Diet culture and body positivity at the University of Bristol

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By Noa Blane Damelin, Digital Features Editor

Content Warning: discusses fatphobia, diet culture, and eating disorders

The Croft Magazine // A motion was successfully passed at the recent Student Council meeting to change our language to embrace body positivity and educate staff and students around the dangers of diet culture and fatphobia.

What does this all mean? Epigram spoke to Tori Freedman, one of the students who proposed the motion. She worked alongside Ileana Mattea and Abbie Jessop to push the motion through.

First of all, what is diet culture?

‘Diet culture teaches us a set of morals and beliefs based on the idea that a thin body is a healthy body and a valuable body,’ Freedman explains. ‘Diet culture tells us that fat is the enemy and every calorie must be carefully accounted for.’ Many of us currently live in a world governed by this diet culture; our society teaches us that health and size are synonymous, and that thin people are ‘better’ or more valuable than larger people. If you are ‘fat’, your goal must be to lose weight; if you are thin, it is assumed that you want to stay that way.

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What an achievement! 🌟 We had to share with you all our amazing news that our motion for Bristol SU to actively engage to change the language used in sports settings at the University of Bristol to embrace body positivity HAS BEEN PASSED🤩🤩🤩 Diet culture and fatphobia sadly seem to be engrained in Western culture and we want to take a stance against this – it has to change and the time is now. We felt sport settings was a fitting place to start. 🏋🏻‍♀️🏋🏿‍♂️ Why must I go to the gym to burn calories and not to feel empowered and strong? Why must I attend a workout class to slim my waist and not to release stress and empty my mind? Why must I take part in sports activities for the way they make my body look and not because I enjoy competition and achievement? We are so excited to work with the University gym and sports teams going into 2020/2021 to educate leaders, staff, teachers, coaches and captains of how destructive and powerful language can be in perpetuating the diet culture. We hope that this will act to create an inclusive environment, and reduce the potentially harmful impact of this language. This will allow more students to reap the positive effects of exercise, especially group exercise, that have been proven to support a strong and positive mental health🎖 #beat #beateatingdisorders #beatuk #mentalhealth #eatingdisorders #recovery

A post shared by Beat This Together (@bristolbeatseatingdisorders) on

Diet culture is the status quo, and we have to make a conscious effort to analyse and reject it if we don’t want to subscribe to the values it teaches.

Diet culture teaches us all to internally conflate the idea of being fat with feeling bad

For example, diet culture is apparent in the language we all use every day. Think about all the times you’ve heard someone say, ‘I feel so fat today’ or ‘I look fat in those jeans’. You can’t feel fat; fat is not a mood. People mean that they feel unhealthy or unattractive in some way. Diet culture teaches us all to internally conflate the idea of being fat with feeling bad.

And what about the times your friend has gasped - ‘You lost so much weight, you look great!’. In the same way that diet culture associates largeness with shame, it equates being thin with being attractive, likeable and successful.

Where else is diet culture apparent at the University of Bristol? In the proposal for the Student Council motion, Freedman specifically identified the insidious presence of diet culture in sport and exercise classes at the University. How many times have you heard a fitness instructor or coach say, ‘Let’s get burning calories!’ or ‘It’s time to work off last night’s pizza!’?

Shifting the language around exercise to embrace body positivity is one of the key objectives of Freedman’s motion.

The motion also homes in on the dangers of fatphobia. Freedman defines fatphobia as ‘the stigmatisation, shaming and silencing of people with larger bodies.’

This shaming is also apparent in exercise classes; Freedman cited examples of fatphobic language heard in Bristol Get Active exercise classes including ‘we all want to slim those waists’ and ‘burn fat’. Fatphobia is the flipside of ‘thin privilege’; it is the belief that larger bodies are wrong and need to be changed or fixed.

So, how will shifting our language away from fat-shaming and diet culture help students at the University of Bristol?

First and foremost, people who struggle with eating disorders or body image issues will be less exposed to dangerous fatphobic language, both socially and in sports classes. It is estimated that as many as 1.5 million people in the UK have some kind of eating disorder, a disproportionate number of whom are school or university aged.

If this shift were to set the tone for other university gyms across the country, it could ultimately benefit tens of thousands of students

Shifting our language to embrace body positivity has the potential to improve the mental health of many hundreds of University of Bristol students. If this shift were to set the tone for other university gyms across the country, it could ultimately benefit tens of thousands of students.

The motion will also have wider benefits to all Bristol students, not just those who struggle with eating disorders. 'Students will feel more welcome in classes and teams. Students will be able to access the mental health benefits that these sports offer without the penetration of the diet industry,' Freedman says. Shifting our language now could also have some impact on minimising the number of students who develop eating disorders in the future.

As a society we still have a long way to go in combating diet culture and embracing body positivity, but the passing of this motion is encouraging evidence that some people are ready for change. As a direct result of this motion, all fitness instructors who work at the University of Bristol gym or run B:Active classes will have to commit to eradicating diet culture references and fatphobic language from exercise classes.

The Students’ Union will work with Beat This Together to conduct a full review of SEH’s (Sports, Exercise and Health) messaging to ensure that it is not triggering. The SU have committed to working closely with Beat This Together to raise awareness around eating disorders, especially during Eating Disorder Awareness Week in March.

Beat This Together is the University of Bristol society committed to raising awareness around eating disorders. They campaign and fundraise for Beat, the national eating disorder awareness charity. If you or anyone you know feel like you may be struggling with issues around eating disorders please go to https://www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk/ and explore the resources they have available.

Other resources also available to seek help or get support include:

·       Beat student helpline: 0808 801 0811

·       Bristol SU Wellbeing network

·       Join the group Beat This Together

·       Follow @bristolbeatseatingdisorders on Instagram

·       Follow Dr Josh Wolrich, yrfatfriend, Meg.boggs and Lizzo on Instagram

·       Read Anti Diet by Christy Harrison (published 2019)

Featured image: Unsplash / Danielle Cerullo


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