"The food movement became the wellness culture, which is just diet culture rebranded by Gwyneth Paltrow."
I don’t have enough superlatives for today’s interview with Virginia Sole-Smith about weight stigma, diet culture, #bopo, men’s disordered eating, 75Hard, and so much more. It is long and it is really fucking good and I want to get straight to it.
You can follow Virginia on Instagram here, buy her first book here, but most importantly, subscribe to her free & excellent newsletter here. The most recent edition on a 13 year old’s Oreo consumption really shifted some ossified crap ideas that have been hanging out in my head for, oh, decades — maybe it’ll be useful to you, too.
How do you describe the work that you do, broadly? And can you tell us a bit about your journey (through growing up, education, career, however you want to frame it) where you get to write and think about these ideas every day?
I’m a feminist writer and journalist on the weight stigma, eating disorders and diet culture beat. Which is not quite like saying you’re on the education beat or the healthcare beat—it’s a niche I’ve carved out for my particular intersection of interests and passions. I began my career as a junior health editor and then freelance health and science writer for various women’s magazines, which is a fancy way of saying I wrote diet stories. Which never sat well with my values as a feminist, to be clear. But I spent a long time rationalizing each assignment. That was partly because when you’re a new freelance journalist, you can’t afford to be precious about paychecks. And partly because I was very much caught up in a diet mindset myself at the time, though I didn’t realize it.
This was the early to mid 2000s, when folks like Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman (note the thin white maleness of it all) were making us care deeply about environmental food issues. On one level, this was about environmental justice—farm workers’ rights, animal rights, pesticides in our water—but in order to get popular support for these issues, Pollan and co tied environmental food stuff very directly to the “ob*sity epidemic.” This makes sense: It’s hard to get the average American to care about chicken welfare. It is easy to get them to care about their jeans size. So I spent a decade reporting on the importance of eating clean, green, vegan, etc—fully convinced that shopping at Whole Foods was a form of activism, and that this was a way of approaching food that aligned with my identity as a feminist, because it was such a rejection of the diet culture I’d grown up with, which was all Jenny Craig-style processed foods and aerobics videos.
You can guess where this is going: The food movement became the wellness culture, which is just diet culture rebranded by Gwyneth Paltrow. But my big epiphany on this didn’t come on a detox or at a yoga retreat. (No shade on yoga retreats, I still do yoga, I mean, I am still of this world as much as I critique it!) Instead, it happened, very dramatically, when I became a mom. My older daughter was born with a rare congenital heart condition called hypoplastic left heart syndrome. We didn’t know about the diagnosis until she went into heart failure at four weeks old and had to be rushed into emergency surgery. We spent the first three years of her life going from one operation to the next, and the giant unexpected side effect of all of that was that Violet stopped eating at one month old. She was dependent on a feeding tube for the better part of two years, and this wasn’t a biological function of her heart condition. It was a trauma response to an onslaught of (well-intentioned necessary but still terrifying) medical interventions. She just shut down on food.
I found myself in this position of having to make food feel safe to a baby and then a toddler who did not trust eating and did not trust her body. I had spent my whole life following external rules (in the form of diets) around how to eat, what to eat, how much to eat. I thought I completely got it because I could tell you which types of produce have the most pesticide residue. But there was literally no how to article, no set of rules for this. To help Violet learn to eat again, I had to throw everything I thought I knew about food and feeding kids out the window and work on healing her trauma and helping her trust her body again. And in order to do that work with her, I had to do it myself.
That experience led to this New York Times Magazine article, and the response to that article —when I was inundated with emails from people saying, I relate to Violet too, I don’t feel safe eating either— is what led to my first book, The Eating Instinct.Along the way, I discovered concepts like intuitive eating and the Health At Every Size paradigm, and I’ve been fascinated and horrified to understand how much our fear of fat bodies underpins everything we do and feel around food, fitness, and healthcare (and fashion, careers, pop culture… fatphobia is literally everywhere). This stigma fuels the $70 billion diet industry, but it also impacts how we treat ourselves and how we parent our kids. So those are the stories I write about now.
