Saying NO to diet culture and YES to loving your body
A conversation with Malik Turley
You may not have heard the phrase diet culture, but it is what makes you think that you’re not the “right” size. Diet culture has you feeling guilty about eating a cookie rather than an apple. Diet culture contributes to a system that has you believing that your body is the problem rather than the companies that design and make clothes that don’t fit you in the first place. I – Nicole Havelka, founder of the Defy the Trend community – and Malik Turley, founder of the Tapas Movement, had a chat to tell you what diet culture is, and how to resist it so that it stops compounding the burnout you already feel. Below is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation about diet culture and how to resist it.
Nicole: Hi, good morning or afternoon or whatever time zone you might be in. I’m Nicole Havelka. I am your burnout coach with the Defy the Trend community. And we are here talking about diet culture, specifically resisting diet culture and learning to say no to it so that you can love your body more and maybe even be a little healthier. We might dispel some of those myths as well.
And with me is my friend and founder of the Tapas Movement, Malik Turley. And I am delighted that you’re here. … I’m in Columbus, Ohio. You’re in Valencia, Spain, which is super cool. I love the interwebs. Malik, tell us more about yourself and about the Tapas Movement and about why you care about dismantling diet culture.
Malik’s journey to realizing what diet culture is
Malik: Sure. I will probably go in a little different order. So, as Nicole said, I’m Malik, and I am in Valencia, Spain. It is sunny and beautiful and afternoon for me, depending on where you are. I started doing the work around dismantling diet culture entirely by accident. I didn’t realize that it was a thing. I didn’t have that vocabulary.
I was just minding my own business, living my life in my body, and started teaching dance and fitness and movement classes in general. … Fitness is a weird one. I’m working on getting that out of my vocabulary because, anyway, that’s a whole other [conversation] we can have a whole ’nother talk about that. So, I’m a movement instructor, and in that context, I started meeting women and talking like you do, a little bit deeper than maybe you do with random people on the street and uncovered something that I didn’t realize.
I have my entire life, been very confident in myself. Like, I’m smart, I can do good things, I can do hard things, whatever. That has been a part of me, my whole existence, my perception of my physical form, not so positive in my youth, right? But to me, those were two very different things.
And as I started talking to women, I learned that, for a lot of them, it’s all the same thing: ow they feel about their body dictates how they feel about themselves. And I got fired up, and I was like, we need to separate that and do some work around that. Okay, that’s fine. Then I started looking at the world and seeing how much society is giving women that – and men – but women more.
So that message, that what they look like is the value they bring to the world, and anything else is secondary. And that got me even more fired up. And then I started exploring the links and the background between where did [diet culture] come from? And I discovered horrible things in the past. It is based on racism, on sexism – on a lot of fallacies that present themselves as science, but they’re not.
And with that behind this societal idea, it’s no mystery why we are so bunched up about what we look like and how impossible it is to get to that “ideal” and all of that stuff. So that is how I got into this work. Tapas Movement is a community focused on doing that dismantling [of diet culture], sharing some of that information so people can see where those ideas that they hold are coming from and how to change them and what else they can do and how else they can be inside their bodies and happy rather than up against all the yuck that society says.
Nicole: And full disclosure, I’m part of the Tapas Movement and it was a godsend when I found Malik and these fantastic movement classes that didn’t feel at all shaming – like, felt like, oh, whatever body you bring today is the body you bring today to class or conversation or whatever we’re doing. And that, like I do, values being in relationship as well with other like-minded folks who want to do the same kind of work in the world both internally [and externally]. We do our internal stuff, so that we can shine that and reflect that back out into the world, which I so appreciate. So thank you for creating that space for me and for others. And that’s so, so important.
Malik: Absolutely. It is one of those things that you see a lot, like, start where you are, bring your body, whatever, but always with the idea that by coming to that place or that class we’re going to change it into something else. Like you can have whatever body you want today, but we all have to work towards this goal over here. And so I strive really hard to break that narrative and say, whatever body you brought to class today is the body you have and we value it, end of story, right? And we’re going to move it, we’re going to do stuff with it. But whatever you brought, whomever you brought, however you brought yourself today, is totally valid.
Nicole: Yeah. So you’ve already been doing this a little bit, but tell us more about what diet culture is because I think it’s so ingrained. … the nature of culture is that it’s the water we swim and the air we breathe, right? And we often don’t even realize it’s a thing. So what would you say is diet culture?
