Burnt Toast by Virginia Sole-Smith

By Virginia Sole-Smith

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Weekly conversations about how we dismantle diet culture and fatphobia, especially through parenting, health and fashion. (But non-parents like it too!) Hosted by Virginia Sole-Smith, journalist and author of THE EATING INSTINCT.

virginiasolesmith.substack.com

Episode Date
"We Couldn't Have a Campaign That Was Just For Fat People."
2010
They're dealing with a consumer that they've never marketed to before and they don't really have the tools to do that. They don't know what's going to speak to that consumer. And it's also fatphobia, right? Because the brand doesn't want to center fat people as their customer. So they have to put everybody together in order for it to be okay. 

You're listening to Burnt Toast. This is the podcast where we talk about diet culture, fatphobia, parenting, and health. I'm Virginia Sole-Smith and I also write the Burnt Toast newsletter.

Today I am chatting once again with the fantastic Mia O'Malley. Mia is content creator on Instagram and Tiktok (@MiaOMalley and @plussizebabywearing). Mia has been on the show before, so you’re probably already a big fan. I asked her back today because we needed to have a deep dive conversation about everything happening at Old Navy with plus size clothing.

Also! Substack has asked us to try out a new format for this episode. Paid subscribers, you’re getting the full audio and full transcript, below. (So nothing has changed, just consider this your July bonus episode!)

Free list folks: You’re getting the first chunk of my conversation with Mia (both audio and transcript), but if you would like the full version, you’ll need to become a paid Burnt Toast subscriber.

Reader subscriptions enable me to pay guests like Mia for their time and labor, so please, consider investing in these conversations if this is work you care about. 

When you get full access to my conversation with Mia, you’ll get way more juicy details on the whole Old Navy situation. And you’ll find out the two brands we think are doing a surprisingly GOOD job on plus size clothes right now. I bet it’s not who you think! 

PS. You voted and the results are in: We’ll be reading ESSENTIAL LABOR by Angela Garbes for the August Burnt Toast Book Club! Mark your calendars for Wednesday, August 31 at 12pm Eastern.

Episode 55 Transcript

Virginia

Hi Mia. So we'll start by reminding listeners who you are and what you do.

Mia

I'm Mia O'Malley. I'm a content creator on Instagram. I have my account @MiaOMalley where I share a lot of resources for fat and plus sized people and some of my own style and life. And then I have an account called @plussizebabywearing on Instagram and I'm @plussizebabywearing on TikTok.

Virginia

Last time, we had a pretty wide-ranging conversation where we talked about the intersection of fat activism and momfluencing, about finding a fat-friendly health care provider—all sorts of stuff. But this time, we have a very specific mission. When this news story broke, I was in the middle of writing my book, and I had no time to think about it, but you were on it. Your Instagram is this amazing resource. And I was like, Thank God, Mia will come on and explain to us what is happening with Old Navy and plus size clothing. I mean, it's a mess. How did this all start? 

Mia

So in August of 2021, old Navy launched what they called BODEQUALITY, and it was like, “the democracy of style.” They were going to offer sizes 0 to 30 and XS to 4x at the same price and then they would have it in 1200 stores. And they would be rolling out sizes 0 to 28 with no special plus size section. They also wanted us to know that there were going to be mannequins size 12 and 18. The CEO of Old Navy said, “It's not a one time campaign. It's a full transformation of our business and service to our customers, based on years of working closely with them to research their needs.” The marketing campaign included a TV commercial with Aidy Bryant from SNL and Shrill.

Virginia

So, none of this was subtle. This was a very full-throated, “We are here for plus sizes.”

Mia

Well, yes and no. The campaign was not subtle, but the campaign was also confusing. So many people did not even realize what BODEQUALITY meant.

Virginia

Well, they made up that word. 

Mia

And they made sure to include all diverse body types which, in general, is great. But it's part of a watered down body positivity, where we're not really getting to the heart of the matter and helping the people that are marginalized, that need to be helped and need to be lifted up. A lot of people did not recognize that this campaign meant that plus sizes were being carried in stores. It included people of “diverse body types,” it said “democracy of fashion.” But what does this really mean to someone? Does this mean that I can get my size in your store? It's not really clear.

This is me editorializing, but I just think: We couldn't have a campaign that was just for fat people. We have to do it adjacent to thin people.

Virginia

It gives them this cover, because they're using this aspirational rhetoric, instead of saying explicitly, “We have screwed over fat customers.”

Mia

Exactly. It just was not clear enough to the fat consumer that they were going to be able to access their clothes in store. It was muddled in the same way that body positivity gets muddled when we don't talk about the people that really should be centered in the movement.

But as someone who has been critical of Old Navy in the past, even I wanted BODEQUALITY to work. We wanted it to be an example for other retailers and brands, that that this could be something they could do. Even though I had messages in my DMs talking about issues folks were seeing, I didn't really want to talk about it at first, because I wanted to see how far it would go.

Well, less than a year later the Wall Street Journal reported that Old Navy would be pulling extended sizes from their stores. That article is a whole other thing that we can get into, too, because it's its own beast. 

Virginia

Yeah, so that's what just happened, which blew this all up. It looked like they were blaming their sales dropping on the fact that they had added more plus sizes to the stores. That was the story out there, right?

Mia

Yes, that's right. Suzanne Kapner—she wrote the article called “Old Navy Made Clothing Sizes for Everyone. It Backfired.” 

Virginia

I will say quickly, as a journalist, the headline is not Suzanne's fault. We never get to pick our headlines. However, the article itself is also problematic as you can now explain.

Mia

There are a few issues with the article. Most specifically, it doesn't include comments from anyone in Old Navy corporate. They took quotes from other interviews that they had done, but Old Navy didn't comment on this article itself. So a lot of what they had was attributions to someone who worked in the store, a PR person, a city analyst—different things. They also have this quote from Diane Von Furstenberg, who spoke at the the Future of Everything Festival and they put that front and center.

Virginia

So all we really know is that Old Navy sales dropped, right? We don't really know why, or whether it is reasonable to blame that on plus sizes.

Mia

Correct. First of all, they did not give this even a year to work. The CEO, Sonya Syngal, said on an earnings call that they “overestimated demand in stores” and they launched too broadly. They "over-planned larger sizes, with customer demand under-pacing supply. Someone else in Old Navy corporate said it was “a realigning of store inventory.” Which is not at all what the article says but sort of points to, they had an inventory problem.

Virginia

Which, it's been a pandemic! Everyone shifted to online shopping. They haven't yet gotten the customers back in the stores, period. Getting inventory right, regardless of sizing, is sort of a moving target right now.

Mia

What we're hearing from customers at Old Navy though, is they weren't even aware that plus sizes were in stores. That’s possibly because of the way that these stores are laid out. They took away or they didn't have a plus size section for a long time. But the plus size shopper is used to going to a specific section for their clothing. In this “democratizing of fashion,” Old Navy put everything together. And in some cases that made it harder for people to actually find their size. You had a lot of packed racks. You've had people struggling to find their sizes across the board.

I'm also hearing that although Old Navy says that they went to great lengths to look at their fit when they did this inclusive sizing, that the fits are completely off for many, many items. So, Old Navy denim that people were used to buying for years, totally changed. People's sizes completely changed. Rockstar jeans, which they had been buying for over a decade, are now a completely different size. And in many cases, people were having to size up two or three sizes thinking that their body has changed in some drastic way, when really Old Navy sizing, completely changed in many items. 

Virginia

That makes me wonder how inclusive they really intended to be.

This is a free preview of a paid episode. To hear more, visit virginiasolesmith.substack.com
Aug 04, 2022
"The Way Our Hair Grows Out of Our Heads is a Problem for People."
1602
I think it's important for people to recognize that no matter how fascinated you might be by a Black person’s hair, we are not an exhibit or curiosity.

You're listening to Burnt Toast. This is the podcast about diet culture, fatphobia, parenting, and health. I’m Virginia Sole-Smith, and I also write the Burnt Toast newsletter.

Today I am speaking with anti-racism activist, writer, and educator Sharon Hurley Hall. Sharon is firmly committed to doing her part to eliminate racism as the founder and curator in chief of Sharon's Anti-Racism Newsletter, one of my favorite Substacks. Sharon writes about existing while Black in majority white spaces and amplifies the voices of other anti-racism activists. Sharon is also the head of anti-racism and a special advisor for the Diverse Leaders Group.

I asked Sharon to come on the podcast to talk about a piece she wrote on the newsletter a few weeks ago about the CROWN act, Black hair, and the ways in which white people perpetrate racism against Black people for their hair. We also get into how to talk about hair and skin color differences with your kids, which I found super, super helpful and I think you will, too.

If you enjoy this episode, please subscribe, rate and review us in your podcast player! It’s free and a great way to help more folks find the show.

And! It’s time to decide what we should read for the next Burnt Toast Book Club!

I’ve culled through all of your suggestions and narrowed it down to these five (mostly because the Substack poll-maker limits me to five choices). I was going to stick with fiction because it’s summer and I’m in beach read mode, but I made an exception for Angela Garbes because, it’s Angela Garbes. (Which is to say, if we don’t pick her for August, we’ll do it for September or October!) You have until the end of this week to vote. I’ll announce the pick on Tuesday. (The discussion thread will go live Wednesday, August 31 at 12pm Eastern!)

Episode 54 Transcript

Virginia

Hi Sharon! Why don't we start by having you tell my listeners a little more about yourself and your work?

Sharon

Okay, so I am an anti-racism writer and educator, a former journalist, and I have been writing about anti-racism-related stuff for longer than it appears. I actually wrote my first article in 2016, but I wasn't doing it consistently. I launched an anti-racism newsletter in 2020. So it's just been going for just about two years now. In it, I share my perspectives as a global citizen. I was born in England, I grew up in the Caribbean, I lived in England as an adult. I visited the US. I lived in France. I've been in a lot of places, and I've experienced racism everywhere. And so I bring that lens to what I write about. You know, quite often we think what we're experiencing is the only way it's being experienced or is unique to the location that we're in. And my experience is that there's a lot of commonality in how these things operate in different places. 

Virginia

Oh, that's so interesting. I have British and American citizenship, but I've lived my whole life in America. And I definitely tend to think of racism as this very American issue. But as you're saying that, I'm realizing how incredibly reductive that is. Although Americans certainly are a big part of the problem. 

Sharon

Yes, but—or yes and, I suppose. Let's not forget that all of this started with the British people—well, British and Europeans—who colonized everywhere.

Virginia

Sure did. Yup. Absolutely. 

Sharon

There are many places besides the USA that share this history of enslavement. Barbados and the Caribbean being among those places. So there are similarities, there are commonalities, I think. It operates in a particularly American way, but it doesn't mean that it doesn't exist in other places. Because it does. It's sometimes less visible. And of course, because so many other places don't have a gun culture, you're less likely to end up dead as a Black person, even if people are being racist towards you. 

Virginia

Yes. We add that extra layer of things.

Well, I am having you here today to talk about a piece of American legislation because you wrote a really excellent piece for your newsletter. I want everyone to subscribe to your newsletter and to be supporting your work. Often you're putting things on my radar that I have missed and I just really appreciate the education that you do. This was a piece you wrote recently on the CROWN Act, which I have to admit I wasn't even aware of as something that was happening. So for starters, for folks who aren't who aren't familiar with this, can you tell us a little bit about what the CROWN act is and what inspired it? 

Sharon

The CROWN Act stands for Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural hair. I believe it was (first) sponsored by State Senator Holly Mitchell from California. And then other states have since passed similar laws. There is also a federal act, which was passed by the House earlier this year.

The idea is that Black people should be able to wear their natural hair, and not have it be a problem. In all post-enslavement societies, in all post-colonial societies, in many white majority places, the way that our hair grows out of our head is a problem for people. It can be seen as not professional. There are all sorts of ancient ideas about what Black people's hair is and isn't, that play into the way that it is treated. It's not just about being able to wear your hair, the respect piece is important as well. Because you'd be surprised how often—I mean, I worked in England for 15 years and there were people that would come and say, “Ooh, your hair! Let me…” (For those listening, I am running my hands through my hair.) “Your hair,” you know, “It feels so different. Let me…”

Virginia

Like it’s okay to touch you. 

Sharon

It's okay to just touch my hair. So there has historically been this thing where Black people's natural hair, and all the various styles that we put our hair in, were not seen as worthy of respect, were not seen as professional, were not seen as acceptable. All of that comes out of that whole white supremacist ideology.

Virginia

What I really appreciated in your piece is you explain why the ability to have legal redress for microaggressions is obviously really important, given this really problematic history that you've just sketched out for us. But you also wrote, “Why the hell do we need to legislate for Black people to enjoy autonomy over our hair?” So, talk a little more about that piece.

Sharon

White supremacy has weaponized Black hair in many ways. It's been a matter of control that extended to using hair as evidence of the reasons why Black people deserve to be enslaved, because our hair was seen as like wool, animal-like, somehow bestial, somehow not right. You could think of the Tignon Laws, which I think were in Louisiana, where Black women's hair was supposed to be covered. Because otherwise the white guys would not be able to control themselves. There was this idea of overt sexuality, as well.

Virginia

That being your problem to control as opposed to…

Sharon

Yes, our problem that they needed to control. Black women and Black people being what they are, we've made lemonade out of lemons. That's why you get these fabulous headdresses and head ties and so on. They look absolutely wonderful. But you know, the the original idea was to control it, to cover it up, to hide anything that would make us look more human and more beautiful. Often in the past, women have been encouraged to cover themselves up so that they don't get assaulted. This is another facet of that.

As I've said, I don't know any Black person who's worked in a white majority space, especially a woman, who has not had some white person in their office space, make free with their hair. And you know, I would not do the same if the situation were reversed. I want to add something here, which is that a lot of white people say, “Oh, I went to a country in Asia, and people were fascinated by my straight blonde hair.” And I say, that is not the same thing, because the history is different. The agency that you have historically had over your own body is different. Coming out of a culture where we have not had that agency, somebody putting their hands in our hair lands very differently. 

Virginia

Yeah, absolutely. It's always going to be a different experience. But you're right, people do make that comparison. I would imagine also there's some comparisons to when you're pregnant and people feel like they can touch your stomach. And that is also very violating. But that's a finite experience. You're only going to be in that mode for nine months. I'm not saying it's okay that it happens, it shouldn't happen. But this is something Black people are being asked to navigate daily, without other people adjusting. 

Sharon

I just actually want to address that particular because: Imagine if you're a Black pregnant woman.

Virginia

Oh god, yes.

Sharon

Because I was a Black pregnant woman. So people would be putting their hands in my hair, but they'd also be touching my belly. That felt extremely violating. 

Virginia

Yes, it is. I mean, it just is.

Sharon

And in a way that I couldn't even fully articulate at the time as to why it bothered me so much. But I know now why it bothered me so much. 

Virginia

Do you mind sharing a little bit about how you do navigate those moments?

Sharon

At the time when it used to happen most often, I was not often in a position to navigate that safely. Because people would then regard me as being the problem, regard me as being the angry Black woman, regard me as making something out of nothing. Now I would be in a position to say something like, “Because of the history of enslavement, this does not feel good to me. This feels like a violation.” And I could say it as plainly as that.

And I think if you said it like that people would would pause and think about it. I've not often had the chance to do that, but it's definitely something that I would do the next time it happens. And of course, you know, the other weapon is a glare. A glare, the right kind of glare. Sometimes you can see someone coming towards you and you just give them that look and they think better of it. It's the bomb look, the look that you give your kid when they're about to do something that's really problematic and you don't even want to have to talk about it and it stops them in their tracks. Sometimes you need to pull that look out.

Virginia

You need that look. I mean, and again, not to equate the experiences, but I did notice that getting touched while pregnant happened much less the second time. I think because I had learned that look a little. I think I was much clearer with the nope, you're not allowed in this space.

I was wondering if we could also talk a bit about texturism, that’s a concept you hit on in that piece as well. How do white people perpetrate this, and also how does it play out within the Black community?

Sharon

Okay, so I'm going to start with the second question first. This is another offshoot of enslavement, of that white supremacist ideal and ideology. The societies that we grew up in that say that “white is right” and that's what you aspire to. And it is true that in those times and even subsequently, if you had lighter skin, if you were closer to looking European, you had more opportunities open to you. One of the ways this revealed itself was in your hair. So you will hear people—I mean, I certainly did when I was growing up. I would hear older people talk about good hair, right? And good hair meant it had a little wave in it, it was closer to what they would think of as European hair. This happens in Black majority Caribbean countries, in Black communities all around the world, and in so many post-colonial spaces. 

