How to Have the Fat Talk
Virginia Sole-Smith on the War on Juice, How Puberty Got So Anti-Fat, and Parental Terror
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What an utter delight it is to have Virginia Sole-Smith back in Culture Study! Two years ago, I asked Virginia to do a Q&A after reading a particularly noxious “health” column in the New York Times. I didn’t know her at all, but after reading her responses (particularly the one about grandparents and diet culture, whew) I knew I wanted to be her friend. Luckily for me, she was about to (mostly) give up freelancing in order to concentrate on her writing her newsletter, and wanted to talk details.
Over the last two years, we’ve become, well, co-workers — which has been utterly delightful, because working for yourself can be very lonely. I’m so grateful for our friendship, but I’m also so grateful for what I’ve learned from Virginia: an ever more robust understanding of what diet culture is, including how it shows up outside of the way we eat; how to direct unflagging attention to all the ways thin privilege shows up in our society; how to start the work of dismantling personal and structural anti-fat bias, piece by piece by piece. She has helped me stare head-on at my own diet culture bullshit and gently reminded me: this is not just about you. It’s about everyone that diet culture harms.
Virginia’s work ostensibly focuses on parenting but I can’t say this enough: it is invaluable, utterly invaluable, to people who aren’t parents, too. And if you find yourself recoiling and saying “BUT WHAT ABOUT [INSERT GENERAL HEALTH CLAIM ABOUT FATNESS]” I hope you’ll take the time to read or listen to the intro to Virginia’s incredible new book, Fat Talk, or listen to her Fresh Air interview, or her piece in The Atlantic about the role dads play in body image, and actually let her argument sit with you.
Maybe this is the book you desperately wish your parents could’ve read when you were a kid. Maybe you struggle with letting go of this sort of control in your parenting. Maybe reading this book will feel like a balm, or like you’re not alone in this fight.
Or maybe you don’t think you’ve been affected by anti-fatness, or that anti-fatness doesn’t affect your own parenting, because you and/or your kids have always been thin. On that point, you are so, so wrong — and I hope, as I hope with every interview I publish here, that you’ll engage these answers with openness. If we want the world to be better for everyone, we have to look squarely at how anti-fatness is making it worse.
As a way of introducing people to your brilliance, I want to touch a bomb. What is GOING ON with parents and juice? I feel like it’s become this incredible signifier of a style of parenting that bourgeois millennial parents want to avoid, even as so many of us were raised on, like, Sunny D and Capri Sun and even just straight up Kool-Aid. Can you break down the parental and societal anxieties?
The War On Juice has been in the works for decades, but there are two crucible events we can discuss. The first is the passage of Michelle Obama's Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010. This bill did bring free school lunch and breakfast to over 33,000 schools nationwide, which was a huge win. But it also overhauled school lunch as we knew it, banning vending machines, and changing nutrition standards so that items served contain more whole grains and less sugar (among other things).
The less sugar part led to a nation-wide fixation on "sweetened beverages" of all kinds, including juice and chocolate milk. The evils of "drinking your calories" became a constant drum beat of diet culture around this time because, we were told, that juice, flavored milk and non-diet soda were just ways to pile on empty, sugar-y calories that offered no redeeming value. And we can already see the classist/racist weirdness emerging because this was also the hey day of smoothie culture, juicing, and Master Cleanses (to say nothing of the legacy of SlimFast). So don’t drink your calories, unless you’re only drinking your calories? Cool.
More recently, in 2017, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement recommending that kids aged 1 to 3 consume only four ounces of juice per day (and that it should never be served in bottles or sippy cups), and that even older kids (aged 7 to 18) limit juice to eight ounces a day. A bunch of other public health organizations released their own version of this messaging, and juice officially became the new soda, by which I mean, a thing only bad/lazy/irresponsible parents let their kids have. All of these guidelines are rooted in anti-fat bias: The AAP document talks about how juice is "easily overconsumed" by kids "because it tastes good" and notes that "like soda, [juice] can contribute to energy imbalance." Translation: Juice is yummy, your kids won't be able to stop drinking it, and they'll get fat.
