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  • Writer's pictureJessie Cheng

can we talk to whoever thought Skinnygirl Popcorn was a good idea?

Diet Culture n. a set of cultural myths around food, weight, and health. It focuses on thinness as an ideal, and labels foods and behaviors as either "good" or "bad." (defined by MedicalNewsToday)

Today is the first day of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. Every year, I always feel a mix of emotions when this campaign rolls out. I celebrate the conversations we're having around eating disorders and the increased resources for individuals and families affected by them. I also feel deeply for those suffering from an eating disorder in the midst of this campaign, have loved ones who are, or are reminded of someone they knew who lost their life due to one.

This is an updated essay I wrote with hopes to call out the ways manipulative food advertising tactics continually contribute to the development of eating disorders. Sometimes, I still struggle to believe that one person dies as a direct result from an eating disorder every 52 minutes, but it's a sobering reminder of the work that still needs to be done to prevent eating disorders and support those who suffer from them.

Eating disorders are complex mental illnesses characterized by severe, persistent, and abnormal behaviors, thoughts, and attitudes around food, eating, body weight or shape. There are multiple types, including anorexia, binge eating, and bulimia. Because eating disorders are mental illnesses, they don’t discriminate based on race, body shape, gender, or age; none of us is exempt. I personally struggled with binge eating disorder, but my suffering had nothing to do with my lack of self-discipline. If anything, my eating disorder flourished due to my ability to control, self-deny, and restrict. Like many, I grew up believing I was better when I ate "diet-friendly" foods, and feeling incredibly guilty when I did the opposite.


Now, if you look at this photo of five-year-old me, I did not seem like a kid who feared food (by the looks of it, food should have feared me). But unfortunately, I had a really unhealthy relationship with food growing up, and this was largely influenced by messages I heard that said I'd become overweight if I ate sweets, or I’d never get married, land a job, or be respected by a man if I looked fat. Thinness brought approval and social status, I slowly learned, and that meant staying thin needed to be a priority - even if it meant starving myself and sacrificing my health for my appearance.

The fear of weight gain or seeming “undisciplined”  with food choices is something we learn as children. It is so deeply ingrained that children tease other children for being in larger bodies, and it becomes instinctual to feel guilty for eating high-calorie foods and proud for eating low-carb meals. The fact that the US diet and weight loss industry is a $80+ billion industry (it was ~$72B in 2021 when I originally wrote this essay) is testament enough to how this pursuit of thinness is an ongoing, nation-wide one.

Meanwhile, an entire segment of an industry sees this as an incredible opportunity for profit: food advertising. When I first learned that Skinnygirl Popcorn was a thing, or that Pretzel Chips once launched a campaign with a slogan, "You can never be too thin," I thought to myself, Can I talk to whoever thought this was a good idea?

Many of us understand the pressure to have the “perfect body," because apparently with one, we'll finally be happy, our crushes will like us back, and we'll make the friends who've stabbed us in the back regret ever betraying us (unfortunately, this doesn’t happen). And while ad messages imply we can achieve this enviable body if we "eat perfectly," most of us will never be able to sustain such a body shape and size. The industry knows this, too, but the fact that the media-portrayed standard of thinness is genetically unattainable for most people is precisely what makes it such an effective marketing tool. Food ads exploit body dissatisfaction and imply that we are weak if we can’t control our appetites. At the same time, foods are packaged as “guilt-free” to send an alternative message: that we are self-controlled and morally good if we choose these “healthier” options.

I challenge us to tune out the external messages we hear and to instead tune in internally - to understand what our individual bodies need for proper nourishment and satisfaction. 

Now, you may be thinking: Hey Jessie, what about obesity? What’s the problem with companies making it clear that certain foods are lower calorie and "guilt-free"?

I hear where you're coming from, but trust me - advertisers do, too. Let me introduce you to what Boston College professor Sharlene Hesse-Biber calls “the cultural paradox” in her book The Cult of Thinness. Food advertisers are aware that our culture values thinness, so they appear to give us a win-win solution by offering us a loophole to eating without guilt. They do this by calling certain foods "guilt-free" or "diet-friendly", when in reality, there should never have been guilt associated with eating in the first place. Meanwhile, more and more addictive ingredients are being added into foods. We are being bombarded with artificially glamorized images of highly processed foods. By paying a few more cents, we can upgrade to a larger drink or meal set. Remember: food companies want us to buy and eat more, because it drives up their profits. If they really cared about our weight or well-being, these so-called health foods would be more affordable and accessible than the stuff we call "junk" foods, not the other way around. It is under the guise of helping us become healthy that they are promoting more snacking than ever before, more eating because it’s profitable, and adding ingredients we can’t even pronounce anymore to make us want more of it.

Therefore, the cultural paradox shows how “the demand for diet and 'junk' foods occurs at the same time, resulting in a situation where Americans are becoming increasingly [overweight] within a culture of thinness.” We can only imagine what this leads to: more shame with our bodies.

