I try really hard to make my home a space free from diet chat and negative body talk. It wasn’t always this way, but the moment my (then) 5 year old asked why I was weighing spinach was a wake-up call.
Although I’d never been to a slimming or weight loss club, I’d spent many years of my adult life dabbling in diets – yo-yoing on and off the restriction bandwagon telling myself I was on a “health kick”, when it was actually about losing weight and changing my shape, nothing to do with my health at all. But that moment with the spinach brought everything into focus and I realised I had no rational response ready for my daughter. And so began the process of self-acceptance and body image education.
That was a few years ago now, and since then I’ve been on national telly in nothing but body-paint, hosted various events around body confidence, launched a hit podcast on body image, made a few popular videos on YouTube on the subject, and used my Instagram daily to spread messages of love and body acceptance. I hate to use such a cliche, but it’s been a “journey”.
During the past couple of years, when I’ve been immersed in interviewing people on this subject, reading research around it, hosting events and listening to other peoples’ experiences, one thing has really struck home: the UK’s body image is at a critical low, with children as young as three years old suffering for not feeling good enough in their skin.
So when I realised that ads for slimming services and weight loss products could be advertised right under their nose, on their school railings or even on posters on the walls of their various kids’ clubs, I felt like something needed to be done. We can do all the positive work we like in schools and avoid all the diet chat at home, but if we’re doing nothing to tackle some of the negative messages out there too then I feel like it’s one step forwards and three steps back.
There’s a wealth of research to show diets can lead to disordered eating – and even eating disorders in some cases. But even getting away from the research on diets themselves, it’s the underlying message of diet culture (often disguised as a “lifestyle choice”) that is so dangerous.
Schools, sports clubs and places of leisure for children and young people should all be safe spaces for under 18s, where they are not at risk of being body shamed, exposed to harmful messaging around dieting and diet culture, or encouraged – whether inadvertently or not – to focus on ideas around restricting food and aspiring to a particular type of body.
These ideas are at odds with the core message being promoted by slimming clubs and weight loss products – that in order to live a happy and fulfilled life, to be a worthwhile member of society and to inspire others, you must be thin or have a body that meets the narrow beauty ideals we regularly see in the media.
We have tight regulations around the way junk food is advertised, with a 100m restriction on the placement of billboards for these products near schools. So why don’t we have the same for slimming services and weight loss products, when there’s so much evidence pointing to how damaging they can be to both our physical and mental health?
To be clear, this campaign is not about banning diet clubs or weight loss products from existing altogether. I’ll never advocate for them, simply because I couldn’t after all the research I’ve read and people I’ve interviewed, but I’ll never judge anyone for wanting to go to a slimming club either – your body, your choice. But I’d argue that in an internet world, with Google, there’s no justification for putting banners and posters and leaflets around about these services. Schools and kids’ clubs are not the place to recruit new members.
And on a final note, this campaign is also not about banning kids from learning about nutrition, intuitive eating and the joy of moving their body in exercise. But there’s a big difference between this and children learning about “syns” and calorie counting and restriction and aspirational body types.
As an aside, the whole health issue is a completely different topic (but can be summarised as: you can never know much about a person’s health just from their size – despite a lot of misinformation around; if you’re concerned about health you need to include mental health in that bracket too, and all the evidence shows that stigmatising people and shaming them into “getting healthy” can have serious mental health consequences; we need to stop placing so much moral value on health because it’s massively ableist – what if someone has an impairment or is differently abled, does that mean they’re of less value than anyone else? It’s about respect – and everyone deserves respect regardless of their physical health status).
Anyway, if you feel the same I’d love you to watch this campaign video and then join the hundreds of people getting behind the #FreeFromDiets movement. We’ve had over 550 signatures in 24 hours and it’s gaining momentum every minute.