Ditching Diet Culture at School

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  • Diet culture is the way a society engages with the pursuit of thinness as a way of life and a value.
  • Diet culture shows up in classrooms through physical classroom layouts.
  • Allowing food during class helps students meet their basic needs before they learn.
  • Ditch diet culture at school by making flexible seating more than a fad and eliminating the diet talk from personal interactions with one another.

Last month, I had the privilege of presenting at the BodyBrave Canada second annual Body Peace Conference virtually. It was an amazing two days of discussion and movement centered on ending weight stigma, confronting diet culture, and revolutionizing eating disorder recovery for folks around the world.

Aside from my profession as a teacher, I am a weight stigma researcher and mental health advocate. This has only recently started to bleed into my work in teaching, as I grow and shift to understand more about how diet culture really is so infused in our lives everywhere we look. Education and teaching are no exception, especially not in the United States.

What is diet culture anyway?

Diet culture is the way a society engages with the pursuit of thinness as a way of life and a value. Statements such as “I can’t stop eating” and “I’m trying to be good” are all too popular in society. It is expected of people to want to be losing weight towards being thinner. Weight stigma and weight bias follow and go hand in hand. We have learned, as a culture, to prioritize thin bodies, to value people the more they shrink themselves, and to praise people for taking up less physical space. Diet culture is a value with deep roots in colonialism and patriarchy.

Diet culture is a value deeply rooted in colonialism and patriarchy. Click To Tweet

Weight is a pretty relatively immutable quality about people, despite decades of marketing trying to culturally convince us otherwise. If ten people ate the same type and portion of food and had the exact same regimen of exercise, they’d all still weigh different amounts or have that weight distributed differently. Science has evolved since diets became a focal point of our lives. Data confirms the assertion that weight is largely correlated with genetics more than behavior. In short, what this means is that we should all eat a balanced diet in order to stay healthy – regardless of our weight. Furthermore, making sure we have the right amount of vitamins is an important factor can is especially crushed by diet culture – while you are dieting, you might be missing out on important vitamins and nutrients for your body. As a result of this, supplements such as liposomal vitamin c and many more are used to make sure a person’s vitamin levels are healthy. Yet, we as a culture latch onto the fact that weight and body type somehow indicate personal, moral failing. Entire industries target people in specific bodies, as they are meant to.

How does it show up at school?

As teachers, we have all probably done some work with implicit and explicit curriculum. Diet culture is an insidious phenomenon that appears implicitly and explicitly, similarly to how biases like racism, ableism, and heterosexism do. They affect how both students and teachers are able to learn and teach and engage in their school communities.

First and foremost, the layout of classroom spaces is a huge way that diet culture shows up at school. Classroom desks are often attached, meaning the chair and desk are not separate. This limits the space that a student can move about comfortably to learn. Many classrooms are situated in rows, which deeply resembles compliance. Rows are quite literally a tight squeeze for students who are beyond a certain size. The implicit message is that ‘you don’t fit in here, and you’re not meant to unless you change.’

It also shows up in sports, extracurriculars, and activities beyond the final bell. Weigh-ins, weight classes on sports teams, and then some. Typecasted roles in theater shows and high school musicals. Think about it—every fat girl role ever has always been the comedic sidekick or the get-skinny success story.

Not Just Students, Either

Diet culture isn’t just about the students, either. It shows up in staff rooms, recruitment, and beyond. “Why did you bring in those cupcakes? I’m trying to be good!” That’s diet culture. Someone asked me why I thought teachers still engage in this type of talk around each other. I had to think for a second about how connected diet culture really is to patriarchal, white supremacist, colonial systems.

As I’ve mentioned in other posts, we know that teaching as a profession is 80 percent white. Much of that 80 percent are white women, specifically. When we are among acquaintances, filling the silence with common interests or ideas is where we are comfortable.

For white women, that shared commonality is patriarchy. We are commonly subject to western beauty standards, and were taught those western beauty standards are our worth, our common thread. So diet talk feels like an appropriate place to start.

We have to go beyond these unconscious biases to support our students in whatever body they enter our classroom.

The Remote World and Diet Culture

COVID-19 has pushed those classrooms online, and diet culture ushered there with them. In many cases, we are in a catch-22 with remote learning, as many are finding out. For some students, this situation is less accessible, for others more. Other students find online learning is less equitable, for others more. Among educators, it depends on who you ask. It can be anxiety-provoking on some days, less on others.

The same paradox exists for students in larger bodies, and teachers too. Students who normally dread attached desks might finally fit into their learning environment. They can choose to sit on any couch or chair they feel comfortable in at home. For other students, cameras are a nightmare, and ‘cameras on’ rules are, too. Students (and teachers!) with eating disorders or body dysmorphia are experiencing it tenfold, having to stare at themselves on screen.

In both situations as students and teachers, it makes the learning environment an unsafe place for a variety of reasons. As it is, teachers are being observed basically daily during remote learning models, and for teachers with dysmorphia concerns, the added element of picking apart your own appearance on screen makes the act of teaching more difficult. For students, seeing their appearance on screen and dissecting their every flaw inevitably prevents them from learning.

Food in the Classroom

Since the pandemic has altered the way we approach compassion over compliance at school, one discussion that remains is: “Should students be eating in a virtual class?”

The short answer is yes.

Students are in their own homes. They need to meet their basic needs before they can learn, and for some students, food is focus. There are ways that we can approach this for students with disordered eating concerns, too. Ask students to be intentional about the way that they eat and work simultaneously so that they can enjoy their snack or meal. Ask students to turn off cameras while they eat so they don’t distract others (same goes for mics—chewing noises are not only distracting but grooooooss).

If you’re concerned about students who are food insecure and how this might make them feel, reach out to your network and see if you can provide resources for that student and their family regarding meals. Many school districts are doing grab and go meals for school-age children a few days a week, and supplying food to families in need at an accelerated volume and pace at this time. School might be the only place students get to eat, and now that school is also home, mindfulness of these nuances is key.

I let my students eat in my classroom in real life because the situation is no different.

They might not have a lunch period, might have worked through study hall, could have a lunch scheduled at an un-lunchly hour of 9:30 am (I had fourth period lunch at this time for four years in a row!), and could be hungry by the time your class rolls around. I keep packaged allergen-free snacks handy for such cases.

My only food rule in class is that everything must make it to the trash upon finishing; students (and I) are responsible for our own mess. Policing when and where students eat adds to the laundry list of ways that education becomes disembodied, and disembodied students become disembodied adults. Back when we were infants, we told our parents when it was time to eat; we cried when we were hungry until we weren’t anymore. This was peak intuitive eating. Students should be able to exercise this same right for the remainder of their lives.

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Flexible Seating Challenge

Ditching Diet Culture at School

Ditching diet culture at school is a difficult but necessary effort. Making teaching and learning more embodied for all participants in the school community not only can improve learning outcomes, but overall health and wellbeing. Making flexible seating more than a fad and instead making it normal is one step; eliminating the diet talk from our personal interactions with colleagues is another. I consciously try not to make any comments about anything about or on a person’s body, anywhere. And if it won’t matter a year from now, I don’t point it out either. These practices help people feel more included, valued for things about them that make a difference to the community. It’s time we recognize peoples’ worth beyond a number, especially at school.

About Cait O’Connor

Cait O’Connor is a fourth-year public school English/ESOL educator in New York, committed to social justice and equity in education and beyond.