Malik: Yeah, so you can look it up on the Googles and get dictionary-style definitions, but that’s not why we’re here. To me, diet culture is the idea that there is a right shape and size for any given human, and the attachment of morality [?] fit that fabricated idea. So there is no right size. So if you hear people talking about, “oh, I’m overweight” or “underweight.” Over or under, what weight? What’s the right weight? So just out of the gates, you’re already inside diet culture if you’re using that terminology. Or when we think about going shopping for clothes and there’s a limited size range available. Why is that? Why is there this narrow window that I have to fit into in order to have the privilege of going to a store to give someone else money? That’s diet culture. You want my money? How about you make clothes I can wear, whatever size that is?
Super small, super big, doesn’t matter. Talking about being bigger, like, “oh, I’m a bigger person,” or “I need bigger sizes.” Bigger than what?
Society has created this idea that there is an answer to that, to the what, and that we are all supposed to do everything in our power to get to that what. And that is what we see on TV. It’s what we read in books. It’s what we hear other people saying in real life. It’s what parents say to their children. It’s what kids say to each other on the playground. It is everywhere.
Why should we resist diet culture?
Nicole: So why should we resist it?
Malik: Because [diet culture] is a lie. We should resist it. Short answer is that because it’s not true. It’s just not. It doesn’t take into account the fact that humans are this range of being from all over the world in different climates, different elevations, right? There’s so many factors that go into what makes each container that are discounted with this idea of diet culture. Because if there’s only one way to be, then there’s only one height to be. But we know that there are really tall people and really short people and they’re all valid. It’s the same idea. So we should buck against it because it’s a lie. Also because it’s harmful.
So especially in the US, which is where I spent most of my life – only recently have I been outside of it – the diet culture grip is so strong that we have kids dieting and we’re starting that cycle when they’re really … young. And science has shown that as we do things like calorie restriction and forcing a change in our body composition – those changes are not permanent, they’re not super long lasting, and they do harm to the body when you bounce back and forth and back and forth. It is more physically harmful to have those huge fluctuations in your weight than to maintain a weight, whatever that weight is. So, you might have a weight that is a large number. If it’s steady, that is safer to your body, and I’m talking about your organ system. That is safer to your body than if you’re doing this with your weight, right? [gestures up and down] But we start that when they’re kids. And so we’re setting them up for this lifetime of doing damage to themselves physically and psychologically. And if we could dismantle diet culture, that wouldn’t happen if kids just knew that they were fine, whatever they looked like. So we would be saving money on our health care. … We would not be putting ourselves at risk.
I honestly think if we didn’t have diet culture, probably science would be farther [along] because there’d be women who were doing science rather than focusing on how many calories they ate that day. And maybe they would solve – they would find the cure to cancer or whatever, but we’re so absorbed with the like, “Oh, but I’m not a size – whatever.” We don’t have time and space to think about [other] things. Right?
I feel like we’ve talked about this offline before, but how much time would you get back in your life or how much money would you get back in your life if diet culture had never touched you?
Nicole: Gajillions of dollars and thousands of hours, I’m sure. And certainly a ton of psychological distress that still happens. I know we’ve talked about this offline before, too, that I was in some of the best shape of my life, and the thinnest I’ve been, which was still technically overweight, by the way. And I was working out, like, an hour and a half a day.
Malik: Over what weight, though, right?
Nicole: I mean, by those silly BMI standards that the doctor [uses]. Even then, even at my thinnest, I was considered overweight. And I gained weight for a variety of reasons in COVID and I’m still, as recently as yesterday, I’m battling the “oh, I hate my body” stuff that dredges up all the time. And in my head, I don’t believe that crap, right? I’ve talked to you enough, and I’ve been a feminist long enough, … to know that. And I’ve been doing all this reading about how diet culture is not only harmful psychologically, but is just utter BS, right? Like that it’s lies, all lies, like you said. And still it comes up because I’ve been hearing it since I was young. Before I was verbal, honestly.
Malik: You definitely were. You definitely were. I mean, unless you lived on a happy island that I don’t have the money to buy: because diet culture, right? If I could buy an island where we could just go and be completely free of the diet culture press, we would make strides, and I mean, that’s in part what I’m doing with Tapas Movement, right? It’s sort of a digital island where you go and there’s not all of that.