I first reached out to you after reading a recent piece on pandemic weight gain by the New York Times’ “personal health columnist,” who’s been writing for the paper since 1978. The piece, like a lot of this columnist’s writing, is fat-phobic and feels pretty radically out of touch with the way that most people are trying (even if not succeeding) to talk about bodies, nutrition, and health.
But I also found the tone, and its focus on portions, self-control, restraint (and others’ lack thereof) incredibly familiar. I think a lot of people, especially but not exclusively women, do. It’s the tone of women of a certain age who developed strategies to “keep their figures” — often times after having a baby or quitting smoking — that were predicated on a very narrow idea of a desirable body and how to arrive there. It’s a posture that has inadvertently (or, in some cases, purposefully!) fostered millions of eating disorders. We’ve come up with counter-narratives, but this narrative, this understanding of the idea body and how to maintain it, nonetheless still feels very strong. How do we name it and vanquish it without, I dunno, never talking to our Great Aunts again?
So I’m not going to comment specifically on that piece, out of respect for my colleagues at the New York Times. (And they would also like me to clarify that I’m doing this interview as a free agent, not a representative of the NYT. OK! Enough caveats. :)
You are absolutely right that this is a pervasive narrative, across all generations but especially with Boomers. I get emails and DMs every single week from Gen X and Millennial parents who have hit a wall trying to discuss this with their own parents. Y’all, the grandparents are not okay. And it’s useful to look back at where their ideas around bodies come from. We’re talking about a generation that was in their teens and twenties during the 1970s, which was when women, with their birth control pills and shoulder pads, entered the white collar workforce in significant numbers — and, in response, we also saw the rise of modern diet culture.
To be clear, fatphobia (like all forms of hate) is as old as dirt and there is no “golden era” we can harken back to when women, especially, were not pretty constantly trying to make themselves smaller. But the 1970s and 1980s is when you see the rise of the modern “ob*sity epidemic,” which is the first time that weight became so fully intertwined with health. And it’s also this time when so many women and other marginalized folks are trying to be taken seriously in white, male-dominated fields and industries. Of course there were radical intersectional feminists and fat activists rejecting unattainable beauty standards back then (and their work is why I’m able to do the work I do today). But there were also an awful lot of folks trying to conform in order to succeed in these white, male dominated spaces and if that meant championing the thin ideal, well okay, if you’re already not calling out your boss for sexual harassment, being on a diet probably seems like the least of your worries?
Also: One thing I’ve noticed about diet culture is that whenever we popularly replace one diet with another, there are a lot of people who never quite let go of the previous food fear. So we’re talking about a generation who lived through the decade when fat was bad, the decade when carbs were bad, the decade when sugar was bad, the decade when all foods are bad unless you grew them yourself, etc, etc, etc. It’s amazing they let themselves eat at all?
I offer all of this not to excuse the harm caused by the Great Aunts when they tell us our face is looking fuller, or don’t let themselves eat bread. But I think we can put their struggles—that are now also happening in an older body in a culture that throws older women’s bodies away—into context and maybe find some empathy for them.
And then, from that place of empathy, we can set our own boundaries. It’s totally fine to tell your mom or dad or whomever that you love them, but you just aren’t going to talk about weight, food or bodies with them. Depending on your relationship, you might also be able to have a conversation that goes deeper than that. But it’s okay to just protect yourself.
It’s easy to see some of the more straightforward ways that body positivity (and getting rid of diet culture) intersects with intersectional feminism and social justice, but can you go into a bit more detail? I realize this is a BIG ask, and feel free to take it in whatever direction you’d like — I just feel like sometimes people water down body positivity to a Dove Soap commercial “everyone’s beautiful” understanding, and it’s just so much bigger than that.
