Food Psych #121: The Truth About Diet Culture with Emily Contois

Emily Contois

Cultural historian Emily Contois joins us to talk about the history of diet culture, how women's political power increased the pressure on women and femmes to restrict their eating, the need for an intersectional approach to healthcare and food access, the religious undertones to our food behavior, gender roles in food, the body-image issues that men face in an industrialized patriarchal society, "dude food," and so much more! PLUS, Christy answers a listener question about intuitive eating in recovery from a restrictive eating disorder.

Emily Contois is the author of more than twenty academic articles, chapters, and reviews. Her dissertation, "The Dudification of Diet: Food Masculinities in Twenty-First-Century America," examines how media representations of food, cooking, and dieting construct and negotiate what it means to be "a real man" in the United States today. Her research has been referenced in The Huffington Post, Salon, The Globe and Mail, and NPR, among others. As a food writer, she has contributed to the Providence Journal, Nursing Clio, and Zester Daily.

Born in Australia and raised in the Big Sky Country of Montana, Emily spent a bit over a decade training in classical ballet before turning her attention to the study of food, health, and identities in American culture. Emily holds three master’s degrees—an MA in American Studies from Brown University, an MPH focused in Public Health Nutrition from the University of California, Berkeley, and an MLA in Gastronomy from Boston University, where she was a three-time recipient of the Julia Child Award. She is currently a PhD candidate in American Studies at Brown University, where she teaches courses in food studies, American studies, and gender studies.

Prior to her current research and teaching, Emily worked in the field of worksite wellness for five years. She now lives in Providence with her husband, Chris, and their rescue pup, Raven.

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We Discuss:

  • Emily’s relationship with food growing up, including the influence of ballet and its impact on the development of her eating disorder

  • Emily’s scholarship in diet culture

  • Finding personhood through things other than food and body

  • How disordered eating and dieting is a cornerstone of American culture, and how it’s spread throughout the world via urbanization, capitalism, and consumer culture

  • The expectation of restraint vs the reality of a high consumer culture

  • The role of guilt in restriction and chronic dieting

  • Religious influences on our relationships with food, including the moralization of food and bodies

  • Classism and the idea of individual responsibility for health

  • Healthism

  • The historical context of diet culture, disordered eating behaviors, and restraint, and the impact of social change on these elements

  • The thin ideal and the history of restriction, including how the historical anxiety of masculinity and superhero media factors into this context

  • The incidence of eating disorders among trans folks and the impact of heteronormativity on body image

  • Women’s empowerment and feminism throughout the 20th century, and how it exists alongside reactionary oppression and increased dieting rhetoric

  • The emergence of nutrition science, calorie counting, and ready-made clothing

  • The evolution of beauty and the body ideal and how it relates to class status and racism

  • Fitspo and social media

  • Increasing body dissatisfaction for masculine folks

  • Performing masculinity and femininity and exploring gender roles

  • Emily’s work in “Dude Food” and her explorations of gendered marketing and media within the patriarchy

  • The difference between diet culture and weight loss for men vs diet culture and weight loss for women

  • Health at Every Size research, and the ways in which science is influenced by diet culture

  • Barriers to healthcare in fat bodies, including weight stigma

  • Hope for a world without diet culture

  • Intersectional feminism


Resources Mentioned

Some of the links below are affiliate links. Affiliates or not, we only recommend products and services that align with our values.


Listener Question of the Week

How do we engage with intuitive eating and reconnect with our hunger and fullness signals if we have a restrictive eating history? What are the other essential elements of doing intuitive eating in a sustainable way? How can we work on intuitive eating principles if we are still struggling with an active eating disorder? Can a meal plan be a bridge into intuitive eating? How do we challenge internalized fatphobia and fear of weight gain? How do we give voice to our compassionate inner voice?

(Resources Mentioned: Evelyn Tribole’s Food Psych Podcast episode, the Certified Intuitive Eating Counselors Directory, and the HAES Community)

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