Or, the 1001 ways Diet Culture kills
Back in the fall, in the run-up to the premiere of season 4 of The Crown, I started listening to You’re Wrong About. Specifically, the episodes dedicated to the life and death of Princess Diana. I really appreciated the exhaustive and thoughtful examination of the social, cultural, and historical forces that shaped her life and her experience of the royal family.
A month or so later, a new podcast popped up in my recommendations: Maintenance Phase, dedicated to breaking down the junk science and nonsense claims that inform diet culture, and co-hosted by Michael Hobbes of You’re Wrong About. I had already embraced this vibe on Nutritionist TikTok, but welcomed another platform to help me deprogram myself from diet culture.
I started with the Snackwell’s episode, because Snackwell’s were my go-to cookie back in the ‘90s. Hell, I still enjoy the occasional vanilla creme Snackwell’s on a road trip (or I did, when road trips were a thing). I wasn’t sure what to expect from the episode, but what I got was a bit of a cultural history of the low-fat craze from 30 years ago and how it was warped and misconstrued by the media (surprise, surprise). Hobbes and his co-host, Aubrey Gordon, also pointed out that the devil’s food cookies came 12 to a package, a perfect portion if you’re one person binge-eating cookies. The Halo Top episode also contends with how many diet foods are marketed in such a way that they encourage binge eating (Halo Top gives its consumers permission to eat the whole pint because it’s only about 300 calories per pint — because it’s mostly air).
But it was the Fen-Phen episode that truly terrified me.
During the summer of 1997, I was prescribed Fen-Phen for my weight. I was living in Crockett, Texas, with my grandparents, working a job I hated in a tiny little East Texas town. I was lonely and miserable and fat. So I took the pills. They made me crazy. I couldn’t sleep (hard to do when you’re on speed and you lie in bed at night with your heart racing). I didn’t have an appetite (the intended effect). And they gave me horrible, horrible rage.
But! I lost 25 pounds! I was so svelte, and so proud.
Then my mom took me shopping at Old Navy for my 25th birthday. (This was September 1997, right around the time Fen-Phen was taken off the market.) I was so proud of how cute I looked in my brown plaid woolen jumper. It wasn’t baggy! It hugged my curves while also being comfortable! I felt confident and cute! But then I caught a glimpse of my mom’s face in the dressing room mirror, her mouth a thin line of disapproval.
After we checked out and got into the car, she said to me, “I’m happy to pay for you to go to Weight Watchers so you can lose the rest of the weight.”
I try not to think about that moment too often because my mom died about six years after that and I don’t want to fixate on her moments of unintentional cruelty. But what that moment, and this podcast, brings into relief is that we — especially women, lord knows my mom had been fully inculcated into diet culture — are brought up trying to tame our bodies, train them to be smaller, sleeker, lighter. But we’re never taught how to feed ourselves, to nourish our bodies. It’s either binge on a packet of diet cookies or a pint of diet ice cream or take literal speed to lose weight. (Men are trained to bulk up and biohack and eat protein yogurt and get big!)
I feel very grateful and fortunate that Fen-Phen didn’t kill me or cause lasting/permanent damage (that I know of). I also feel really sad that I have spent most of my life worrying about how much I’m eating, how much I weigh, and what people think of my belly. And I never ever thought that a silly app like TikTok (which I deleted from my phone a couple of weeks ago because I was looking at TikToks rather than writing/reading/etc.) and a podcast about diet culture would help me interrogate a cultural narrative that thrives on telling people that shrinking themselves, preferably with Product X or Diet Y, is the only possible way to achieve complete personhood.
Anyway, if you’ve ever eaten Snackwell’s cookies and then tracked the calories or watched The Biggest Loser unironically (or ironically!), you might like this podcast.