by Mariana Meriles
I start my day with coffee. Black. And if anyone has ever told you that they genuinely enjoy the taste of black coffee, let me be the first to say: they’re lying. Or the coffee has burned off their taste buds.
Still, I don’t think I’ve put any milk or sugar in my coffee since last year. And a lot of people get confused when I tell them that, because why drink it if I don’t like it, right? But to me, the reason is obvious—it’s because it has zero calories.
I don’t know exactly when I started paying attention to the number of calories in my food—I mean, the concern has always kind of been there. To be clear, I’ve never technically needed to go on a diet—my weight is in a healthy range, and I am fairly active—but diet culture has convinced me otherwise.
Advertisers are obsessed with telling us to lose weight—from stick thin models to incessant dieting and exercising ads, it’s become ingrained in our culture that women need to alter their lifestyles in order to be healthy. But advertisers’ idea of “healthy” is a little off, too: Special K advertised only eating cereal, protein shakes, and protein bars; overpriced blenders convinced us that juice cleanses would make us lose inches; fast food chains advertised “healthy options” that were usually just two pieces of lettuce and a tomato. The idea of “being healthy” isn’t about a healthy lifestyle—it’s about being skinny, and getting there with as little food as possible.
And it’s not revolutionary to point out that society wants women to be skinny—the recent pushback against this beauty standard through vocal body positivity activists is evidence of that. But despite the body positivity movement, despite the rise in plus size models and plus size stores, these toxic beauty standards remain pervasive, fundamentally changing the way we see our relationships with food.
I don’t have a single friend who hasn’t been on some sort of diet, and these diets are never healthy. Whether it’s eating only sweet potatoes and protein shakes, eating in only a four hour window of the day, or eating exclusively eggs and berries (all things my friends have tried, by the way), their diets are always radical, and always fail after a few weeks. We’ve tried veganism, going keto, going paleo, Atkins, intermittent fasting, even juice cleanses—honestly, I’m surprised we’ve never gone carnivore—but with each diet failure, our relationships with food became increasingly more toxic. We download apps to count our calories and make sure we never go above the maximum, don’t eat before a day out to ensure that one bubble tea doesn’t ruin a week’s worth of restriction, and feel a wave of guilt each time a day-in includes one too many brownies.
It’s not just my friends and I, either. To find evidence of diet culture’s effect on teenage girls at large, we don’t need to look much further than TikTok. As a diet conscious person, my feed quickly became full of healthy eating tips and fifteen second “what I eat in a day” videos, all of which only made me feel worse about my food choices. Of course, the food eaten in these videos is generally healthy: there’s always some sort of smoothie or oatmeal for breakfast, some sort of salad for lunch, and either salmon, shrimp, or chicken breast for dinner. The problem is that the amount of food eaten is incredibly low, rarely surpassing 1,200 calories. As a result, the comments are full of people who feel bad about the amount that they’re eating, and who start to believe that it’s necessary to start eating less. In this way, these videos draw in at-risk people to develop unhealthy eating habits under the guise of promoting a “healthy” lifestyle, no differently than the way advertisers have targeted the same vulnerable people for decades.
I find, too, that there seems to be a sort of pride on the Internet about how little one eats, and slapping the “healthy eating” label on restrictive diets masks underlying issues with how we as a society view our relationship with food. Healthy eating has become equated with eating nothing, and it’s this problematic view of dieting that can give rise to guilt we might feel after eating too much, or an unnecessary obsession with calories—or a refusal to drink coffee with anything else in it. When these habits are pushed to their limits from constant societal pressure, they can quickly become serious eating disorders. And though most of us may find ourselves in the gray area between full fledged eating disorders and positive relationships with food, it’s a fundamentally unhealthy position women are often coerced by society into taking.
Of course, healthy diets do exist, as do healthy relationships with food (even if I might not know what that looks like). But because of society’s obsession with being thin, “healthy eating” is often just a guise for habits that ultimately perpetuate unhealthy eating habits and problematic beauty standards. Still, my coffee for now remains tasteless, at least until I figure out what, exactly, that elusive healthy relationship with food looks like.