Can We Talk About Physique Goals Without Perpetuating Diet Culture? 

 Part 1.

Aside from the personal benefits it gives me, I lift because I want muscles; I like working to increase my size, and I see strength training as a means to sculpt my physique.  It’s an art form, a form of personal expression.  Implicit in these goals is the pursuit of body composition.  I prefer to be lean enough to enjoy the fruits of my labor.  Building muscle is a part of my identity; basically, I see myself as a “bro.”

However, bro culture has historically participated in and amplified some of the worst ideas and expectations from diet culture–myths abound about “all you need is discipline” or motivation or collagen powder in order to meet your goals.  Meatheads enjoy the minutia, parsing out which training block and which protein sources will give them the most gainz.  Which is totally fine.  As long as it isn’t doing harm to ourselves or to others.

Diet culture is harmful.  It tells us that we aren’t good enough if our outsides aren’t good enough, and our outsides are NEVER good enough.  It creates the problem to be unsolvable while selling us solutions that won’t work and then tells us it’s our own fault when we don’t succeed so that we will return for the next unworkable solution. 

So, how do we explore the latest bro ideas without perpetuating this cycle?  Is it even possible?  I see many diet culture traps we need to work to avoid, if we want to pursue physique goals while not perpetuating diet culture.  Here are nine of them for us to consider.

  1. We can’t assume our own goals are right for anyone but ourselves.  Diet culture loves to tell you there’s only one solution and it’s right for everyone.  Maybe you’ve found that going low carb helps you manage your cravings and keep your calories down while keeping you satisfied.  Fine.  It works for you.  Don’t assume it will work for anyone else.
  2. We must constantly monitor why our goals are important to us and work to pursue only those which allow us to live within our values. I believe each of us have value and worth, regardless of our body size and shape. I value kindness, diversity, personal expression, and the pursuit of genuine healthfulness, not merely the appearance of it. If the pursuit of a certain physique means compromising on these values, it isn’t worth it to me. Living in semi-starvation isn’t kind to myself, doesn’t respect my body’s limits or allow me to be truly healthy, so that isn’t a strategy I am willing to take on.
  3. All bodies are good bodies.  It’s ok to admire lean, muscular physiques.  It is also important to appreciate the beauty of other types of bodies and to value bodies for what they can do, not just what they look like.
  4. Related to that last point, what a body looks like does not tell us what it can do or in any way tell us the gifts and strengths of the individual.  Assuming personality traits based on appearance is a nasty, common problem.  To paraphrase from 12-step culture, we cannot judge a person’s insides by their outsides.  Similarly, we need to work on avoiding this kind of language for ourselves. We are not lazy and undisciplined if we have more body fat than we prefer to have, and neither is anyone else. On the flip side, we are not better than others if we are stronger or leaner.
  5. We must practice acknowledging that there are almost always more than two choices.  Perfectionism, neuroticism, Type A–there’s going to be more of us that identify with these sorts of labels in this community.  There’s a lot of strengths to these qualities, but it comes with a big downside–dichotomous (all or nothing) thinking.  Either we’re all in, or we don’t do it.  Either we’re lifting and eating exactly “on plan,” or we’re having a cheat day or week.  Diet culture thrives with this sort of thinking.  To combat it, we need to work on identifying when we are being all or nothing and find other options.
  6. Calories-in-calories-out is bullshit oversimplification.  There are people who seem to be able to manipulate their calories with very few complications or personal challenges.  If you’re lucky enough to be one of them, educate yourself on the complicated nature of weight loss, maintenance, and muscle growth for those of us for whom it is not so straightforward.  
  7. Related to this last point, we need to stop giving advice that fails to consider the emotional, human context.  We are not robots.  This point could be its own post, and one of these days I’ll get around to writing it, but for now, try to notice how often we tell people to do X without acknowledging that it happens in a context of regular life.  For example, if we advise someone to get 140 g of protein a day, we need to recognize that humans eat FOOD not protein.  So, there’s financial variables, meal timing/work/life scheduling variables, personal preferences and tastes, health conditions, and so much more that can impact someone reaching that goal.  When we interpret research in search of what is “best,” the best solution for any one individual will be the one they can do consistently within the boundaries of all those variables.
  8. Fat loss is not, and should not be, a goal for everyone.  Talking about fat loss, especially amongst women, can be extraordinarily emotional.  Even with practice, it can be very tricky to pursue it without falling into diet culture thinking.  Intentional fat loss without diet culture or disordered thinking may be a lifelong skill we work on.  For some, the best solution may be to forgo intentional fat loss entirely.  It is my intention in this space to grant each of us the autonomy to determine what is best for ourselves.  
  9. When possible, try to notice when we’re stating something we believe versus something we have evidence for.  Science is a great tool for combatting diet culture.  It gives us the ability to gather data from beyond our own personal experiences.  Critical thinking, asking questions and exploring ideas openly helps us to push back on assumptions that we learned through diet culture.  For example, for years it has been assumed that endurance runners need to be smaller in order to be faster.  However, research on runners who maintain the body size necessary to maintain their menstrual cycles have found that they perform better than those who diet down and develop amenorrhea.  Anecdotal evidence isn’t useless, but we should recognize it for what it is and for its limitations.

I am certain this is an incomplete list.  This will by necessity be an ongoing conversation, and I will want to return to these ideas and refine them as we further explore together.  In the  meantime, I encourage each of us to hold ourselves accountable to pursue our own goals in ways that do no harm.  Diet culture is pervasive and ever-present.  Let’s work together to limit its influence in this space and in our own lives.

What are your thoughts on physique goals and diet culture?  Is there a diet culture trap that I missed that you’d like us to work to avoid?  Please comment below.  Here is our comment policy.

Feature image credit: Alora Griffiths, via Unsplash

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