A white suburban housewife clad in a lime green leotard finishes her Jane Fonda video workout, rewards herself with a fat-free SnackWell’s devil’s food cookie, then slams back a SlimFast shake before heading to her weekly Weight Watchers meeting. To Gen Z, this scene might read like a comedy sketch, but millennials who came of age in the ‘90s knew that woman. For us, the era’s long-lasting impacts—disordered eating, body dysmorphia, an affinity for packaged foods with purported perks—are the worst kind of throwback.
As an Alaska Native (Tlingit) growing up in rural Minnesota, I had near-constant reminders that my body was too big and too brown amid a sea of slender, fair-skinned folks of Scandinavian descent. The message was clear: If I could just be lighter, tighter, and whiter, I could achieve all my teenage dreams. This, I’ve come to learn, is exactly how diet culture was designed to make women and girls feel—especially BIPOC like me. What I for decades thought was a singular experience thanks to my unique circumstances, it turns out, was in fact a scourge that afflicted an entire generation.
Let’s flash back to 1995: The weight-loss industry is booming to the tune of $51 billion, with low- and no-fat packaged foods dominating store shelves. Fad diets—Atkins, Zone, Sugar Busters—are coming and going so quickly it’s hard to keep up. Outrageously problematic “heroin-chic” is the look du jour, embodied by Kate Moss clad in a slinky Calvin Klein slipdress clinging to her hipbones. TV audiences are enraptured as Friends’ leading ladies engage in a never-ending battle for ultimate thinness, only to be usurped by Ally McBeal’s Calista Flockhart a couple of years later. Darker still, the nascent Internet was giving rise to so-called “pro-ana” communities, in which those suffering from eating disorders swapped stories, tips, and inspo.
How did things get this bad? To make sense of ‘90s diet mania, we have to go back another 150 years, to the inventor of—no joke—the graham cracker. In my deep dive into diet culture, I turned to leading body image and fat discrimination expert Virgie Tovar. She explained that the phenomenon got its start in the mid-1800s thanks to Sylvester Graham, clergyman, healthy living advocate, and—yes—inventor of the graham cracker. Notoriously, his eponymous regimen emphasized what you couldn’t enjoy—meat, alcohol, stimulants, spices, chemical additives—in a bid toward moral superiority. (This, of course, was nothing new: Cultures around the globe have practiced fasting for millennia.) A bland diet, Graham preached to his devout followers, could curb sinful impulses like masturbation and sexual desires.
Why, then, did the heyday of dieting hit in the ‘90s? It was a perfect storm: Big Ag and Big Dairy were thriving thanks to lavish government subsidies. Advancements in manufacturing made producing fake foods quicker and cheaper than ever. Then there was the rising obesity epidemic, widening income inequality that priced many people out of healthy eating, and on and on.
For Sabrina Strings, University of California sociology professor and author of Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia, one component of this complex issue stands out: “The Reagan-Clinton era marked a backlash against both Civil Rights and the Women’s Movement, with a return to cis white heteronormativity,” she told me. “As a result, the racist and sexist standards that activists had protested—including a white, thin beauty ideal—saw a resurgence.”
Beyond the social issues at play, there was also bad science being propagated by the medical field. Both Strings and Tovar point to doctors’ misguided dependence on the now-controversial body mass index (BMI), which became a barometer of health after the World Health Organization touted it in 1995. The deceptively straightforward weight-to-height calculation (that today renders most Americans overweight or obese) has racist origins and hasn’t been updated in more than a century. “The BMI was created in the 1830s by Adolphe Quetelet using only white men [as subjects], and his work became the basis for eugenics,” Tovar said. “Why are we still using a tool with eugenicist history to determine health status?”
In my quest to better understand how these factors affected BIPOC women and girls like me, I asked Tovar for her take on the matter. “For BIPOC, who consistently get messaging to work harder to ‘fit in,’ dieting can be a way that authentic Americanness can feel accessible,” she said, aptly comparing the thinness ideal to the ever elusive rags-to-riches American dream. “People feel a sense of belonging when they participate in diet culture, even though it’s not based in science, reason, or humanitarianism.” Hence why being part of the dieting crowd (even if we were miserable company) helped me feel like I’d found my place.
Although I hesitate to speak for all millennials, I know that my upbringing—spent emulating my Boomer mom as she sweated it out to the oldies, counted calories, and hacked recipes with fat-free fixes—left me with a decades-long eating disorder that I couldn’t shake until my late 20s. In fact, eating for pleasure still gives me pangs of guilt to this day, whether I’m savoring burrata or a Nutella croissant. And like so many women in their 30s, I have unwittingly succumbed to the undertow of today’s $1.5 trillion “wellness” industry. To wit: My kitchen cabinets are chock-full of Instagram-approved panaceas like Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop supplements, Jennifer Aniston’s preferred collagen powder, and CBD-laced, well, everything.
Yes, I should know better. Today’s wellness culture is just ‘90s dieting dressed in sheep’s clothing, yet so many of us are still hypnotized by the lithe, chiseled bodies that fashion, pop culture, and social media algorithms feed us. The spokespeople (see: Paltrow’s Goop empire) and the sales pitches (juice cleanses, superfood smoothies, adaptogen powders) may be sexier than Kathie Lee Gifford hawking chalky SlimFast shakes, but the message remains: Eat this, not that, and you’ll be both healthy and cool.
So are we doomed to live in an endless diet loop handed down from one generation to the next? Not so fast—there may be hope on the horizon, thanks in large part to Generation Z, who are driving dual movements around body neutrality and body autonomy, demanding updated beauty ideals, and rewriting the identity rulebook.
Strings agreed: “Entertainers like Lizzo and activists like Maya Finoh are standing in their truths and raising their voices for fat liberation,” a concept that would’ve been utterly inconceivable back in the ‘90s. (Alas, even an undeniable body-neutrality badass like Lizzo still faces fat shaming and other backlash.) “Fat phobia is intimately tied to other forms of oppression, like racism, sexism, classism, and ableism—all of which undermine our humanity,” Strings continued.
Last week, I went out to dinner with a girlfriend. As we noshed on tuna tartare and braised lamb shank, I reflected on those flavorless low-fat meals that my mom (and indeed, so many women of her generation) suffered through in pursuit of weight loss. How unfair that they felt too guilty to enjoy one of the most basic human pleasures: eating with abandon. Suddenly, every bite felt like an act of radical self-love, of civil disobedience. Let’s hope that the hottest health trend to come out of the 2020s is that we finally embrace real food—and real bodies—once and for all.