August 5, 2020

The Connection Between Diet Culture and Purity Culture

When I began un-learning diet culture, I found there was another layer of shame about my body- one that went deeper than my body size […]

By Charis Stiles, LCSW|Adulting, Anxiety, Depression

When I began un-learning diet culture, I found there was another layer of shame about my body- one that went deeper than my body size or shape.

This deeper layer was about my body being essentially sinful and dangerous, and not to be trusted.

I grew up in an evangelical home where my body was policed for multiple reasons – it wasn’t just my fatness or my thinness, but how “sexy” I dressed or moved.

The messages around weight stigma blurred with the messages around keeping my body pure and virginal.

I know I’m not alone in this; multiple clients I work with were raised with “purity culture” along with diet culture.

Purity culture was big when I was growing up in the church in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

The whole premise is that we must keep our bodies pure and virginal for marriage. It makes me think of the trend around promise rings or “True Love Waits” pledges, where you commit your body to God.

You weren’t allowed to date and even talking or thinking about your sexuality was seen as “sinful”. 

While I’m not disagreeing with religion as a whole, nor I am promoting sex before marriage, I do believe that the connections between purity culture and diet culture can be harmful and shameful. 

In fact, one of the major proponents of purity culture retracted his teachings.*

Religious organizations are now re-evaluating their messaging, because of the shaming impact on folks.

So what’s the connection between purity culture and diet culture?

Messages that both purity culture and diet culture share:

  1. Your body is the source of sin. Your natural impulses and desires will lead to sinful and “bad” things if you follow them.
  2. Your body is shameful. It wants things it “shouldn’t” want or looks how it “shouldn’t” look.
  3. You are supposed to have control and mastery over your body. Use your willpower!
  4. There are limited ways bodies are supposed to look and act. Be thin, but don’t dress in ways that show your figure too much.
  5. The locus of control lies with other people. We cannot trust our instincts, which are body-based. Other people know best, and we need to follow our pastor/parents/peers, etc.

In general, this promotes mind/body disconnection, a belief that you are supposed to be a master over your body and a belief that the impulses of your body are wrong and dangerous.

We are taught to disconnect from ourselves and not listen to our deepest knowings.

Understandably, when we are disconnected from our bodies, it can possibly lead to:

  1. Shame
  2. Eating disorders
  3. Sexual confusion
  4. Denial of desires, wants, and even needs (including hunger or rest)
  5. Dissociation
  6. Fear of intimacy
  7. Difficulty with boundaries
  8. Over-identification with our minds
  9. Low self-worth
  10. Possibly physical pain and other physical symptoms

So, what’s the best way to work with this?

Just like we talk about un-learning diet culture, we need to un-learn purity culture.

Easier said than done!

This means reconnecting with the body in safe ways, perhaps with the guidance of a therapist, coach, or instructor.

It means building self compassion to counteract the shame we’ve internalized.

Overall, it means befriending our bodies and coming back to ourselves.

Trusting the wisdom in our bodies, validating our wants and needs, and rebuilding our sense of self. 

I speak from experience when I say this path is absolutely possible!

I am so grateful for the friends, therapists, and teachers I’ve had as I’ve learned to trust my body.

 – Charis Stiles, LCSW

*For more on purity culture and how contemporary churches are dealing with its aftermath, here’s an article explaining more in depth. I am in no way promoting this publication, and it should be said that this critique is from a Christian magazine. 

Medical Disclaimer

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