Except we know that the calories in/calories out model does not determine body size (genetics and other beyond-your-control factors have more to do with it). And even if it did, limiting this one beverage to a strict number of ounces per day doesn't give you much insight into the broader context of how a child eats. It is true that eating the actual apple will fill you up more than drinking apple juice (though neither is a full meal). But that doesn't mean you can't also drink apple juice. Because kids should not be dieting, and if you're not dieting, there is no reason to restrict calories.
What the war on juice really does is give upper-income parents something to virtue signal about. We equate serving juice with too much screen time and no bedtime routine and all these other sometimes unspoken markers of "bad" or "lazy" parenting. And again, the juice we're avoiding is Kool-Aid and Sunny Delight. We're not avoiding green juice. If we can get our kids to drink a kale smoothie or a strawberry prune shake, we feel like we're doing something right. There is so much classism and racism wrapped up in our juice anxiety that has nothing to do with nutrition and everything to do with our performance of health as social capital.
Not to mention: Banning juice, if your kid likes juice, will only make them fixate and want it more when they do get it. This is the fundamental flaw in any attempt to get kids to eat according to rigid nutrition standards.
Your book is explicitly about discourse and rhetoric: the way we talk about fat bodies with one another, with ourselves, and especially to and in front of children (and why this matters!). So I’m going to start with a question about rhetoric as a means of table-setting.
In the intro, you note that you’ll be using the terms “fatphobic” and “anti-fat bias.” Can you talk about the difference between the two — as you see it — and how both, in slightly different ways, are fundamental underpinnings of diet culture? How does fatphobic conversation work, as you put it, as “a form of social currency” and “the way we perform our body to others?”
Fatphobia and anti-fat bias are used interchangeably in lots of fat spaces as a term for the systemic hatred of fatness that results in the stigmatization of fat people in our workplaces, medical system, clothing stores, and other public spaces. Research shows that four out of five Americans hold some level of anti-fat bias and that our implicit dislike of fatness is increasing, even as many other biases hold steady or decline.
I think anti-fat bias is the more generally useful term because “fatphobia” can let us off the hook too much. As Aubrey Gordon writes, “Oppressive behavior isn’t the same as a phobia. Phobias are real mental illnesses and conflating them with oppressive attitudes and behaviors invites greater misunderstanding of mental illnesses and the people who have them.”
But I do use fatphobia when I’m talking about parents, specifically, because “phobia” also means “fear.” And while parents can and absolutely do hold oppressive beliefs, on this issue they are also incredibly fearful for their children’s health, well-being and happiness and fear mongered to, by biased institutions and systems. And so parents experience their anti-bias as a kind of terror. We get caught up in performing thinness or performing the pursuit of thinness in the way we eat, exercise and control our kids’ eating and exercise because we are terrified of the consequences of being a fat parent, or the parent of a fat kid.
I also want to dig into the way you position the body positivity movement and wellness culture as part and parcel of fatphobic and anti-fat bias. I love, for example, the section where you point out just how frightened many parents are of “evil disorder-y things” but also want their kids to be effortlessly thin. Can you spell out how these ostensibly positive movements actually contribute to anti-fat bias….and the real toxicity at the heart of that desire for kids to “love their bodies!!!!!!….but also you know what you’re probably a better parent and your kid is probably a better kid if that body is thin”
Modern body positivity is essentially an offshoot of diet culture and wellness culture because it sells us the same story: That we can make ourselves happier by making a project of our bodies. Under body positivity, that project is self-love — Wear the bikini! Love your cellulite and stretch marks! Have the second piece of cake!— which is slightly different from the project of intentional weight loss sold by the diet industry. But think how many Noom-esque “it’s a lifestyle plans” make the same kinds of claims about self-esteem and body satisfaction. They’ve co-opted the #bopo rhetoric because the rhetoric was way too easy to steal and not that different from what they were already doing.
For lots of people struggling with eating disorders, loving their bodies isn’t the answer. It isn’t even the question they’re asking. And it won’t fix shit because their marginalized bodies still will not be safe in a culture founded on white supremacy and patriarchy. Anti-fat bias is an offshoot of anti-Black racism in particular (folks wanting to investigate that relationship further should read Fearing the Black Body by Sabrina Strings, Belly of the Beast by Da’Shaun Harrison and It’s Always Been Ours by Jessica Wilson), but it’s intricately linked with all racism, classism and gender biases. So preaching that kids (or any of us) “just” need to love our bodies inadvertently reinforces anti-fat bias (and all of these other biases) by ignoring how often that is absolutely not going to be enough to make our kids feel safe in their bodies. Self-love is nice; it shouldn’t be as impossible to achieve as it often feels. But we need systemic changes to the institutions that make bodies unsafe.
