“The diet industry cost me time, money and happiness”

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Jameela’s 21-year battle with her own body has spurred her to take on the dangerously toxic diet industry

I was 11 years old the first time I was put on a diet. My maths teacher had come up with the brilliant idea to weigh all the girls in my class, in order to teach us about data collection and graphs. One by one, we were weighed in front of each other, and gasps, envy and ridicule naturally ensued. It was an all-girls school, after all.

I was the heaviest in the class. Everyone laughed as my name was put at the top of the board. I went home embarrassed and told my parents in the hope of some sympathy, and was met with even more horror. They panicked and expressed shame, and immediately put me on a crash diet. Fatphobia was all around me.    

That year, I would go on to learn all about carbs, calories and how to hide food in tissues or pockets so people thought I was eating when I wasn’t. I was just a growing child. I was a little human being ingesting with certainty that my worth as an acceptable member of society could be determined by a weighing scale.       

I ended up weighing myself every single day of my life until last year. That’s 21 fucking years of waking up every morning and my entire mood for the day being determined by the number on a stupid little machine in my bathroom. Am I a winner today or am I a loser? What a horrifying waste of happiness. What a horrifying waste of time. What a sad thing for a bright girl, who technically knew better, to keep as her deep, dark secret for so long.    

I wasn’t the only girl triggered in that class. It made a mark on all of us. We saw skinny confirmed as an achievement. We all wanted it. Suddenly, we were all keener to take part in sports, all avoiding the pasta bake and pizzas at lunch, and there was the longest queue for the bathroom afterwards because so many girls were making themselves sick. There were SlimFast cans everywhere. Anorexia became a secret badge of honour.

School and home weren’t the only places I ingested anti-fatness – everywhere you looked were skinny actresses (we were told to believe that Renée Zellweger, at a size 14 in Bridget Jones’s Diary, was plus-size FFS) and skinny pop stars. Some shop mannequins were so thin they had ACTUAL RIBS carved into them.     

Even now, in this business, as a UK size 10-12, I can’t fit into most of the clothes on any shoot. I either have to leave them completely open at the back, so I’m basically wearing it as a fucking apron, or I have to forego amazing clothing because it was made for a size 8 only. 

This is why most catwalk models have to be so young, because it’s only at a very young age that most women can maintain such a low weight. 

With many successful women in this industry in their 20s, 30s and 40s, a lot of them mothers, it’s a real struggle for almost all of us to keep ourselves at a size that affords us the chance to wear most fashion, which is the only way we get into magazines (a pivotal part of our careers) however many pizzas they show you they’re “eating” on Instagram. Cue nationwide eye-roll. 

If the clothes samples were bigger, there would be more options for us, and we could pin or alter dresses for anyone naturally skinny. Instead we are forced into a uniform of thinness, and everyone who consumes our media thinks that if every celebrity is one size, then that must be the “normal” size and there’s something wrong with you if you don’t fit that aesthetic. Wrong. There is nothing wrong with you, there is something wrong with this business and its complete disrespect of women and our bodies.       

Throughout my teens and early 20s I was consumed by all of it. I drank all the detox teas, I took all the laxatives, I did all the fad diets, I studied all the pro-anorexia websites. I spent every penny I had on trying to be thinner. 

I would pass out from lack of nutrition. My periods stopped for a year. I was so thin at one point that I got bed sores from my own mattress. My heart thinned, my thyroid and adrenal glands were in a state of binge-and–starve panic. My digestive system was destroyed by magic potions off the internet. I was depressed. I was weak. I was in chaos. 

So much so, that I found myself unable to just stop for a minute and ask myself why? Why was I so invested in this ideal? Why were so many of my peers, too? What is this obsession with the physique of a pre-pubescent girl? Who benefits from it?      

And that’s what the diet industry wants. They want us so distracted with self-hatred that we don’t notice that there is a game being played here. A really sick, twisted one that is costing us a lot of time, money and happiness, all to benefit some incredibly unscrupulous people at the top. 

From lollipops that claim to suppress your appetite to “detox” teas that are essentially just laxatives, celebrities and influencers are being paid thousands of pounds to endorse products they know little about. It’s a goddamn industry, the weight-loss world. It’s a whole market unto itself. A booming market that is growing by the damn year.       

According to a study from 2014, more than 29 million Britons had attempted to lose weight in the previous year. As the average person gets bigger, so too does the weight-loss industry. Its global value is expected to reach £220 billion by 2023. Less than 5% of people who lose weight keep it off for more than five years. The vast majority of diets do not lead to sustained weight loss. They lead to rampant preoccupation with food and weight, a toxic cultural thin ideal, body dissatisfaction and disordered eating. 

Weird, isn’t it? That we keep getting bigger in spite of this militant effort to keep our generation slim… I have some theories as to why this is. Before I go on, I want you to know that I love all bodies and for whatever reason you are thin or fat or medium or whatever, it’s your body and you can do what you like with it. 