“Body Positivity” as an Instagram trend only exists because of the work of radical fat activists, most of whom were queer, disabled and/or people of color. These were the activists writing the Fat Liberation Manifesto in the 1970s, and today they are the activists behind the NoBody Is Disposable campaign, fighting against weight and ability-based medical triaging and for Covid vaccine access. Their work doesn’t get talked about enough because of fatphobia within the modern body positivity community. And you’re totally right that it’s the Dove commercial thing, where brands (especially fashion and beauty brands) recognize that consumers want more “diversity” so they shoot lots of gorgeous curvy women in their underwear and call it activism. But it’s also something that many of us perpetuate when we center our own body image struggle in what is actually a social justice movement.
This is tricky to unpick, because look, we all have body image struggles. Thin people are shamed for being too skinny; small fat women like me can’t buy high fashion clothes because those brands don’t go above a 10/12, and we have a heck of a hard time buying clothes at regular stores where even if they do make a 14/16, they do a shitty job of it because they’re just sizing up from their fit model who has no boobs or belly. And anyone, at any size, can struggle with an eating disorder in ways that can be terrifying and life-threatening. All of those problems are real and valid.
But anyone in a thin to medium to small fat body needs to recognize that we also benefit from a tremendous amount of thin privilege anytime we can fit into an airplane or restaurant seat without thinking twice about it, or see a doctor who doesn’t put us on a diet when we came in for a UTI, or get hired for a job without our weight being a factor. We are not bullied or attacked on the street for our weight. This kind of weight stigma and discrimination is the daily lived experience for anyone in a fat body, and it is of course compounded by any other intersecting marginalized identities they might have. (Aubry Gordon’s What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Fatis required reading on this topic, by the way.)
So! It is really great if #bopo makes small fat white women feel more comfortable wearing bikinis. As a small fat white woman, I feel very seen by this content (and I have also posted the swimsuit picture). But when that comes at the expense of talking about the much worse struggles of folks in bigger bodies, we are getting this whole body positivity thing wrong. Fat activism has to include fat people. And it’s a little weird we have to say that out loud.
There is *so much* that I want to quote from your piece on the pandemic and male diet culture — you manage to get at the raced and classed and credentialed elements of it, the masculine performativity of limits testing, the difficulty of arriving at the “just right” size — truly, so much. What was the response to that piece — and will you make my day and unpack my least favorite diet/health trend, 75Hard?
OMG, I’ve been off the male diet culture beat for a minute and I missed this but I have now googled and ohhh okay, men, look: It’s really okay to just talk about your feelings and maybe hug a friend? You do not have to take cold showers and workout twice a day or use a dumb acronym just because you did something nice for someone else. (Also maybe it’s even nicer if you don’t need to advertise that you did it with a hashtag?)
More seriously, for anyone who needs this spelled out: There is no science behind the 75HARD plan. It’s just another diet with a clever hashtag and branding. It’s not going to do anything for you that macro counting or IF didn’t already do, and let’s be honest about how they didn’t do that much.
What was interesting about that piece was, sadly, that it didn’t get a huge response. Part of that was timing—I think we published it in April 2020, so people were doing their pandemic diets but also still just in a fugue state of Covid panic? But I think part of it is that men are so deeply uncomfortable admitting that they want out of diet culture. In part because they don’t want to admit they’re IN diet culture. The men who come find me on Instagram or Twitter always want to cite studies and tell me that I’ve misunderstood the science. They don’t think they’re “dieting,” they think they’ve “done their research” and landed on some eternal and universally applicable truth.
I do hope that there were at least a few guys who read that piece and thought to themselves, oh, okay, I don’t have to do this. But even then, it’s tough. Because there’s no cultural support—not even a common cultural language really—for a man trying to disengage from that stuff. Body positivity and intuitive eating are definitely branded as girly. And while we probably could be making more space for men who want to do this work, also, it’s not our job to fix sad white men, and a lot of us need a space without them in it in order to do our own work. So I really do think on some level, men have to save themselves here just like they have to figure out how to be governors without touching their interns, and how to be fathers who schedule play dates and clean toilets and don’t just leave all that shit to their wives to sort out.
