Misleading Marketing: the sh*tty truth about diet culture

11 minutes to read
Paper
Jitske Verhagen
21/09/2021

In this article, we hone in on the new diet culture phenomenon – dieting through nutrient restriction, focusing in particular on diet tea companies and their marketing strategies which are mostly found on social media.

For as long as we can remember, society has been concerned with how the body should look. After all, as Foucauldian philosophy suggests: the body is where all modern structures of power converge. As such, diet culture is hard to miss. However, what exactly is it? And what does contemporary diet culture tell us about the impact of social media on the body as an index of identity according to Foucauldian philosophy?

What is diet culture?

Contemporary diet culture is most saliently reflected in the enforcement of ideas that there are "clean" diets and "dirty" diets, demonizing the regular diet that contains carbohydrates, fat, and processed foods, and promoting a diet involving whole and unprocessed foods (Tippins, 2020). This has led people to believe that eating processed foods and carbs shows a lack of self-control and the ability to make good food choices. However, the idea of clean eating can be harmful as it promotes extreme diets that lack sufficient nutrition (McCabe, 2020). Beyond clean eating, diet culture also promotes "detoxing", which refers to a diet containing foods (such as teas) that are claimed to remove toxins from one's body, and which promotes limiting food consumption to avoid taking in any more toxins (McCabe, 2020).

Body weight and health are now clearly at the centre of moral discourse

The knowledge produced in discourses on body weight has many facets, from the discussion about health, where the unfit body is generally viewed as unhealthy, to those about beauty, where the unfit body is often seen as ugly and undesirable. As such, diet culture equates size to health, creating a system that evaluates body sizes and enforces rules about what, when, and how much one should eat. This happens more so for the sake of abiding by normative expectations about bodyweight and size rather than considering health or self-care. Though the scientific approach can appear free from bias, discourses on body weight are not neutral. The “perfect body” is created as a goal that can be achieved through self-discipline and willpower, and the “unhealthy” or unfit body becomes deviant. Bodyweight and health are now clearly at the center of moral discourse, suggesting that people's body size is a reflection of their morality, leading to oppression based on weight (Chastain, 2020). How much we weigh is an index of our identity, thin people are “an exemplar of mastery of mind over body and virtuous self-denial" (Crawford 1984 p.70), whereas the unfit are seen as irresponsible, lazy, or weak. It should also be noted that diet culture is often focused on the female body.

The current diet culture embodies "biopower", a term coined by Michel Foucault to describe a power that is not imposed by one group on another but instead manifests itself in our everyday life, our daily routines, and in the ways we surveil and discipline ourselves. This power, according to Foucault, is not repressive but instead operates through the production of knowledge, and the discourse surrounding it, which creates norms that we want to abide by. We subjugate ourselves, creating docile bodies, not because of repressive forces, but because of a desire to conform in order to not be seen asdeviant (Foucault, 2004). Knowledge and power are inseparable as the knowledge produced influences, and even controls our behaviours. As such, knowledge is by no means neutral according to Foucault, but is a tool to manufacture the types of bodies that society needs.

Online manifestations of diet culture

Figure 1: "What I Eat in a Day" TikTok video from a model

Diet culture is omnipresent online, predominantly on big social media platforms. On TikTok, the trend "What I eat in a day" has arisen which are videos showing what people eat for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and as snacks (see Figure 1). However, there are different voices present in the discourse on this subject. In her YouTube video TikTok's Toxic Diet Culture Needs to be Stopped", Natacha Océane (2020) points out how the intake of calories shown in these videos often only adds up to half the recommended amount. This has led to an eating disorder unique to our time. Orthorexia builds its foundations on the obsession with being healthy via nutrient or food restriction.

Some researchers have been led to believe that western cultural influences concerning wellness and body ideals are the cause of this new eating disorder (Tippins, 2020). Furthermore, videos of people showing their toned bodies are causing insecurity amongst young women on TikTok. They compare their own bodies to those of others online and consequently feel guilty about their eating habits. This has led to the rise of products such as "metabolism drops" and "slim kits" that are claimed to help people lose weight (Océane, 2020). Additionally, body transformation videos frequently go viral, showing pictures of people before and after weight loss (McCabe, 2020). These videos have a competitive nature and are perpetuating unhealthy weight loss methods. 

