Performing and pushing back on diet culture: Exploring gendered messaging on Instagram
Gendered messaging is a means through which ideas about power, norms, expectations, categories, behaviours, and practices of gender are presented, disseminated and reproduced across cultureby Sarah Rotz
With the rise of social media, hashtags have become key tools of cultural messaging, and are both productive and reifying of gender and gendered behavior. In other words, social media helps to transform abstract messages into material forms, because of the ways we physically present, behave, and act out such messages with ourselves and one another. Hashtags are not neutral, but instead reveal the ways that the performativity of language can reinforce oppressive gender dynamics. In the context of gender, food, health, and the body, hashtags have become visual spaces where gendered food habits and practices reveal themselves—idealizing certain body sizes and health behaviors over others. Too often, these messages are based in shame and control, which often leads to harmful responses to emotional experiences, punishing internal thought patterns, and disordered eating behaviours. One of the systems fueling these responses and behaviours has been described as ‘diet culture’.
Diet culture is a system of beliefs that equates thinness and smaller body shapes to health and moral virtue. Diet culture is rooted in Western, patriarchal messages, perspectives and practices of food, eating, and health. As a result, diet culture disproportionately harms woman, non-binary folks, people with large bodies, non-white people, and those who do not reflect and conform to white, Western gender norms and bodily aesthetics.
Gendered messaging is foundational to the (re)production of diet culture. For instance, research and lived experience have shown that familial and community responsibility for food preparation, health, and well-being is largely borne by women. These behaviors are modelled repeatedly for young women (and men), and the messaging that food work is women’s work remains ubiquitous. Meanwhile, women’s bodies—as well as their food and bodily performance and practices—are highly controlled, largely through messages about discipline, shame, and regulation, including an obsession with thinness. These messages have very real, material impacts.
Women (and women of colour specifically) take on nearly all of the paid and unpaid responsibilities for food and care work. This work has been systemically undervalued (both culturally and economically), highly exploited, and excluded from even the most basic labour standards and regulations. For instance, the Canadian government increasingly relies on racialized and migrant women to do domestic care work in Canada, yet these women are often unable to have access to permanent residency, are provided with limited worker rights and low-wages, and have few protections from abuse and exploitation (a common issue for workers).
With this in mind, it becomes obvious why dominant food culture and industry continues to invest in ways to keep women fixated on our body size and image, instead of such political issues of sexism, homophobia, fatphobia, racism, and poverty. Luckily, many resist diet culture messaging and instead call for #riotsnotdiets, #genderequity, #foodjustice, and #justicefordomesticworkers, while seeking ways to #smashthepatriarchy and build a more just way forward for all through #bodypositivity. In fact, women- and LGTBQ2S+-led movements that resist gender binaries and diet culture, and instead advance body positivity, liberation, sovereignty, and fat acceptance are on the rise. These movements see all bodies as worthy and condemn any form of body shaming and policing: all bodies have the right to exist on their own terms, as they are.
Consider the food- and gender-related hashtags in Table 1. These food- and gender-related hashtags are organized into broad thematic categories. Not all images or messages may affirm the categorical theme. The themes should be used more so to guide your thinking. I also want to offer a content warning when reviewing some of the images and messages in the hashtags, as they may trigger and/or reinforce harmful thoughts and messages about weight and body size. Please use your discretion, and be sure to hold adequate space to allow everyone to reflect critically on these messages together.
- What are some of the dominant images in the hashtag?
- What messages do the images and hashtag convey about gender, body image, health, or nutrition?
- What do these messages say about the cultural ideas of femininity, masculinity, health, and bodies?
- What do these images tell you about how women and men are being told to live, perform, and behave?
- What are some of the physical, social, and emotional impacts of these messages?
- Who is being included and centered, and who is excluded? (i.e., race, class, body size, ability, sexuality)
- Looking through the images/messages/hashtags, do you observe connections between ideal body image, size, or food habits and these dynamics?
- How might this messaging have an impact on non-binary people, or those whose gender identities do not align with—or exist outside of—these gender binaries? What forms of resistance to these gender binaries do you see?
In small groups, select two columns per group from the table. Look through the corresponding hashtags on Instagram and use the following questions to guide your discussion together. Come together as a group and share your findings for each column.
This article is part of the book Showing Theory to Know Theory: Understanding social science concepts through illustrative vignettes by Patricia Ballamingie and David Szanto. This collaborative, open educational resource brings together a collection of short pedagogical texts that help new learners understand complex theoretical concepts and disciplinary jargon from the critical social sciences. Each entry "shows" an element of theory using an illustrative vignette—a short, evocative story, visual or infographic, poem, described photograph, or other audio-visual material. Of use across disciplines and community contexts, Showing Theory aims to democratize theory while linking it to practical, grounded experience.
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