The Mighty Takeaway: Should Demi Lovato Have Called Out a Yogurt Shop for Triggering Her Eating Disorder?
Sometimes the news isn’t as straightforward as it’s made to seem. Today, Mighty Super Contributors explain what to keep in mind if you see this topic or similar stories in your newsfeed. This is The Mighty Takeaway.
Demi Lovato is known for being an open mental health advocate, using her lived experience and platform to shed light on topics that are typically considered taboo.
Recently, she faced backlash after taking to Instagram to criticize how some sugar-free food options were presented by a small frozen yogurt restaurant in Los Angeles, saying they could be triggering to those living with eating disorders.
Her biggest critique was that the offerings were promoting diet culture, and she created the hashtag #dietculturevulture to go along with her post. The accused yogurt restaurant responded, saying they were not preying on diet culture, but were trying to accommodate different health concerns. This whole interaction started a flurry of conversation on social media. On Tuesday, Demi apologized on her Instagram.
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While Demi had good intentions, her comments did cause a bit of a stir. The Mighty decided to reach out to some of our Super Contributors who have lived experience with eating disorders to hear their thoughts on the situation.
Today, we’re hearing Mighty Takeaways from Mae, Ashley Nestler, Amelia Blackwater and Kelly Douglas. Let us know your take in the comments below, and join our Recovery Warriors community to give and get support.
1. Do you agree with Demi’s original stance that this yogurt shop is pushing diet culture by offering sugar-free options and “other diet foods”?
Mae: When I heard about Demi’s original stance, I was angered. I do not agree with her when she says the store is pushing diet culture, as it’s simply providing alternatives for people with other conditions. I think that she came down a bit hard without hearing their side of the story. I feel like there could have been alternative approaches to the situation, such as approaching the store to ask them their intentions with alternative options or offering other ways of labeling the items, rather than jumping to the conclusion that the store is pushing diet culture.
Kelly: No, I don’t agree. Even though they can be an eating disorder trigger, sugar-free items aren’t necessarily “diet foods.” They serve a purpose — allowing people with complex health needs, like diabetes, the opportunity to enjoy foods they may miss out on otherwise. Marketing is everything as well — sugar-free options would only perpetuate diet culture if they’re labeled “guilt-free.” Phrases like “guilt-free” say nothing about the product itself and are rooted in diet culture; phrases like “sugar-free” are simply qualifiers that provide necessary information.
Ashley: This is an incredibly difficult question to answer. I don’t think the store is pushing diet culture by offering sugar-free options because they are want to cater to individuals with different dietary needs. Diet culture, on the other hand, has become so ingrained in our culture that it has become part of the norm. The store’s offerings may be a part of diet culture, but I do not think they are pushing diet culture by offering a variety of foods for different dietary needs and preferences. They are a small business trying to serve a diverse customer base.
Amelia: Yes, I agree with Demi’s original stance. I feel that companies around this time specifically market sugar-free options during the springtime and summertime in strategic places in their stores. While wording has changed from diet to sugar-free, the diet culture feeling is still there. It is promising that you don’t have to feel guilty if you indulge in a cookie. I believe it is possible to market foods in other ways if they are intended for those with food sensitivities.
“Diet culture, on the other hand, has become so ingrained in our culture that it has become part of the norm.”
2. About 28.8 million Americans will have an eating disorder in their lifetime, and it’s known to be one of the deadliest mental health conditions. On one hand, places that sell food should make sure any marketing in their store isn’t damaging to people with eating disorders. On the other, people need to be responsible and aware of their triggers and navigate the world with that consciousness. Where do you fall in that argument?
Mae: I hear both sides of the argument. I think companies can create clearer labels for specialty items, such as sugar-free options or gluten-free options, making it clear that they are intended for individuals with certain conditions. I avoid saying that these options are “health” foods, though, as that can contribute to diet culture by promoting dieting and eating healthier foods. I also think we can be better about working on our struggles in therapy and treatment. Assumptions can be dangerous and as individuals, we have a duty to make sure we don’t jump to them too quickly in any given situation.
Kelly: If companies truly use diet culture-informed marketing to appeal to their customers, they’re responsible for advertising their products in a more inclusive way, but that isn’t the case in Demi’s situation. Diet culture wasn’t directly at play here, so it’s up to patrons of this shop who may feel triggered to utilize coping skills to navigate the challenges they may face. If customers with eating disorders can reasonably expect that they’d be unable to cope in particular locations, they should ideally work with a professional until they have mastered the skills to safely navigate these spaces.