What is also interesting is that many white people feel more comfortable with those people that they see as having more proximity to them, than the people that are darker skinned, that they see as having less proximity to them. I'm not sure they're always consciously aware of it, but I know that it does happen. For example, you can look at things like casting in films and TV series, and who gets what kind of roles. Where are the darker skinned people? What kind of roles do they get? What do the lighter skinned people with the wavy hair get? Who are the people that are representing Black people in the ads? Who are the models?

I mean, it's not 100 percent that way, but if you were to look at it, you would see that there's definitely this idea that having that wavy hair texture, and that lighter skin can buy you some additional visibility and acceptability. So, it plays out in what hair is deemed acceptable and professional within the Black community and beyond the Black community. 

Virginia

I'm thinking, as you mentioned casting, how even when a very dark-skinned Black person is cast in a role, it's then the subject of, “look at how we're breaking ground, look at what a big deal this is.” It has to be this huge conversation because it's so rare. So the assumptions prove the rule here, because you're still in a place where that's news, when that shouldn't be news.

I'm hoping we can also talk a little bit about how to navigate this conversation with our kids, because I do think hair—and of course skin color, as well—is often one of those physical differences that little kids—I'm thinking like three, five, seven year olds—will notice and point out about people when they meet them. And often white parents have this instinct to rush in with, “That's not nice, don't say anything.” And, maybe they're speaking in terms of “don't comment on that person's body, because that's rude.” But it also reinforces to white kids, that there's something wrong with Black hair, that this is something we can't talk about, that this is off limits in some way. 

Sharon

I remember when I was living in France and I was driving somewhere with a white friend and her kid who was maybe three or four at the time. He was fascinated by the fact that my skin was a different color. So he asked if I'd stayed out in the sun too long. And his mother was absolutely mortified. And I laughed, because, you know, he was three or four, he wasn't coming at it from a hurtful point of view. And I explained that people had different skin color. That's just how we are.

I often think when you're dealing with these things, going with the factual is the way to go. A recognition that the differences exist, but no suggestion that they mean something positive or negative in terms of how we interact with those people, you know? You have to, at the same time, avoid suggesting that there's something negative about having darker skin or Black skin, but also avoid suggesting that there's something particularly positive about having white skin. You have to do both things. Because kids are going to notice, kids are going to see it. I think for young, very young kids, that kind of thing doesn't matter to them. We have to not shy away from the fact that there are aspects of society that are going to see these things as major differences and treat people differently. But we can also teach them that this is not something that they themselves have to do or perpetuate. 

Virginia

So in that moment, what would you have wished your friend had said to her kid? It sounds like you handled it beautifully, but it shouldn't be your job to handle it. What do you want white parents to be doing?

Sharon

Definitely not to come down on the kid like a ton of bricks, suggesting that they've done something wrong in even asking the question. Possibly reframing the question. Parents have to educate themselves so that when they get these questions, they have the answers. Because I don't know that that particular parent would have even known what to say or how to explain it. 

Virginia

I think often, the reason we panic is because we are having our own stuff called out, we're suddenly realizing, Oh, I don't have the right language for this. And that's on me. I should have done that work.

Sharon

If you're going to raise anti-racist kids, you have to be an anti-racist parent. And that doesn't mean that you're not going to make mistakes. It means that you recognize that this is the route that we have to travel for all our humanity. And for equality and equity for all.

Virginia

Another way I get asked this question often is how to respond if your three year old says, “Why is that lady so fat?” You know, comments on body size, and I always go with something like, “Bodies come in all different shapes and sizes—”

Sharon

—And colors!

Virginia

And colors! Hair comes in all different colors and styles and, you know, hair comes in different textures. You can just normalize that without getting into some intense thing about it. 

Sharon

Especially for young kids. You have different conversations with your kids about things like this at different ages. If your kid is three, you don't necessarily have to give them the whole history of colonialism, you know? If your kid is 12, that might be different. 

Virginia

You should be doing that, absolutely. 

Sharon

Exactly. Because we we teach our kids at a very young age about stranger danger and unwanted touching. And it's a good time to say that that also extends to touching people's skin and hair when they have not asked for it. I think that is something that would fit very nicely with that lesson, right? 

Virginia

Yeah, to just say, “No one can touch your body without permission. You don't touch other people's bodies without permission.”

Sharon

Exactly.

Virginia

And fortunately, young children will give you plenty of opportunities to reinforce that.

Sharon 

Because they're curious. They're always, you know, sticking their hands in things.

Virginia

Black hair is obviously such a huge topic. What haven't I asked you that you think is really important for us to be thinking about? 

Sharon

I think it's important for people to recognize that no matter how fascinated you might be by a Black person’s hair, we are not an exhibit or curiosity. Just don't touch the hair. You know, just don't touch the hair. Some people are so traumatized by it, even if you asked to touch the hair, they'd still be upset. We're coming out of a history where Black people for centuries had no agency. Where in some countries, we were put on display. And those very features that you now want to treat as a curiosity were the things that were displayed.

So, it's not just about it being wrong in this moment, it's all the generational trauma that is awakened by that. So it's really best avoided. Google is available, if you want to find out more. If you have a real Black friend—and I'm not talking about somebody you work with that you don't even sit with at lunchtime. I'm talking about somebody that's actually in your life—then maybe you can have those more in depth conversations with that person. But if we're talking about your colleagues and casual acquaintances, for best results, just keep your hands out of their hair.

I was just going to add that from the point of view of your workplace, what you can do is you can look at what your policies say and make sure that they are equitable in terms of what's seen as professional. Do your bit to change things where you are. 

Virginia

That's a great idea. And I just wanted to share your rage for a moment that it is 2022 and we are having to say don't touch people's hair. And we are having to pass laws to protect people from this. I mean, it is astounding to me that body autonomy is not more of a—well, I live in the United States where they're taking bodily autonomy away in so many different ways right now. 

Sharon

You know, if you think about how the country started, it started by taking stuff away from the people that were here. It started by taking autonomy away from the Black people they brought in. It started in a time when women didn't have very many rights at all. Yeah, and all of this was still the case at the point when the country became the country.

Virginia

Right. 

Sharon

So maybe it's time to rethink what the country is and should be and could be, instead of going back to what was the norm in 1776.

Virginia

 Which protected only one type of person. 

Sharon

I mean, exactly, exactly. It's the 21st century, we should be beyond that. 

Virginia

Definitely. Well, I so appreciate you giving us this education, taking the time to talk through this issue more. I think it's one that all of us can be doing better on. And encouraging us to think about how it's playing out in our workplaces, and our kids’ schools, all of that.

Butter for Your Burnt Toast

Virginia

We wrap up every podcast with my butter for your burnt toast segment. This is where we give a fun recommendation of something we are loving or learning from right now. So Sharon, what's your butter?

Sharon

Well, the funny thing about it, it's a little bit of a self promotion, in a way, because I've just started a new gig at Diverse Leaders Group, a brand new startup as the head of anti-racism. Our aim is to identify development support leaders at all levels. That's anyone wanting to lead the way to equality in their own lives and for their communities. We're starting with anti-racist leaders. So I'm pumped about developing community support and educational resources to help people really live anti-racism and create a more equal world for everybody. 

Virginia

That's fantastic. My recommendation, related to our conversation about Black hair, is a kid's book that my both my daughters have really loved over the years called Don't Touch My Hair by Sharee Miller. It is a great story of a Black girl who has amazing hair and everybody when she walks down the street wants to touch it, and she doesn't like it. She uses her voice to tell people to stop and they have to listen.

We talked about how with your three year old, you're not gonna explain all of colonialism, but you can start to talk to your three and four year old about how Black kids have to deal with this and your straight hair doesn't attract the same attention. So that was a conversation I wanted to be having with them. But they also relate so deeply to this experience of a kid getting unwanted attention, and how do you sort of say your body is yours, and so there's certainly a universal theme, as well as it being a great way to have this conversation and help kids understand this issue. So I wanted to recommend that. 

Sharon, tell everyone the name of your newsletter and anything else you want us to be following?. How can we support you? 

Sharon

My newsletter is Sharon's Anti Racism Newsletter. You can support me by taking a paid subscription because one day I would like to run the newsletter full time. And you could also join the Anti-Racist Leaders Association, which I mentioned earlier and take the lead in fighting racism wherever you are. 

Virginia

Amazing. Thank you so much for being here. I really loved this conversation. 

Sharon

Thank you, Virginia. I enjoyed it, too. Thanks so much for inviting me.

Thanks so much for listening to Burnt Toast! If you’d like to support the show, please subscribe for free in your podcast player and tell a friend about this episode.

The Burnt Toast Podcast is produced and hosted by me, Virginia Sole-Smith. You can follow me on Instagram or Twitter.

Burnt Toast transcripts and essays are edited and formatted by Corinne Fay, who runs @SellTradePlus, an Instagram account where you can buy and sell plus size clothing.

The Burnt Toast logo is by Deanna Lowe.

Our theme music is by Jeff Bailey and Chris Maxwell.

Tommy Harron is our audio engineer.

Thanks for listening and for supporting independent anti-diet journalism.

This is a public episode. If you’d like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit virginiasolesmith.substack.com/subscribe
Jul 28, 2022
"Well, if we have to break the law, how are we going to do it?"
2459
People don’t have a choice about whether or not to fight these things. You have to keep learning all you can, you have to keep finding the allies you can. And to despair is to abandon all the people who need us most.

You’re listening to Burnt Toast. This is the podcast about diet culture, fatphobia, parenting, and health. I’m Virginia Sole-Smith, and I also write the Burnt Toast newsletter.

Today is a very special episode because I am interviewing one of my very favorite people in the world: My stepmother, Mary Summers. Mary is a Senior Fellow in the Fox Leadership Program and a lecturer in political science at the University of Pennsylvania. She’s also a former physician assistant, political speechwriter, and a lifelong activist.

And 52 years ago, she and three other activists made a 28 minute black and white film about what it was like to live in a country where abortions were illegal. (Watch it and get involved!)

This was in 1970. The Roe v Wade Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion throughout the country was three years in the future. And of the approximately 800,000 abortions performed in 1970, only 1% were obtained legally. 300,000 resulted in complications and 8000 resulted in death.

We are now living in post-Roe America. There is much about this fight that has changed in the past 52 years, but also much that stays the same. So, I asked Mary to come chat with me about her work on the film as well as what we can learn from the people who fought for legal abortion before as we begin to do it again.

PS. Mary was delighted to donate her $100 podcast honorarium to the National Network of Abortion Funds. Thank you to the Burnt Toast paid subscribers who made that possible!

And big news: The Burnt Toast Giving Circle has exceeded our goal! We’ve raised $20,111 and counting for Arizona state legislature races. You can join us here, and read more about why that helps in the fight to legalize abortion here.

Episode 53 Transcript

Virginia

Let’s start by telling listeners a little bit about you and about your work.

Mary

I am a senior fellow with the Robert Fox Leadership Program at the University of Pennsylvania. I’ve been, for the last 20 years, a lecturer in political science, teaching service learning courses on the politics of food and agriculture and on schools as sites where inequalities and economic status and and health, health especially, can either be addressed or reproduced. My students, as well as being in class with me, are working in schools and after-school programs and food stamp snap enrollment campaigns and programs like that, so that they’re learning about institutions on the ground as well as in the classroom.

Virginia

And that just one of many things you have done in your life. Do you want to also just go back a little further and tell us what you did, especially around the time you made the film?

Mary

I got involved in making the film right as I was graduating from college in 1970 I was at Radcliffe. And I had gotten interested in film, and interested in the women’s movement. That period at Harvard was the height of the anti-war movement. We basically were on strike most spring semesters that I was there. Especially the Harvard strike of 1969 was really important to me, seeing the entire university mobilized around stopping ROTC on campus. People who had been meeting in tiny rooms trying to organize, by the end of that strike, were meeting in the football stadium. Faculty and students were working together, voting on the demands of the strike and passing them overwhelmingly and the administration basically conceding everything we were fighting for. That gave me a real sense that we could change the world.

In the years both prior to and after graduation, I was also getting more interested in the women’s movement as one more important way of thinking about relationships within the anti-war movement, within the student movement, and in society as a whole. Men were clearly very dominant. And women were starting to be very interested in talking to each other, about everything from clitoral orgasms to shared housekeeping in ways that were exciting and interesting. And then, a person I was taking some classes from told me about a group of women who were making a film about abortion. So I contacted them. 

They originally started out of the same group of women who eventually would become the founders of Our Bodies Ourselves. It was a big Bread and Roses office that was generating all this activity around women’s health and consciousness raising groups and just lots of excitement about thinking about the inequalities of gender roles, and how could we address that. So I wrote a little grant to a program called Education for Action that that gave me funding to join this group of four women who were making this film on abortion.

It had originally been inspired, I think, by Jane Pincus, the person who made it possible to make a film because her husband was a documentary filmmaker then at MIT and we were able to use the MIT film lab equipment, and both cameras and editing. She had been listening to what was then the equivalent of NPR, about efforts to get the Massachusetts legislature to legalize abortion, and just couldn’t believe that the only voices you could hear debating it were men’s voices. So she thought, well, if we could make a film that would raise up women’s stories and voices that would make a big difference in these debates. And that made a lot of sense to me.

Virginia

Can you talk a little more about why the conversation on abortion in particular was being only had by men?

Mary

Literally, the Massachusetts legislature was all men. I mean, if there were any women in it, they, their voices were not on the radio. And really, that was a time when electoral politics was overwhelmingly dominated by white men.

Virginia

Let’s also be clear, this was three years before Roe, so abortion was illegal, which was why you were doing the film. How did you think about the potential risks you were facing by doing this work? 

Mary

This was a period in which it looked as if the way we would win abortion rights was state by state, with the legislatures passing it. Hawaii had legalized abortion before we started, but that, it’s so far away.

Virginia

Right, not very helpful.

Mary

People were not going to Hawaii for abortions. Then the big question was that a lot of states were starting to legalize abortion, but you had to get permission from a doctor, meet with a psychiatrist. Abortion on demand sounded like a very, very radical idea to a lot of people. So, we were very interested in making a film that would say that should be the norm, that women should get to decide if they needed an abortion. Obviously, you can understand why people who are fighting just within state legislatures were feeling like, we aren’t going to be able to get any legalization at all, unless we allow for all these permissions and doctor involvement, “it has to be between a woman and her doctor” kind of talk.

Virginia

They were taking a kind of incremental approach.

Mary

Right. So it seemed really important to have more pressure and organizing outside the legislatures and the courts that would help push the idea that this should be women’s decisions.

Now on the question of risk—there was certainly a lot of stigma. But there was also tremendous pent up trauma that women did want a chance to talk about. I mean, that was what was so exciting about the women’s movement at that time, was all these women who had experienced a whole range of different types of very real oppression, either in their own homes or in—I mean, I went to my college infirmary and asked for birth control and they wouldn’t give it to me. The range of humiliating experiences women had been through, much less the women who had been through illegal abortions, which for many were so terrifying and so scary. There was this lovely doctor in the hills of Pennsylvania that apparently gave many women very good abortion experiences, but there were a lot of people who did not have that. So, for some of them, just being able to tell their stories was huge, even if they didn’t want their name associated with it. We started receiving tapes of women wanting to tell their stories and several of the filmmakers had stories that they taped.

So I think more we were really excited and energized about doing this work. I mean, there was a lot of debate about whether we wanted our names on the movie. So in that sense, there was worry about stigma, I would say.

Virginia

It’s so moving to think about all those women sending in those tapes. Like pre-internet, that’s a lot of work, right? You’ve have to get a tape made, put it in the mail. It’s just, it’s amazing.

Mary

That’s one of the things I remember, is trying to splice those tapes together and you know my technical skills! To create the story in the first part of the film.

I do want to emphasize that all around the country there were women who were who were becoming amazingly strong and militant around the fact that they weren’t going to put up with this anymore. We knew about the Janes in Chicago—which I think a lot of your listeners are going to know about—where women had trained themselves to do abortions on kitchen tables. To me, at least, that seemed extraordinary and, and really scary. I was like, well, thank goodness, I’m just making a film. Because that was also risking very long term prison sentences. Both, you know, could you harm somebody and could you go to prison for this. Both of those things seemed much more scary than anything we were doing.

Virginia

As you mentioned, the original goal as activists was to work towards passing abortion laws, state by state, that’s where you were when Roe happened. I would love for you to talk a little bit about how that conversation shifted. Was there a feeling that like, we really still need to do the state work? Or did it feel like okay, now that conversation is over?

Mary

Well, a couple of things were going on. I think in terms of the bigger political picture, there was this sense of, Oh, okay. We’ve won this in the courts. That’s where we’re going to be protected. No matter what happens in the state legislature, the Supreme Court has given us this right. So, I think especially for the the people who are devoting their lives to winning abortion rights, that that just made sense.