Your next book is kids and fat phobia. What part of the research are you doing now and what part can you not shut up about? (This is how I know something is the most interesting part of my work, it’s the first thing I want to tell anyone when they really ask me how the book is going)
This week, I’m writing the chapter where I separate out our understanding of children’s health from weight. This has been somewhat hard and scary to navigate, because “protecting children’s health” is probably one of our most sacred cultural goals, right? And for a long time, it felt like the brick wall to this whole conversation. I could explain to people why they should love their bodies or at least stop hating them. I could explain why being super restrictive around sugar is bad for your kid’s overall relationship with food. But people could always say, “but what about their HEALTH?” Because we’ve framed “childhood ob*sity” as this one way ticket to diabetes, heart disease and asthma.
I can’t tell you everything I’m finding here—gotta give you fine folks all a reason to buy the book!—but suffice to say, the story is so, so, so much more complicated than that. Kids are bigger than they were a generation or two ago, absolutely. But we don’t really know why and we also don’t have clear evidence that it’s the extra weight itself that is making them sicker. It may be a symptom of other issues (other health issues, but also things like poverty, trauma, chronic oppression) that then get ignored because everyone focuses on the weight. It may also be that they’re sicker because of the way weight stigma and other forms of oppression impact their ability to access healthcare. They may just be a perfectly healthy kid in a bigger body, who then struggles because everyone treats them as diseased. And there may be times where weight is a cause of a health issue—but that is much less common than most people think, and even then, weight loss is dangerous and complicated to prescribe for anyone, but especially kids. Childhood dieting is the number one predictor of future eating disorder risk.
What we do know is that our cultural attitude towards fatness in general, and fat kids specifically, has caused a tremendous amount of harm to kids in all body sizes. (And hasn’t made anyone thinner in the process.)
The book is called Fat Kid Phobia, and as you’ve probably guessed from the above, it explores all the ways that weight stigma harms children—at the doctor’s office, at school, on the playground, on social media, with friends and within their family. So I’m collecting stories from parents and kids who have either experienced fatphobia in one of those settings, or are aware that they perpetuated it. So maybe you’re a parent who has long struggled with your own body stuff, and you’ve taken a pretty restrictive approach to food with your kids, but you see it backfiring. Or maybe you’re a kid (whose parents give you permission to talk to me!) and you’ve been on one side or the other of weight-based teasing at school or online.
Because weight stigma intersects with so many other forms of oppression, it’s very important that the book be as inclusive as possible. So I’m always looking for stories from parents and kids who are BIPOC, queer, disabled or otherwise marginalized, or any combination thereof, of course. (You don’t have to identify as fat, though I obviously welcome fat voices!)
But—the other group of people I really need to hear from (and is perhaps the most reluctant to volunteer because of reasons discussed above?) is straight, white dads.
I’m happy to change names to protect privacy as needed. If you have a story to share, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Several people have told me that your writing was the first to help them shift their paradigm when it came to obesity, or men’s diet culture, or kid’s eating. That’s a really valuable service, but it’s also really, really hard work — you’re essentially trying to chisel away at years of ideological residue. What makes it feel worth it?
Absolutely that. I think this is an issue where so often, we just haven’t ever felt seen. We think we’re the only ones who feel too big, too hungry, too much. I save the note anytime someone tells me that they saw themselves in my work, and maybe it connected one small dot and now they’re realizing that they don’t have to keep torturing themselves—or maybe they’re even just starting to recognize that actually, diet culture is torture and you’re allowed to opt out even if you’re not thin, or even if you haven’t developed a full-blown eating disorder from it, you still don’t deserve this. That’s why I do it.
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