Ashley: I absolutely agree that grocery stores and food companies need to be more aware of their marketing and how diet culture negatively impacts individuals with eating disorders and often influences disordered eating. However, diet culture is a part of our society, and it is the responsibility of those recovering from eating disorders to identify their triggers and learn coping skills to navigate daily life — including myself. There is a way to take responsibility for your triggers while also fighting diet culture without attacking small businesses that are trying to serve a wide range of individuals. It is the responsibility of those of us with eating disorders to manage our triggers, but it is also the responsibility of companies to acknowledge the harm that diet culture causes in order to change their marketing accordingly.
Amelia: While in a sense we are responsible for our triggers, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t hold society and diet culture especially accountable for its actions. At the height of my eating disorder when I was a teen and in my early 20’s, diet culture was everywhere. It was easy for me to find inspiration and fuel for my disorder. In recent years, I believe more people have become aware of how diet culture has contributed to the prevalence of eating disorders, and they intend to do better. Yet, I still see it. I see diet culture masked as “healthy living” or those same triggering magazines by the checkout counter that say “so and so lost this much weight with this diet.” Or seeing the sugar-free cookies and the diet bars on my way up to the counter. I don’t purposely go out of my way to go to the magazine aisle to look at the magazines that might trigger me. I don’t purposely go to the diet foods aisle, but when those foods are placed or marketed in ways that are purposely trying to promote the idea that I must be on a diet or skinny than yes, it is the company and it is their responsibility to do better.
“While in a sense we are responsible for our triggers, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t hold society and diet culture especially accountable for its actions.”
3. The intersection of diet culture and food accommodations is not something I often hear about — but it’s a conversation being highlighted by this situation. Someone with diabetes may need a sugar-free option, but seeing “sugar-free” could definitely be a trigger for someone who lives with an eating disorder. It’s also complicated if you fit into both those intersections. How do you feel these intersections play off of each other?
Mae: Diet culture and food accommodations are an interesting intersection of our society. I think the current labeling we have is a major contribution to the difficulties of this intersection. Using labels such as “sugar-free” can be triggering, as it can give off the idea that something is healthier than another option. In my struggle with my eating disorder, I gravitated towards health foods as the only safe options to eat. Labels such as “gluten-free” and “vegan” came across as healthier and safe options, and I began categorizing my food choices in this way. This fed the eating disorder and made it that much more difficult to navigate the world. In this sense, I think wording can really help to make sure that we work towards a more inclusive experience in the grocery store.
Kelly: The intersections of health conditions like diabetes and mental illnesses like eating disorders are highly complex. People with diabetes and people with eating disorders may have different needs in terms of food products. As someone with an eating disorder, I’ve found some types of food labeling triggering, but I understand and respect that certain clientele need the same product information that triggers me. Catering to the needs of a variety of patrons is a delicate balance, especially if you consider conditions like diabulimia, but it’s important to remember that people with eating disorders can access coping skills while people with physical health conditions may simply need products that meet their needs.
Ashley: This is a loaded question. But as someone with an eating disorder who also has food sensitivities, I can say that my eating disorder has taken advantage of my food sensitivities in the past. There is a fine line between honoring your dietary needs while also recovering from an eating disorder. However, it is possible, and having the food options you personally need available is a huge step in being able to manage both conditions.
Amelia: As someone who has a lot of food allergies but also has a history of an eating disorder, I tend to walk into too many health food places and restaurants that gear toward those with food sensitivities. Living in Southern California like Demi, these “healthy living” places are everywhere and it’s hard to distinguish between what is geared towards food sensitivities and what is really just diet culture in disguise. Although sugar-free is not as triggering to me personally as seeing the word diet on something, I have to admit I still often gravitate toward a “sugar-free” option not because of a health concern but because of a promise that I will stay thin. I believe Demi had a wonderful suggestion of labeling snacks instead of sugar-free, maybe diabetic-friendly, just as you would label other snacks celiac or vegan-friendly.
My eating disorder has taken advantage of my food sensitivities in the past. There is a fine line between honoring your dietary needs while also recovering from an eating disorder.