I did think grassroots organizing and changing people’s hearts and minds, and reaching out to people with women’s stories was very, very, very important. That, to me, was the way you could make more fundamental and more lasting political change. I mean, it was incredibly important to protect women’s individual rights. But to me, we needed these bigger social and political changes that weren’t going to happen through the courts. So that was the bigger political picture.

The personal picture was: It took us almost a year longer to finish this film than we thought it would. We weren’t getting any funding. We had been this very small, intense group of women, trying to figure out how to make this film, how to tell these stories, how to guarantee that it would put abortion in a broader context in a way that we all felt proud of. Some of the major forces funding the push to win abortion rights were associated with organizations like Zero Population Growth, that had this big push on, we can solve poverty by making sure poor women don’t have children. We didn’t want our film to be used by people who had a class perspective that we thought was wrong. But it was really hard to figure out how to how to do that. So there were a lot of tensions among ourselves as we were figuring all that out. And we had to get out of the MIT Film Studio! So, we finished it quite abruptly. There were a couple of showings and we each tried to arrange other showings. My parents were in Rochester then and I went off to show it at the University of Rochester and RIT and a former professor had me come show it at Mount Holyoke.

Meanwhile, we needed to get jobs, we needed to move on with our lives. And, and it was very clear that now that abortion was legal— our film was mainly about how incredibly frightening illegal abortions were, which was not the main message that young women should be hearing. What they needed was assurance that legal abortions are safe. And so like the Guttmacher Institute, folks, for example, were kind of horrified by our film.

Virginia

Plus, the abortion pill was not an option back then. 

Mary

The only thing was a D&C.

Virginia

And that does change even what a legal abortion looks like now.

Mary

In fact, legal D&Cs were not the intense, scary, painful experience that the film portrays. The broader issues that we wanted to address in the film were about the huge percentage of the people that were actually dying from illegal abortions being Black and poor women. They were also the people with the higher maternal mortality rates. Our eagerness was to address issues of inequality with regard to race and class and women’s health. Clearly all that was still very relevant. Winning abortion rights didn’t mean winning abortion access.

Virginia 

Right. You see abortion as just one piece of this much larger puzzle. And at times, this has put you at odds with other feminists who’ve taken a single issue approach to this topic. So let’s talk a little bit about why it is so important to connect abortion to other issues, especially poverty, and how that helps work towards building these broader movements.

Mary

I’m somewhat reluctant to be critical, because I’m old enough now and also have studied history enough to be able to see, again and again, that what happens when you have these big broad movements trying to fight for social justice is: We never win everything we’re fighting for. And there’s a tendency afterwards to blame the people fighting for not having won it all, as opposed to blaming their opponents. One reason I want people to see the film is because I think there is this impression of “Oh, those second wave feminists, all they cared about was middle class white women,” and you can see from the film how concerned we were that that the people who were dying were Black. And how concerned we were about forced sterilization. We did not succeed in raising up those issues in ways where we won but we were raising them up.

I do think the important thing to remember is that Roe v. Wade is won in 73. And throughout the 70s, going into the 80s, we have an increasing reaction against these efforts to fight for greater equality and to use government to protect people’s rights. There’s a growing reaction against the civil rights movement, against the women’s movement, against the environmental movement. I mean, they’re achieving their greatest victories. But the reaction against them is growing and is fully articulated when Ronald Reagan gets elected and is saying, the problem is government.

The world in which you grew up is a world in which everybody was being told governments, our bureaucracy, they don’t do anybody any good. We need to work with markets to make the world a better place. That that became the mantra, which worked very well for people who had enough money. I mean, it didn’t work, it wasn’t even great for them, but it was way better for them than for people who didn’t have enough money to participate in markets. But that was the world in which people were still trying to fight for women’s equality. So the definition of equality became narrower and narrower. It was like, we need for women to get to be part of that narrow group of elites that are dominating this economy.

Virginia

It was just about accessing the white man’s power, it wasn’t redefining it.

Mary

Well, and only a very few white men’s power. Wealthy white men’s power. Very well educated and professional white men’s power. So that is happening at the same time that millions and millions and millions of white men and women and people of color, who throughout the 60s and 70s, had lived in an economy of greater equality, higher wages, jobs with benefits, pensions, funded pensions, are losing all of that.

So you can completely understand why if we’re going to live in a world dominated by wealthy elites, it should seem right that women and black people should be part of those elites. You can understand why those struggles became narrowly focused. But it also then lost you the broad base that you need to sustain a greater social movement for a vision of social justice that that speaks to more people.

Virginia

I think it’s important for folks doing this work now to understand that second wave feminists weren’t all working under the Betty Friedan model. That there was the Johnnie Tillman model (as I discussed with Angela Garbes), and this focus on what if we were dismantling this whole system of elitism as opposed to just getting a couple people promoted?

Mary

Which we thought we were doing! We won significant victories. I don’t want to lose track of that. It means a tremendous amount that we are not in the same place in this struggle that we were when I was young, much less when my mother was young. She couldn’t get a diaphragm until Massachusetts passed laws saying married couples could get birth control. So the victories we won were really significant. But the Reagan Revolution was really significant in ways that I see as resulting in the election of Donald Trump, which is why we lost abortion.

Virginia

And right now, as we’re all reeling from everything, there’s this new, divisive conversation emerging. I think there’s value to this push on using inclusive language around abortion to acknowledge that people of all genders have abortions. And then we’re hearing from folks like Pamela Paul—you and I talked about her op-ed—saying we have to keep this as a women’s issue. I think you are such a great example of someone who has been through all the different iterations of this, who has embraced inclusive language. I’d love you to talk a little bit about how you see that piece of it. What can we learn from that conversation? What do we need to be doing?

Mary

I think of social and political movements as as playing several different functions, all of which are really important. And one is, they get their strength, from the fact of people recognizing their own experience, you know, “oh my gosh, I’ve been living with this, you’ve been living with this.” We can say out loud what was terrible about this, and we can name it, we could say how horrible it was that our husbands thought they don’t even have to do the dishes, much less share the cooking. Obviously, this was going to make our husbands defensive. But it was still so important for us that we do this.

And I just think that’s always true. We need to recognize the needs of people to speak to their own experience, to name it, and to name it in ways that may make others uncomfortable.

At the same time, I just so deeply believe that most of us want the same things. We all want clean air, we all want a planet that’s not going to burn to a crisp, we want our kids to go to schools—

Virginia

And not get shot at.

Mary

Where they’re not killed and where they’re nurtured, where they learn stuff.

Virginia

Oh so, raising the bar a little higher even than not getting killed. Sure. I like how you dream big, Mary.

Mary

We want to live in safe neighborhoods. All of these are things that all of us want and right now, the politics of this country do not reflect that. Issues have been defined in ways where we just need to do a lot, a lot. Those of us who can stand to, those of us who aren’t too hurt by what we’ve been through—I don’t think any of us should be trying to force anybody who’s been through something horrendous that makes them not want to talk to anybody who sounds homophobic or sounds anti-trans. People need to be safe and to be in community. There’s so much work to be done, that no matter what your trauma, you can be doing something really useful to help others who suffered trauma like yours, right? But those of us who have led pretty protected, privileged lives—and many extraordinarily strong and amazing people who haven’t— I do think we need to be doing everything we can to be reaching out and to be listening and to not limiting our language.

We need to be able to talk to all kinds of different people who use all kinds of different language. I do think it’s important to be able to say to our trans brothers and sisters, “There are times I want to talk about women because this is so overwhelmingly a women’s experience and this is an audience I need to reach.” But to me, it’s also very liberating to go back to being able to speak very generally about people.  The issues that are affecting Black lives are the same issues of health care, and housing, and jobs, and global warming, pollution. These all have more impact on Black lives than on white lives. But to address those issues, we need movements that speak to white people, too. For a long time, in the women’s movement, we sort of weren’t speaking to men at all. And that wasn’t a way to win.

Virginia

Right, that just made everything very easy to dismiss as a women’s issue. That’s why we’ve made no progress on paid leave, because it’s only women who need to take paid leave, because it’s only women who have the babies. We’re not going to get anywhere on a lot of this until it matters to men.

Mary

That’s why I think it’s actually quite exciting to challenge gender roles. Let’s speak to “people.” 

Virginia

Right, let’s talk about how people have abortions, and people are impacted by abortion.

Mary

Yeah. And obviously, you know, there can be grammatical issues. I’m sort of against people getting too self righteous about the grammar either way. I remember a time when amazing civil rights leaders didn’t want to start saying “African American” or “Black,” who were sticking with Negro. And they had led extraordinary struggles and then started to get dissed by militant young Black leaders. Those stories happen again and again, in our movements. I do think it’s very understandable how and why it happens. The more we say, the more voices we have speaking in as many languages as possible about how most of us want the same thing, the better. Let’s make good faith efforts to get there. Let’s not attack each other. Let’s try to listen. Let’s try to understand why people are hurt and acknowledge that. And let’s follow leadership’s that’s getting us where we want to go.

Virginia

And as you said, those of us with privileged lives, who can do more work, we can do this work of learning new language. This is not the hardest thing anyone’s been asked to do! If this makes things safer and more comfortable for more people to participate, then we should be doing it.

Mary

What bothers me about the Pamela Paul piece is: No one is saying to her, don’t go out there and speak to women. She’s the one who’s choosing—

Virginia

—to feel attacked by other people’s choices. Other people’s language doesn’t actually have to impact her at all.

So, here we are post-Roe. You and I spent the week together after the decision was announced and I think I cried every day. People who know you and know your work were saying to me, “Isn’t your stepmom just devastated by what’s happening right now?” But you were one of the people giving me a lot of hope. So I would love for you to share some of that. We had a whole thread discussion here, and I was hearing from lawyers who were feeling like they had to question their careers, like, how do I keep doing this work? I was hearing from health care providers, from parents, everybody is very scared right now. And I think, pretty depressed, in my generation.

Mary

I do understand how and why people decided to rely on the courts to protect abortion and I want us to pass laws that will allow us to do that again. I see abortion rights and access as critical to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I think we have to get the majority of Americans to see that that’s the case and pass laws that will protect all of us. I understand that when it looked like you could just get those rights protected without getting people to vote for them, why people went in that direction, even though it meant giving up on building on the hearts and minds. It seemed like a safer way to go, right?

Virginia

Even though there were big trade offs to it.

Mary

The truth is that 50 years ago, we probably could have won. Before there was 50 years of anti-abortion organizing. We could have won hearts and minds more easily than we’re going to do now. 50 years of anti abortion organizing, 50 years of people’s becoming increasingly embattled and increasingly embittered by losing so much. Which has given the people that call themselves right to life their power. They seem to be the ones that are standing for principle and reaching out to others and saying, “We have principles, we value life, you know, and we may lose everything else, but we’re going to stand up for life.”

And those of us who want better lives for all people can’t allow them to be the ones in that position. I do think we need to reach out to all the presumably good hearted people who are embracing that. If they want to support women and having children, we need to say, “Okay, work with us to support healthcare for all, the Child Tax allowance…”

Virginia

Paid leave, day care…

Mary

I do think that’s one front we need to move on. We need to embrace a broader truly pro-life agenda. There’s so much work to be done to promote access, that actually people have had to be working on all these years ever since Medicaid stopped paying, much less people who don’t have access to Medicaid. People have been doing amazing work at that. They now need even more support, there’s all the work to support individual women directly. And then there’s the broader, how do we change the politics of this? And then, obviously, we’ve got to continue the court battles. We need people passionately defending freedom of speech in the states where doctors and health care providers are being told, you have to tell patients lies. Either they’re being forbidden from talking to people about abortions at all, or they’re being told they have to read scripts where abortions are associated with breast cancer and suicide.

Virginia

None of which is true.

Mary

It’s completely false science! It’s just a correlation of the fact that it’s the poor people and people of color who are an overwhelming number of the people who need abortions, and they’re also the people who face the worst health consequences on every issue. That correlation is being read as if it’s a scientific thing that has to be read to patients. Every law school in the country should be helping people think, how do we challenge this? And every medical and nursing student school should be thinking, how do we help?

I am very interested in how this is all going to play out in terms of thinking, how can we support people legally? Because we do need all these organizations that are trying to provide abortion rights and access. We can’t have them all go under. I think a lot of them do have to follow whatever the law is, and provide whatever help they can. I think a whole lot of the rest of us do need to be like the Janes in the 70s, thinking, Well, if you have to break the law in order to help women, how are we going to do it? How are we going to do it in ways that makes the law unenforceable in the ways that civil rights people did?

I mean, I think there are enormous challenges. But we have to meet them.

I have to say the one other thing that really keeps me going is thinking about history. When you think about all that Black people went through after Reconstruction. People don’t have a choice about whether or not to fight these things. You have to keep learning all you can you have to keep finding the allies you can. To despair is to abandon all the people who need us most.

Virginia

Well, now I’m going to cry again. Yes, you’re right. You’re right! It’s just, it’s hard. It’s scary. We have a lot of lives at stake and I think just sometimes I have to sit with that for a minute. But I appreciate you sketching out what these different fights are going to look like. I think it helps us all think about how we’re going to contribute. 

Mary

And the sense of solidarity you can feel once you’re working with other people does support you. It’s very important not to do this work in ways that make you feel burned out or under attack in ways that you can’t handle. You have to find what works for you. And the community that can support you and the ways in which you can support yourself.

Virginia

We should say, too, there is a very robust reproductive justice movement. There are people who have been planning for this, who knew this was coming. Our work is to figure out how to support them. There was an initial response on social media, of people posting things about like, “you can come stay in my guest room if you need an abortion in my state!” And we may come to that, but there are also systems in place that we can be supporting. Individual acts of heroism going rogue is not going to be how we get this done. 

Mary

And there are organizations organizing the guest rooms! People have been doing that all along because because for all these decades many women have been lacking access and then having to come to other states.

Butter For Your Burnt Toast

Virginia

Well, on the note of figuring out how to do this work without burning out, we can turn to our Butter for Burnt Toast segment where we give a recommendation. I would love to know what you were doing to take care of yourself right now?

Mary

What do I do every day, or try to do every day, it is to have breakfast on my porch, where I get the look at my garden, and read the paper. And talk to my husband, to the extent that he’s willing to have breakfast on the porch! He’s more willing on weekends, sometimes weekdays, as well. It’s a way of sharing the news, even when it’s really bad news, getting to talk about it together makes you feel more in control. And then, the way the sunlight hits the trees around my garden, that early in the morning is just so beautiful. And then I take the time to make myself a breakfast with yogurt and fruit and granola. It’s sort of the food preparation I most enjoy and enjoy eating.

Virginia

People should know that Mary is not someone who enjoys cooking dinner, certainly not on a nightly basis. All of the other conversations we’ve had about mental loads of planning meals, and all of that come directly from lived experience! But yes, breakfast preparation. I also enjoy that for myself, not for other people.

I have the same breakfast ritual, except I do it before anyone else is awake in our house so that I can just sit out on the porch and look at the flowers and the trees and rage about the news. And sometimes text Dad my Spelling Bee score, even though he’s probably already done it. It is really important to have that quiet time at the beginning of the day. It is really lovely.

Well, Mary, thank you so much. This was a really helpful conversation. I hope it helps people feel clearer on what we’re doing. And you know what this work needs to look like now, and I want to make sure people watch the film and get involved. So let’s wrap up by telling people where to find the film.

Mary

You can see the film for free at our website Abortion and Women’s Rights 1970. We really hope people will find it helpful for thinking talking and organizing around abortion rights and access. It’s 28 minutes long. It’s a good length for either a public screening or inviting some friends over to watch it and discuss it over coffee or a glass of wine. And the website’s “get involved” page provides links to organizations that they can work with or donate to, which support individuals in need of abortion care, helping people access medication abortions, as well as organizing and lobbying at local, state, national, and international levels. We would really love for that the link to that website in the film to be widely shared and posted!

Thanks so much for listening to Burnt Toast! If you’d like to support the show, please subscribe for free in your podcast player and tell a friend about this episode.

The Burnt Toast Podcast is produced and hosted by me, Virginia Sole-Smith. You can follow me on Instagram or Twitter.

Burnt Toast transcripts and essays are edited and formatted by Corinne Fay, who runs @SellTradePlus, an Instagram account where you can buy and sell plus size clothing.

The Burnt Toast logo is by Deanna Lowe.

Our theme music is by Jeff Bailey and Chris Maxwell.

Tommy Harron is our audio engineer.

Thanks for listening and for supporting independent anti-diet journalism.