But this is my job. I have been dedicated to this for a ridiculous amount of time, and I still have days where I’m like, “I don’t know, there’s a lot happening here [Malik gestures toward her body], and I’m not sure I’m happy about it.” … Until we get more people thinking about the world in this dismantled way than in the current [diet culture] society – yuck way – we continually get messages.
Diet culture is pervasive in all the media we consume
Like, if you open Facebook, you see an ad. If you turn on … a TV, you either are getting ads, or just the fact of who is in the roles in the shows that you’re watching and what they look like. You’re getting this idea, this message of, there’s a right size and shape to be. Or if you do see someone in a media role that doesn’t fit that ideal, that’s probably part of their storyline or punchline or what have you. Right?
We don’t get fully featured characters who also happen to be a size 18. We just don’t have that. We don’t have access to that. Or if they are, they’re, like, old. Because when you get old, then you don’t matter anyway, so, it doesn’t matter what you look like? What have we done? What has society done? Ageism is a whole thing in and of itself.
But all of that is to say that we have to have support around the work of turning our back on diet culture, because we turn our back and it comes around to the front, if we’re going to live in society right now.
How do you resist diet culture?
Nicole: Yeah. So that’s leading me into my next question … What are some simple, practical ways to resist diet culture? Because, like you said, once you start seeing it, it’s everywhere, and at least it has been for me. It’s a little harder to function in the world now and have conversations, because I feel like every other conversation now is about how much weight people have gained and lost. And I don’t even know how to respond. Like, I’m struggling now, even like, okay, recalibrating my language to: How do I challenge that without being a jerk to people. Right?
Because they don’t know this. Two years ago [I didn’t really know about diet culture]. I’m certainly not going to get mad at them for [not] questioning it yet.
Malik: It is hard. I will say that it is challenging to interact with people who aren’t already walking down this path as well. And I think that’s true to a certain extent anytime you uncover anything new or different. Right? So the first thing that I like to explore or encourage people to explore is the why behind whatever it is that’s being said. So you’re at lunch, you’re with people – menus are a landmine for discussion, talking about, like, “Oh, I shouldn’t eat that,” or “I’ll have to work that off later.” That dialogue.
Ask a why question to resist diet culture
But that’s one place where it comes up. And honestly, if you just turn it back with, “Oh, why?” And then they’ll say, “Oh, because I’m too whatever” or “I need to do this.” Why. I’m genuinely curious: Why do you feel like you need to lose weight?
Eventually, it’ll either get to “my doctor said” – and then we can have a conversation about how doctors feed into diet culture unless they’re a health-at-every-size doc. (And that’s a thing you can look for.) But anyway, I’m digressing. It’ll either be “my doctor said” or the answer will be, “Well, you know.” Of course you know, because everybody knows. Or [they will say] “Look at me. You know, look at me.”
And that’s a moment where you get to be the sunshine. You get to be the positive voice of reason. And you can say things like, “I see an awesome person sitting across from me. I don’t see anyone who needs to change anything.” Or “Is there anything that you’re not able to do? Are you saying that there’s something you are physically incapable of doing right now that is the problem?” Because nine times out of ten, there isn’t anything. But if there is, then we can have a discussion about [that].
“I want to be able to play with my grandkids.”
“I totally want that for you, too. What ways can we make that happen?”
And you have to decide how far down the rabbit hole you want to go with people. But the why question is really a gentle way to get people to start looking at the reasons behind the things that they just say without thinking about it. Right?
We’re taught that, you open a menu, you have to say that you shouldn’t eat something on it. Why? It’s all food. Somebody thought we should eat it, they put it on the menu. Order it or not, or whatever. So that’s one thing.
Resist diet culture by finding non-judgmental movement classes
And then reminding yourself as you go that there is no judgment. I teach yoga. I know, Nicole, you do as well. We don’t need to have judgment around what we’re eating, how we look, how anybody else looks, what anybody else is eating. These are moments where we can practice non-judgment and even inserting that into the conversation, like, “Oh, I’m looking at this menu without judgment. It’s all food.”
Or “I’m looking at you without judgment. I value you.” Those little blips – that is disrupting that narrative.
Movement classes don’t have to be for making your body “better.”
Nicole: Right? Because I know you and I have worked together, and I’ve even done some training with you about how to incorporate these ideas into teaching movement. But you will never see one of us teaching a class like this [movement class] for weight loss. You’ll never see us teaching a class like that, because it’s bullshit.
