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Virtual book club: Anti-Diet chapter 4

This week, we’re discussing chapter four of Anti-Diet by Christy Harrison for our first virtual book club read. You can check out our conversation about chapter 1, chapter 2, and chapter 3 first, or jump into the conversation.

Laura: To premise my response to chapter 4, I want to remind y’all about my positionality. First, I research eating disorders (or, more aptly, the conceptualization and experience of eating disorders as pathological). Second, I believe that diet culture is toxic and has a net negative impact on the lives of everyone, not just women diagnosed with eating disorders. I really wanted to like this book. Indeed, I was biased to like this book and especially chapter 4, which focused on how “diet culture steals your money.” Instead, I’ve been really disappointed overall and especially with this chapter. Overall, chapter 4 was largely anecdotal, lacked evidence for the claims being made, and instead felt more like an attempted indictment of diet culture based on the author’s experience with it. To be clear, that is still a valid perspective, and Harrison’s experiences are valid as her own truth, but chapter 4 was littered with opinions stated as fact, and I find that deeply problematic. If we are to challenge “big obesity” (and I include me in that royal “we”), then we have to do that with well-researched claims and opinions described as such. When we don’t, we build a case against diet culture that is easily challenged and debunked. This chapter calls into question the entire case being built in the book (which could, for readers, bring the entire case against diet culture into question).

For example, Harrison claims that a certain unnamed protein bar is “considered ‘safe’ by people suffering from eating disorders” (p. 116). That might be the case in those she has worked with, but I am sure that is not the case with all folx who have been diagnosed with eating disorders.  A simple, “In my experience as a X, I’ve found that…” would have sufficed. Similarly, when talking about how dieting can, for some, lead to an eating disorder diagnosis, she stated, “Go far enough down the road of dieting and it will end in a full-blown eating disorder” (p. 118). Will it? For everyone? Again, research backs up the statement that many diagnosed with an eating disorder begin with a diet, but the impact is far from causal as stated above. Further, Harrison story about people who have chosen to go into careers influenced by their pursuit of wellness lacked rigor and, again, inappropriately generalized to the masses based on a few individual’s stories. There is nothing wrong or invalid about sharing individual stories – indeed it is important and needed. But to then suggest that those individual experiences can be generalized to an entire population is not appropriate even if, in some way, that generalization is true.

Finally, I take issue with discussions of eating disorders as something clinically diagnosed that one either has or does not have, as in the examples above. While the common approach to thinking about eating disorders is to categorize them as have/do not have based on a clinical psychological diagnosis, the picture is much more complex, which Harrison herself points out in earlier chapters. This characterization is an oversimplification and neglects the continuum of disordered eating habits not “diagnosable” under clinical standards.

On a positive note, I do appreciate that Harrison shared her own experiences, which mirror the experiences of many. I didn’t pursue a career in wellness, but I certainly started a blog about it. I also appreciate the stories of others shared in this chapter – without a doubt, diet culture can have a pervasive and long-lasting negative impact on people, and their stories show the extent to which those impacts can change people’s lives.

Rose; In Chapter 4 Harrison is writing of the financial toll of the diet culture. She tells one anecdote about a woman who ended up being a franchisee of a weight loss program and had a number of complex costs related to her own dieting and the franchise. She makes a broad statement about the high cost to consumers of the diet culture. And generally I might agree, particularly if Harrison bothered to present any data. Her “methodology” as far as she reveals in the text includes all gym membership expenditures. That isn’t fair. Gyms aren’t just connected to diet culture. They provide access to specialized equipment for exercise and recreation, especially pools.

She also writes of the high cost of clinical/medical treatment for disordered eating, a system that she financially benefits from. I do know from personal experience that many things are not covered by insurance and quite costly – including dietitians (the trained, registered type), sports psychologists, and physical therapists. I am in a position where I can choose to make those investments, but people with fewer options often get lured into “programs” by people with dubious credentials.

The culture around, well everything, has changed with widespread use of social media in the past 15+ years, but I was born in the mid-1970s and have been subjected to similar covert and overt messaging since I was a small child. The first time I was aware of being overweight and feeling shame about it was when I was 7. The World Wide Web didn’t exist yet. But I knew from the adults and limited media in my life, as well as my peers, that I was somehow unacceptable. I don’t think we can blame the media and social media for these problems, they just spotlight what was already out there.

I’ve had an interesting experience with the idea of “earning food” through exercise. Many people will use their exercise to justify their eating. I end up having to remind myself that my training and racing isn’t an excuse to eat with reckless abandon. I am not “earning” treats. Of course I’m not perfect about it and if I was that might be disordered. I seriously had a $6 sweet coffee drink after my half Iron distance duathlon and didn’t think twice about it. But I hadn’t done that in years either.

Some of the radical self-love stuff, not just in this book, feels to me like the trophy culture of everyone being a winner and raising a bunch of people who can’t figure out that sometimes they aren’t helping themselves. So yeah, sometimes someone needs to call out your bullshit. I wanted this book to really challenge me but so far it seems to be entrenching my positions in response to how Harrison presents her argument.

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