 

On Instagram, it is mostly influencers who promote diet culture. Take, for instance, the Kardashian-Jenners, a family that continuously promotes diets, workout advice, and weight loss/workout products. Every time a Kardashian, or any other influencer for that matter, shares their ‘healthy’ lifestyle or ‘perfect body’, such discourse about the body becomes a source of knowledge, contributing to the creation of norms people try to adhere to. This becomes a problem when the products promoted by influencers turn out to be damaging to one’s health. A case in point is celebrity Kylie Jenner, who has promoted products such as detox teas multiple times on her Instagram.

Medical and consumer opinions

Detox teas have been proven time and time again to have harmful effects on consumers. As Dr. Chloe Hall tells The Independent, “Detox teas often contain senna, which is a laxative.” According to Rhiannon Lambert, Harley Street nutritionist, “[w]hile this loss of bulk can make you feel and look slimmer short term, it has no impact on fat loss, because calories from food are absorbed in your small intestine long before it gets to the colon. […] Senna should only be for very short term use but these detox teas suggest long term stints and repetition which is worrying.”  

This laxative effect – the key to the effect of lightness – is potentially dangerous, with multiple reviewers complaining of severe cramping and pain. “I had a really bad, like, cramping, and stomach ache, so that kind of is like, a side effect to it, after a couple days I feel like I got used to it'' Courtney Wohl says in her own YouTube review of Skinny Teatox. A need to regulate one's body and to “confess” what one “should” or “should not” have done through product reviews and social media posts, as well as a worrying willingness to cause oneself pain and – in the case of senna-ridden “detox” teas – potential long-term damage to achieve what is seen as a societal ideal is exemplified through the trend of these teas. So, what is it about these teas that make people still want to buy them so badly?

Marketing that draws you in

Brands that produce skinny teas have perfected online marketing strategies. On Instagram, circa 2015, no one could escape an ad or sponsored post on their feed about FitTea and such. Celebrities like Kylie Jenner, Vanessa Hudgens, Victoria Justice, and FruityPoppin have all promoted weight loss products, and in particular weight-loss teas.

Among companies such as Skinny Bunny, FitTea, SkinnyMe Tea, and SkinnyTea, there are a few common denominators when it comes to marketing. They are very much advertised towards women; pictures on the website itself, as well as on Instagram seem to feature almost entirely of women. A number of buzzwords occur repeatedly in all advertising. These buzzwords are meant to impress and draw the customer in, without actually providing information (Marketing Terms, 2018). Across all four websites mentioned above, words such as organic, detox, natural, and cleanse are promoted on products and listed as effects from drinking the tea. “Detox” teas, for example, have been proven time and time again to have no such effect. “The body has a natural detoxification system that eliminates toxins and harmful compounds. […] There hasn’t been any evidence regarding detox teas that these would flush toxins out of the body” MedicineNet states.

However, the most interesting component of these brands’ marketing is in their phrasing, as well as how they frame weight loss in general.

Weight loss is shaped as the ultimate solution to one's life and equated to health. On SkinnyMe Tea’s Instagram page, for example, there are a large number of images centered around a luxurious lifestyle spread out between images promoting their products. These images associate luxurious living with losing weight and being skinny, as shown in Figure 2 below. The use of words like ‘cleanse’ and detox’ implies that bodies are dirty and need to be cleaned in order to be healthy and perfect. Thus, according to weight loss companies, being skinny and clean equates to having a quality lifestyle; the perfect body allows you to have a quality life as part of your identity.

Weight loss is shaped as the ultimate solution to one's life and equated to health

Consumers are therefore urged to be irrational when they are buying these products. Character traits such as self-disciplined, healthy, and sexual appeal are deliberately associated with products of consumption, which, in this case, are the weight-loss teas consumed by people who want to become skinny.

Figure 2: Example of an Instagram post linking fitness to luxury by SMT Teatox

Vaguely truthful

The infamous before and after pictures are featured prominently on the homepage of SkinnyTea, Skinny Bunny, and SkinnyMe Tea (see Figure 3). They present (primarily) women before and after presumingly having used a certain weight loss product provided by the company. The shocking difference between the two pictures is what draws one in, while in reality, this is only a fragment of the truth since essential information is sometimes left out. Throughout their websites, there are implications for how their products will change users’ life. These claims are never made outright, but the disclaimers leave a lot to be desired (as shown in Figure 4). Similarly, although the teas are advertised as a weight-loss product, almost all products include a guide on proper exercise and diet for consumers to achieve satisfying results.