And for me, yoga – it’s disrespectful to an ancient spiritual tradition to say it’s for better abs or weight loss or whatever, some physical externality that doesn’t matter. This is a spiritual practice that’s deep and beautiful and helps you grow in such amazing ways that, why would we confine it to [your body shape] or use it for that?
So if you see those sorts of things out there, folks, like “XYZ for this,” for your body, run. I’m not even going to be subtle about that. You don’t have to take classes from us, but please don’t take classes for those kinds of things which don’t – like you said – work anyway.
Malik: Yeah, they don’t work in any long-term way. And most of the time, the thing that needs changing – you might need to be stronger to do whatever it is that you want to do, or you
might need to have different conditioning, you might need more cardiovascular endurance, or what have you. And those are all totally reasonable things to pursue. Right?
Like, I want to be stronger. I want to be able to run farther. I want to [fill in the blank]. Fine. Those are concrete, and those are not value judgments on yourself.
And that, I think, is the big difference. And so knowing that if you see something promoting intentional weight loss, that that is something that is happening inside diet culture. Knowing that if you see anything promoting the right size or shape, that is diet culture. And if you see anything where there’s shame attached to it – a before and after. If there’s a before and after, and there’s shame attached to the before, that’s diet culture.
How to resist diet culture at your doctor’s office
Nicole: I’m going to add to this, things you can do that resist this that I started doing in the last couple of years, which is: Refuse to be weighed when you go into your next doctor’s appointment. First of all – and I’m pretty assertive, by the way – I’m able to say no and be comfortable with that. It had never occurred to me to say no to [being weighed], even though it was so uncomfortable to me every single time I did it, regardless of what size I was at, which of course has been a variety of sizes over my life. And I started saying no. The last two doctor’s appointments, I started saying no. And it has created a better conversation with my doctor because it forces her to ask: “How are you feeling? What kind of movement are you doing? Are there things going on in your body that we might be able to address, if there’s issues or not?”
And I’m not refusing to do blood work. Like, by all means, do those things that give you actual data that matters. Right? I’m happy to do that. And if you come back with something that we need to address, then, well, let’s do that. Otherwise, the default conversation, and has often been the default conversation for me and I’m sure almost everyone else is that, oh, you need to lose XYZ [pounds]. Are you exercising or what diet can we put you on so that you lose weight, regardless of what the blood work tells them, right?
Malik: Yes. The not-weighing is a huge thing. As an aside, I am in Spain now, and there’s a lot of chat in the groups of people who’ve moved here from the U.S. of shock that when you go to the doctor here, they don’t weigh you.
Malik: They don’t weigh you unless you say, “I need you to weigh me,” or “I have a problem, there’s something wrong.” Then they have scales. They have them. It’s not automatic;
Nicole: it’s not a standard procedure=
Malik: From the U.S., we’re like, “But I think we don’t have a good doctor because that’s the first thing you do when you go,” and it’s just a whole different way of looking at the world.
The other thing is that with the weighing, that is that linking health to size, and somehow I think I didn’t say that yet. And that is a huge component of diet culture and one of the biggest fallacies. So, you can have however much tissue as you brought to the doctor’s visit and be completely healthy, have solid blood work, good blood pressure, your lungs sound great, all that stuff. You can be totally fine at whatever amount of tissue, and you can be totally not fine at whatever amount of tissue. So it’s not, “oh, if you’re this weight or below, you’re healthy, and if you’re this weight or above, you’re not healthy,” which is what the BMI tells us. It is: “You are a person, and you have health components. Let’s look at them, let’s talk about them.”
And so, yes, changing the conversation by removing that scale information is definitely a way to dismantle diet culture on a personal level that also has a trickle effect, because that conversation that you had with your doctor after having been with them and getting on the scale complacently and whatnot, and then you’re like, “Actually, I’m not doing that.” There was a moment there where that doctor had to figure out what to do next and how to doctor differently. And it takes a little while for the docs to be like, “Let’s not automatically weigh every person who walks in the door.” But you doing that made it that much easier for that doctor’s next patient who says, “No, I don’t want to be weighed,” they’ll be like, “Oh, right. That’s a thing that you people do fine, let’s talk about whatever.” But it’s going to be easier, and then eventually they will stop with that practice.
Resources for dismantling diet culture
Nicole: I’m moving toward our little wrap up here because, again, I know we could talk for hours, which would be delightful, but usually people won’t watch that long. If people want to learn more, are there books that you might recommend, or maybe podcasts or videos? Other things? I mean, aside from the Tapas Movement, of course.
