National Eating Disorders Association

You Have the Power to Challenge Diet Culture

Kaitlin Irwin

You’re waiting in line at the supermarket check-out when you’re greeted by the glossy, airbrushed, Photoshopped likeness of your favorite celebrity. Those tanned, lean legs and those sculpted cheekbones staring back at you seem to burrow into your soul. You begin to second-guess the items in your shopping basket as thoughts of food and body image trample through your headspace.

Sound familiar? I think we’ve all had at least one moment like this. After all, pervasive diet fads and body-shaming imagery creep into just about every public space in our society. Just try riding the subway, visiting a clothing store or just reading the newspaper without finding some kind of idealized figure splayed out for people to see. So what’s a person to do? How can we navigate the fine line between real and fake without shutting ourselves off to the world?

Sadly, it is necessary to have your guard up, because this rampant advertising has been brainwashing us for decades. Consider that an astounding 42% of girls in grades 1-3 want to be thinner. These are girls as young as seven years old! In just a few short years they will join the 81% of 10-year-olds who have a fear of being fat. And among middle and high school girls and boys, half of them are engaging in unhealthy weight control behaviors.

Even though I’ve been one of those high school girls who developed an eating disorder, I am recovered and I now know how to handle those destructive thoughts, even when I’m faced with in-your-face advertising. Here are some of the things that work for me, but feel free to use the coping skills and techniques that you like:

1. Remember that this is advertising. I don’t even know how many people are behind that single photograph, but I bet it’s a lot. Photographers, stylists, makeup artists, the person who controls the fan to make the celebrity’s hair flutter… that’s not real life.

2. Think about your best friend or significant other. What do you love about them? I doubt it’s that they have a six-pack or slender thighs. 

3. Give ads and magazines the cold shoulder. Instead of looking at those tabloids as you check out, chat with the cashier or another customer in line. You could also just stare at your phone, but that’s not my thing.

4. Remember that you’re human. You are not an edited picture of a human. People are meant to take up space and there is nothing wrong with that. Your existence is not limited to a magazine cover.

5. Talk to yourself the way you would to a friend. Would you agree with your friend if they said their body was ugly? I sure hope not. Then why say negative things like that to yourself?

6. Talk about it! Share your thoughts with others because you are definitely not the only one who is distressed by these ads. Just about everyone has felt inadequate after seeing body-shaming advertising, so if you feel comfortable, start a discussion with your friends and family. Just talking about it with loved ones could help you vent out your own feelings and replace any negativity with positivity.

We can’t just stay out of ad-ridden public spaces, but we can do something about it. Advertising is merely a mirror of consumers’ desires and behaviors. So if more of us start practicing self-love and stop purchasing body-shaming products, we can help to make a difference.

Kaitlin Irwin is in recovery from anorexia. She spent her college years struggling to hide her illness. With lots of support, patience and an Intensive Outpatient Program, she embraced herself, flaws and all. In her free time, she enjoys exercise, cooking and art and can usually be found with a good book, a journal or her fiancé.