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The XL Way Diet Culture Capitalizes on Gender Roles and Expectations

diet culture and gender roles

Photo: Stocksy/Jeff Wasserman

The term “diet culture” is often—aptly—associated with toxic-leaning food and nutrition topics, such as glorifying restrictive eating habits and centering weight loss as a goal. While these are all very much a part of it, diet culture can touch many other aspects of daily life—whether we’re aware of it or not.

In her recently released bestseller Fat Talk: Parenting in the Age of Diet Culture, author Virginia Sole-Smith writes about how gender roles and expectations are brought into the equation. Therapists, dietitians, and other experts weigh in on the topic, including the harms and how to respond.

Diet culture and gender roles “feed” each other

In short, diet culture markets to both men and women, in different ways, “helping” them fit into the gender expectations and stereotypes forced upon them. That’s how diet companies make money.


Experts In This Article

We see this play out in magazines, movies, advertisements, the media, and more. Think “showing images and encouraging men to be ‘tough,’ have certain musculature, and be sufficiently ‘sturdy/bulky,’ and women to be ‘small enough,’ not eat ‘too much,’ and not consume certain foods,” says Brandy Smith, PhD, a licensed psychologist who specializes in eating disorders, gender, and women’s and men’s issues with Thriveworks in Birmingham, Alabama.

This messaging shows up in the gym, too. “Society often will expect women to be the ones that go to yoga or use cardio machines as a way to maintain their figure, lose weight, or reach an optimal figure, whereas for men, they are expected to engage in exercises and diet regimens that promote gaining muscle and to be ‘tough,’” says Lena Suarez-Angelino, LCSW, a therapist at Choosing Therapy.

Let’s dive deeper into what that looks like for men and women individually.

Diet culture and men

While there’s lots of talk about women and dieting, we don’t see this as much for men—which means they often don’t get the support they need. “Men tell me they don’t have a script for how to talk about diet culture,” Jaclyn Siegel, PhD, a social psychologist who studies the intersection of gender and eating disorders, notes.

“Men aren’t supposed to care about their weight in our culture,” Sole-Smith adds. “Men, especially the straight, cisgender, white, mostly thin men I’m focusing on in this chapter, aren’t defined by their appearance in the same way women and other marginalized people tend to be. They hold the cards, after all. And yet, we’ve all seen a dad on a diet.”

“There is tremendous empowerment to be found in understanding how rigid ideas about gender and bodies limit us all.”
—H Coakley, RD, registered dietitian at Pando Wellness

Given what’s expected of them—and the pressure they may feel to be and appear “masculine”—this isn’t a surprise. Sole-Smith gives the example of intermittent fasting, which is “easy to market to men, who are taught to equate their gender with endurance, control, and strength from an early age.”

According to H Coakley, RD, a registered dietitian nutritionist at Pando Wellness who has extensive experience in individual counseling, eating disorders, food justice, and body image programming, you may also see cis-male influencers promoting caveman diets and meat-eating, as well as emphasizing muscle growth and increasing testosterone.

The market and its advertisements are big players in promoting the idea that men should act and look “strong” and “tough,” too. “Look in any men’s fitness magazine, look at trends like Paleo or Atkins, and you will see this rhetoric enforcing the idea of what a man ‘should’ look like,” says Katelyn Miskevics, LMFT, a therapist with LifeStance Health.

Additionally, diets aren’t solely about appearance-related factors, but personality traits, too. Sole-Smith gives the example of Jack Dorsey, billionaire and former CEO of Twitter, saying he eats one meal a day because it “helps him ‘focus’ on building his empire.” These kinds of disordered behaviors are harder to recognize, she says, than when we hear about female celebrities engaging in them. “When we revere this kind of restriction without examining the toll it takes, we make it that much harder for any ordinary guy to talk about his struggles,” she adds.

As Dr. Siegel discusses in the book, having empathy for men in these situations can lessen the stigma and societal harm they’re already experiencing by being told to “tough it out.”

Diet culture and women

This intersection is probably already familiar to you. From the weight-loss headlines on Women’s World magazine to comments some women say to each other about “needing to be good by ordering a salad,” diet culture in the context of women is much more prevalent and discussed.

Coakley adds a new point to be mindful of: Cisgender, female influencers in the diet culture space are often more coded in their language. “So for example, a diet/exercise plan may be discussed in terms of wellness, ‘inflammation,’ or being more toned—but the underlying behaviors are still restrictive and revolve around the final ‘result’ [of] fitting within an acceptable thin ideal, which also inherently caters to the male gaze,” they say.

Diet culture and transgender people

Transgender folks experience added pressure when it comes to their bodies “considering gender expression and the way one is perceived by others can be directly related to level of exposure to discrimination, harassment, and violence,” according to Scout Silverstein, senior program development lead at Equip Health and member of FEDUP Collective. Coakley referred to the need to “pass” as the gender the person identifies as. Otherwise, they could be killed.

What about people who don’t fit into the rigid binary? Coakley says non-binary people can “feel a pressure to perform androgyny, which often translates to being very thin because that is how it’s typically portrayed in the media.”

How to respond to the pressures of gender roles

With powerful forms of oppression pushing hard, what can we do? Here are some expert-backed ideas to get you started.