Malik: So come and visit us at Tapas Movement. I do share a lot of resources in the community in terms of books to read and other places where you can get continuing education, I guess you could call it.
The one thing that I would say to start sort of a primer is about food because that’s where we get the most bunched up, I think, in a lot of ways with diet culture. And so tackling it from that perspective first is a good way to start moving forward. And that is the book that’s simply called Intuitive Eating [by Evelyn Tribole, MS, RDN, and Elyse Resch, MS, RDN], and we’ve gone through it in Tapas Movement before. But the reason I recommend that is because it makes you look at your relationship with food. But more than that, like, in order to look at what you are thinking or reacting to when it comes to how you eat, what you eat, when you eat – you have to actually look at your whole being. So that’s one recommendation that I have.
And then I would say whatever media you consume, like Facebook, Instagram … think about hashtags. So #HealthAtEverySize would be one thing to look at. #BodyPositivity, which has its own host of issues that we could go into on another conversation, is still a hashtag that will lead you to the people who are talking about this stuff. #DietCulture by itself, just that as a #DismantlingDietCulture is not as common, but the more we all use it, the more common it will become. Also, #BodyNeutrality is one answer to #BodyPositivity and it needs an answer because sometimes body positivity can get toxic – and so body neutrality is a little bit different. Anyway, those are some tools you can use to start searching out resources on all of your platforms.
And it will help you find people like Nicole or like me in that you might be looking for a movement class and you want these ideas at play. Or maybe you’re looking for a spa to go to, or a new doctor or what have you, but you want them to be thinking about these things like you are. Those are some tools that you can use.
Nicole: I want to also recommend a book that I just finished reading last week, which is Butts: A Backstory – which is perhaps the best title of a book ever – by Heather Radke. And it’s focusing particularly on our backsides, and it has a beautiful ode in the beginning to what it is, sort of muscularly and the tissue and all the things that make up our butts. But then after that, it is an amazing exploration of why – particularly from the U.S. point of view – why the different size [of your butt] matters. And I’m not sure that she uses the word diet culture ever in the book, but it is a really good historic dismantling of how it came to be, and it’s entertaining – it’s funny in places. And she features, toward the end, a number of people in communities who are doing things differently.
So, not only dismantling [the reasons we judge the size of butts]. There’s some ick in there.
It’s icky to feel through that because [why we care about the size of butts] is rooted in white supremacy and frankly in chattel slavery, especially. And when you start uncovering that, it feels really icky. But [it] is good work to be doing even though it feels uncomfortable.
How to find more about Malik and Nicole dismantling diet culture
Nicole: Well, how do we find more of you, Malik?
Malik: You’ve already alluded to this, but please say that And then, so, you can find your way into the community by going to TapasMovement.com, and you can find us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube – all with Tapas Movement as the handle.
Nicole: And so, likewise, you can find more about me at defythetrend.com. That’s my website. I want to make a special invitation in August, which is my birthday month. … Every year in August, I do a special thing where I give gifts to you. So I’m doing a whole month of learning to say no, celebrating the act of saying no. And this is one of those things – saying no to diet culture and explaining a little bit more about why that is.
And so you get 31 emails. If you signed up now, you would be starting a little late, which is fine. There’s still really plenty of good stuff coming. You get access to my yoga classes, which are normally just membership classes, but you can sign up. If you sign up for that main event, you get access to that. And then – anyone can access this: I’m doing a group napping experience affirming our body’s need for rest on Sunday, August 27, at 3:30 p.m. ET. … An affirming experience and, like a guided napping experience, which I am super stoked about, and keep having ideas bubble up about how we’re going to do that and make that really fun and special and affirming. So you can find all that stuff on my website, and I keep putting it on the interwebs.
So I want to thank you, Malik. Thank you for taking your time this afternoon in beautiful Valencia, Spain, where you could be at the beach or something rather than talking to me. So I appreciate you chatting with me, sharing your knowledge and wisdom about resisting diet culture. And I hope that’s what folks do: Say no to diet culture this week. …
And Malik, I hope we do this again, because talking with you is always super fun.
Founder, The Tapas Movement
Founder, Defy the Trend Community
is the founder of the Defy the Trend community that uses restorative yoga, group coaching and a supportive community to prevent and recover from burnout. Try one of Nicole’s free yoga classes, her Create a Burnout-proof Life Mini Course and a sampler meditation download package any time by joining the free Defy the Trend community.