Bootstrapping Your Way to Thinness: Dieting and the American Dream

What is “bootstrapping?”

Most of us are familiar with the phrase “pull yourself up from your bootstraps”, it’s as American as apple pie. Bootstrapping is the idea that anyone can change their situation using only existing resources if they work hard enough. It is the core idea behind The American Dream, which of course is falsely predicated on the idea that all people have equal access to all opportunities. We know that isn’t true and hasn’t been true throughout the history of America, yet the lore of The American Dream persists. 

Why? Because it gives us a sense of control. It soothes us to know that we have complete and total power over our destiny. If you succeed it’s because you worked really hard, and you have great “willpower”, but if you fail it’s because you didn’t work hard enough. This black-and-white thinking allows us to make sense of things, unlike the truth which is that our destinies are intricately linked to the systems and people around us. This is a nuanced conversation with a lot more unknowns than we are comfortable with.

Bootstrapping and Diet & Wellness World

Bootstrapping is also the core idea of diet & wellness culture and the primary marketing tactic of the diet & wellness industry. They sell us the belief that anyone can change their body size using only a diet/lifestyle change and hard work (willpower). If your body size doesn’t change or you gain the weight back, you are the problem. Failure is never because of the diet/lifestyle change, but because of the individual. You didn’t have the “right” diet or you weren’t following the diet the “right” way. The diet is never to blame when studies consistently show that 95-98% of diets fail long term. This shame-filled narrative is still pervasive and persuasive. 

Why? Because it gives us a sense of control. It soothes us to know that we have complete and total power over our body size and therefore our status in society. It gives us the illusion that anyone can move freely out of the societal structure of oppression based on our bodies if they “work hard enough” instead of working to dismantle the oppressive structure in the first place. 

Most people don’t want to be fat because they know how fat people are treated in our society and are incredibly afraid of being treated that way. And yet, instead of having an enlightened conversation about body diversity, poverty, food deserts, racial disparities in health care, or other multifaceted reasons people might be fat, we want to blame the individual because American culture has trained us to individualize systemic issues. It is easier to blame a person and say they need to change instead of a system or societal belief because changing systems and societal beliefs requires collective action. This speaks to internalized weight bias that pervades our culture and causes us to pit people against one another.

There is no simple solution or black-and-white answer when it comes to why we have diverse body sizes. Being fat isn’t a moral failing and being thin isn’t salvation. We collectively need to work together to dismantle the idea that anyone can become thin if they work hard enough. It isn’t a matter of work ethic. Also, some people are fat and will stay fat and they deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. 

Bootstrapping and Recovery

This “bootstrap” logic can also show up when you’re in recovery. People can feel they aren’t “working hard enough” at their recovery or that if they relapse it’s because they didn’t “have the willpower to recover”. This personalization is toxic and counterproductive. Unlearning disordered eating is full of habit and behavior disruption, which is hard for everyone!

What you can do?

When you notice or hear the “bootstrap argument” see if you can add nuance and compassion to the conversation. Ask yourself questions like:

  •  “Who benefits from me feeling this is my problem and my problem alone?” 
  • “Who else do I know who has also had this struggle?” 
  • “Where did the system fail me?”
  • “How is my belief about ____ influenced by cultural messaging?”
  • “How do I feel about myself after using bootstrapping logic? Is that feeling helpful”

Incorporating the collective normalizes a situation as a systems issue. If you aren’t alone and most people also struggle with something then it’s time to widen the lens. Also, think about how “bootstrapping” makes you feel, even if it were your fault (which it’s not), is it useful to make yourself feel like garbage because of it? You deserve better and we deserve better.