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Diet culture is the real enemy

Is a sugar-free cookie inherently triggering? Is sugar-full food inherently indulgent? These are the questions raised by the drama unfolding between pop star Demi Lovato and LA frozen yogurt shop the Bigg Chill. The answer to both questions is no, but let’s break it down more anyway!

On Monday, Lovato — who has publicly spoken of her experiences with substance abuse, disordered eating, and sexual assault (most recently in the docu-series Demi Lovato: Dancing With The Devil) — called out the Bigg Chill in her Instagram stories. “Finding it extremely hard to order Froyo from @TheBiggChillOfficial when you have to walk past tons of sugar-free cookies/other diet foods before you get to the counter,” she wrote, accusing the store of “harmful messaging” and using the hashtag #DietCultureVultures.

The Bigg Chill, in return, defended itself on Instagram, saying, “We carry items for Diabetics, Celiac disease, Vegan and of course have many indulgent items as well.” But Lovato also posted direct messages between her and the Bigg Chill, in which she argues that the food — which, to her credit, are from a brand called Eat Me Guilt Free, suggesting there’s something shameful about eating a sugary treat — should be labeled differently because “in LA it’s really hard to distinguish diet culture vs health needs.”

The minor dust-up has lingered because, if you hadn’t heard, it’s a pandemic, and for one thing, everyone is bored, and for another, some argue that the restaurant industry has faced enough challenges in the past year without a celebrity (with a particularly rabid fan base) calling them out on social media.

Lovato has apologized, but also elaborated on her stance in an Instagram video, talking about her eating disorder, how froyo is positioned as a low-calorie food, and how that attracts people with eating disorders. “I’m standing up for anyone who struggles in LA,” she said. “This is a hard thing to live with on a daily basis.” She added, “My intuition said speak up about this, so I did. And I feel good about that. What I don’t feel good about is some of the way it’s been interpreted and how the message has gotten misconstrued.”

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Lovato’s idea that foods should be labeled with the dietary or heath-specific communities they are intended for has received mixed feedback. Diet culture sucks, the pressure (especially on women) to stay thin and the association of thinness with health also sucks. But also, just as anyone should be able to eat a cookie without “guilt,” anyone should be able to eat a sugar-free cookie without having to shout that they’re diabetic and not on a diet. “As someone with a chronic illness who has to eat a certain way… I don’t want things labeled ‘interstitial cystitis.’ It makes us feel worse and singled out,” wrote one person on her Instagram. And as Kyndall Cunningham writes for the Daily Beast, “There’s also the obvious fact that diet foods and drinks are sold at practically any establishment that sells food, notably grocery and big box stores, and are not universally triggering for people who suffer from disordered eating.”

The Bigg Chill argues that the existence of sugar-free cookies is not inherently fatphobic or encouraging of disordered eating, and that rather they’re just another product available to customers. Which is true — to an extent. Because as much as it’s a boon for celiacs, diabetics, vegans, and people with other dietary restrictions to have wider options for gluten-free and sugar-free foods, these items are as often marketed as Foods to Keep You From Gaining Weight, Which Is Bad. Just because someone might legitimately prefer the taste of Diet Coke to regular coke doesn’t mean the diet version wasn’t created to market specifically to women looking to be thin.

This problem isn’t solved by the Bigg Chill carrying or not carrying certain cookies, or labeling them one way or another. If one customer is reminded of their eating disorder by seeing a sugar-free option, another may be thrilled because it fits their specific needs and wants. Such is the nature of the world; there is nothing that everyone can agree upon, and there is always the risk that someone will be legitimately hurt through no one’s explicit fault.

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