What Being An Athlete Against Diet Culture Means (To Me)

May is Mental Health Awareness month. As a theologian and an athlete, I am passionate about the topic of mental health both in academia and in sports, at all levels.

May 6th is also International No Diet Day. As many people know, I consider myself an anti-diet culture theologian and running coach and am the founder of the Athletes Against Diet Culture Facebook group. I firmly believe that athletes come in all shapes and sizes, that food does not need to be earned with exercise, and that movement should be joyful. I also believe that athletes should be provided with spaces to focus on their training without constant unsolicited pressure to lose weight, burn calories, or maintain a certain body type (hence why I created the AADC community).

That being said, there are a lot of misconceptions about what being anti-diet culture means, and I often receive pushback for my desire to fight weight stigma. Therefore, I decided to write this piece about what being an “athlete against diet culture” means. I put “to me” in parenthesis since I am not the only voice contributing this conversation. I am still in need of critique and growth, especially since I come from the perspective of a person with white, cisgender, thin, able-bodied privilege.

Anti-diet culture is not anti-weight loss or body changes. It is anti- celebrating body changes as automatically good without having any context, or celebrating one body type as being better than another. 

When a person makes changes to their diet or takes up a sport or activity, body changes can and do sometimes occur. They also sometimes do not occur. Sadly, our culture has been so programmed to think that less weight = greater health that we compliment weight loss without even knowing a person’s situation. People have been told to “keep up the good work” when recovering from COVID, receiving cancer treatment, or when deep in the throes of a dangerous eating disorder. Instead of celebrating body types, celebrate actions. If you ran your first 5k, great! Go you! That is a worthy accomplishment regardless of the size of your waist.

Anti-diet culture is not anti-photographs. It is anti before and after photos that imply one body type is more worthy than another.

Many of us love to take photos to celebrate or mark particular occasions. This is no less true of sport. However, before posting a picture of yourself next to another picture of yourself twenty pounds lighter looking for praise, think of what that picture says to everyone else who is viewing. What message does it send to those whose bodies resemble how you looked before? Why not just post a current photo of yourself and tells us what you are doing or how you are feeling? Loving and being proud of your body should not come at the expense of bodies that look different from your own.

And yes, this is different from posting a before or after photo that highlights a change in hairstyle or hair color. People do not experience systemic oppression on a daily basis due to hair color, while weight-based oppression is very real and very harmful.

Anti-diet culture is not anti-competition. Many athletes against diet culture are highly competitive with ambitious goals. However, goals can still be important without being placed over and above a person’s mental and physical health.

Diet culture negatively impacts a person’s LONG-TERM ability to enjoy and be successful in sport. Coaches who promote disordered eating behavior are only concerned with SHORT-TERM result, not an athlete’s longevity in the sport. If you have not done so already, read the story of Mary Cain.  

Anti-diet culture does not mean “I have to love my body.”

Sure, I would love it if all people could truly see their body’s beauty and worth all the time simply because I hate the thought of people suffering. That being said, not loving your body does not make you “bad,” especially when we live in a culture where people are oppressed because of what their body looks like. As an athlete against diet culture, I believe that people can make steps toward treating their bodies better even when not feeling totally in love with them. The body positivity movement was created by and for marginalized bodies, yet it has often be co-opted in ways that serve the bodies of those who need it the least.

Being anti-diet culture does not mean hating communal exercise groups or fitness classes. It does reject assuming that all people who are at the gym want to change their body.

Exercise has numerous physical and mental health benefits to which coaches and trainers can appeal. There is no need to advertise a race as a way to “burn off” or “earn” food, nor is there a need to advertise a strength training class as a way to “slim down.” First of all, food does not need to be earned and the implication that it does is extremely dangerous. Second, exercise is not a punishment for eating and seeing it as such actually decreases one’s likelihood of enjoying and sticking with a particular sport (seriously, who likes to be punished?) Third, it should not be assumed that every person is working out with the desire to alter their body (even if you personally are, that does not mean everyone is). Telling someone at the gym, “let’s get rid of those love handles” is insulting.

Being anti-diet culture athlete does not mean believing everyone or everything is healthy. It does mean refusing to believe that weight alone is an indicator of fitness.

You cannot judge a person’s health or fitness by their size or BMI. Furthermore, regardless of whether or not one is “healthy” (which is not even an objective term anyway), everyone deserves access to quality health care and respect. Judging health by size negatively impacts EVERYONE. Take the time to get to know people!

What would you add here? What misconceptions do you feel people have about being an athlete against diet culture?

Do you like what you see? Join the Athletes Against Diet Culture on Facebook and follow on Instagram.

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