This is a public episode. If you’d like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit virginiasolesmith.substack.com/subscribe
Jul 21, 2022
You Never Need to Wear Skinny Yoga Pants
2415
Yoga Journal, which is the long standing print magazine for yoga professionals, and the yoga community, is owned by the same parent company that publishes Clean Eating magazine. So there’s a lot of intersection in the writing and the journalists between them. And I find it very problematic. Extremely problematic. But that’s capitalism, right? 

You’re listening to Burnt Toast. This is the podcast where we talk about diet culture, fatphobia, parenting, and health.

Today I’m chatting with Jessica Grosman! Jessica is an experienced anti-diet registered dietitian and certified Intuitive Eating counselor, weight inclusive health practitioner, and yoga teacher. She is on the faculty of Yoga for Eating Disorders, where she teaches the popular compassionate and mindful yin yoga series. And she’s a co-founder of Anti-Diet Culture Yoga, a platform with a mission to keep diet culture out of yoga spaces by providing training and educational opportunities for teachers.

So, as you can probably guess from her bio, Jessica and I are discussing the intersection of diet culture and yoga today. This was such a fascinating conversation for me, because I truly did not know the extent to which yoga has been colonized and appropriated by white people and diet culture. If you have a fraught relationship with yoga, or have had that over the years like I have, I think you will get a lot out of this one.

I do want to acknowledge that Jessica and I are two white, privileged ladies having this conversation. I’m very aware that in order to divest from yoga from diet culture and white supremacy more completely, we need to be learning this from people of color. We do shout out some of those voices towards the end of the episode. But I would love to know who else you are learning from—post suggestions in the comments so we can continue this conversation!

If you enjoy this episode, please subscribe, rate and review us in your podcast player! It’s free and a great way to help more folks find the show.

Keep sending in your questions for Virginia’s Office Hours! If you have a question about navigating diet culture and anti-fat bias that you’d like to talk through with me, or if you just want to rant about a shitty diet with me, you can submit your question/topic here. I’ll pick one person to join me on the bonus episode so we can hash it out together.

PS. Also hi new subscribers/listeners! I think a bunch of you found me through Julia Turshen’s podcast Keep Calm and Cook On. I have loved her entire series on Unapologetic Appetites and was delighted to join her for this conversation.

Post-Publication Note from Virginia: After this episode aired, a listener let us know that Jessica’s Instagram contains some old content that may be triggering to folks in eating disorder recovery. I don’t expect Burnt Toast Podcast guests to align with me on every single issue; I also don’t expect podcast guests to have lived their lives free from diet culture influences (if I did, I’d have no one to interview!). And I find tremendous value in the conversation we had on this episode. But I wanted to offer this word of caution for folks in the Burnt Toast community who are in recovery. Please take care of yourselves.

Episode 52 Transcript

Virginia

Hi, Jessica! Why don’t we start by having you tell our listeners a little bit about yourself and your work?

Jessica

My work is primarily patient-focused nutrition therapy, and I work to help individuals reestablish a comfortable connection with food and body most often after years of living and diet culture. I am a member of ASDAH, the Association of Size Diversity and Health and use HAES principles in my individualized care. I’m also a yoga teacher, as I mentioned, and really love bringing together all sorts of ways to help people feel comfortable in their body.

Virginia

I think you’re our first yoga teacher on the podcast and today that’s going to be our focus — this intersection of diet culture and yoga. I think for a lot of listeners, this probably isn’t breaking news. We’ve all kind of seen the Lululemon version of yoga, and the Gwyneth Paltrow / Goop version. I think a lot of us may assume that diet culture has been baked into yoga from the start. But is that true or do you see this as a more recent co-option of yoga?

Jessica

I want to start by asking you if you know what the word yoga means. So I want to spin this question back to you. 

Virginia

I feel like I knew this when I did a lot more yoga, and now I’m going to fail this quiz. 

Jessica

It’s okay! Yoga is a Sanskrit word that means “to yoke” or “to join.” So right there, the word yoga does not mean acrobatics, leggings, green juice, restrictive diets, or any other stereotype that has been portrayed in the media through diet culture. I want to acknowledge that right from the start that yoga has nothing to do with diet culture in its origin.

I’m going to give you a little history lesson here. There are eight limbs of yoga, with only one being the physical practice of yoga, the poses and postures that we see so often. In the classic, traditional sense, yoga really is about the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind. The physical practice of yoga was developed to help rid the body of distractions, of impulses, to be able to sit and meditate. So if you think about kids in a classroom, we know that if we want kids to sit and concentrate, first we let them get all their energy out, and they run around on a playground have play time before they’re able to sit calmly and concentrate. Yoga, the physical practice of yoga, is in the same vein, to give the body time to rid itself of the distractions to be able to turn inward and sit and focus in meditation.

Virginia

I love that framing and I’d never thought of it that way. And nothing you mentioned has to do with weight loss or changing your body size or shape. So when did the shift happened?

Jessica

So, yoga was brought to the west from southern Asia about 100 years ago—and notice I said Southern Asia and not India, because yoga’s inception was not just in the land that is currently India, but all throughout southern Asia. So we want to give respect and honor to those lineages. But it was brought to the West about 100 years ago by a Russian woman named Eugenia Peterson who later changed her name to Indra Devy. She was an actress and a spiritual seeker who traveled to India and became the first female student of Krishna Macharia, who was considered the father of modern yoga. He created the posture-based yoga practice, the physical yoga that was influenced by martial arts and wrestling and British calisthenics. Remember, this was in colonized, British-occupied India. And so Indra was able to bring her yoga studies to the west with her when South Asians were not able to come West due to the Immigration Act of 1924, which set quotas for immigration from “less desirable” countries. Indra came back to the west, came to Hollywood dressed in saris and was emulated by movie stars and Hollywood types seeking exotic practices from the East to keep themselves young and beautiful. This was the start of the modern wellness movement and with yoga at the core. 

Virginia

She’s like a proto-Gwyneth Paltrow.

Jessica

Exactly. And you know, how ironic that she was on Gwyneth Paltrow land?

Virginia

So, the Western conception of yoga has always been more linked to diet culture. We wouldn’t have called it diet culture back then, but certainly this idea of the body and controlling the body. 

Jessica

I would say so, especially in the yoga space that is full of white practitioners. I think South Asians in the West practicing yoga that are coming from that lineage, from their motherland, it’s a different type of practice. But the yoga of diet culture is very whitewashed.

Virginia

Let’s talk specifics about how that manifests. What are some of the most surprising ways you’ve seen diet culture infiltrate yoga?

Jessica 

Yoga is part of wellness culture and wellness culture is that friendly guise of diet culture which is rooted in capitalism. Yoga in the West is rooted in capitalism. I can tell you that working as a yoga teacher, to earn a living as a yoga teacher is not sustainable in our capitalistic society. There’s just no way to go about doing that for most people, other than those elevated—and I’m going to use air quotes—“gurus” of yoga, the ones that we see in the ads for Lululemon and all of the other brands.

So yoga studios—we have yoga studios in the West, not so much in South Asia. But yoga studios in the West are for profit, and you can just look at what they sell beyond classes: The food, the drinks, the clothing, the apothecary items. This is all so steeped in diet culture. So before setting foot in a yoga studio, there’s this assumption that certain clothing is required to practice yoga, and that clothing is most often indicated for particular bodies. That keeps diversity out of yoga spaces. We don’t have to look too far to see that the ad campaigns for leggings, for activewear that is indicated for yoga practices, is usually on very small bodies. 

Virginia

As you’re saying that, I’m just thinking I would feel weird going to a yoga class not wearing yoga pants. Like, we have this sense that you have to. But you also don’t have to. When I practice yoga at home, I often do it in just my pajama pants or any loose clothing. Why we have this idea that you have to wear this one type of pants to go to a yoga studio is fascinating.

Jessica

It’s all about that culture of fitting in and needing to feel like you’re worthy of being in that space. 

Virginia

Yep, that makes sense. And yet the pants so rarely have pockets and are not efficient for many of my needs.

Jessica

Well, that’s why you need more of the swag to go along with them.

Virginia

Oh, of course. 

Jessica

You need the correct bag to hold your yoga mat. And it has to be the correct yoga mat. And then the correct yoga bag, which has the pockets for this, that, and the other. 

Virginia

There’s many more products we can buy.

Jessica

So yoga studios, right? They’re selling more than classes. They’re selling a lifestyle. And I can tell you that walking into many studios—and I have not been in many studios since the pandemic, that’s been the beauty of the pandemic for me is the ability to both practice and teach yoga from the comfort of my home which I think is very, very important. But yoga studios have to make a profit and they do this by selling more than classes, by selling more than experience. So there is the clothing, there is oftentimes food—and I can tell you that it’s not chips and candy that are sold in yoga studios. It’s whatever bar or superfood of the moment is capturing the attention of wellness culture. It’s specific filtered water and kombucha and all sorts of other foods and foodstuffs that really have nothing to do with yoga or wellbeing, but just offer that glimmer of hope that by being in the space, by drinking this liquid, eating this snack, you’ll become more than who you were when you walked in the door. 

Virginia

And they’re also selling restriction too, right? There’s often an emphasis on cutting out food groups. I’m hoping you can tease this out a little bit. I know being vegetarian is linked to some of the history of yoga, but cutting out sugar seems more of just a straight up diet culture intervention. 

Jessica

So there are many different lineages of yoga. As I mentioned, yoga is not just based in the land that is currently referred to as India, but all over South Asia. And different lineages do have different traditions when it comes to food. There’s this assumption, though, that to practice yoga, to be a quote unquote “good yogi,” means that you are vegetarian, if not vegan, and that cannot be further from the truth. Really what we are looking for in a yoga experience is to feel well in your body. One of the ethical precepts of yoga is a Ahimsa and I’m sure a lot of people have heard this term Ahimsa, which means “no harm” and oftentimes gets co opted into meaning veganism as no harm, you’re not harming another living organism. But I like to turn back Ahimsa to no harm upon yourself. And really, when you’re not harming yourself, you’re loving yourself and taking care of yourself. The notion that to practice yoga means that you have to eat a certain way or not eat a certain way is completely false for the general population.

As I said, there are pockets of yoga lineages and people practicing yoga that do take a different stance, but for the general public that wants to bring yoga into their life, keep on eating whatever you want and feel well in your body.

Virginia

That’s a really powerful reframing because yes, I’ve gotten stuck on that ahimsa, do no harm piece. And I think that’s really useful to consider that we have to include ourselves in that doing of no harm. 

I also want to circle back quickly to the guru concept that you touched on. I’m curious to hear more about to what extent the idea of a guru is important to what yoga was originally and how you see the guru concept working out today, because it seems like that’s often where a lot of the diet culture comes in, right? Because people in a studio or in a yoga community are so revering this one teacher to the point that there’s a lot of opportunities for harm. 

Jessica

Correct. Yoga in its origin was taught from teacher to student, and there wasn’t a set number of hours that you study with your teacher and then are declared a yoga teacher. It was a lifelong relationship of learning and reciprocity between student and teacher, and continuous learning. We don’t see that sort of student teacher relationship in modern yoga in the West. There is more of that Guru culture where teachers are revered. They’re oftentimes put on a pedestal and whatever a teacher says is often taken as the right thing to do, the right way to be. That’s really dangerous because the scope of practice which is a set of rules and policies set forth by Yoga Alliance, the governing body of yoga teachers, does not include any talk of food, diet or nutrition. Yet we know that to be far from the truth, that is definitely an area that is abused by many teachers who share their thoughts, their opinions, their personal experiences as the way things should be done, on and off of the mat. And that’s where the danger comes in. 

Virginia

I’m looking back on my own relationship with yoga over the years and so many workshops I went to with male gurus who were very hands on in their adjustments of the women who came in with the right Lululemon leggings. There’s just a whole whole lot going on there.

Jessica

Absolutely. I mean, I didn’t even touch on the hands-on adjustments. Partly from teaching outside of studios, in the online space, I think we’ve gotten away from adjustments a lot, because my students are on the other side of the screen. But that sort of abuse in teacher/student relationships definitely has been well documented. I think the more subtle abuse or harm is the teacher or the guru that inflicts on their students their own beliefs, opinions, and knowledge that isn’t their place to share.

Virginia

It can be hard when you’re seeking something from yoga, which a lot of people are. You’re in a vulnerable position, right? This person seems to have a lot of answers. They’re personifying this lifestyle that’s extremely seductive. And often you’re getting some real tangible benefits from the yoga practice. So it can get very murky and hard to sort out. Like, which aspect of what I’m doing in yoga, what’s coming from the breathing or the meditation or the physical work and what’s coming from now I’m doing this cleanse with 30 people in my studio?

Jessica

Exactly, exactly. It gets blurry, as you said, and I think it’s important for anyone that is currently practicing yoga or looking to begin a yoga practice to really examine their intention for being in a space or for being in the presence of a particular teacher. 

Virginia

Yeah, let’s talk more about that. There’s obviously so much that’s great about yoga and making yoga more accessible for all bodies is so important. So how can we think about separating yoga from diet culture? How do you start to suss out where a studio falls in all of this? And how do you figure out what to wear if you don’t want to wear skinny yoga pants?

Jessica

You never need to wear skinny yoga pants. The most important thing from the start is to be comfortable. So skinny yoga pants aren’t comfortable for you, then that’s not what you should be wearing. But I think the most important thing from the start is to read class descriptions. If you’re looking for a yoga class, read class descriptions. There should not be any promise of changing a body or any regimented requirements for diet involved, right?

Along the lines of diet, culture and wellness culture and its roots in white supremacy and patriarchy, we have to look at classes and specifically about levels of classes and saying that a class is advanced and has advanced poses is not a place that welcomes everyone, right? If you go to a class and feel like you’re being told to just rest while everyone else is doing some fancy shape pose, then that class is not for you, and that class shouldn’t be taught that way, either. We have autonomy as yoga students to practice the way we want to in our body, our bodies are unique and individual and have unique capabilities that change from day to day. So there is no one pose or practice is more advanced than another. It’s learning how to honor your body and its unique abilities from day to day, from moment to moment.

Virginia

I certainly have had and I’m sure many people listening have had that feeling of failure, when you’re told, “okay, you can just go into child’s pose now,” and that feels very stigmatizing. I think a lot of teachers mean it kindly. I think they mean, like, listen to your body and take your time and whatever. But if you’re the one person in the room, and especially if you’re in a bigger body than everybody else, it doesn’t feel kind. 

Jessica

I also pay attention to the languaging used by the teacher and the languaging used within a yoga studio. You want language to be qualitative, and not descriptive. Descriptive language can be inappropriate and stigmatizing. So for example, if a teacher says, “place your hands on your fleshy thighs” versus “place your hands on your upper legs,” there’s a big difference right there. “Rest your hands on your abdomen” versus “rest your hands on your soft belly.” Well, it just isn’t comfortable, right?

This is something that’s very nuanced. My experience in teaching yoga for eating disorders and those suffering from eating disorders—that’s very trauma informed work—really informs the language that I use. But I think it’s something that all yoga teachers need to have exposure to and be taught the nuance of qualitative and descriptive languaging. Because there is something very uncomfortable about being told to put your hands on your fleshy thighs, on your soft belly.

(Note from Virginia: Obviously fleshy thighs and soft bellies are not inherently bad! Jessica is referencing how these descriptions can feel not great when used by thin teachers, in a diet culture context.)

Virginia

I had a yoga teacher once who taught triangle pose by telling us to imagine our body between two panes of glass. It took me years to even recognize how stigmatizing that was because I don’t want my round body flattened between two panes of glass. That’s not a helpful note. I don’t really want anyone’s body being flattened between two panes of glass. That sounds painful. It’s an incredibly anti-fat image.

Jessica 

I couldn’t agree more. I want to point out that yoga is an embodied practice. So that means listening to your body’s cues and messages and trusting yourself and your instincts. So, if you don’t feel comfortable in a space, if you don’t feel comfortable in the presence of a teacher, if it’s online or in person, trust your body. Trust your nervous system, if you have that awareness because it’s very hard to have an embodied practice and embodied experience in a body that is heightened and on alert and not relaxed and not comfortable.

Jessica

So in terms of where diet culture comes in to yoga, and especially in social media, at this point, Yoga Journal, which is the long standing print magazine for yoga professionals, and the yoga community, has a large online presence. And it is owned by the same parent company that publishes Clean Eating magazine. There’s a lot of intersection in the writing and the journalists between Yoga Journal and Clean Eating. I find it very problematic. Extremely problematic. But that’s capitalism, right? 

Virginia

It sure is.

Jessica

The other very alarming situation that I’ve seen time and time again is this notion that some students, especially in a more active yoga class, will leave before savasana, before the end of class.

