Diet Culture is abusive. But why are some more susceptible than others?

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I’ve been writing for years about the ways Diet Culture manipulates us. It plays on that little voice in your head that tells you you aren’t good enough. That your body is unacceptable, you don’t try hard enough, you should be more successful, you’re lazy, no one likes you, that you’re unlovable. It takes advantage of that voice, and amplifies it. What if I told you that voice wasn’t YOUR voice? That it is the voice of someone else, someone who told you those things, or made you feel them by the way they talked to you and treated you, and you internalized the message so completely that you think it’s your own voice?

It very like IS someone else’s voice. A parent or a partner, most likely. Emotional and psychological abuse instills messages of worthlessness in it’s victims. And Diet Culture swoops in to exploit it. I want to delve deeper than I have so far on my blog. I want to examine the behaviors and messages that create that internal voice. And it’s a deeply personal examination, which is why my blog has been so quiet lately. I have about a dozen blog posts that I’ve written over the last year or so, but not published because of their intensely personal nature. But, I feel ready to start publishing them, and I’m starting out with this post where I’m going to explain what Emotional Abuse is.

All abuse is abuse. And all abuse damages the victim equally.

There is a palpable mythology that Emotional Abuse isn’t ‘as bad’ as Sexual or Physical Abuse. And in fact, Emotional Abuse can be so subtle and insidious that a lot of people don’t even realize they’ve been abused. But Emotional Abuse is still abuse, and it IS as damaging as other kinds of abuse (Vachon DD, Krueger RF, Rogosch FA, Cicchetti D. Assessment of the Harmful Psychiatric and Behavioral Effects of Different Forms of Child Maltreatment. JAMA Psychiatry. 2015), and the fact that it is so subtle can make it even more damaging and long-acting than other forms of abuse because the victim doesn’t know they’ve been abused so they don’t seek help, and the damage compounds over years and generations.

Everyone knows that molesting a child is abuse. But how many people realize that expressing indifference to a child’s emotions is abuse? (“I hurt your feelings? So what?”)

Everyone knows that hitting a child is abuse. But how many know that threatening to end the relationship if a person doesn’t do what the other person wants is abuse? (“I can’t have a relationship with someone who won’t do that thing I’m demanding.”)

Name calling (“You’re such a drama queen.”), ridicule (“Oh boo hoo, cry me a river.”), sarcasm employed during disagreements (“Is that evidence enough for you, Ms. Scientist?” <– one I’ve had directed at me), betrayal of trust (such as the abuser using things that the victim has confided in them against the victim in anger), withdrawal of affection as a form of punishment, screaming and yelling, taking stress out on the victim, being unpredictable (being fine with something one day but becoming angry about it another), blaming their own behavior on the victim (I only did that because you drove me to it!), insinuating the victim is crazy (“you’re really worked up, why don’t you go to the mental health clinic and get some help” <– another one I’ve experienced), denying they’ve done what the victim knows they did (gas lighting – something I’ve written about before), invalidating the victim’s emotions or perceptions (“that never happened”, “you don’t really believe that”, etc), constantly reminding the victim of their shortcomings, controlling behavior, and so much more. These behaviors are all abusive. And ALL of us have done them. I have done them. I try very hard not to, and apologize when I do. That is the difference between doing something abusive and being an abuser. All of us fall into abusive behavior now and then. But abusers abuse all the time, and don’t try to change their behavior, and never apologize. In fact, they blame the victim for their own behavior.

The problem is, all of these things can be subtle, and if a person grows up with an emotionally abusive parent, they likely won’t even recognize this is abusive behavior. Until my mid-20’s, I thought it was just normal, the way people communicate when emotions run high.

Emotional abuse erodes the victim’s sense of self. It can erode their trust in their own thoughts and perceptions. It can make them feel deeply ashamed of themselves. It can fill them with self doubt, and make them believe they are worthless and unlovable.

And that is why it’s so easy for Diet Culture to swoop in and pick right up where the abuser left off. The victim already feels worthless. Diet Culture confirms their worthlessness and promises that if they eat the right foods and do the right exercises, they will become lovable and worthy.

I’m an adult survivor of childhood emotional abuse, and in fact, even today, it continues. I see my experiences echoed by the experiences of WAY TOO MANY of my clients. Emotional abuse primes us to be further victimized by Diet Culture. And THAT is why some people are more susceptible to it than others. I have very few Diet Recovery clients who had truly supportive and emotionally healthy parents.

I want to begin to shed light on this insidious form of abuse, and the ways that it drives so many of us to self-destructive dieting and exercise behaviors. And it involves telling my own painful and personal stories. But I know I am not alone. This blog is going to become a place of healing, for me and hopefully for you too.


Further Reading:

Signs of Emotional Abuse

How to Begin to Recover

Psychological Abuse

Emotional Abuse