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  • Writer's pictureMarkie McRae

Ditching Diet Culture

My name is Markie McRae, and I am a textbook people pleaser… or at least I was.

Growing up, I did everything I could to win the approval of those around me. As a Black boy in mostly white spaces, I was living in a world that actively told me I was not welcome. I desperately felt like I needed to prove I belonged. My energy was spent being the best big brother, a star student, an amazing athlete. I took so much pride in being the model child–– never making mistakes and always being perfect. Making others happy was proof that I was enough.

Looking back on my adolescent years, I think it’s pretty easy to see that I was not happy with the person I was. I had been conditioned to hate myself. There is no way I could actually live up to the perceived expectations that I thought were necessary to be a worthy part of society. Nobody is perfect. Brokenness surrounds us. No matter what we look like or who we are, no one is immune from the sorrows, desolation, anger, shame, self doubt, fear, and all the emptiness that comes with being human.

I was told my whole life to hide those parts of myself. Being emotionally exposed and vulnerable was a sign of weakness in my household. The same was true in the outside world. So I built a facade of constant happiness and perfection. I got straight A’s, was the president of clubs, worked a job, dated the prettiest girl, and did everything I could to personify preeminence despite being exhausted.

By the time I got to my senior year of high school, I was burnt out–– being the model child was no longer sustainable. I thought college would be a great way for me to start over. In many ways it has been, but when I first arrived to UNC, I was still doing it. I was striving to have this picture-perfect life that was completely unattainable, thanks to the ideas of what I thought a successful college career would look like.

Entering freshman year, it was really hard to enjoy my life to the fullest. As a Black, first generation, college student, I felt that I needed to prove my worthiness for being at this university–– as if getting accepted wasn’t enough. I felt so much pressure to have a 4.0, have the most extensive network, and stand-out in all of my courses. On top of that I also wanted to fit in and have a successful social life, which to me meant avoiding the ‘freshman 15’, going on fun trips I couldn’t afford, and being the life of the party. It was overwhelming trying to make all of this work and prove that I belonged.

Figuring out this new world was painful, and eventually I could no longer control the pieces of the story I was trying to curate.

Freshman year was hard for everyone. We were thrown into the big bad world and told to figure it out. For me, it exposed a lot of these issues I am bringing up now. My worth was deeply tied to being liked and receiving the approval of others. Sadly, I held on to that mentality for a good chunk of my first year at Carolina. Eventually this way of thinking and the stress of college led to some disordered eating behaviors and mental health issues.

For the first time, I saw the way that years of perfectionism and people pleasing had impacted my self-worth and well-being. My emotional pain had manifested into something physical and tangible. I was hurting and most people would have never known.

I am not the stereotypical person to have experienced something like disordered eating or an eating disorder. Society has taught us that this is an issue that is only seen in thin, white girls from the suburbs. That is far from the truth.

According to studies, Black teenagers are 50% more likely than white teenagers to exhibit bulimic behavior, such as binging and purging.

Black folk, especially Black women, experience the brunt of diet culture— the set of beliefs that values thinness, appearance, and shape above health & well-being.

Our society has rejected and shamed Black bodies for centuries. Author and advocate Sabrina String delves into the racist roots of fatphobia in her book, “Fearing the Black Body”, where you can get further context on the matter. Even a quick Google search of “The racist origins of diet culture” will give you a plethora of information.

While many people may not know or be aware of the ways that diet culture is inherently anti-black, the Diet Industry is well aware that dieting is a completely ridiculous and harmful concept.

Studies show 95% of diets fail long term, and most of the people who do go on diets end up having issues controlling their weight as time goes on. Humans simply weren’t meant to go on diets. We are born into the bodies we have, and they are hard at work doing so many different things to keep us alive and healthy. Our bodies are so intentionally designed, and the way that they look is primarily based on genetics.

The diet industry has conditioned us to believe that we can manipulate our bodies by restricting food and exercising constantly–– they sell it as “being healthy” and “bettering yourself”, even though the science says something completely different.