Savasana is this time to reconnect with the body, to integrate all of the practice into the body. Its definition is “corpse pose.” Not to be gruesome, but just laying on the back in stillness that is savasana. There are a number of people, as I said, especially in more active classes that will leave class before savasana because it’s not a calorie burning pose. They feel like they need to keep the body moving and active and that rest is for the weary. It’s very sad to me.

Virginia

I admit, savasana is the pose I often struggle with most, not because I want to burn calories but just because I’m, feeling like I need to get on with my day. But that’s also why it’s important, right? That’s what I need to be challenging. But yes, thinking of yoga as a workout, period, is so problematic. But certainly then thinking every minute of it has to be this really intense workout is that’s just straight up diet culture, for sure.

Jessica

Yoga as a workout is straight up diet culture, because as I said, at the beginning, yoga is for the purpose of being able to sit and meditate. One thing I didn’t say at the start is the way that I define yoga is the integration of body, mind, and breath in the present moment. So, Virginia, we’re practicing yoga right now. We are having this conversation. We’re here, we’re breathing. We’re present. We’re in the present moment. We are practicing yoga. We are not doing handstands and contorting our bodies. 

Virginia

We are not, for people who can’t see us. Nobody’s in a  headstand right now. 

Jessica

Maybe when we’re done recording, I will go and get in that headstand. But for now…

Virginia

That’s such a more inclusive way to think about it because so many of the Yoga Journal cover poses are so inaccessible for bigger bodies. We should talk about that, too. I have a longtime hatred of shoulder stand because if you are a person with a stomach and large breasts, being in shoulder stand can feel like your body is suffocating you. It puts me immediately at war with my body when that’s not at all how I want to feel during a yoga practice. It always strikes me as a very male body designed pose. I don’t know if there are other examples like that you want to mention, in terms of getting away from this specific idea of doing yoga for certain bodies.

Jessica

I want to acknowledge that any body—any shape and size body—can be challenged by different yoga shapes, yoga poses. Someone in a thin privileged body may not have the ability to get into every shape and that is due to bone structure. Bone structure and the uniqueness of anybody’s bones and joints and tissues, regardless of their body size. So this assumption that you need to be in a smaller frame body, in a thin, privileged body to practice yoga is completely false. Just because you have a smaller body doesn’t mean that you’re able to do every shape either. So there are ways for every body, every single body shape and size, to get into nearly all of the shapes and postures and poses that are out there. I’ve done training on how to teach yoga for those that are bedbound, yoga for people in wheelchairs. There actually is bed yoga, which is so lovely and really beneficial for people that don’t have the ability to get out of bed, don’t have the ability to get out of a wheelchair or some other mobility device. 

Virginia

As you’re saying this too, I’m realizing another way that the diet culture shows up is we so often think of modifications for poses as either failure or as a starting point and you have to progress beyond. Like, you have to eventually be able to do inversions in the middle of the room is always a big one that comes up in class. I have no interest in doing a headstand in the middle of the room. I want the wall there. I want to know that I’ve got that support. The idea that I’ve somehow never achieved a true headstand because I don’t feel safe doing it in the middle of a room is so frustrating. And there are so many examples of that.

Jessica

Using props, including the wall, the wall is the greatest of all props is not a sign of inadequacy, or of being a beginner being a failure. Oftentimes, and more often than not, the use of a prop can help you get further into a shape into an area of the body that you didn’t know you had access to. 

Virginia

Who else do you love who’s fighting this diet culture definition of yoga? Who are you learning from? I would love to shout out some names.

Jessica 

There are a lot of people bringing awareness to the origins and to the roots of yoga, the South Asian roots. Names like Susanna Barkataki. There’s two podcasters from the Yoga is Dead podcast, Jesal Parikh and Tejal Patel. Those three women in particular are bringing a lot of awareness of the roots of yoga and what has happened through colonization and cultural appropriation of yoga practices.

I don’t see as much of the resistance to diet culture, because I see this is a little different from the fat positive or body positive movement within yoga. There is a small but mighty group of us registered dietitian and yoga teachers and a very small group that I know of that are in the anti-diet, weight inclusive space and practicing as Registered Dietitians as well as yoga teachers that are really trying to make sure that diet culture does not continue to bring harm or the harm of diet culture into the yoga space. One of my colleagues and I have started Anti-Diet Culture Yoga as a training platform for yoga teachers to help them decipher what is the true teachings of yoga versus what is the influence of diet culture.

Virginia

There are so many ways we need to rethink what modern yoga has become. It makes sense that not everybody is doing all of the work, because there’s so much work.

I’ll shout out a couple of people I love on Instagram who are doing yoga and fat bodies. Jessamyn Stanley has been a longtime go-to for me. I love her underbelly app videos. They were really a turning point for my yoga relationship, both in terms of being able to do yoga outside of a studio and do yoga with someone who wasn’t in a thin body. All of that was really liberating for me.

I also love @fringeish on Instagram. Shannon does a lot challenging people’s perceptions of what fat bodies can do with yoga, and creating safe spaces.

Dianne Bondy is another one I’ve learned a lot from. So they’re there. You’re right, there’s not nearly enough. Different people are working on different aspects of this, but it is encouraging to see this kind of small community of voices emerging.

Jessica

I also I want to give a shout out to accessible yoga, specifically to Jivana Heyman, who has done a tremendous amount for bringing yoga to all people and that recognition that any body and everybody, regardless of shape, size, color, ability, disability, so on and so forth, can practice yoga in a meaningful way. I also want to mention Yoga for Eating Disorders which is an online school that I’m on the faculty of. 

One thing that we didn’t touch upon, which is a whole other conversation is that not all yoga is good yoga. Yoga and its intertwining with diet culture has been harmful and in the perpetuation of disordered eating and development of eating disorders. Not all yoga is good yoga for all bodies and for all people, especially those suffering with issues of disordered eating and eating disorders. At yoga for eating disorders we teach in a way that is safe is trauma-informed and is available to help heal the relationship with the body in a way that is neutral and supportive. 

Virginia

It’s so important to have that safe space.

Butter For Your Burnt Toast

Virginia

Well, Jessica, we always wrap up, as you know, with our butter for burnt toast segment, so I would love to know what is your butter for us today?

Jessica

I’m so glad you asked! Because it’s summertime, and there’s nothing better in the summer than ice cream. And I’m talking about real ice cream. I’m not talking about Tasti D-lite. I’m a former New Yorker that thought that Tasti D-lite was a good thing. Now is the time on a beautiful sunny afternoon or a rainy afternoon like I have today here to go and enjoy a bowl of ice cream, cone of ice cream, whatever it may be. I just can’t think of anything better. 

Virginia

It really is one of the most perfect things about summer. 

I’m gonna do a plant recommendation for my plant obsessed listeners. My butter is the Great Umbrella Plant, Darmera Peltata. Okay, so Darmera looks like a giant rhubarb. It has a very round umbrella shaped leaf. It’s a garden plant, not a house plant. I should have started with that. It’s native to the Pacific Northwest but it grows really well in shade gardens if you have enough moisture. I’ve just put some in and they get huge and they put up these really pretty pink flowers in the spring. And then you get these giant leaves for the rest of the season. So if you’re looking for a good plant for a shade garden, check out Darmera. It’s like an alternative to a hosta but even more giant big leaves. Very cool.

All right. Well, thank you so much, Jessica, for being here! Where can we follow you and learn more about your work?

Jessica

You can find me at with health and gratitude which has all the information for how to work with me for nutrition therapy. I teach weekly online yin yoga classes which are accessible for everyone—there is no previous experience required. Links to my classes are at yoga for eating disorders. I have hundreds of recipes on my website, original recipes—I used to do work and recipe development and culinary education. So my website has lots of information regardless of what you’re looking for. There’s something for everyone.

Virginia

We will link to that. Thank you so much for being here!

Thanks so much for listening to Burnt Toast! If you’d like to support the show, please subscribe for free in your podcast player and tell a friend about this episode.

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The Burnt Toast Podcast is produced and hosted by me, Virginia Sole-Smith. You can follow me on Instagram or Twitter.

Burnt Toast transcripts and essays are edited and formatted by Corinne Fay, who runs @SellTradePlus, an Instagram account where you can buy and sell plus size clothing.

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Tommy Harron is our audio engineer.

Thanks for listening and for supporting independent anti-diet journalism.

This is a public episode. If you’d like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit virginiasolesmith.substack.com/subscribe
Jul 14, 2022
"Health Is About More Than Food. Health Is About The Whole Child."
2686
You’re listening to Burnt Toast!

We have another Comfort Food rerun for you this week. Hopefully, by the time you’re listening to this, I have turned in my book manuscript, and I am taking this week to chill out. It’s the first week of July and we’ve got family visiting. My whole goal for this first week is to just spend a ton of time in my pool and my garden, and let my post book brain melt. There’s a stage in book writing where you just feel like you have used all the words. There is nothing left and you have nothing to say. But don’t worry, it’s temporary! It always comes back.

And I will be back in your feeds next week with a brand new podcast episode, so make sure you’re subscribed to get that in your podcast player.

In the meantime, we are revisiting the Comfort Food archives again. This is episode 53 which aired on December 5, 2019. Our guest on this episode was Jennifer Berry, who is a feeding therapist and founder of Thrive by Spectrum Pediatrics. I’m a huge fan of Jeni’s. I first met her when I was reporting a story for the New York Times Magazine in 2015. I mean, we go way back. I spent a lot of time reporting on the approach that Jeni and her colleagues take towards child-led weaning off feeding tubes and child-led feeding therapy in general—or responsive feeding therapy, as it’s now known. Jeni is just a really trusted source on all questions related to family feeding, all the dynamics, how to think about the different skills, the emotional development piece of it, and the nutrition piece of it.

This conversation is about why nutrition is much less important to successful family meals than we think. I know that may feel uncomfortable for a lot of us. We hear all the time that our big responsibility as parents is to feed our kids a healthy diet and more fruits and vegetables and all of that. But that so often gets in the way of feeling good about how you’re feeding your family. So we talk about how to set aside your nutrition anxieties at the family dinner table and how that might improve some of the struggles you’re having there.

But Jeni is a trained therapist with a strong research background. I’m a health journalist. So we also talk a lot about the way that nutrition science gets done, and how flawed and misleading both the studies themselves can be and the media coverage of nutrition science. We talk about how to interpret what you’re seeing in the media and by media, I mean mainstream media outlets and I also mean social media. When you see people throwing out statistics throwing out these really broad claims about different foods, or making claims about “healthy” eating in general. So I think this is another super useful episode!

Keep sending in your questions for Virginia’s Office Hours! If you have a question about navigating diet culture and anti-fat bias that you’d like to talk through with me, or if you just want to rant about a shitty diet with me, you can submit your question/topic here. I’ll pick one person to join me on the bonus episode so we can hash it out together.

And don’t forget: Next Wednesday, July 13 is our first Burnt Toast Book Club! We’re reading The School of Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan and wow is that book even more of a gut punch now than when I picked it. CW for child endangerment, prison abuse, foster system abuse, mother shaming (to put it mildly) and psychological torture… but also know that this book is compulsively readable, heart-breaking, and thought-provoking in all the best ways. I’ll post the book club thread at 12pm Eastern on Wednesday, and be on there live for the hour. (But if you can’t join us at that time, feel free to join the discussion later—that’s the beauty of a thread chat!)

Episode 50 Transcript

Virginia

Hello and welcome to episode 53 of Comfort Food! This is the podcast about the joys and meltdowns of feeding our families and feeding ourselves.

Amy

This week we’re talking about what to do and everything you know about nutrition is starting to make you a little crazy. Because sometimes what you know about nutrition seems to not be true depending on the day. So we’re gonna brainstorm some ways you can find a better balance for yourself and your family with a very special guest.

Virginia

I’m the author of The Eating Instinct: Food, Culture, Body Image, and Guilt in America. I write about how women relate to food and nutrition and our bodies in a culture that gives us so many unrealistic expectations about all those things.

Amy

And I’m Amy Palanjian, a writer, recipe developer, and creator of Yummy Toddler Food. And I love helping parents to stop freaking out about what their kids will and won’t eat and also about nutrition news because lately it’s been like every week, there has been something in the news that is just…

Virginia

It’s been kind of crazy. So this week, we are so happy to have Jennifer Berry of Thrive by Spectrum Pediatrics back on the podcast. Jeni, welcome.

Jeni

Thank you. Hi! How are you guys doing today?

Virginia

We are good. We are so excited to be talking to you. You are a fan favorite on the podcast and our listeners mostly will be familiar. But for folks who are new to the podcast, let’s remind them or tell them who you are and what you do.

Jeni

So I am an occupational therapist by trade and a feeding therapist by specialty. And I’m the owner, as you said, of Thrive by Spectrum Pediatrics. We work with families near our headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia, but also all over the United States and beyond, helping families help their children overcome feeding challenges. We work with kids that are feeding tube dependent, helping them wean from their feeding tubes, we help kids that have severe feeding aversions, motor problems with eating, all the way through the kind of everyday common hurdles that families face at the table.

Amy

And for listeners who want to know more about Jeni and her approach to food, check out episode 28, when she was on last. We talked about what to do when your kids just don’t eat dinner.

Virginia

A perennial problem. So, today’s episode came out of an email conversation that the three of us had after Jenny listened to episode 46, where we talked about the new nutrition guidelines from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation saying that kids should not drink chocolate milk or juice before age five. So, we were then talking afterwards with Jenny about how hard it is to balance the “knowledge”—and I put that in quotes because, as Amy said, the information can change so wildly. We have all this information these days about nutrition and what we think our kids and we ourselves need to be eating. But how do you incorporate that into just being present with your families at meals. And Jeni had this really beautiful analogy, comparing it to yoga. So Jeni, tell us about that?

Jeni

Because I’m so immersed in this world, both as a mom who feeds kids, and also as a feeding therapist who looks at these studies that you’re talking about, that have so much different information, some of it good, some of it competing. It occurs to me that we get so caught up in that information. The yoga analogy was, if you’re learning a yoga pose, for example, you have to first learn all the technical aspects, like the posture and the breath, positioning—all of that is really important. You can’t do without the technical knowledge. But in order for it to be like truly yogic or in order for you to experience the pose as it was meant to be, or this probably applies to sports and other performance, and other areas of life. But in order to really experience the yoga pose the way that it was designed, you kind of have to take all of that technical knowledge, and set it aside and be in the pose. I tend to look at feeding kids in the same way. We have all of this information on the macro level. We are really fortunate to have access to all of this information that floods us every day about what foods we should feed our kids and why. And then not let it seep into everyday decisions because it takes us away from our kids. I feel like it also leads to a really unhealthy kind of dynamic for us as parents and between our kids that we can get really stuck and overly focused on doing things the right way. The trick is to have the knowledge and then to let it go and then be with your kids and try to make decisions. I don’t know that it’s easy. I know it’s not easy for me. But I think it is possible to work towards that and have a little bit more freedom for you and your child.

Amy

Is this something that you see your clients struggling with often?

Jeni

It’s universal. Yeah, not only my clients but my friends that are parents. I don’t really know many parents that don’t struggle with it, honestly.

Amy

I was thinking, as you were explaining that, the other night we went out to dinner and it happened to be a restaurant that had calories listed on the menu. I was like, oh!

Virginia

It’s everywhere in New York, but I think it varies by state.

Amy

It really threw me because I’m not used to having that information when making food choices. I feel like I’m a pretty informed person and I feel like I usually can push that stuff aside, but I was really stuck.

Virginia

Because it’s right there in front of you! And then it feels like, oh wait, is every decision I make around the meal supposed to focus on this one aspect? But, you know, of course not! Especially when you’re trying to like help your three year old decide what to have for dinner.

Jeni

And keep your sanity.

Amy

And keep the three year old from climbing underneath the table.

Virginia

That ship has sailed at my house.

Jeni

I think that’s a great example of the burden that can come with information. I do think it’s really hard to negotiate and that’s a really concrete example. But there’s lots of really subtle ways, too. We want our kids to be healthy across the board, not just around food, and so it carries a lot of weight with us. I do think it’s a real challenge. I think it can be done, to kind of hit that just right balance between having the knowledge and using it at the right time to make decisions.

Amy

Virginia, could we just pause for a minute, so that you can tell us like some examples of where we might be getting this information just so that we can be a little bit more clear with our listeners about what we’re talking about here?

