‘Diet culture’ refers to the view held by people that thinness equates to happiness, and food choice determines morality (isarobinsonnutrition.co.uk.) It convinces people that their self-worth is based on external factors such as weight, spreading the message that eating certain types of food makes them either a ‘good’ person or a ‘bad’ person.
Why is it then that some people fall victim to diet culture, succumbing to eating disorders and a lifetime spent hating their bodies, whereas other people go seemingly unaffected? The answer is simple- we all have different attitudes and beliefs.
From views that diet culture is detrimental to our health and wellbeing, to it being ‘an excuse the lazy use to stay unhealthy’, perception is the underlying force influencing our thoughts (verywellmind.com.)
However, thoughts don’t always forecast behaviour, as we often ‘mask’ our real attitude due to social norms making us overly conscious of other people’s perceptions of us. For example, someone who is fearful of weight gain might, for social occasions, be able to eat something that is usually ‘off limits’ so as not to be perceived as a ‘health freak’ by their peers. This doesn’t reflect their usual behaviour as their underlying attitude towards food remains the same. People who mask their real attitude might be doing so via self-persuasion; that is the act in which one adopts a new attitude in the hope that it will ‘rub off on them’ (‘eating this pizza does not make me a bad person. Food has no connection to my morality. Repeat until it feels true.’) The act of repeating the message is an example of the illusory truth effect, whereby the more times a person hears a statement, the more likely they are to perceive it as the truth (thedecisionlab.com.)
Beliefs can also be altered via external sources who use social influence tactics, such as association, to persuade people to buy their products. Diet companies regularly use influencers (celebrities who endorse their products) as a form of advertising. The idea behind this is for the brand to become associated with the celebrity who is promoting the products. As highlighted by Aristotle, the law of similarity results in one concept triggering the thought of another (alleydog.com.) This can be seen in real life practice by the likes of Kylie Jenner who is known to have previously promoted ‘Skinny’ teas on her Instagram platform to her 213 million followers (Statista.com.) Now when people hear the words ‘Skinny Tea’, their attention diverts to Kylie Jenner due to the association that has connected her to the brand, and vice versa. This is beneficial for businesses since it gains them exposure. Customers flock to buy the products due to the ‘bandwagon’ effect, another psychological bias in which people naturally gravitate towards products they see other people using (michaelgearon.medium.com.) ‘If Kylie Jenner drinks it and looks like that, I will drink it so that I too can look like that’, is the perception that people have towards Skinny Tea. Association is therefore an effective way to overcome psychological biases such as the ambiguity effect, since buyers feel reassured that they are purchasing a trustworthy product given its promotion by a trustworthy influencer.
To appeal to the maximum number of people, businesses position products in a way that motivates the buyer (sodexoengage.com.) In the context of diet culture, this is often done via food labelling- labelling food as ‘good’, or ‘guilt-free.’ The emphasis on the product being ‘healthy’ will appeal to the anxious consumer who is wrapped up in diet culture and views their self-worth based on what they have eaten. If they are presented with a 100-calorie bar of chocolate and a 200-calorie bar, they will more than likely opt for the former since they perceive it to be ‘better’ for them. This is also an example of a social influence tactic, framing. Businesses in the fitness industry frequently use this tactic in their messaging (e.g., ‘coming to the gym today will earn you your breakfast.’) Someone who isn’t wrapped up in diet culture will perceive this statement as nonsense, for food doesn’t need to be earned, it is a basic human right. But for the some, the fear appeals they are being fed encourages a call to action.
Worth a colossal £2bn a year (bhf.org.uk), it can be concluded that the diet industry is perpetuating and profiting from their consumers fear because, as the age old saying goes; ‘fear sells.’