We are born intuitive eaters and restricting the foods we eat can have devastating mental and physical impacts on our bodies. Studies show that when we restrict the foods we want to eat, we later obsess over them and will eventually binge them when we finally cave in to our desires.

Just think about the last time that you didn’t allow yourself to do something. Maybe you didn’t let yourself get on TikTok or eat a certain sweet–– you probably spent hours on your phone or ate way past fullness when you finally gave rein to your wants.

When we allow ourselves to indulge our cravings and satisfy our hunger, we don’t obsess over food or binge on them later. This is a small part of being in tune with your hunger and eating cues.

Which can be really difficult when we live in a diet culture world–– our body cues become numb and dull over time. We feel shame for eating foods we enjoy, but have been told aren't good for us. We begin to feel insecure and out of touch with who we are.

That was the case for me my freshman year.

I had been fed so many lies by diet culture

–– that I needed to avoid gaining weight, maintain a lean, muscular physique, and cut out desserts and other foods I really enjoyed.

This took me down a dark path where I began to feel insecure about my body. My insecurities would amplify when I was around my friends–– I’d begin to compare my plate and body to the folks around me at meal times. I always felt like I wasn’t doing enough. Eventually, I would stop eating with friends all together because eating meals with other people caused me so much stress.

The way I coped with this anxiety was extremely unhealthy. I knew it, no matter how badly I wanted to hold on to the voices in my head saying otherwise. One day, I took a leap of faith and got some help by going into CAPS (Counseling and Psychological Services).

It was really hard. I never thought that I would be in such a low place, but it made sense. I was in a new city, doing rigorous coursework, and taking care of myself for the first time. Starting adulthood is hard, and I had no map for figuring it out.

When I started going to therapy, I made lots of these discoveries. I started to understand why I was feeling and behaving the way I did. I learned more about my perfectionism and the ways that it manifested in my life. Learning these things and becoming more aware of myself was the enlightenment that I needed.

I also began to see a nutritionist, which helped me a lot. It was there that I learned to be compassionate with myself… weird thing to learn with a nutritionist, I know. However, it was during my nutrition sessions where I learned that I didn’t need to agonize over the meals I was eating or what my body looked like. I actually began to appreciate and accept my body exactly as it is.

I later learned more about intuitive eating, which helped me trust my body and regain so much confidence that I had lost during my freshman year.

When I began listening to my body and treating my body with respect, I felt so empowered and alive.

It was clear to see–– it showed itself in my relationships, in school, and in my sport.

I was no longer obsessed over if people really liked being my friend, I was content with myself. I was no longer agonizing over grades, I knew that didn’t define my worth. I was now excelling at cheer, I trusted my body to do crazy skills that I had trained for.

These were the most momentous years of my life. They set the foundation for the person that I want to be and the future I hope to have. I have learned so many lessons and so much has been uncovered, but there are two things that have really stuck with me from this time.

The first being that we are beautiful. Each and every person who roams this planet was crafted with purpose and elegance. Our beauty goes so much further than the surface. The intricacies of the human body, the way we function- it’s all PURPOSEFUL. We are each unique and have our abilities that fuel our passions and enable us to make the world a richer and better place.

The second thing is with purpose comes priority. When I embraced that my needs were important and that I deserved to be happy and healthy–– my whole world changed. I no longer sacrificed my own well being for the sake of others or what others thought. I was living my life for me, which looks completely different than someone else. This shift in perspective has made the world of difference for me, and it will always be a guiding principle in my life.

Finally, I will leave you with a quote by activist, Malala Yousafzai, that has fully encapsulated the lessons I have learned: “We human beings don't realize how great God is. He has given us an extraordinary brain and a sensitive loving heart. He has blessed us with two lips to talk and express our feelings, two eyes which see a world of colours and beauty, two feet which walk on the road of life, two hands to work for us, and two ears to hear the words of love.”

- Markie McRae


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