Virginia

As someone who’s been a health journalist for 15+ years now, I both experience this as a consumer of media, like we all are, but also this is what I do day-to-day, putting these messages out there. For a long time, this is what I did. So what we’re talking about is the nutritional information you get when the morning news is talking about how everything you know about red meat is wrong. Or, the New York Times reports on it. Then it gets distilled further, because it comes not just from these news sources, but also from a meme on Instagram or Facebook or a thread on Twitter where everyone’s weighing in. A lot of them maybe are experts, and maybe they aren’t. We’re getting our knowledge about nutrition from a lot of different sources these days. And the problem is these sources are definitely not all created equal. Just because somebody puts it on a pretty graphic on Instagram does not mean they bothered to look up the study that was done or actually evaluate the quality of the research to see whether it’s a useful tidbit to share. This is not just to put Instagram on blast, although I do think it’s a huge issue there and Pinterest, and other places where this gets disseminated. But I think it can be useful to know a little more about how to actually evaluate the information when you get it.

Some strategies that I use as a journalist that I think are not hard to learn—I think anyone can do this—always, when you’re given a new piece of nutrition news, figure out the primary source for it. Don’t just trust the Instagram meme. But also don’t just trust the New York Times or any media reiteration of it. Because that means a journalist—it’s like a game of telephone. You’re that much further away from the source. What is really useful to do is to go look up the actual study they’re reporting on. In newspaper articles, especially if you’re reading online, they’ll usually hyperlink to it. Or, if you Google the researcher’s name and the study topic, you’ll find it pretty quickly. You may only be able to read the abstract, which is the research summary, because often you have to pay to read full research papers. But even the abstract, you can get a pretty good sense of how robust it was, this research. It’s important to know, especially with nutrition research, it’s very difficult to do high quality nutrition research. It’s very expensive and time consuming. So, a lot of small studies come out that are done much more quickly and the data is just not as robust.

So, a couple of things to look for when you’re dissecting and abstract. Start by looking at how many people were involved in the study. If it was a study done on 16 people, it’s not very relevant to anybody’s lives. It’s a case report. It’s interesting, but it’s not. If it’s data collected on 1,000 people and they were a nationally representative sample where they tried to make sure that 1,000 people in the study have characteristics—age, socioeconomic status, gender, race—that are representative of the United States, or wherever you are, that’s more of a useful population. Or if it’s a study done on 50 year old men and you’re a 30 year old woman, it’s not going to be relevant to you, particularly. You want to look at research that was done on a population that’s comparable to you and your family.

You also want to look at how long they were followed. So often, this is happens all the time with weight loss studies. They’ll see a big result after about six weeks of following some program. But they won’t bother to follow up with people at six months, 12 months, two years, five years. And you really want to know what happened at that point. How long did they see this benefit? Whatever big takeaway they’re claiming about the study, did it really last?

And then the other thing with nutrition research, because it’s expensive for researchers to make food and feed people directly for two years, usually they’re just having themselves report what they ate. And people are not very reliable with that. So that’s another one to really pay attention to. Because if it’s all self reported data, it’s probably not as ironclad as if they sat in the lab for two years. On the other hand, if they sat in the lab for two years, it’s not real life. So that’s a drawback with that kind of research.

Amy

Jeni, do you have other strategies that you would want to add here?

Jeni

Just to just to reinforce what Virginia’s saying, those same tips I would use. The two that stand out to me are the length of time. We often get a study about a certain nutritional ingredient or a certain way of feeding a child—an example would be in my feeding therapy world, there’s ways of feeding kids and they have a protocol, they apply it to a small group of people, and then they examine them, they see how the kids are doing with eating, expanding their food choices for kids that have a limited amount. They’re using a behavioral approach. This is the example I’m thinking of right now, where they’re kind of rewarding the kids for eating it. And what the study shows, in the study that I’m thinking of, is that the kids eat more. What the study doesn’t do—it’s just good to know what’s not there, and I think you’ve pointed that out, Virginia. What it doesn’t do is show what impact it has to reward kids for eating in two years, four years, five years. There is research out there about how we feed kids that has been out there for a long time that does follow kids more longitudinally, over long periods of time. But so to me, the biggest one that affects most parents in the work that we do, is that they’re looking at short term studies or studies that don’t follow them. And then this other thing that came up in our email exchange that we were referring to, which is the correlation versus cause.

Virginia

Yes, this is really, really big. Jeni, explain this, because this is critical to understand about nutrition, all kinds of research, really.

Jeni

We often, as consumers who are not sitting around in a research lab and analyzing data, it’s really easy to to see a study and think that one thing is linked to another. In the example that we were talking about after the the last episode, about the chocolate milk and drinks, there was a study that said that kids who are exposed to different flavors, had an increased incidence of being more willing to eat flavors, or having a broader diet later. And they were exposed when they were babies. So lots of different flavors, it was a predictor of more choices or variety later on. And while that may be true, it wasn’t saying that that’s why. It wasn’t saying that the reason that the children were eating more foods later in life was only the food choices that they tasted or were exposed to. So I just think it’s helpful to point that out, because there are lots of factors that go into it. And in that that example, in particular, what’s more important to look at is the big picture. If the children were forced to eat those foods in wide variety, forced or coerced to eat them, my guess would be that the results of the study would be very different. Based on what we know about responsive feeding and lifelong healthy relationships with food. I just think it’s super important that we not mistake, something being correlated or a predictor of another thing as being the black and white answer of what’s causing it. Those are different things.

Virginia

It’s easy for parents to misinterpret that and think, I have to get my baby to eat tons of different foods.

Amy

This is why there are like, if you Google “baby food chart,” there’s all of these charts of 100 foods to give your baby before they turn one because if you do that you won’t have a picky eater and it’s just not true.

Jeni

Then the moment your child throws number three on the list on the floor, you’re left questioning yourself and it’s stressful. And then you’re less likely to offer those foods in the future. To take it back to the longitudinal aspect of things and looking at things in the long term, there actually is a lot of research, but also just information about the long view, and what we know works best for kids. What we know is what you guys talk about in most episodes. Which is that if kids are taught healthy messages about their own bodies; if they’re not being subjected to messages that are negative about their parents or other’s bodies; if they are not having foods that are viewed as unhealthy restricted completely from their diet or shamed for eating them; if they’re not being pressured or forced to eat foods that are viewed as healthy by the people that are feeding them; and then if they’re allowed to read their cues for fullness and hunger, which is not always easy—but if that happens, there is a lot of weight behind those things in the research. But also in my clinical practice, you can just see those kids become more confident, healthy eaters in the long run.

Then, if I may just go back to that study about exposure, because that’s what prompted our whole conversation. Exposure is super important. It’s really important that we expose our kids to different foods, but that exposure doesn’t necessarily mean it goes in their mouth. We can expose kids to a wide variety of foods while honoring their bodies, while not forcing them or having them silence any fear or discomfort or disinterest they have around a food. We can expose them to it by eating it ourselves, by having them be involved in the preparation of it, by taking them to the grocery store. There are lots of ways to expose kids, in a healthful way, to a variety of different foods without putting that insane pressure on ourselves, that they have to eat that huge list that you saw on Instagram or Pinterest. And so I just like to keep reminding parents of that, that our job isn’t to dictate what goes in.

Amy

I think a lot of times that the exposure issue gets misconstrued as your child needs to taste this thing 20 times before they will like it. That’s just not that’s not the way that that works.

Jeni

No, it’s not the way kids work. So there’s an actual thing out there called “neophobia,” which you guys have talked about on here before, which is that it’s a developmentally appropriate around preschool age for kids to be afraid of trying new things. So it’s not that that’s going to make them like it, it’s for them to feel comfortable enough to try it, the newness has to go away. And the newness doesn’t go away in two offerings or five offerings and often not in ten. Your kids need to see things consistently, in different settings by different people. That doesn’t mean you should be like having a notebook next to your table with and checking off how many times you’ve offered sweet peppers or whatever. But it does mean that it takes a minute. It’s normal that your child doesn’t try things in the beginning and that when they try them, they reject them. That’s a typical part of development.

Virginia

That is super reassuring to hear. And I think again, framing it around not getting too literal about how we interpret this research is really helpful.

Jeni

We try to coach parents that when you’re just making decisions about how to feed your kids, you’re not making big decisions about whether you’re doing it right or big shifts in how you’re doing it in the moment when your kid is throwing the food on the floor. You’re going to do it away from the mealtime. You’re going to do it in a time where things are relatively unstressful. We call it checking in with yourself or checking in with your partner about how the mealtimes are going. You make the decisions about what your kids eat at the grocery store and when you decide who you surround them with, what school you send them to, and then whether or not you decide to team with those people and collaborate with them in a trusting way. And then when you’re assessing if it’s going well, a meal, it hasn’t to do much with what goes in their mouth. It has more to do with the internal drives to eat. And the internal drives to eat are not just hunger. Hunger is a big one, but togetherness is an internal drive to eat. Curiosity is an internal drive to eat. Novelty is a natural internal reason that kids want to eat. And comfort! Here we are talking about comfort food, but those are the those are the natural drives in childhood for learning to eat.

So if you step back, and try to keep those at the forefront of your mind when your child is eating. At the meal or at the party or wherever it is where you’re feeling conflicted about what choice to make, try to just think about those. And if you’ve got one of them, things are going okay. If your child is enjoying time together around food with a peer, then one of the internal drives to eat is being met and that’s important and valuable. Even if it’s just comfort, there’s a time and a place for that those are really important things and we’ve talked about that before. And it’s also okay, occasionally, if those things aren’t present. because we all know that that does happen occasionally and we have to give ourselves a break. It doesn’t mean that if you mess up, or if a situation comes up, there’s a surprise or whatever, somebody said something unfortunate at a birthday party to your child about their food choice, that doesn’t unravel everything else you’ve done. It doesn’t erase it. The message is about what you’re sending on the whole. It’s a more of an umbrella message that you’re sending that matters, that stays with the kids versus those tiny, little individual episodes.

Virginia

That is a really helpful perspective. I love that it.

Amy

And it can for sure be hard to do that in the moment. But I think the more that you practice this sort of the easier that it gets.

Jeni

Everybody’s different in terms of the way that they need to be reminded about things or the way that they learn or help themselves through tasks that are difficult. I’ve had parents write down the internal drives to eat and keep them on the refrigerator or have a list of them on their phones.

Virginia

Oh that’s a great tip!

Amy

I guess we’re gonna be making a little printable for everybody. Unless you have one that you want us to share.

Jeni

I don’t! Make it, it sounds great. I want one.

So that is one strategy that people use. I think another one that people have used is really looking at your child and how they’re doing in other areas. Health is about more than food. Health is about the whole child. If they’re happy, and participating in school, and if they’re affectionate and emotionally doing okay, if they’re able to be themselves and they are meeting milestones and they’re progressing, then we’re in a good spot. We don’t have to have it be all about the food all the time.

I’m a developmentalist, by training. And so I look at development, but in childhood, we don’t expect kids—or adults for that matter—to perform at their best 100% of the time. Mastery we consider when we look at developmental milestones is 80% of the time. 20% of time, it is not going to be happening. So a decent meal, not their best meal, is going to happen 80% of the time. It doesn’t mean that everything’s going to be easy. It doesn’t mean what your kid is eating, it means these other components.

Virginia

How well the overall meal experience goes.

Jeni

Based on these internal drives to eat, which includes togetherness. 80% of the time, if you’re there, you’re doing it, because that’s human nature. That’s the nature of learning to develop and figuring things out. Nobody’s at 100%. And there’s a lot of pressure at 100%. If we’re expecting ourselves and our kids to do their best and to be in the moment and we’re as parents incorporating all of this information that we’re being bombarded with, not just about food, but about how to plan a birthday party, and how to be the best parents and juggling our work and our home lives, there’s no way that we can do it at our best 100% of time. And we also are then setting our kids up with unrealistic expectations.

They need to be able to go out into a world where there is non-responsive messages being sent all the time around food. If we if we create a world for them around food where they only are experiencing the messages that we really want them to experience, those responsive messages as I call them, then what’s going to happen when they need to learn how to contend with the non-responsive things, too? And that’s what we’re here to help them do that as parents.

Virginia

That’s so interesting. Do you find that the percentages change when kids are struggling with something else? And the reason I’m asking is, on last week’s podcast episode I talked about both my girls, their list of safe foods had gotten a little shorter recently. Beatrix just turn two, so neophobia arriving. And then with my older daughter, when she’s going through different periods of stress in her life this is the area where we often see she’ll get a lot more particular about food. She’ll get much less adventurous again. I’m wondering if that’s something that people might commonly see and you might zero in on feeling like food is the problem, but is it helpful to sort of look more broadly at like, oh, well, they’re just learning to read or they’re mastering potty training or something else is going on that’s maybe causing meals to sort of plateau a little bit. Does that make sense?

Jeni

Yes, it does make sense. Absolutely. Yeah. These are more like umbrella averages for the big picture of how our years and our months are going. The literature that shows—although we have to, again, be careful about these studies—but what we know is that when a child learns to walk, sometimes they talk a little bit less or vice versa. We have a finite amount of energy and bandwidth on certain things. And so, of course, it makes sense that if you’re going through a challenge in one area, you’re going to hunker down at a different level than you might have the week before in another area of development. So yes, that’s absolutely true with food, too. It’s true across areas of development.

Virginia

Another reason not to get so hung up on the nutrition piece. If you take a more holistic look at your kid and think about why broccoli is less interesting this week, it might not have anything to do with the broccoli.

Jeni

Exactly, it probably doesn’t. I hesitate often with families to ever talk about numbers, honestly, because so much of the most important predictors of how well kids are going to do with food feeding challenges, but then how well they’re going to relate to food later, has to do with qualitative stuff. And if we focus on anything with a number, it takes us away.

Virginia

People are suddenly calculating.

Jeni

As long as you’re changing your the framework that you’re assessing things by. Is your child thriving? Are they growing? Are they meeting milestones? Are they relatively happy? And then, are you looking at those internal drives to eat: togetherness, curiosity, hunger, novelty and comfort. You know, if those things are there 80% of the time, you’re good. And I think we’re hard on ourselves. I think they are there most of the time. I think some of those components are present in most of the meals. I think you’re there, most people that are listening are probably already there. It’s just because we have all of this other information, we get lost. We get distracted from what’s the most important and what is truly the best predictor of a child feeling safe and comfortable around food. And now and then later, which is, which is these more qualitative things.

Amy

On that note, I did want to just remind everyone that when you’re seeing headlines, from news organizations or websites, like I put myself in this list, all of these sites are making money from people being on their site. So they have a very real reason to make you want to click on that link. The headline may be completely misleading. And it may be completely taking whatever the study was out of context. So just take a minute to realize that someone is trying to make a dollar.

Virginia

and don’t email the author of the article and yell at her because we don’t get to write our own headlines. The editors do that to us. Anyways, Jenny, thank you so much! This was such a great conversation. This was super, super helpful. Will you tell our listeners where we can find more of you?

Jeni

Oh, sure. We can be found at Thrive With Spectrum and we can be found on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. We’d love to hear from people.

Amy

And we’ll have all of those links in the show notes. And if anyone has follow up questions for this or wants more information on anything we talked about, you can either send us a message or comment on our show notes.

Virginia

All right now coming up. I have some breaking news on the Beatrix bottle, so stay tuned

Unrelated

Amy

So, Virginia, the other day you had posted something on somewhere—I can’t remember where—how about you put Beatrix to bed without a bottle!

Virginia

It finally happened, you guys!

Amy

So we’ve been talking about this since the spring, I think?

Virginia

Yes, Episode 37. It was the end of season two, was when we went like deep dive into milk weaning and that is like our most popular episode ever. So I have a feeling I’m speaking to a lot of you right now. Because people really like to talk about milk weaning. We talked about both breastfeeding weaning and bottle weaning. And this was a journey for me, because I’ve talked about the traumatic feeding experiences with my older daughter and how cathartic It was to be able to first breastfeed Beatrix successfully, and then make the decision around four or five months that I was ready to just go over to formula and really embrace that. And I just derive so much joy out of feeding her. I mean, that’s not breaking news to anyone who listens to this podcast, feeding babies is great. When it works well, it’s really wonderful.

I am not someone who is super sentimental about losing the baby stage. Like my husband and I basically throw a party on every birthday like, oh my God, our lives are finally getting easier. I don’t ever want another newborn in my life. I like other people’s, but I don’t want to have one. But the bottle was the one thing that I was sentimental about. This was a big stage. So I think a lot of this was me needing to be ready as much as her needing to be ready. But she’s also a kid who loves her bottles.