I think variety is beautiful and glorious. What follows is prompted by all the women I have spoken with who have, in the past, tried to change their bodies and have found it very hard. I’m simply addressing their situation.  

  1. Fad diets often demand you cut calories or food groups down in drastic proportions. This can have a knock-on effect on your metabolism. Whenever I lost weight fast, I would pile it back on and then some as soon as my eating returned to normal. And it was then twice as hard to lose weight again the next time because my body didn’t know about the GREAT IMPORTANCE of “heroin chic” and therefore thought I was suffering from starvation, so it was protecting me from my sustained lack of nutrition.
  2. Most prolonged denial of a food can cause a fixation with food, which leads to an increase in binges, where food becomes weaponised as sin, self-harm, rebellion or freedom. This often leads to weight gain. Our obsession with “clean” food has a name by the way: orthorexia.
  3. A lot of diets are so restrictive that they can leave you with serious deficiencies. My doctors attribute my bone density issues and autoimmune hypothyroid disease to 20 years of diet abuse and nutritional restriction. A lot of my friends who yo-yo dieted in their teens and 20s now have terrible hormone imbalances and fertility issues.
  4. Shame has never led anyone to sustained healthy eating. It almost always leads to eating too little or too much, to exercising too little or too much. Shame invites bad habits, obsession and excess. When I am happy and confident is when I naturally make the best intuitive decisions for myself. Until I had EMDR [eye movement desensitization and reprocessing] therapy for my eating disorder, I would eat until I couldn’t breathe when I was having a bad day. I would use it both as a comfort, distractor, and a stick to beat myself with, because I knew I’d be heavy, bloated and sluggish the next day, which would lead to three days of starvation to punish myself for my “failure”. Just a relentless cycle of jumping from one form of self-harm to another. Back and forth, on a hamster wheel of utter fuckshit, for two decades.

    A huge problem is our outrageous fat-phobic blaming of all fat people for their size. We create this narrative of greed and laziness around fat people to demonise them, and to make us all fear fat, so we will go to any extreme (and spend any amount of money) to avoid it. We bully fat people about their bodies. We chastise them. We ridicule them. We make a concerted effort to make them hate themselves. So many things have (rightfully) become taboo to abuse people about, but for fat people, it’s still open season.

    The concern-trolling around the health of fat people is so transparent. Most of my fat friends are far healthier than I am, for all my decades of abuse trying to be thin. You don’t know anything about their health just by looking at them, you are not an MRI scanner. 

    Pretending to worry about their health is just a new, clever way of shaming them, which almost always is really coming from our own inherent anti-fatness. I think this is part of the plan. I really do. We panic people about their size, we don’t make nice clothes for them, denying them the chance to express and celebrate themselves the way thin people are allowed to, we bully them en masse. 

    We erase them in the media, making the shame so horrific to endure that drastic measures are taken for a quick fix. Their mental health is under attack and it creates a toxic relationship with food. The drastic diet is impossible to maintain, the person “falls off the wagon” and they gain the weight back, then they need more assistance from the diet industry to get them back on the diet horse for even longer the next time. Each time gets harder and harder because our metabolisms slow with age.      

    And for those who aren’t fat according to societal standards, we make sure they watch how we mistreat fat people, to make them afraid of themselves having to live with such abuse, so that they start early on the detox and diet products. More money made by the diet industry.

    It is a scam. We need to stop associating thinness with perfect health. We need to educate people about nutrition so that we are all eating enough of the right food to give our bodies all the nutrition we need. We need to teach kids about the dangers of fast food and the hormones in non-organic meat, and the dangerous sprays and chemicals in our food that play with our immune systems. We need to teach kids about the devastating health implications of starvation and bulimia. We need to teach them about intuitive eating and the importance of exercise for mental health, not bloody stupid vanity.

    We need to stop letting celebrities sell us dodgy powders over the internet that will allegedly make us look like them, when they really only look like that because of personal trainers, nutritionists, personal chefs, extreme diets, fat lasers and, mostly, Photoshop. Most of them never even try the potions they are selling and don’t know what’s in them, or how they work, which is why they never include that information in their posts. Parents and schools need to get ahead of the game and educate kids about food, health and eating disorders. 

    We have to stop the bullying. We have to give each other and ourselves a break. I made this issue to fight back against the poisonous diet industry that creates our insecurities and then preys upon them. It ruined my life. I will never get my full health back because of what society taught me to do to my body, and I don’t want that to happen to you.

     And if it has already happened to you, then it is not your fault. You’re not stupid. You’re not naive. This was a clever, well-organised, brilliantly executed and targeted attack against us. I’m right there with you, picking up the pieces, and damned if this shit is going to continue. I’m burning down the house. Will you join me?

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    Photography: Ramona Rosales / Fashion: Lucy Reber / Concept and creative direction: Jameela Jamil 

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