Eating without shame Overcoming 'diet culture'


By Claudia Meléndez Salinas

Hortencia Jiménez is one of those rare women who doesn’t need two hours daily at the gym, or to starve herself to death, to be thin. Jimenez, a Hartnell College professor, attributes her slender physique to her Wixárika roots, the Indigenous group that has made its home in Central Mexico for thousands of years, where she was born.

Being thin in this weight-obsessed culture is a gift many admire and desperately seek, so one would think that Jiménez, who was brought to the United States when she was 5 years old, would be on the receiving end of endless praise and accolades.

Not quite, she said.

“I was shamed always by my physical appearance,” Jimenez said recently.

“I got called a lot of things: ojeruda (racoon eyes), you need to do x, y and z to look good. An aunt told me I should not be wearing (bright) colors because I’m dark-skinned. I feel I had the presence of Huicholes indígenas in me, but I could not embrace it because my light-skinned aunt shamed me.”

Jiménez developed an unhealthy relationship with food that she began to resolve when she became pregnant with her first child, an ongoing meditation on what food and eating healthy means that has lasted 14 years. During the pandemic, as she joined Instagram and began seeing endless posts offering fad diets juxtaposed with posts about health and wellness, she noticed the perspective of Latinas was rarely represented. She believes the perspective is desperately needed, particularly during the holidays when food is front and center.


Hortencia Jiménez holding a platter of nopales, an ancient foodstuff of the Americas | Provided photo

“I was frustrated at not being represented and not being part of those conversations with our own topics that affect our communities,” she said, “specifically the fact that Latinos are shamed for their food choices. That’s one. The other discussion is eating healthy without taking any consideration of people’s access to resources. Slowly I’ve been talking about these issues with the intersection of race and class. I also talk about gender oppression. My focus is to dismantle diet culture, and to dismantle diet culture is to identify what diet culture is.”

You may have never heard of the term “diet culture” but you’re surrounded by it and you’ll know it when you see it. The Diet Culture in the United States, the idea that women need to be thin to be attractive, often assigns traditional Latino food staples such as tortillas and tamales in the “unhealthy” category. Too carby for keto. Too lardy for your cholesterol.

It’s a diet culture that Jiménez, who has a Ph.D in sociology from the University of Texas at Austin, considers oppressive and rooted in white supremacy. It’s the idea that women of color have to look like slender white women to be considered good-looking. It’s an idea that costs women thousands of dollars in diets that seldom work.

According to the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics, 17 percent of adults in the United States ages 20 and over were on a special diet on any given day between 2015 and 2018. More women than men were on these diets, and the most commonly reported diets were low calorie or to lose weight.

Residents of the United States spend an estimated $33 billion in weight-loss products each year, their consumption increasing in the early months of each year. Yet nearly two-thirds of people in the country are overweight or obese.

Another side effect of the “diet culture” is body shaming, Jimenez said; Women are shamed for how they look, for not achieving the ideal waif status when they go on diets.  But there’s also the shaming for food choices (are you really going to eat those chalupas fried with lard? Did you know tortillas have lots of carbs?)

Jiménez has embarked on an ambitious plan to change all that, one Instagram post at a time.


Hortencia Jiménez holding a plate of blue corn tacos | Provided photo

“I’m educating the virtual community from a sociological perspective and as a health coach I’m talking about what is diet culture and that diet culture moves beyond the wellness industry,” she said. “It’s rooted in this country’s history of white supremacism, of colonialism, of capitalism. I look up to Black nutritionists and dietitians who are really paving the way in these discussions from a social and racial framework.”

Jiménez Instagram is chock-full of culture and advice, both in English and Spanish. As in: “In a society where women, especially women of color, are expected to shrink and not take space, diet culture thrives,” she writes in her most recent post. “This needs to stop. It begins with the awareness and understanding that diets don’t work.”

So what’s Jiménez’s advice for these times?  Embrace food — and your body — without shame. They are one and the same — we are what we eat, as the saying goes. Body shaming is a staple at every table, but while people have choices about what they consume, they should not be shamed for their food choices. Go ahead, have that taco with extra guacamole. If you survived the pandemic, you deserve it.

“We all have food choices, everyone. But we have to recognize that people’s choices may look very different depending on their (position) in society based on its racial and class structure,” Jiménez said. “And the choices they’re making do not make them better or worse. Who decides those are better or worse choices? It’s usually people who are in privileged positions and are quick to criticize. Unfortunately, our families are good at doing that as well, at blaming.”

Follow Hortensia Jiménez on Instagram @drhortenciajimenez or www.flowcode.come/page/hortenciajimenez

Featured image: Hortencia Jiménez holding a platter of tamales wrapped in corn husks and banana leaves | Provided photo

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Claudia Meléndez Salinas

About Claudia Meléndez Salinas

Claudia Meléndez Salinas is an author, journalist, open water swimmer, and cat lover. | Claudia Meléndez Salinas es autora, periodista, nadadora de aguas abiertas, y aficionada a los gatos.