So what we did last spring, I think it was like her 18 month checkup, our pediatrician was like, “Yeah, you have got to get started on this. There’s no medical or physiological need for her to have a bottle.” We had switched, when she turned one, over to regular milk from formula. And she was still, around 18 months, she was still on like five bottles a day. And it was like, how are we going to do this? So I talked in those episodes—you can go back to Episode 37 and hear how we dropped down to just having a 4-6 ounce bottle before nap and before bedtime, and we were able to pretty seamlessly drop the daytime bottles. Then we just, we just stayed there for a while. We were like, it’s fine. We’re going to just hang out with these bottles because they were part of her bedtime routine and they were really comforting. And we were all, both me, Dan, and our babysitter were all like, “Oh, this is not gonna go well.” So then when we had her two year checkup, the pediatrician was like, Aren’t you done? Which, you know, pediatricians, I feel like they just think it’s this really easy thing. And they forget how emotional this is. It’s not just like I want to just put it away and be done with it.

Amy

My pediatrician asked me at our nine month checkup if meals had been replacing nursing sessions, and I was like, What? No, he’s a baby. How long has it been since you’ve had a baby? Because I feel like that’s really out of touch.

Virginia

It’s really out of touch. That’s really weird.

So anyway, we kind of hemmed and hawed about it. And so we have taken this very gradual approach. And I don’t know, maybe if we had just put all the bottles away at 18 months, it would have been fine. That is entirely possible. I think that works great for a lot of kids. So when I’m talking about what we did, guys, I’m not saying anyone needs to do it the way we did. But, if you are feeling ambivalent about this, or have a lot of emotions to process, I think a gradual approach can be helpful because it gives everybody time to get there. So after her two year checkup, we decided, Okay, we’re gonna take the pre-nap, pre-bedtime bottle, which at that point was four ounces, and we’re gonna take it down to two ounces, which sounds really silly. But I’m really glad we did it, because it gave her a few days. She was mad about it, like she would finish it, and she would be like, let’s go back downstairs, I need more bottles. There’s not much milk here, Mommy. She was very straightforward, like, you didn’t put enough in. Then I would say, “Nope, that’s all we’re having today.” And she would throw the bottle and be mad about it. And it just let her let out some of the feelings about it.

We did that for a full week. On Sunday and Monday of that week, she was furious. It was like a thing. And by Wednesday, she was sort of like, ugh fine. And by Friday, she was barely finishing the two ounces. It just gave her that time to work through it and accept the change in routine. The other thing we did, not deliberately, but looking back I think was helpful, was we kept everything else very consistent and down to the books that she wanted to read. I think we all read Curious George and the Dump Truck 900 times that week. We just kept reading the one book that she was most reassured and comforted by over and over and over. So I think that helped reinforce not that much is changing. You’re still getting your snuggles you’re still getting all the cozy bedtime reading and everything, just a little less milk in the bottle. That’s it.

And then Sunday night. So, we never want to mess with weekend naps because you know, obviously. So we kept it over the weekend, the two ounces, so she would still nap and we would have our break. But then Sunday night bedtime, I was like Okay, let’s do it. We went upstairs and I had this last minute thought, I was like, Oh, maybe a toothbrush. Let’s brush your teeth, which we had a miss on at bedtime. And we went and got her toothbrush, which was super excited about and then she brushed her teeth the whole time I read the story, and she didn’t even ask about the bottle at all. It did not come up. She was totally happy.

Amy

Wow. Had you been giving her a bottle before nap time?

Virginia

Yeah, we had had both. That’s why I’m saying, over last weekend we didn’t drop the nap time bottle, so that bedtime was the first time because I didn’t want to lose that two hours of unconscious toddler. I didn’t want her to not nap. So I waited until the bedtime to do it. And she still didn’t even really reference that.

Now, the next day, Monday, she did remember. When our babysitter took her up to nap, she remembered about the bottle and she asked for it. And same when Dan put her to bed that night. And there was maybe, both times, five minutes of feelings. And then she was happy to sit with the toothbrush brush her teeth while being read a story. And last night when I put her to bed, it was like on the way up the stairs, she was like, “no more bottle.” And I was like, “that’s right.” She does this thing where she puts her head down and she goes, “it’s gone forever.” She’ll say this about anything, though. She said this about her baby gate. The baby gate is gone forever. She’ll finish her Cheerios, it’s gone forever. So, it’s like just her way of acknowledging. And then I was like “yeah, you’re a big girl now, you know, isn’t that exciting? Let’s go get your toothbrush.” And she was fine.

Amy

That’s so sweet. You had also mentioned something about saying goodnight to all the..?

Virginia

Oh, yeah, that was the other thing. She has actually been building that herself—I think it’s bedtime stalling. It’s definitely a bedtime stalling tactic. We’ll get halfway up the stairs and she’ll go, “I need to say goodnight to the playroom.” We’ll go back downstairs and she’ll go, “Goodnight playroom, good night trampoline, goodnight sofa, goodnight pillow.” She’ll just like pick random things she needs to say goodnight spoon. And so we did that as well. That and the toothbrush combination seemed to just give her the touchpoint she needed. She has other ways to self soothe, that was just one option. I don’t feel like this has in any way undermined her sense of security with anything. So that was my goal.

I think the takeaway is there’s no right way to do this. It’s going to be different for everyone. There’s this kind of myth out there that like you have to rip it away and it’s going to be brutal for two weeks, and then it’ll be fine. And I don’t know that it has to go that way. I think you can find a gentler approach and that can be good too.

Amy

Yeah, and there’s no timeline that works exactly the same for everybody.

Virginia

And honestly, if I felt like she was still really clinging to it, I would have waited a little longer even. I was not like just because the pediatrician said she turned two we need to do this. But we could generally tell her fixation was lessening. She was more interested in the stories than she was the bottle. Her whole bedtime energy had changed, like she’s running over to pick out a book. She’s been like getting distracted with a toy. She’s wanting less to be held like a little baby. She’s transitioning into more of being a toddler, so it felt like the right time.

Amy

Thank you. Thank you for sharing that. It’s very sweet.

Virginia

It’s a big milestone. I’m excited. Yeah, I’m excited. It’s good stuff.

Thanks so much for listening to Burnt Toast! If you’d like to support the show, please subscribe for free in your podcast player and tell a friend about this episode.

Consider a paid subscription to the Burnt Toast newsletter! It’s just $5 a month or $50 for the year you get a ton of cool perks and you keep that’s an ad- and sponsor-free space.

The Burnt Toast Podcast is produced and hosted by me, Virginia Sole-Smith. You can follow me on Instagram or Twitter.

Burnt Toast transcripts and essays are edited and formatted by Corinne Fay, who runs @SellTradePlus, an Instagram account where you can buy and sell plus size clothing.

The Burnt Toast logo is by Deanna Lowe.

Our theme music is by Jeff Bailey and Chris Maxwell.

Tommy Harron is our audio engineer.

Thanks for listening and for supporting independent anti-diet journalism.

This is a public episode. If you’d like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit virginiasolesmith.substack.com/subscribe
Jul 07, 2022
On Reclaiming Comfort Food
1684
Kids turn one and our expectations change. Suddenly, we want them to eat for nutrition and “food is fuel.”

You're listening to Burnt Toast! This is the podcast (and newsletter) about diet culture, fatphobia, parenting, and health.

As you are listening to this podcast today, I am also writing the last pages of my next book. It is called Fat Talk: Parenting in the Age of Diet Culture. It will be out next April. I'm recording this with still about 6,000 words ahead of me. I'm hoping by the time you're hearing this, it's like a thousand or five hundred words left. Or even none left! That would be great!

It's such a weird experience. I love writing books. I love being immersed in the research and the storytelling and the issues that I'm thinking about constantly. But I'm definitely also in the can-no-longer-see-the-forest-for-the-trees stage of this first draft. So, that is how I am feeling. Hopefully, by the time you're listening to this, it will be feeling much closer to relieved and celebratory!

Because I am swamped with getting this manuscript finished, I am giving you a couple of weeks of rerun episodes so I can stay firmly locked into book world and do a little less bouncing between book, newsletter, podcast, the way I have been for the last many months. So this week's rerun is a conversation that Amy Palanjian and I had on our old podcast Comfort Food, about emotional eating. This episode first aired on February 27, 2020. And I think it's one where we were actually a little ahead of our time because once Covid happened, the conversation around comfort eating changed. There was so much demonization of comfort eating and stress eating that we did see this really powerful backlash of folks saying, “No wait, actually we're going through a global trauma, making sourdough and enjoying it is a great way to cope with your anxiety.” A lot of that is what Amy and I are talking about in this episode.

We are longtime fans of comfort eating—that's why we named the podcast Comfort Food!—and of emotional eating as a benign coping strategy. It's something I continue to talk about: The importance of reclaiming these coping strategies for yourself, of removing the guilt and shame because that's what causes them to feel so harmful. A lot of what we talked about may not feel entirely new to you, if you've been following Burnt Toast for a while, but I do think we hit a lot of the key points really well. If you are struggling with feeling okay about feeding yourself in any way, it should be a really useful lesson.

If you enjoy this episode, please subscribe, rate and review us in your podcast player! It’s free and a great way to help more folks find the show.

And don’t forget! Today is your last day to fill out the reader survey and be entered in the Burnt Toast Book Giveaway!

It’s also your last chance to enter the giveaway by becoming a paid subscriber (or renewing an existing subscription if yours was set to expire this month). AND it’s the last day to take 20 percent off that subscription price!

PS. If you’ve already done the survey or gotten/renewed a subscription and aren’t sure you entered the giveaway, please fill out this form.

And keep sending in your questions for Virginia’s Office Hours! If you have a question about navigating diet culture and anti-fat bias that you’d like to talk through with me, or if you just want to rant about a shitty diet with me, you can submit your question/topic here. I’ll pick one person to join me on the bonus episode so we can hash it out together.

Virginia

Hello and welcome to episode 64 of Comfort Food! This is the podcast about the joys and meltdowns of feeding our families and feeding ourselves.

Amy

So this week we are going to explore the concept of emotional eating and some of the myths and misconceptions that can come up and also to talk about is it okay to eat when you're not physically hungry?

Virginia

I'm Virginia Sole-Smith, I'm a writer, a contributor to Parents Magazine and New York Times Parenting, and I'm the author of The Eating Instinct: Food, Culture, Body Image, and Guilt in America, which is out in paperback now and it has such a pretty new cover. Maybe I'll get Amy to put a picture in the show notes, you should definitely check it out. Anyway, I write about how women relate to food and our bodies in a culture that gives us so many unrealistic expectations about those things.

Amy

And I'm Amy Palanjian, a writer, recipe developer, and creator of Yummy Toddler Food. And I love helping parents to stop freaking out about what their kids will and won't eat and sharing doable recipes that fit into even the busiest family schedules.

Okay, so obviously, the name of our podcast is Comfort Food. So, we think that food should be comforting, but we realized we never explicitly talked about it in depth— about the concept of comfort as it relates to food and why we think it's important.

Virginia

Yeah. And it's a really fundamental to what we do. I mean, again, we named the podcast after it. I thought it would be fun to talk about some of the other names we went through. I really wanted to call the podcast Burnt Toast, which I still think is a great name. But we couldn't because there was one, even though it’s not around.

Amy

It's not a functioning podcast, but yeah.

Virginia

So anyway, if you're listening, and you were affiliated with the prior Burnt Toast podcast, you should give us your name. I mean, we're kind of already here. But Comfort Food felt like the perfect name. I think what we liked about Burnt Toast was that it was like the sort of imperfect, meal on the fly situation that a lot of us are in.

Amy

We went through a lot of iterations of something with pasta.

Virginia

I know, I really wanted to name it something with pasta. Basically, you can tell from all the foods we considered, we were about comfort food. So then it was like, okay, let's just group it all together into that umbrella.

Amy

Yeah. And you actually wanted to use that phrase in your book title, right?

Virginia

Yeah, my original title for The Eating Instinct was actually Comfort, Food. Now that feels dumb and a little twee—maybe that's why my agent vetoed it. But I thought that summed up what I was initially hoping to do with the book. My agent and the publisher liked The Eating Instinct better because it was a little more science-y sounding. Naming books is really hard.

The reason that I wanted it to be the book title is the book starts with Violet’s story. A really big turning point for us in helping Violet learn to become an oral eater was in the summer of 2016, when she was in and out of the hospital a ton. She had actually gotten off her feeding tube and become a really successful oral eater, and then she got very, very sick again and she stopped eating. I remember being in the ICU with her and these hospital dietitians and doctors swarming and obsessing over why she wasn't eating, what was going on. It was just so clear to me that eating had ceased to offer her any comfort so she had no incentive to do it. It felt like just another horrible thing happening to her body in this really intense medical situation. She didn't turn the corner again, until she found a way to make eating feel safe and comforting. That really opened my eyes to how, in this hospital setting, it doesn't work with a sick kid. They need food to be comforting—we all need that. We are so consistently making nutrition the enemy of comfort and the way we relate to food. So that was really what inspired the book and also a lot of the conversations that Amy and I have.

Amy

So much of what we hear about nutrition or the way that we're “supposed” to eat is looking at macros and doing it by grams. It's so devoid of any emotion, but that's not what it's like when you sit down at the table. You can't separate the two.

Virginia

I mean, it literally doesn't work without it. I think any of us who have successfully fed a baby, you intrinsically get why comfort matters. It is absolutely essential to a baby eating that they feel safe and comfortable. It's this really cozy, bonding, joyous experience to feed a baby, for both the parent and the child. But then suddenly, kids turn one and our expectations change and we want them to eat all these different foods, but now it's for “nutrition” and “food is fuel.” We want them to think of food as just this way to grow their bodies, but we're just much more anxious about comfort.

A lot of the research I did for the book really showed that we are biologically programmed to seek comfort in food. This is a feature, not a bug. We evolved to do it because human survival depends on us eating so often. We have to eat very regularly—and babies in particular have to eat, over and over and over again, all day long. If we didn't find it inherently pleasurable and comforting, we wouldn't do it. Especially generations ago, when food was scarce and it was hard to do. We need this, this is fundamental to the whole thing.

Amy Palanjian

So, last week Selway had his 12 month checkup and on the little paper that they gave us, it was like, “Your baby should be weaned off a bottle at this point.”

Virginia

Whoa. Whoa there.

Amy

Let's back up and look at like the emotional attachment that that baby might have.

For adults, it's been drilled into us that we are supposed to eat when we're hungry and stop when we're full. And if we eat for any other reason, then we're doing something wrong. We feel guilty and we've failed ourselves.

Virginia

Yeah, I think both Christy Harrison and Evelyn Tribole have talked about that in their episodes on the podcast. There's a misconception that when you talk about intuitive eating, you're talking about the hunger/fullness diet. I actually had a friend, a few months ago, we were out getting ice cream, and she was like, “Oh, I'd love to have that but I'm not hungry and I'm doing intuitive eating, so I'm not gonna eat the ice cream.” And I was like, “Oh, no. That's not what it means. It doesn't mean you only eat when you experience physical hunger.” You can also eat because we're out with our kids eating ice cream and we want to share that. That is this other piece of it. We are both of these things.

Amy

So we're going to run through a few common myths about comfort food and emotional eating.

Myth number one: Eating to comfort yourself is always bad.

Virginia

I mean, that's what people think, right? They think the cliche of having a pint of ice cream after a breakup or wanting cheesy crackers when you're stressed out is somehow this big failure. But eating something tasty to cheer yourself up after a hard day is totally normal. It's totally human. And it's also a totally fine coping strategy.

Amy

I have come to terms with the fact that I always need some sort of chocolate at the end of the day. It has nothing to do with like my overall nutritional intake. It just makes me feel better.

Virginia

Yeah. I mean, you have three children running around your house!

Amy

I made it to the end of the day, guys!

Virginia

You made it to bedtime, you need chocolate. Yeah, I struggled with this when we were in the hospital for so many months with Violet. Some people when they're undergoing extreme trauma totally lose their appetite and stop eating. I've had friends say to me, “This is really hard. People will praise this weight loss, but actually my life's falling apart. It’s not really for a good reason.” So, you know, that definitely happens. I do not respond to trauma that way. I respond to trauma by seeking comfort in food. I did a lot of comfort eating during those years of Violet being so sick. I had to really kind of come to terms with that. I struggled with it. Like, oh, I shouldn't be comfort eating. Then finally, I was like, “You know what? I am eating this chocolate croissant in a corner of an ICU hospital. This is what's getting me through the day. I am glad it is here for me.” There is nothing wrong with it. It's a form of taking care of yourself, for sure. It just gets such a bad rap.

Christy Harrison and I did an event for our books recently, and when we were doing the audience Q&A, a new mom raised her hand. She said, “You know, I really think I'm an emotional eater. Especially now that my baby's three months old, it just feels like I can't even have chocolate in the house because I can't stop eating it.” And we were both just like, of course you need chocolate, you are three months postpartum. You're not sleeping. Your life has been thrown up in the air. Give yourself this grace.