You write that “…[l]istening to fat people and believing what we say about our bodies will very likely mean you have to question a lot of your assumptions about weight and health, diet, and exercise, and what it means to be a good person, with a good body. Reporting this book helped me to unlearn many of my own assumptions around weight, health, and morality, and there are certainly more questions to be worked through than I can address here.”
I’d love to hear more about your decision to include the perspectives of fat kids in the book (this makes sense, and yet, somehow so many books about parenting and kids don’t include conversations with kids!), how you found them, what the interview process was like (how did you make them feel comfortable), and what parts of the conversations reoriented or even radically changed your own thinking?
I’m a narrative non-fiction writer, which means my work is always grounded in people’s stories. Some of this is just about what I think makes for compelling writing. My 9-year-old read the book and told me she skipped over “all the boring parts where doctors talked or you just said stuff” and I was like, yes, that is how I also read non-fiction. We understand complex or nuanced issues best when we can locate ourselves in people’s lives, hearts and minds. So finding people to interview about how they’re experiencing a problem or issue is always my starting point; it’s usually only after I’ve started to understand a story in terms of the people involved that I pull studies and talk to researchers, doctors and other “experts.”
For this book, I knew we needed to hear from fat kids, and from boys, nonbinary kids, Black kids, and anyone else who isn’t a thin white girl because for way too long, we have assumed that only thin white girls get eating disorders. As someone who grew up a thin white girl and then first reported on eating disorders for women’s magazines (made by, and sold to, mostly thin, white girls and women), I absolutely thought this was a “my demographic” problem, and that restrictive eating disorders, especially, only happened to thin people. Then I reported this piece in 2019, and understood that actually, we only think this because we’ve been shoving down those other narratives for so long. The eating disorder treatment community doesn’t even know what to do with them; fat and otherwise marginalized people are very, very used to having their disordered eating symptoms dismissed or even encouraged by healthcare providers just happy to see them losing any weight. This means they are often much sicker when they do finally access treatment, and that they may be under-treated or mistreated for way too long.
But even with that understanding, it was a challenge to diversify the sources for this book for the same reason it’s a challenge (but shouldn’t be) for white journalists to diversify our sources in general: We live in our own echo chambers; we put call-outs for sources on our social media feeds, or we reach out to organizations primarily serving white people. I had to consciously push past that and be pretty explicit at times that I was looking for kids of color, or I was looking for fat kids, or former fat kids or parents of fat kids to interview. There are still a lot of thin white girls in the book; they are a part of this conversation too. But I’m really proud that we hear from a bunch of fat kids and kids of color, often at crucial points.
In terms of the interview process: I reported this book almost entirely over Zoom and was only in-person with a handful of sources (all adults). That was due to Covid, of course, and it’s a completely different process than I’ve ever used before; for my first book, I spent significant time in person with every source who is a main character in a chapter. There were obvious drawbacks, but I found with kids especially, it could work really well. They were often Zooming with me in their bedrooms or other comfy spaces, which put them at ease. (And if I were in person, I wouldn’t be like, “hi 15-year-old, let’s go hang out in your bedroom!”) A lot of them also opened up over text in ways that surprised and delighted me.
And so many moments with these kids reoriented and radically changed my thinking. I think the throughline was hearing how often a kid wanted their parent to just be there for them; not to try to fix it (because too often, when parents encounter a child’s body anxieties, the “fix” is a meal plan or joining a sports team or doing something else in the name of “healthy habits” that becomes a diet). But just to sit with them in the hard feelings. God, we as a culture (and me as a person and parent) are so, so bad at that.
A lot of the discussions I’ve seen around normalizing body difference really focus on younger elementary school age, which makes sense! Lots of ideas getting solidified during that time! But nothing challenged the way I felt about my body and others like puberty, and I’m so grateful you have an entire chapter dedicated to working through how to navigate not just fat talk, but body talk during that time, particularly at the racialized understanding of “normal” development.
