Learn About Anti-Diet Culture From A Professional Chef
Chances are you come across a few advertisements related to exercise, diet, or other weight loss methods daily. Dieting is usually associated with the idea of limiting the intake of certain foods in an effort to control weight, but Karen M. Ricks, head chef at Our Kitchen Classroom, knows that misinformation about dieting can lead to a severely damaged self-image.
“Thinness doesn't equate to good health, nor does fatness equate to poor health,” she tells CircleAround. “You can't tell if someone is healthy or not simply by looking at the size and shape of their body.”
The Girl Scout alum is a proud anti-diet advocate. Her experience as a Black woman steeped in diet culture motivated her to develop a career centered around educating clients about “the flavors and textures and aromas of foods with child-like curiosity.”
“I literally teach my clients how to help their children PLAY with their food, and how to extrapolate all manner of educational opportunities from that experience,” she adds. “From history and language to cultural studies and science, I incorporate a variety of cooking techniques from numerous global culinary traditions that I have studied throughout my world travels in order to celebrate food in all its delicious glory — and all without the slightest whiff of diet nonsense.”
Ricks found relief from the oppression of diet culture after she moved from the U.S. to Japan. There, she says, “All of the ways in which I stood out were simply ascribed to me being me, and it was refreshing! No longer was my larger build, darker skin, or curly hair attributed to my inferiority on the white supremacist hierarchy of acceptable physical attributes.”
Ricks says one of her favorite teaching moments in Japan was when a young child asked why Ricks was so much bigger than her mother. “I asked her if she had also noticed that our skin was a different color, our eyes a different shape, and our hair a different texture. She nodded her head in the affirmative. I pointed out that, just like all of those other characteristics, the size and shape of our bodies was different, too… Just like we were born in different countries and grew up speaking different languages, we developed differently.”
Ricks knows that it’s especially important to teach children about forming a positive body image. If children are taught these lessons early on, they are better able to make informed decisions about their health later on.
She also recommends parents reinforce these lessons as well, creating a support system that starts within the home. “Rather than talking about certain foods being good or bad (they're not), focus on involving children in the process of sourcing, preparing, serving, and even cleaning up after meals,” she tells CircleAround. “Encourage them to try a wide variety of foods so that they can discover the flavors, textures, and combinations they enjoy.“
As a food educator, Ricks knows that if kids (and even adults) are exposed to different types of dishes and cuisines, they can “learn how to satisfy their hunger and meet their growing bodies' nutritional needs without ever being shamed or being made to feel ashamed for their food choices.”
There’s more to diet/anti-diet culture than just what we eat, however. Ricks feels diet culture is as systemic as racism and sexism, as these social justice issues exacerbate the way we see ourselves. “If you're not actively against the oppression of diet culture, you're guilty of promoting it,” she tells CircleAround.
It goes beyond just being against the latest fad-diet-of-the-week or following the latest celebrity cleanse. “It means that there are other priorities in life besides constantly working to shrink one's body into the Hollywood ideal of thinness,” she explains. “There is no moral benefit or high ground in suffering to attain that ‘ideal,’ nor is there moral failure in refusing to jump onboard the cycle of yo-yo dieting and over-exercising to reshape one's body in someone else's definition of perfection.”
But more importantly, she wants others to know that being against diet culture, and the damages that it causes, does not mean being anti-health. “It's about taking a weight-neutral approach that doesn't promote fatphobia and call it ‘wellness,’ nor stigmatizes individuals for their size, shape, eating choices, or level of physical activity.”
Cultivating a positive body image can start as early as childhood, through education and exposure to a variety of body shapes, sizes, and physical abilities. As Ricks explains, “Being anti-diet is about being against a cultural dictate that insists that there is only one type of ‘good body,’ and that everyone else should work to attain it. It's about the recognition that we are all unique, and our differences are what make us special, and what makes the world a more interesting place in which to live and learn.”