4. As of April 20, 2021, Demi Lovato has apologized for her comments, saying, “I am very outspoken about the things that I believe in. I understand that sometimes my messaging can lose its meaning when I get emotional. I am human.” There are a lot of people who did agree with her initial stance that she took over the weekend. What do you think is important for Demi and people who feel the same way to remember as we continue this conversation around diet culture and its serious and harmful impact?
Mae: I appreciate the apology Demi shared regarding her actions the other day. I think it is important to keep in mind that everybody has different triggers and to step back and reflect on your own triggers before assuming anything about someone’s actions. I think it’s important to be aware of the word choices we use in daily conversation as words can be impactful and can cause unintended harm to some. Furthermore, I think it’s important to check ourselves and remember to stay grounded in our rational thought before getting caught up in our emotions. I think gut reactions are valid and appropriate but especially with such a large platform and impactful voice, one small action can have unintended consequences.
Kelly: Respect is the most important part of anti-diet culture advocacy. Respecting those with other health conditions, taking personal responsibility for your responses to triggers and presenting concerns about diet culture messaging in a tactful way is crucial to helping people understand the nuances of diet culture messaging and its negative effects on all of us. When you lead with respect, you allow your message to be taken seriously and potentially change the way others view diet culture.
Ashley: I am a huge fan of Demi Lovato, and I admire her passionate stance against diet culture and her promotion of body positivity. I understand where she is coming from with her anger at diet culture and how it affects the grocery shopping experience for those of us with eating disorders, as grocery shopping is often traumatic for me as well. I think it’s big of her to apologize for her comments that attacked a small business for something that is so much bigger than them. I would just say we need to acknowledge how big diet culture is and how it affects just about every aspect of our lives. It is because of this we shouldn’t blame small businesses for trying to cater to a wide variety of individuals. I think it’s important that we fight diet culture in a way that acknowledges how this culture influences the offerings of businesses and various companies, while also educating others on why certain offerings are harmful to some individuals. This situation just proves how vital these conversations are in our society, and I think that the conversation started by Demi — no matter what your stance is on what she said — is a stepping stone in creating change.
Amelia: Although Demi’s original call-out on the small business seemed harsh, it is an important take on diet culture and how it impacts us and those who deal with eating disorders. The only reason her comments felt harsh was that the particular place was a small business and not a large corporate entity and Demi used her influence to call them out. However, just because this store is a small business owned does not mean that they can’t do better and it should not exclude them from being called out. We need to hold companies accountable when they are feeding into diet culture. As someone who has both food sensitivities and a history of an eating disorder, I would love to see a change in these small businesses and companies that claim to be in the “healthy food” area but are still marketing a diet culture vibe. It can be very triggering for those with prior eating disorders.
“I think the conversation started by Demi — no matter what your stance is on what she said — is a stepping stone in creating change.”
5. Do you have any final thoughts?
Mae: While it is unfortunate the way the recent series of events played out, I think it is important to recognize that this opens the door to difficult conversations about diet culture and food sensitivities and accommodations. Rather than attack each side when things get difficult, I think it’s time to hear each side out. Start the conversation, have those difficult conversations. When both sides are heard, progress can be made towards creating a more inclusive environment for all.
Kelly: Although I disagree with Demi Lovato’s handling of this situation overall, I’m glad she apologized and hope she’ll consider people with other health conditions in her advocacy in the future.
Ashley: Diet culture is often toxic, but it is vital that those of us with eating disorders acknowledge our triggers in relation to diet culture, while also finding the appropriate time and place to call out this culture and inspire change. Demi did not have to name the business she felt triggered in. She could have made a comment about how grocery shopping was traumatic for her with an explanation as to why, without calling out a small business that could be deeply harmed by her large influence. It is important to remember that we are all affected by diet culture, whether we think so or not, and education is always better than accusations. Fighting diet culture is often a slippery slope, but we can all learn how to fight the negative impacts of this culture through trial and error.
At the end of the day, diet culture is pervasive. It sneaks up on us on social media, when we’re shopping and even when we visit our homes and families. When you live with an eating disorder, diet culture can become that much more dangerous and even deadly.
We want your thoughts! How does diet culture impact you? How do you think companies can play a better role in dismantling diet culture? What support do you need?
Comment below or tweet your answer with the hashtag #MightyTakeaways!
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Image credit via Demi Lovato’s Instagram