Figure 3: Before and After photo from a Skinny Tea customer

Trendie Techie details one particular experience with weight loss teas where the other factors are explicitly mentioned. After a brief sentence on the benefits noticed from the 14 days Teatox, comes the ultimate disclaimer: “That said, I started the teatox a few days after I moved into my new apartment, which has changed my lifestyle pretty significantly. I’ve been doing yoga every day and actually getting enough sleep, so those could also be contributing factors” (Trendie Techie, 2015). The hidden disclaimers and before and after pictures shape a misleading truth that leads potential buyers to believe that their body dictates how successful their life is.

And yet, such fragmented “knowledge” is repeated and enforced throughout everyday life through sponsored videos and social media algorithms, turning into truth without regard to the information more disguised by the brands. This again falls under Foucault’s idea of “Biopower”, where the knowledge produced become norms for shaping the body in society, and in the capitalist system in which the norms originate. The “success” portrayed in before and after pictures lead to dissatisfaction with bodies that are believed to be “deviant”, reinforcing the norms regarding body weight/size and at the same time contributing to the sales of dietary products like diet teas.

Figure 4: Disclaimer from a Skinny Bunny review, which details that exercise and a proper diet are needed in addition to using the detox teas.

The obsession with confession

Whilst these before and after pictures are prominently presented as success stories on the companies' websites and social media, they are usually not manufactured by these companies but posted by their customers on their own accord. Individuals feel the need not only to conform to societal norms but also to confess any deviation from these norms as well as their successes in abiding by them. Self-regulation and surveillance go hand in hand in these customer reviews, with consumers reporting the results of their self-regulation under the surveillance of "innumerable points of our lives which exercise power" (Foucault 1978 P. 94) using a plethora of technologies made for the purpose of self-monitoring. From the weight shown on their bathroom scale to their mirror images and photography, published to the panopticon of social media and featured on company websites.

The final verdict

All things considered, weight-loss teas are an established component of the diet culture which can be understood through Foucault’s perspectives on biopower and self-subjugation, as well as that of the body being an index of identity. A discourse on body weight is not just about health but about a person’s morality, often creating the overweight as the “deviant”, the undesirable “before”. Companies weaponize this fear of being deviant to encourage customers to buy their products. Weight-loss teas are advertised as the solve-all to a problem the companies create. They are further bolstered through social media, popularised by influencers, customer reviews, and “health” related trends. 

In conclusion, it is vital to promote education about health and weight that reflects the reality of the connection between them without the unnecessary and harmful judgement of people’s value. It may not be health at every size, but it sure is value at every size.

References

Chastain, R. N. A. (2019, May 2). Recognizing and resisting diet culture. National Eating Disorders Association

Courtney Wohl. (2016, March 15). Skinny Teatox review + before & after | Worth the hype?! | Courtney Lundquist [Video]. YouTube

Crawford, R., & McKinlay, J. (1984). Issues in the political economy of health care. Control.

Foucault, M., & Burchell, G. (2004). Abnormal: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1974–1975 (Michel Foucault Lectures at the Collège de France, 4) (First ed.). Picador.

Foucault, M. & Hurley, R. (1978). The History of Sexuality: An introduction. Adfo Books.

Jacob, D. (2020, December 9). Do detox teas really work? MedicineNet

Marketing Terms. (2018, December 31). What is a buzzword? - Definition & information 

McCabe, M. (2020, October 21). Combatting diet culture on social media. VALLEY Magazine

Natacha Océane. (2020, May 27). TikTok’s toxic diet culture needs to be stopped [Video]

Petter, O. (2017, September 14). Senna: Why detox teas containing this ingredient are dangerous. The Independent

Pylypa, J. (1998). Power and Bodily Practice: Applying the Work of Foucault to an Anthropology of the Body. Arizona Anthropologist, 13, 21–36

Tippins, A. (2020, February 10). How social media feeds diet culture. Body Symmetry MD

Trendie Techie. (2015, July 20). My experience with the Skinny Teatox. Trendy Techie