I really hadn’t put the pieces together on how society narratively frames the body-in-puberty as unruly, out of control, abject, a “failed factory”.....and even though we intend that framework to make kids feel less weird about, well, everything, it nonetheless contributes to this understanding of the body as untrustable and unsafe. Is it possible to develop new frameworks that make kids going through puberty feel safer in their bodies?
I included this chapter because the first layer to this is realizing how much of our negative puberty talk is rooted in anti-fat bias. We’re afraid of kids getting bigger too fast or of getting bigger in ways that will sexualize them. And this anxiety then underpins how we talk about changes that shouldn’t be weight-related at all, like menstruation and their developing awareness of sexual desire. So yes, I think we can develop new frameworks and I think they have to start from a weight-inclusive place, where we understand that getting bigger is the whole point, not a scenario to be avoided. Along with that, we need to break away from (again) the thin white girl as default/dominant puberty narrative. Her timeline is just one timeline for when these body changes happen. There is no one “normal” puberty experience. We need to normalize all of the timelines and to stop pathologizing the bodies of Black and brown kids, of fat kids, of early developers and “late bloomers.”
And, again, we need to meet kids where they are and validate their own complicated feelings about puberty. One teenager told me she wished her puberty education had focused more on reassuring messages like “yes, a lot will change, but you will still be you.” And that feels pretty profound because when you consider the other narratives we have around weight gain and changing bodies —the post-baby body, the aging body, the pandemic body—so often, the framing is “I need to lose weight because I just want to feel like myself again.” But what if we all grew up knowing that our bodies can change (because all bodies change!) and we can still be ourselves?
I appreciate ending the book with how-to scripts on how to have “the fat talk” with your friends, your partner, the grandparents, doctors, educators and coaches, skinny kids and fat kids — and yourself. I also appreciate that you emphasize that this is a talk that keeps happening, not just a one-time “we love all bodies!” get out of diet culture free pass.
Which is the hardest of these talks for you, personally? Which one do you find is the hardest for others, and why? And why is it so important to keep trying to do that one talk that’s the hardest?
Initially, the hardest for me was being able to describe myself as “fat” in a positive way around my kids. I wanted so badly to make that word a neutral descriptor for them, but it was hard to say out loud — I’d be super aware of any other adults within earshot and what their reaction to that word might be, and of my own reactions. But for me, this was one that just got better by doing it. Just forcing myself to get comfortable saying “fat” made me comfortable saying fat. There is probably some thin privilege underpinning that—I am a “small fat” adult, but I was a thin kid, so I don’t have the same intensely personal experiences of having the word weaponized against me for decades as folks who grew up fat. I would never rush someone to reclaim this word if that doesn’t feel safe or useful, but I do think a good fat positive therapist can help unpack what makes it feel so impossible.
These days, my hardest talks are with healthcare providers. Again, my level of thin privilege (and white privilege, able-body privilege, education/class privilege, etc) gives me a free pass here: I can simply say I don’t want to be weighed at an appointment, and it immediately takes weight out of the conversation and improves my healthcare experience. That’s not the scary part. I’ve never had that decision questioned or disrespected and I’ve been able to set a similar boundary of “let’s not discuss weight in front of the kids” with our pediatrician and had it well-received.
So the hard part is knowing that it’s not enough to just make my life easier in these ways, because that doesn’t help the person fatter or otherwise more marginalized than me, who can’t just opt out of the scale, and who will be facing bias in the exam room, no matter what. I need to go further and let healthcare providers know why I’m opting out — that it’s not because the number on the scale is so triggering, it’s because the evidence shows that weight-inclusive healthcare does so much less harm than weight-centric care.
We need to be asking healthcare providers and practices what kind of anti-bias work they are doing to improve their standard of care; we need to speak up when exam tables, gowns and chairs in waiting rooms (and in all public spaces) aren’t size-inclusive. It can feel uncomfortable to do that advocacy, but we need to think somewhat less about the project of our own relationships with our bodies, and very much more about how to fight anti-fat bias on a systemic level.
And a note on comments: I’ll be monitoring them closely. We have a zero tolerance policy here for anti-fatness (if you want to throw those comments around, you can go hang out in literally 99.1% of the internet)
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