IMPORTANT: This blog represents just PART of a WHOLE journey. You’ll get the most out of it if you start from the beginning.
I started to write a blog today about how healthism. But then I realised that to dive straight into that would mean missing a really fricking important section from the Anti-Fitness tale.
By around 2021, I was reading a lot of books about mindset, exercise, and nutrition. So, to give my brain a little breather, I decided to read “Sapiens: A Brief History of Human Kind” by Yuval Noah Hurari, and “The Ascent of Humanity: Civilisation and the Sense of Human Self” by Charles Eisenstein (read it for FREE at that link); And even though they weren’t about anything that ‘formally’ applied to fitness, both of them ended up being vital to my understanding of it. And that’s what I wanted to share with you today.
I spend a lot of time throwing around the word “culture”, but it’s time to give it some real context as this will help us move onto the next bits of our journey.
Seth Godin describes culture as, a group of “people like us who do things like this.” Succinct but perfect.
Culture is simply the core behaviours that a group of people decides are correct, and beliefs that they collectively adopt as true. Note that it’s not what’s actually correct and incorrect because that’s just a concept. It’s just what we collectively agree on. For example, murder or stealing is only wrong because we’ve decided as a culture that we don’t like it (thank fuck!), whereas other species haven’t.
Are you with me so far?
Now, what I learned from reading the books I mentioned is how culture is formed and why it’s so difficult to change. This is important for our purposes, because I often hear influencers say that we “just need to leave diet culture behind”. However, it’s not that simple because culture isn’t decided on by one dude who one day is like, “Hey guys, from today on being fat is bad, right.”
I’m going to explain how it works in real life by telling you the story of how our culture came to use money to buy stuff from each other. Because who doesn’t love a nice story?
NB: What follows is a very geeky history lesson that I think is cool AF. But if you’re not a geek like me, please stick with it anyway because the lesson at the end is worth it, I promise!
Our story starts with us as early hunter-gatherers in little tribes dotted around the globe.
They thrived because of their ability to function well as a community. And knew the best way to maintain a community, is to have all of its members follow the same rules and standards of behaviour, not because they’re forced to, but because they all have the same goal: live in the most optimal way possible.
Cultural rules were shared subtly through moral lessons hidden in stories, songs, and celebrations. In these tales, good guys got praised for demonstrating the types of behaviours that benefitted the community, and bad guys got punished for going against them. It was very effective when we were stone age folks, and still as effective today.
The cultural standards were (and still are) best maintained not through punishment, but by social policing by the community members themselves. The most effective method is gossip and the threat of being left out…
“Hey, did you see that caveman Brian didn’t bury his food bones again?”
“Yeah, what a dickhead! Let’s not talk to him at lunch”.
Actual punishment for going against the culture was rarely needed because the threat of being kicked out the group meant certain death as humans can’t survive on their own. Plus, why would someone even want to go against the culture, because even if it meant a little compromise, everyone was content and got what they needed to live a pretty fucking good life.
People lived as equal members of the tribe and if they needed something they just had to ask. That was an unspoken rule of living as part of the community. No one took too much or gave too little, and everyone was recognised for their important individual contributions to community success.
This life of abundance, sharing, and the occasional sabre-tooth tiger mauling lasted for about 12,000 years. That is until hunter-gatherer tribes decided to give up their nomadic ways in favour of building permanent camps where they planted food crops in one place, so they knew where they were, and kept food animals behind a fence to make them easier to catch.
Humans had discovered convenience. And this convenience led to a big change in human culture.
“…the end of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle and the advent of farming was connected to a psychological change that occurred in some groups of people. There was a new sense of individuality and separateness, which led a new selfishness…” (full article here).
Culture changed from one of abundance – sharing the wealth of nature and seeing individuals as equal partners in a community – to one of owning property and things. When crops and livestock could be wiped out in a second by extreme weather, diseases, or theft, holding back a little of what was produced suddenly seemed sensible.
People tending their individual farms in their individual huts all segregated by individual walls and fences started to eye their neighbours with suspicion. The novel idea that someone would take from you if they didn’t have enough was became a reality. And so, slowly culture – the normal way of behaving – moved from the previous community-first culture of one-for-all, to an individual culture of all-for-one.