So, if we think food ads are trying to fight obesity - which is a disease, not a concern of appearance - we have to think again. The way to achieve good health isn’t to make people hate their bodies and ruminate endlessly on food. I challenge us to tune out the external messages we hear and to instead tune in internally - to understand what our individual bodies need for proper nourishment and satisfaction. All foods* can be consumed in moderation and with pleasure - when we categorize foods as "good" versus "bad", we reinforce the unhealthy idea that certain eating habits make us morally "better" than those who give themselves permission to eat all foods. What we might initially believe is a pursuit of health, seen through food restriction and strict rules about what we eat and do not eat, easily goes down a slippery slope when we buy into messages that we should feel guilty for consuming certain foods and proud for restricting others. This creates the perfect breeding ground for unhealthy competition, an increasingly judgmental culture where we treat people differently based on their appearance, and the development of disordered eating and eating disorders. What we'll realize is that when we surrender the illusion of control that comes through food rules and diet plans, we can actually learn to trust our bodies and gradually accept where they're meant to be based on our unique genetic predispositions. (I encourage learning more about body acceptance, and its nuances/differences from body positivity.)

Below is an example of what a chain of thoughts and behaviors can look like based on whether your eating behaviors are driven by internal factors (stomach grumbling, feeling tired, mouth watering, etc.) versus external factors (time of day, calorie count, food type, diet plan, what friends are eating, etc.)

Driven by EXTERNAL factors/messaging

Driven by INTERNAL factors/messaging

"It's already 9pm. I shouldn't eat anything."

"It's 9pm. My stomach's grumbling."

"Ugh, why am I so hungry? I'll just snack a little."

"I'm hungry. Ooh... I'm craving popcorn."

"This popcorn is so good. I can't stop."

"This popcorn is so good."

"Whatever. This is the low-fat version. I might as well eat more since I already messed up."

"Okay, I'm satisfied."

Result: goes to sleep feeling guilty and bloated

Result: goes to sleep feeling neutral or satisfied

Note: internal cues don’t always indicate that our bodies need or want food. For example, we often turn to food when we’re sad, lonely, angry, anxious, or bored. While food is an easy and immediate comfort, internal cues sometimes suggest a need to meet our emotional needs in a more helpful way, such as going on a walk when we’re angry, journaling when we’re sad, talking to our friends when we’re lonely, etc. This is by no means an exhaustive explanation of mindful eating, so I encourage checking out the resources at the bottom of this essay to learn more!

The next time we’re shopping for groceries or eating, and we find ourselves feeling guilty or anxious, here are some questions I challenge us to ask ourselves:

  1. Why do I feel guilty eating this? Is there fear attached to food?

  2. Am I hungry? Am I full? What is my body telling me right now?

  3. What’s the worst thing that could happen if I allow myself to fuel my body with the food I want? (When we constantly restrict or rely on external cues instead of internal cues to decide when/what to eat, we're actually more vulnerable to overeating or binging. Allowing yourself food might feel scary sometimes, and body trust takes practice to develop - don't lose hope!)

Unfortunately, we can't change the media or food advertisers overnight, but the change on our end can start with the perspective we have on food and the daily interactions we have. If you have children, especially young children, or younger siblings, cease using sweets as a reward to compensate children for hard work or to punish them by restricting it from them. Food ads market sweets as the perfect guilty pleasure or incentive for desirable behavior, but this can have extremely negative psychological impacts. It is normal for children to want sweets, and we can encourage them to eat them moderately in a way that still honors their bodies. It is actually when sweets feel like a scarce, hard-to-earn reward that they become a source of guilt and object of rumination.

For those in college, the pressure to “eat right” may feel exacerbated. But we don't have to compare ourselves - you and your roommate can eat and exercise the exact same way, and you two will still look different (and that is beautiful). Every body is different and needs to be nourished differently. We don’t have to buy "keto-friendly" ice cream or deny ourselves bagels because we’ve been wrongly taught that carbs are bad (carbs give us energy). Even the way we talk about food - avoiding statements such as “I can’t believe I ate XYZ” or “I need to go on a run to burn off the calories” - can make a huge difference on your peers who may be secretly suffering from eating disorders.

When we categorize foods as "good" versus "bad", we reinforce the unhealthy idea that certain eating habits make us morally "better" than those who give themselves permission to eat all foods.

Ultimately, Skinnygirl Popcorn exists because its creator, Bethenny Frankel, knows we are a society obsessed with thinness. Of course, then, Frankel slaps onto her product an image of a girl with a microscopic waist to send a disturbing message that girls like herself should want and can also have mini waists if we choose her "guilt-free" product over other snacks. As much as she may try to convince us it is, Frankel's priority when targeting women with her food product is not our health, and definitely not our mental health. It's profit, and she banks on our body dissatisfaction, obsession with dieting, and fear of food to meet her bottom line. As a woman herself, Frankel understands how women especially feel the pressure to pursue thinness, and she gladly capitalized on our insecurities by creating Skinnygirl Popcorn.

I write with conviction, because the way capitalism continually justifies profit at the expense of people is angering. Diet culture deems our appearances more important than what is within, a number on the scale more important than our health. Eating disorders are among the deadliest mental illnesses, second only to opioid addiction, and heartbreakingly, the media and food companies still think their guilt-tripping and unhealthy messaging are acceptable if it means more cash in their pockets.

Thankfully, if body distrust and guilt surrounding food is something we learned, it can also be unlearned. Each year, the National Eating Disorders Awareness Week is a jumpstart to supporting individuals with eating disorders and families, along with preventing its development and calling out the disservices that lay the grounds for this mental illness to develop and stay. Let's pay attention to the messages we hear, shift the narrative we have around food, and shape a better society where we cherish food for what it is and promote a truly healthy generation, body and mind.

Eating Disorder Resources

Books on Eating Disorders & Related Issues

*with exceptions to allergies, legitimate dietary restrictions, or religious dietary restrictions

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