty about emotional eating, but she says, “Emotional eating is portrayed as a problem that needs to be fixed by our fucked up, fatphobic society, but actually it’s a pretty benign coping mechanism.”
So I forgive myself when I eat emotionally. What I find really frustrating is eating because I’m bored. I work from home and it is both exhausting and tedious, so I bake cookies and muffins – and eat 90% of them by the end of the day. If there are biscuits and chocolate in the house, I snack, whether I want them or not. I resent the guilt I feel after doing it, and like so many women, I really just resent the amount of time I spend thinking about my weight.
The body positivity movement has helped to an extent with this too, but now I just feel guilty about not loving my body enough. Body image expert Ashlee Bennett summed up my feelings in an episode of Laura Thomas’s podcast, Don’t Salt My Game, when she said, “Loving your body does not need to be the next thing that you need to do to feel OK about yourself.”
So what’s the alternative? I spoke to Anuschka Rees, the author of Beyond Beautiful, a book about body neutrality. “Body neutrality is about truly internalising that your worth isn’t determined by your appearance,” she told me. “It goes beyond body positivity in that the goal is not just to push back our society’s narrow definition of beauty, but to also question whether beauty and looks should even matter so much in the first place.
“At the core, improving your body image means recalibrating your self-worth barometer and learning to no longer use how we feel about our looks as the marker for how we feel about ourselves.”
I genuinely believe that people’s bodies are usually the least interesting things about them, and I try to remind myself of that daily.
So even if I’m learning not to care so much about how I look, I’m still left with the issue of comfort. I think this is another reason why dieting is such a feminist issue, because it’s like wearing high heels or make-up; if we’re doing these things it needs to be a personal choice, not something that society is forcing on us.
I don’t think it’s feminist to judge anyone for what they choose to do with their own bodies, because feminism is ultimately about being free to choose. So I’m trying not to feel bad about choosing to diet. I also feel – and I fully acknowledge the irony of this being said publicly – that I don’t want to share anything from my weight-loss journey after today. I don’t want anyone to feel that by judging myself, I’m also judging their bodies or choices. There’ll be no ‘before and after’ pictures my end.
Because while losing weight is hard, and I’ll allow myself to take pride in it, there are much harder battles that people are fighting every day. And if feminists are going to win the war, we need to stop picking battles with each other.
Photography: Ondrea Barbe, Trunkarchive.com, Getty, Unsplash