In the early days of abundance, everyone freely shared their own skills and contributed them with no expectation of payment. The community made sure everyone was provided for, and people could become experts in whatever suited them if it benefitted the tribe. It didn’t matter if you couldn’t hunt deer or climb trees to reach honey, because maybe you were a great healer, storyteller, or potato finder. But as people separated into their homes the age of sharing to help the tribe came to an end.
Farming was harder work, it took up a lot of time, and came with a huge risk of failure and danger of starving if that happened, so giving some of that precious food wealth away for free was no longer part of the cultural way of doing things.
The whole community still needed healers, builders, weapon makers, and leather workers. These experts couldn’t both learn to be experts at their crafts AND have time for farming, but they still needed to be fed. Plus, it wasn’t feasible for each farmer to produce every type of crop and animal they needed, so bartering – previously only used to swap items from tribe to tribe – between community members became part of culture.
But as villages grew into towns, then cities, and people moved around the country, the value of things became trickier to work out so bartering became more difficult. Is one goat worth 20 apples or 40? And is a squirrel-skin hat worth the same in Mudville as it is in Laketown? Also, lugging 25 bags of potatoes to swap for a horse 5 miles away was kind of impractical. Also, what happens if you get there, and the horse seller doesn’t even like potatoes or has enough of them already? You still need a horse regardless of their current potato requirements.
So a universal system of barter was put in place – money. It was portable and had the same equal value wherever you went. And for it to work everyone agreed in the culture wide story that money had value and what monetary value each thing that people traded had.
Plenty of things were used as money from shells to gems to gold, none of which have any inherent real value (only things that keep us alive like food, shelter, and community have real value). But “People are willing to do such things [as use worthless things to purchase things of worth] when they trust the figments of their collective imagination.” – (Hurari)
This cultural story went unchanged for a while. But then we took it one step further and changed the beliefs that money must be something we could see and hold. Our new story changed to one that said we didn’t even need to see the money anymore. We decided that we were happy to trade for goods just on the promise of getting money.
This, like all cultural stories happened in small stages. People decided that they that needed somewhere secure to store their money in – like a bank. The bank would let them take out little bits of their money when they needed it. But the weight of gold and the constant threat of highway robbery meant that even that changed.
Rather than giving the other party the money itself, everyone became happy to settle for a note from the bank on an officially stamped paper. These banknotes promised that the other person was good for the money and that at any time the bank would exchange the note for money when asked. But no one ever really asked, they were content enough just to keep swapping the notes between themselves, knowing that the note signified that the money was there whenever they wanted it.
But eventually, even the money disappeared too. This started with the end of the “Gold Standard” in the 1900s when the economy collapsed (“why“ isn’t important to this story, but it is cool so if you want to read about it, here’s a quick article).
When you think about it, the idea of putting trust in a note simply promising money should seem strange, but because the origins of the cultural story about what money is and how it came to be has been long lost, we don’t even stop to question why someone will give us goods in exchange for paper anymore. In fact, now we don’t even use the paper promissory notes. We’re content to just value numbers on a screen.
Rank Red told me today that there is approximately US $40 trillion in circulation: this includes all the physical money and the money in savings and checking accounts. But money in the form of investments, derivatives, and cryptocurrencies exceeds $1.3 quadrillion.
That means there’s a shit tonne of money that exists only in the form of digital numbers. Nothing more. But culture tells us a very different story and with no force or gossip required, we believe it.
The reason that I shared that story is to demonstrate how culture changes, and does so slowly and consistently. It’s taken 12,000 years to go from sharing skills freely to buying them with numbers.
You couldn’t have had just one guy in the stone age tribal community being like, “I’ve decided that instead of contributing, I will just write small notes to all of you to show that I intend to hunt one day.” Nor today can you exchange a bag of cowrie shells for a Porche.
For change to become culture and stick, every member of the group needs to either believe that the story everyone else believes is true, or at the very least that they are willing to compromise and follow the rules regardless. The only alternative is to leave the group and either remain alone or start a new group with a new cultural story.