Curate your social media feed

Dr. Smith encourages following accounts that nourish you (aka, experts that align with intuitive eating, Health at Every Size [HAES], LGBTQIA+ allyship, etc.) and unfollowing the ones that don’t. She says this can “ground in what a body actually needs, separate from any stereotyped and/or gendered messaging.” Research shows this, too: According to a recent study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, regularly seeing unhelpful social media content can lead to body dissatisfaction.

Speak up and spread the valuable info you learn

After seeing that nourishing content, don’t keep it to yourself, Coakley advises. The more we talk about this on a large scale, the better off we all are. Besides that, Coakley urges people to support related organizations and “spaces that lift up all bodies in a way that is not just window dressing, but deeply ingrained,” as well as getting involved in the political sphere in whatever way feels right.

Along these lines, Silverstein invites people to speak up when harmful comments are made. “For example, when a friend talks about their body negatively, thinking of replies such as ‘I have committed to not make disparaging remarks about my body as I’ve noticed it makes me feel worse about myself. Do you want to join me in calling one another in when we catch ourselves falling into shame around our bodies?” they say.

Coakley urges people to support related organizations and “spaces that lift up all bodies in a way that is not just window dressing, but deeply ingrained,” as well as getting involved in the political sphere in whatever way feels right.

Think critically about gender stereotypes

Silverstein recommends asking yourself questions such as “What are non-physical traits that represent femininity/masculinity/androgyny?” and “Who benefits from rigid ideas of physical traits associated with femininity/masculinity/androgyny?” Trans folks who have been previously interviewed for Well+Good have felt gender euphoria by wearing heels, overalls, flannel, and several other pieces.

Another aspect to face: In reality, seeing gender as a binary isn’t helpful. It keeps us from fully diving into who we are, what we like, and how we want to express ourselves. “There is tremendous empowerment to be found in understanding how rigid ideas about gender and bodies limit us all,” Coakley adds.

Along these lines, Silverstein encourages working on knowing yourself deeply (and feeling confident in that), rejecting societal norms, and reclaiming beauty and desire as creative and expansive.

Doing that can feel unsafe sometimes (think of the fear a transgender man might feel when walking into the men’s restroom). In that case, Silverstein suggests validating those feelings and working on actionable ways to cope and feel safe. One idea: walking into the bathroom with a trusted friend.

Be an ally to the queer community

Supporting LGBTQIA+ folks generally (and year-round) is always helpful. When it comes to diet culture, though, there are additional, more specific steps you can take. Suarez-Angelino recommends having all-inclusive training programs, incorporating marketing strategies that include all body types and genders, and refraining from gendered messages like “Get it, girl!” or “Toughen up, bro.”

Silverstein notes the importance of normalizing gender diversity, too, especially in our current political climate. They encourage cisgender people to check in on their transgender friends and look for any changes in their eating habits and behaviors. “With transgender and non-binary people already being at disproportionate risk for eating disorder behaviors, it is important that we hold the context of our current environment as an added risk,” they say.

This holds especially true for queer people who have multiple marginalized identities, such as a Black nonbinary person. “Stereotyping, expectation setting, and both subtle and unsubtle racist tropes affect how gender is performed and enacted in the body,” Coakley adds. “I’m thinking here about the ways that a body that outwardly appears outside of the ‘norm’ in some capacity is often either policed or disavowed with respect to their gender.”

Remember general disordered eating-related care

A couple tips here. One Silverstein mentions is considering the risks and benefits. “For example, making a list of the costs of pursuing appearance ideals (e.g. time, money, relationships, joy),” they say. (Of course, this tip is more complicated for transgender individuals who may worry for their safety.)

Silvi Saxena, MBA, MSW, LSW, CCTP, OSW-C, a therapist at Choosing Therapy, reminds us of a truth about values. “Others’ opinions of your body are a reflection of their own internalized body shame and an unwillingness to consider different perspectives,” she says. In other words, you aren’t the problem, and closed-minded, bigoted people don’t deserve your attention. Just saying!

“Others’ opinions of your body are a reflection of their own internalized body shame and an unwillingness to consider different perspectives.”
—Silvi Saxena, MBA, MSW, LSW, CCTP, OSW-C

Work with a professional

Talking to a gender-affirming and HAES-aligned therapist, dietitian, and/or doctor is a crucial step for many, if it’s financially possible. (For more affordable therapists, check out Open Path Collective’s database.) “For example, if one is fixated on achieving a certain body type or weight, professionals can aid in getting to the root of why this is important to them, what a healthier approach may look like, and what thoughts or behaviors could be enforcing negative beliefs,” Miskevics says. Further, she encourages cherishing, nurturing, and celebrating your body for what it can do, regardless of how it looks.

Get support from your community

It’s important to validate that while these steps are helpful, they aren’t instant cures. “Developing defenses against these pressures requires practice,” Silverstein says. However, they believe there’s hope and power in leaning on others. “Queer and transgender communities tend to also have strength in the level of vulnerability we share with one another,” they add.

Both queerphobia and diet culture need to be addressed, and ASAP—so why not fight them both at the same time?

Citations
Well+Good articles reference scientific, reliable, recent, robust studies to back up the information we share. You can trust us along your wellness journey.
  1. Jiotsa, Barbara et al. “Social Media Use and Body Image Disorders: Association between Frequency of Comparing One’s Own Physical Appearance to That of People Being Followed on Social Media and Body Dissatisfaction and Drive for Thinness.” International journal of environmental research and public health vol. 18,6 2880. 11 Mar. 2021, doi:10.3390/ijerph18062880
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