Kim Kardashian, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jennifer Aniston are praised for eating carbs. Why they may be sending the wrong message about diet culture, expert says
Jennifer Aniston recently made headlines after sharing she's "no longer afraid" of bread after years of sticking to a low-carb diet. "[I] started to give myself a break, allowing yourself to have pasta, a sandwich," she told People. "Everyone's very afraid of the breadbasket, and I'm no longer afraid. As long as it's all done in moderation."
According to a number of recent celebrity Instagram posts — Kim Kardashian and Gwyneth Paltrow among them — Aniston's not alone. Kardashian received compliments for looking "beautiful" while posing with a plate of spaghetti during her recent trip to Italy.
"Looks yummy," one person commented, while another questioned, "Why’s the pasta so bland?"
Paltrow, the founder of wellness and lifestyle brand Goop, similarly posed with near-empty plates from a restaurant in Barcelona with a glass of wine in hand and a sign that reads "F*** Your Diet."
"This post made my day," someone commented. "I will follow your advice," wrote another.
But as these women are celebrated for indulging in starches and carbohydrates, and seemingly encouraging others to do the same, both Kardashian and Paltrow are celebrities who continue to play a role in perpetuating diet culture — a dichotomy that Christy Harrison, a registered anti-diet dietician and author of Anti-Diet, says can be harmful.
"It wouldn't surprise me if there was some kind of calculated effort to incorporate this anti-diet stuff to capture a wider audience. And I think that can be really harmful and problematic even if unintentional," Harrison tells Yahoo Life. "It's already so hard to explain this anti-diet approach to people, and there's a lot of places along the way where they can get confused and sort of fall back into diet culture or fall prey to these forms of diet culture that are posing as intuitive eating, posing as anti-diet."
Anti-diet culture, according to Harrison, is a "radical alternative" to dieting that encourages people to let go of efforts to lose weight or eat "perfectly," in order to live more happily and healthily. She further explains her work, and that of others in the anti-diet movement, as pushing to dismantle the system of diet culture and oppressive body standards to "make room for people of all sizes."
Harrison says anti-diet culture is the antithesis of the "harmful and toxic" nature of diet culture, which "lionizes smaller bodies and stigmatizes larger ones, it demonizes certain foods and food groups and elevates others, it promotes weight loss and a certain size and shape of body as a means of attaining higher status."
While anti-diet culture stems from the fat acceptance movement that began in the sixties, these celebrities are nowhere near demonstrating radical ideas about body image and beauty standards.
For Paltrow in particular, the explicit anti-diet messaging featured in her photo contradicts her brand. Although Goop is advertised as a hub for wellness, Harrison explains that that term in particular is evolving into something much more complicated.
"Diet culture has tried to morph and shapeshift to keep up with changing demand and people's realization that diets really don't work," she says. "But with Goop, Gwyneth has made millions of billions of dollars off of this new version of diet culture about quote-unquote wellness and cleanses and restrictive eating and taking certain things out of your diet, fearing or denying certain foods or food groups."
In fact, Paltrow's latest exploration of intuitive fasting — a fasting plan that claims to "recharge your metabolism and renew your health" — is in opposition to the anti-diet approach of intuitive eating.
With the experimental nature of Paltrow's brand, Harrison wouldn't be surprised if the Goop founder tries to toe the line between the dieting and anti-diet approach. "I think it's very natural for her to want to co-opt, or at least move into the space of anti-diet and intuitive eating," Harrison explains.
When it comes to Kardashian, the messaging behind her Instagram post is a little less clear, as is her role in perpetuating diet culture and unrealistic beauty standards.
During the Keeping Up with the Kardashian's reunion, Kim herself refuted the idea that her family represents the unattainable, saying, "I think we get up, we do the work. We work out."
"The Kardashians are such complicated figures in our culture because they are victim to so many of these pressures and beauty standards that I think are pushed on, you know, so many women and femmes and people across the gender spectrum really," Harrison says.
In a photo of the reality TV star eating pasta, in particular, a concept like thin privilege comes into play.
"It's a prime example of how thin privilege operates that someone like her could be sort of celebrated for, for showing that food choice when someone in a larger body will be denigrated and shamed for showing that food choice. It definitely kind of conveys the double standards in our society," Harrison says.
She continues, "There's also the piece of disingenuousness where she's still saying she works out twice a day or promoting other harmful diet culture practices and messaging. Even when she's posing in a way that makes it seem like, 'Oh, I'm just caught eating a side of pasta in this restaurant,' it's this sort of flawless work that could be on the cover of a magazine, which is a really unrealistic standard to promote to people in general."
When it comes to public figures being photographed eating foods that get characterized as unhealthy, these women certainly aren't the first. However, amid larger conversations about anti-diet culture, people like Kardashian and Paltrow have taken on new roles as purveyors of health and wellness.
"How frustrating it is that these people who don't have expertise in a particular area and are just people who've sort of landed in positions of great public attention become the leaders and role models for so many people around how to be a woman or how to work or how to take care of your body, beauty standards and things like that. I think that's incredibly problematic," Harrison says. "They're also just, in some ways, regular women kind of grappling with what it means to age, what it means to be photographed, what it means to be quote-unquote beautiful. They're figuring it out. I don't think they actually have all the answers, but they're positioned as though they do."
While navigating the sizeable influence that each of these women has, Harrison notes that it's seemingly easier for a celebrity to post a photo and leave it up to consumers to figure out the messaging or intent. What's more helpful, however, are actual conversations like that in which Aniston has begun to engage by talking about her evolving eating habits.
"It does give me more hope for Jennifer Aniston that she is maybe doing the work of trying to heal her relationship with food, or at least find more peace," Harrison says. "It's really hard to escape diet culture completely. I think there's maybe only so far she'll go or be able to go... But it does speak to the fact that she's being thoughtful about this stuff and having a public conversation about it."
As for Kardashian and Paltrow, Harrison says "it's great to see celebrities who've been so publicly caught up in diet culture maybe starting to move in a direction of a little bit more liberation or sort of liberalizing their menu and going off the most restrictive version of their diet."
Read more from Yahoo Life:
How Will Smith's body positive photo highlights sexist beauty standards: 'Men just have a lot more license'
Kim Kardashian was accused of editing her waist size. Body image advocates say that’s dangerous.
Valerie Bertinelli criticizes her own role in perpetuating 'diet culture' as a Jenny Craig spokesperson: 'I became part of the problem'
Want lifestyle and wellness news delivered to your inbox? Sign up here for Yahoo Life’s newsletter.