Nicholas Sanchez Zarkos

Nicholas Sanchez-Zarkos is a junior at Olentangy Liberty High School in Powell, Ohio and was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He plans on studying psychology or education in college and spends his time writing and acting. He is a writer for his schools’ news site and participated in the Kenyon Review Young Writers Workshop this past summer.

Diet Culture: What High Schoolers Experience

I asked my school about their experiences and opinions surrounding diet culture. I learned that the majority of the students I polled had many encounters with diet culture throughout their lives.

We’ve all been there, whether it’s skipping dessert before a vacation or stopping ourselves from eating the last cookie. Many high schoolers, myself included, can relate in at least some way to participating in what many call “diet culture.”

But what is diet culture and how does it impact the lives of high schoolers? 

To find out, I asked students at my school about their personal experiences and opinions surrounding the topic.

When I asked high-school students what diet culture means to them, I expected many people to ask me what diet culture was, or say that they hadn’t had much exposure to it. I was taken aback, however, when I learned that the majority of the students I polled have had many encounters with diet culture throughout their lives.

Four out of the ten students I interviewed admitted to thinking, at some time in their lives, that they weren’t “good enough” if they didn’t fit the body-image ideal that others around them did. This internal belief of having lower self-worth because of image or weight is common among teens today. 

While diet culture meant something different to every student, I noticed some similar stigmas and relationships with food and dieting that many high-school students shared.

Other students expressed that diet culture promotes certain ways of eating or exercising while discouraging other foods by referring to them as “unhealthy” or even “shameful.” Many believe that it is likely that students will be judged for what they are bringing to and eating at school or around peers and classmates. One male student admitted to only eating the foods he considered unhealthy or fattening when he got home from school, rather than at the lunch table. 

The next question I asked was about how school-provided food affects diet culture and the way high schoolers eat and feel about eating. Though every school provides their students with different foods, I was interested in how my school and others like it impact the way kids feel about their diets.

A majority of the students I interviewed believe that our school promotes positive eating habits and healthy diets. Students explained that many of the foods that our school offers come at a reduced price if bought in conjunction with healthy food items, like fruits or vegetables. 

Other students expressed that many of the foods that were available for purchase at school are made fresh and come with your choice of different fruits or vegetables. The prices of healthy foods are often less than the prices of foods with more calories and carbohydrates. Packaged foods and beverages, like chips and sugary drinks, are also usually sold in reduced-fat versions.

Most students were in agreement: Schools can be helpful in providing positive examples of and promoting healthy eating.

Of the students I polled, nine out of ten use some form of social media. Although each student follows and uses social media for different purposes, each student has had similar experiences with diet culture on social media.

One student told me that she’s become accustomed to celebrities and influencers on social media “showing off ‘ideal’ bodies and habits,” which makes her feel discouraged and unattractive. “I used to scroll and see pictures of vacations or family gatherings, but it sometimes seems [like] all of my social media is women showing off skinny bodies.” 

Other students had similar stories. Many of the high schoolers I interviewed told me that social media was full of ads and promotions for diets, apps, and foods promising a thinner or more muscular body. Some said they had even seen examples of cyberbullying or discrimination toward people who didn’t demonstrate or conform to someone’s ideal of “beauty” or “health.”

Though each student had different experiences with social media, it became clear to me that, for many high schoolers, social media is often a place where diet culture negatively impacts how teens see themselves and a place where there is discrimination against anyone without the “ideal” body.

Since much of my interviewing focused on the negative implications of diet culture, I wanted to end my questions with ways that high schoolers can positively impact diet culture for the world around them. Students had many interesting ideas on how to make our culture around food a more inclusive and reinforcing environment for high schoolers everywhere.

“Don’t let others’ habits control yours,” Abby, a junior at my high school, said. 

Many teens change what they eat or do based on what they witness their friends or peers doing, in order to feel accepted or “normal.”

Most of the students that I interviewed believe that in order to favorably impact diet culture moving forward, high schoolers have to focus on their own diets and bodies and stop comparing themselves to others. Social media, the internet, and even peers can cause high schoolers to feel criticized and “unequal” because of their own bodies and habits. In order to become more comfortable with ourselves, one student said that we need to “consume healthy foods, not negative attitudes.”

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