Technically, we could all stop using money tomorrow. But because the story of its worth is so deeply ingrained into this culture and because so many of our beliefs, systems, and standards of behaviour revolve around its value and importance, doing so would be almost impossible. Unfortunately, the culture makers in the West are the ones with the most money, so can you see them agreeing to change the story and use a different system of getting and sharing stuff?
Let’s bring this back this back to the topic of interest… body shape, food, and exercise: AKA our diet culture.
Just like our cultural belief that money has worth and the more of it we have the better, our culture also has a belief that a lean physique is worth more than a large one. This belief is deeply ingrained and it suits our culture makers for us to keep that story exactly how it is. But that’s not the only reason why change is hard.
It’s not as simple as just deciding to believe a different thing because as one major cultural story grows, a bunch of little beliefs get created around it to maintain its hold on the group. Some consciously and some subconsciously.
For example, here are some of the supporting beliefs that were created that support the story we tell ourselves about how money works and why we need it.
- Humans are innately selfish. Farming taught us that hoarding was a good thing because more money means more potential to own stuff and the less we can pay to get more stuff, the better.
- More is better. In hunter gatherer days taking more was needed meant throwing an ecosystem out of balance. Now, we don’t care as long as we don’t have to see the consequences firsthand.
- Proxy values are the same as the actual thing that we value. Gold, paper promissory notes, and digital numbers aren’t valuable, it’s what we get with them that is (or might be, depends on what you buy, I guess!).
- Individual people don’t matter. One person’s money is just the same as anyone else’s. If I’m selling you a service, I don’t need to be kind to you to maintain a friendship, I just need your money. I don’t need to know the person who makes my bread, cures my diseases, or flies the plane I’m in. I just need to pay them. And I don’t really care if they fuck up my service because their goldfish died or their house burned down. If they inconvenience me, I can find someone else. Everyone’s replaceable.
- We don’t need each other, and we don’t need to accommodate anyone else’s feelings apart from our own. “In real communities, people depend on each other. They are forced to get along, because they need each other. They must learn to accommodate each other’s faults. Acceptance is crucial to each person’s survival.” – Eisenstein.
- Those who have money are more valuable than those who don’t. Because value in our society is innately connected to money, we see those with it as more valuable.
- Only the things you pay for have worth.
For money to fall, we’d have to destroy all of those stories too, and replace them with new ones that support a new culture. But many of them we don’t even tie into the story of money. This is exactly how the story of diet culture works and why it’s so hard to break down.
The main thing I learned from reading both Sapiens and The Ascent of Humanity is that it’s impossible to separate our beliefs into neat little separate stories to put down at will. They all intertwine, intersect, and hold up each other as part of the wider ‘truth’ that says, “People like us do things like this”.
One influencer telling you to ignore diet culture and tell yourself that your worth isn’t attached to your weight is like removing one brick and expecting a wall to collapse. Like our cultural story of money, diet culture has a shit tonne of bricks: racism, sexism, religion, health, capitalism, marketing, architecture, clothing, money, mass media, art… so much of our world and beliefs confirm and support our diet culture as being the truth. 12,000 years went into building a story around money, and thousands of years have built a story around body size. One TicTok video telling you to be kind ain’t gonna cut it to persuade your conscious or subconscious mind against that much cultural backstory!
And like with money stories, think how many people benefit from keeping our diet story intact. You think they’re going to make it easy for you to give it up?
So, how do we move forwards if changing a culture is so hard?
In 2021 I saw two choices:
- Continue to live in the culture as it is and persevere with our quest for thinness.
- Shun the whole culture and start a totally new one.
But nowadays I think there’s actually one more choice…
3. Recognise that if we want to continue in our community and live with the perks that Western culture provides, we need to accept that diet culture is part of that story for now. That doesn’t mean we have to condone it or believe it to be true, but we do have to find a way to live alongside it without getting sucked in. Realise that is possible to compassionately create a subculture that says, “People like us could do things like this instead… want to join me in trying?”.
My job is not to tell you which of these works for you. That’s up to you. There’s no right and no wrong option and there’s easy and hard bits to deal with in all of them. All we can ever go with is what feels right.
All I want is to help you consider the current culture. To point out and bring to your attention which bits of the world might have real tangible worth and which have no more real value than shiny bits of metal and promissory notes.