Shame Sells

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Diet culture has become a way of life.  For many, it’s even become a religion.   Moralistic views of food and body are everywhere – vying for our righteous response.  While health and well-being are certainly worthwhile goals, the idea that a particular weight or meal plan is the key to attaining those goals is misguided.  In fact, numerous studies have revealed that nutrition, activity and stress relief are more indicative of health than body size and caloric intake.  Still, many health and diet authorities continue to advocate losing inches, banning important nutrients (like fat or carbohydrates), and consuming low-cal foods as a means of achieving “wellness.”  In order to convey the messages that secure patrons and sell products, industry voices frequently use language with ethical implications to describe food, clothing and body size.  The reason is quite simple – shame sells.

Or, more accurately, the avoidance of shame sells.  It’s human nature to escape humiliation.  So, when we are told that to look a certain way, eat a certain food or have a certain craving is disgraceful we’ll open our wallets and hand over every penny in an attempt to prevent the painful loss of pride.  Of course, we aren’t explicitly sold our dignity.

The messages are usually indirect.  But, tucked within most diet rhetoric is the idea that your food and fitness choices are actually moral ones.

While most of us are familiar with the harmful implications of the “good food”/”bad food” dichotomy,  these other, less obvious, terms also reveal the shame-inducing standards of diet culture:


Skinny” is a preposterous term for nourishment.  It’s defined as “lacking sufficient flesh, very thin, emaciated, lacking desirable bulk, quantity, qualities, or significance.”  Sounds delicious, doesn’t it?  Yet, “skinny” sells.  It is frequently stamped on magazines, blogs and commercials.  The idea is simple – eat “skinny” food and you will become a “skinny” person.  And because skinniness is equated with self-control, discipline and vitality, eating “skinny” means eating virtuously.  Never mind that many “skinny” recipes include synthetic ingredients and artificial sweeteners that actually slow metabolism.  Forget the fact that drastically limiting caloric intake can prompt a starvation response in the body.  Who cares that omitting key nutrients inhibits proper brain function, sleep cycles and other biological processes? – In a world where SKINNINESS is likened to HOLINESS, “skinny” recipes offer more than an alternative to the originals – they promise “perfection.”


Ahh perfection – the ever elusive goal.  It is the dangling carrot of the health and fitness industries.  We are told countless times a day that if we simply take this pill, bind ourselves in that wrap, do this workout, buy these prepackaged meals, wear those clothes or follow the latest fad diet we will soon achieve the “PERFECT” body.  Considering that “perfect” is defined as “having no mistakes or flaws, being completely correct and accurate” the insinuations are obvious:  Buy what they sell, do what they say and you will be free from error and immune to the shame that imperfection brings. 


The moral implications of terms like “sinful” and “guilty” are self-explanatory.  What might be less obvious is the subconscious messages they send to someone who delights in eating a triple chocolate brownie straight out of the oven or a bagel, bacon, egg and cheese sandwich from the deli next door.   When we are perpetually confronted with food images and descriptions that are touted as “forbidden,” “decadent,” “sinful” or “guilty,” and later find ourselves enjoying those very foods, it is not uncommon to hear voices in our head declaring our choices as evil, wicked and dishonorable.   The stress of such self-talk can be more detrimental to health than any favorite food that we choose to consume peacefully and joyfully.


To cheat means to “break a rule or a law or to take something from someone.”  The very idea of a “cheat” meal or day implies that we are following rigid rules of ethical magnitude.  To “cheat” on a diet means to stray from the mandates of the supposed experts, making autonomous choices about food instead.  This independence and trust in our own bodies should be celebrated, yet it is often a cause of disgrace that can lead to binges or other disordered behaviors meant to punish or compensate for presumed failure.  There is nothing noble about cheating.  School-aged children are taught not to cheat on tests.  Adulterers are called “cheaters.”  Olympic athletes have been defamed for cheating by taking performance enhancing drugs, clubbing knee caps, altering equipment and other unjust actions.  Is the choice to eat foods unsupported by diet-culture-directives really comparable to such conduct?


How many times have you heard that leggings, tunic tops, stretchy fabrics and oversized sweaters are “forgiving?”  As if your body has committed a crime or made a corrupt choice by existing in its present state and therefore should be covered with apparel that allows for its reprehensible faults.  “Forgiving” is a term that means “merciful, lenient or tolerant.”  The implications couldn’t be clearer: You’re bad the way you are but thankfully a well-placed hemline can earn you a pardon.

This list is certainly not exhaustive.  There are countless other indirect shame triggers utilized by the diet, beauty and health industries in order to make us feel inadequate. They know that shame sells. They know that once we believe our appearance or food choices are WRONG and indicative of moral failure, we’re ready to become loyal purchasers of whatever products they are peddling to reestablish our purity.  However, shame only sells because it works.   If we, as consumers, would choose instead to recognize and confront the subliminal messages in media and marketing, replacing those lies with the truth of our inherent significance and value beyond appearances and food choices, diet culture would no longer control our spending (or our spirits). 

Let’s take back our power – and our triple chocolate brownies!


What diet culture terms do you find most harmful or ironic?  What words, people or products encourage and motivate you when it comes to health and beauty?  Tell me in the comment section below or send me an email.

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