Amy

You're grasping at straws for something to sort of make you feel a little bit better in the moment. I have this lactation cookie, which I'm renaming to be just mama cookies, and it has chocolate in it purely because I know that having that thirty seconds of something that tastes good in your mouth is incredibly helpful when you're taking care of a small child. You're super, super tired and you just need that small window of pleasure.

Virginia

You literally can't get more sleep probably, that’s not available to you. Like, probably you wouldn't crave the chocolate quite as much if you were getting nine hours of sleep a night, but that's not going to happen for a long time. The solution is not to deprive yourself of this other thing, it's to meet what need you can. That’s a way to reframe it.

Amy

Myth number two: Feeling compulsive around food is the same as emotionally eating.

Virginia

This is interesting because people often label something as emotional eating when what they really mean is, it's hard for me to stop eating X. Like, If I have a bag of potato chips, I'm going to eat the whole bag. Or, if I see a plate of brownies, I'm going to need to eat the whole plate of brownies. They think that this means they're eating emotionally, when it may just mean that they feel restricted about that food. They've restricted it for so long, and now they can't anymore. That's why they're eating in that uncontrollable, scary-feeling way. This is a really big misconception about binge eating disorder, that it's somehow really different from anorexia or bulimia, these other eating disorders that are more obviously restriction-based. People think, binge eating disorder, those people just eat all the time, they can never stop. But all the new research on it is showing in around 40% of cases, it's a response to restriction. Somebody has been on a more restrictive plan, or diet, or full anorexia, and then it hits a brick wall and it goes the other way. Binge eating disorder is a whole complicated thing, we don't have to get into all of it, but a lot of cases are also people responding to growing up with intense food insecurity. Not having enough food in your house is also a form of restriction. It's kind of threaded throughout. I think it's important to understand that because we punish the symptom—eating in this uncontrollable way—without dealing what's really causing that. I think for a lot of us, even if you're not in an extreme place with it, that feeling of “I can't control myself around this food",” what you really need to ask is, why are you restricting this food? Why are you not able to give yourself permission to enjoy it when it's here?

Amy

Yeah, and I think if you've ever had a child who's been obsessed about one type of food, like goldfish, and then you buy goldfish and allow them to have them for snacks, you don't hide them or restrict them in any way, they lose a lot of their appeal. It becomes very clear that they weren't necessarily wanting to have them so badly because they love them so much, it was the feeling that they loved them and also they were not allowed to have them.

Virginia

Right. The love is not the problem, it was the restriction that was the problem. It's also worth noting, there's a difference between using food to comfort yourself in a tough situation or after a tough day, and using food as a way to escape or numb your emotions. That can become a more self destructive way to go, just like drinking to numb your emotions can be destructive. Anytime we're escaping our feelings, it can be worrisome, but it’s not the food that’s the problem. The solution isn't to stop eating those foods, it's to figure out how to deal with the hard feelings and find other coping strategies. And I'd also argue even in the short term, sometimes emotions are too frickin’ big.

Amy

I was going to say, maybe it's okay to numb your emotions sometimes, if you need to.

Virginia

Maybe you can't deal with it all in one day and you'll deal with some more of it tomorrow. Let's not demonize these strategies. It's interesting how much these really normal ways of coping with life become demonized because they don't line up with diet culture expectations. But we of course, blame ourselves.

Amy

One thing that has been helpful for me, like if there's something that I feel like I just want to eat the whole thing of, I just ask myself, what if I'm just allowed to eat as much as I want? Does that change the emotional reaction to it?

Virginia

Does it?

Amy

Usually. I mean, I have asked my significant other that question, too, if there's something that he says he can't have in the house. I'm like, what if you were just allowed to have it? It’s an interesting exercise.

Virginia

That's really interesting.

The third Myth is this idea that we should not let our kids eat for comfort either, and that we somehow have to rein in their emotions around food.

Amy

Back to the baby example, we talked a little bit about weaning. We're not weaning, but like, it's a little bit on my mind. No matter when Selway’s last bottle was, when I pick him up at daycare he always wants me to breastfeed him. That's obviously not about hunger, like, he could have had a bottle within an hour. He wants to do that because it's how he connects with me.

Virginia

He wants to see his mama.

Amy

It's a totally normal. That would not be something that would be upsetting to anyone. That's very easy to understand. And I think taking that a few years forward, when the child is isn’t breastfeeding, but also has that relationship with food, it would be kind of weird if they weren't comforted by food, in some ways.

Virginia

This is something that's part of the human experience. Speaking as someone who had a kid who found no comfort and food, it is terrifying, actually, when you take it all the way to that extreme place. One of the most powerful memories of my life is the first time I saw Violet take comfort from food. She was a little older than Selway and snuggled on my lap eating an apple. What the food was doesn't matter, I suddenly had this experience of like, oh, she associates me and food and comfort all together again. The way she should. It's so powerful.

We were also talking a little before we started recording about seeing our kids use food in this way is actually a sign that they are self-regulating. Beatrix often will, if something falls apart for her, she immediately says, “Where's my ubby?” which is her lovey, and then like, “I need my snack cup.” I'm not worried that she's addicted to the goldfish or whatever's in the snack cup. She's like, oh, I need some comfort right now. That's pretty cool to see.

Amy

I don't know that I would want a child to always turn to food for comfort, just as I would want for myself to have different options of things that would make me feel better. But I think having it in the arsenal with other things can be super helpful. I mean, we had a situation where one of the girls was able to calm themselves down, after a pretty horrific screaming battle, with some crackers and cucumber and a book. There's nothing wrong in that situation.

Virginia

Yeah, so many great strategies that she's using there.

Amy

I think when that happens, as a parent, your initial reaction might be, “Uh oh. I know she's not hungry. I'm supposed to be teaching her to honor her hunger cues.” But at the same time, I think we need to be aware that sometimes we have to look at the bigger context and realize that in that moment, that was a helpful choice.

Virginia

Yeah, absolutely. I mean I really talk about comfort as the third eating instinct. We've got hunger and fullness, but comfort is this other really important one. Jennifer Berry has talked about that, too, that it is an internal drive kids have to seek comfort. So, don't dismiss that even if it feels at odds with their hunger. But yes, of course, eventually Selway will not need to nourish the second he sees you at the end of the day. When we were weaning Beatrice’s bottle, we talked about how she wanted to read the exact same bedtime book every night for two weeks while we were dropping the bottles, because that was the new comfort thing. She wanted Curious George over and over and over. We can definitely encourage kids to find these other tools, but don't be afraid of the food.

Amy

This was on my mind after the Super Bowl. I was thinking about how holiday foods can offer this type of—or food traditions— can offer comfort in this way, too. My husband grew up, he didn't have a TV, but his grandparents did. So on Super Bowl Sunday, he went to his grandparents and his grandfather and made him a root beer float. So he's always wanted to share that tradition with us. And at this point in time, my girls don't like the carbonation in drinks, so they don't like soda. The idea of having soda poured on ice cream is like ruining ice cream for them. So they were like, we just want the ice cream. And I don't know, a root beer float? It's not my favorite thing. But I realized after, I didn't handle that well. Because this is something that means a lot to him. There could have been a way that we could have all shared that experience, taking comfort in the food experience. There was a bigger meaning to that where it was more than just the food.

Virginia

He wanted to tell the story of drinking root beer floats with his granddad and that kind of thing. And you could have shared that while possibly serving the root beer in glasses separate from the ice cream.

Amy

Or we could have showed the girls what happens when we pour the root beer. It could have been the coolest science experiment. Like there could have been ways that we could have all shared the experience. The way that it turned out just was really disappointing. But I mean, this happens. Now with a lot of people having very specific dietary restrictions, this happens at the holidays, where the foods that you once were able to share with everyone, you can’t. Where do all of those feelings go, about those foods that you love when you can't share them in the same way?

Virginia

That's really tough. You see this on both sides. You see both the person with the restrictions struggling to enjoy their holiday in the same way, and I also feel for the people preparing the food. You know, grandma or whoever makes these amazing cookies every year, and suddenly people aren't eating them. That's a little bit heartbreaking because she's done that to show her love. You have to think about the feelings on both sides of that. It's not to say you can't find new and different traditions, but also that these traditions do really matter and shouldn't just be sort of tossed aside, right?

Amy

I think we can get laser-focused on the specific food aspect of it when we are in the culture that we're in, that does often boil it down to whether or not it has gluten, or whatever the thing might be.

Virginia

There's so much talk around the holidays about how there's too much focus on food. And to my mind, it's so sad that we can't just let this be about food, because it is. Because, again, that's very fundamental to human experience. To celebrate through food is something that every culture around the world does. This is part of what we do, being able to enjoy that and appreciate it for what it is. Then it doesn't have to dominate in this intense way because, again, you've removed the restriction around it. You can take the comfort from it without feeling this compulsive, out of control thing.

Amy

Okay, do you guys have questions? Questions about emotional eating or comfort food? We're here to take them on.

Virginia

Want me to find the old list of other podcasts names? We can see if any of them are any good. I think we landed on the right one. I think it speaks to our souls.

Thanks so much for listening to Burnt Toast! If you'd like to support the show, please subscribe for free in your podcast player and tell a friend about this episode!

And consider a paid subscription to the Burnt Toast newsletter. For today (June 30) only, you can take 20 percent off and pay just $4 per month or $40 for the year! You get a ton of cool perks and you keep this an ad- and sponsor-free space.

The Burnt Toast Podcast is produced and hosted by me, Virginia Sole-Smith. You can follow me on Instagram or Twitter.

Burnt Toast transcripts and essays are edited and formatted by Corinne Fay, who runs @SellTradePlus, an Instagram account where you can buy and sell plus size clothing.

The Burnt Toast logo is by Deanna Lowe.

Our theme music is by Jeff Bailey and Chris Maxwell.

Tommy Harron is our audio engineer.

Thanks for listening and for supporting independent anti-diet journalism.

This is a public episode. If you’d like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit virginiasolesmith.substack.com/subscribe
Jun 30, 2022
Why Anti-Thin Jokes are Anti-Fat
The reason people are angry at thin women is because they hate fat. Yes, of course, we should not be yelling at skinny people. But it’s important to hold that together with, when those jokes get made, they’re actually anti-fat jokes. They’re not anti-thin jokes.

You’re listening to Burnt Toast! This is the podcast where we talk about diet culture, fatphobia, parenting, and health.

Today we are doing another Ask Me Anything episode! Corinne Fay is back by popular demand, and we’re both answering a whole bunch of your questions. We intended this one to be writing-themed but we ended up talking about houseplants a lot. You’re welcome.

If you enjoy this episode, please subscribe, rate and review us in your podcast player! It’s free and a great way to help more folks find the show. Of course, the other best way to support the show is with a paid subscription. And as we wrap up June and Burnt Toast’s one year anniversary, I’m giving you a week to take a permanent 20 percent off your subscription price! That gets it down to just $4/month or $40 for the year ($3.33/month, the cheapest this ever gets).

Yes, you can both get this discount AND enter the Burnt Toast Book Giveaway. Sometimes life rewards procrastinators. Also: I’m always happy to offer comp subscriptions if paying isn’t feasible for you. And you can still enter the giveaway by completing our reader survey!

PS. If you’ve already done the survey or gotten/renewed a subscription and aren’t sure you entered the giveaway, please fill out this form.

And keep sending in your questions for Virginia’s Office Hours! If you have a question about navigating diet culture and anti-fat bias that you’d like to talk through with me, or if you just want to rant about a shitty diet with me, you can submit your question/topic here. I’ll pick one person to join me on the bonus episode so we can hash it out together.

Episode 49 Transcript

Virginia

All right, we’ve got a whole big list of questions we’re gonna work through. Where do you want to start?

Corinne

The first question is: How did you get started as a writer?

Virginia

I have written about this before, so here is one of the early episodes of the podcast where I give the whole story. I was an English and creative writing major in college. I went to school in New York, so I did a bunch of free internships at magazines. My first job out of college was as an editorial assistant at Seventeen magazine. That is where I got my start writing, so a lot of “get your best bikini body” stories and prom bodies. Lots of event-based bodies in the teen magazine world. 

We did also do some really good health reporting. I remember doing a big story about vaginas. A misconception about women’s media is that everyone who works there hates women, when it’s actually mostly run by feminists who are up against advertising and always caught in that vortex. So, I learned a ton. There was a lot of very good journalism happening there, but always under this umbrella of how do we sell beauty products and clothes to teenage girls. From there I went to another women’s magazine and then in 2005, I went freelance and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since. 

Okay the next question is for you! How and why did Corinne start @SellTradePlus? It is such a unique community and vision.

Corinne

I started @selltradeplus in 2018. I started it because I was addicted to looking at other buy/sell/trade accounts on Instagram and was never seeing my size. I just thought, if I were going to a used clothing store, I would just go to the section that was my size. So why not just make a size-based Buy Sell Trade account? And that’s kind of how it got started. And then I really liked the people that I was meeting. And I think it’s turned into a bit more of a community.

Virginia

It is a lovely community. You’re very good at community building. 

Corinne 

Thank you. 

Virginia

I hear a lot of Corinne love from people who find my work through you.

Corinne

That’s so nice. 

Virginia

As well they should be. And we will also link back to the first time you were on the podcast, because you kind of told your whole origin story in more detail there, too. So folks can catch up there. And you do those weekly discussion posts where people chat about all sorts of different things. It is much more than just the clothes, although the clothes are excellent.

Corinne

It’s a fun place to be. 

Okay, the next question is: Can you share a little bit about your own progression from dieting to anti-diet mentality? 

Virginia

I think we should both answer this one, if you’re up for it.

So, as I mentioned, I started in women’s magazines and wrote a lot of shitty diet stories. Very much in the diet world, while also feeling conflicted about it and rationalizing many of those stories to myself. Like, “this one’s not really a diet, it’s just about portion control.” Or, you know, “this one’s not really a diet, it’s eating the way Michael Pollan told you to eat, so that’s fine,” etc, etc, and increasingly getting frustrated about that. But not really understanding a different way to think about food.

The turning point in my story is around the time my first daughter was born, and she was born with a rare congenital heart condition that required her to be on a feeding tube. We spent two years helping her learn to eat again, so it was like the reverse of dieting. I was grasping for all these external rules, wanting someone to tell me how to do this, how to get eating right for her, and then increasingly realizing there were no rules. There was nobody who could fix it. We had to get her back to a safe place with food by helping her learn to trust her body again. And that started to connect a lot of dots for me about the way I had been eating over the years and not trusting my body. Diet culture separates all of us from being able to trust ourselves. That was my big, “okay, I’m done with this,” moment, even though it wasn’t like one moment. I mean, it was a long process. I can remember when she was around 18 months old, saying something shitty about my body and having her repeat it back to me, and then thinking like, Well, okay, I’m done with that now. This kid has fought too hard to feel safe in her body. I’m not going to be the one to screw it up for her.

Corinne

That’s a lot of pressure. 

Virginia

It is, but it also made it so clear. Do you know what I mean? This is one of those things that in a way I sort of hate, being like, “becoming a mother liberated me from diet culture,” because it feels like, honestly, sort of a b******t narrative. I hate when we credit motherhood with being this mystical thing. It’s honestly mostly just diapers. It’s not that glamorous. But it is true that it is often easier to do things for other people than it is to do them for ourselves. And since I had this very clear goal of not wanting to pass this on to her, it was like failure is no longer an option, in that sense.

Corinne

That makes sense.

I feel like I don’t have a good answer. I’m not a mom and I think it hasn’t always been just like a linear progression for me. I’ve wavered back and forth, and I think I also, even from a younger age, had kind of an oppositional personality where I was always just kind of like, “Screw anyone who’s telling me what to do.” There was a long time where I went back and forth between being on one hand, f**k diets or whatever anyone else is telling me to do, and on the other hand, thinking the only way I can be happy is by losing weight. I wish I had a moment when I was just like, I’m done. But I mean, I think eventually it just is exhausting and you’re tired of it.

Virginia

You realize how much mental energy it takes, and physical energy. And it’s like, other things are more interesting? I think everyone can relate to it not being linear. I mean, mine wasn’t linear. I thought I was fully out of diet culture and in 2015, I wrote a story about detox diets where I went on a detox diet for a month to write the story. And at the time, I would have been like, No, I’m not dieting anymore. I’m very much out of diet culture now. And I reread the article recently, it was like…

Corinne

It’s very easy to get sucked back in. 

Virginia

Yeah, it really is. 

Corinne

They’re always finding new ways to get you.

Virginia

They really are. They’re very good at that.

I understand why this person asked that question because getting to the anti-diet mentality feels like a goal and it is because there’s obviously a lot of benefits that come with it. Like, you are not obsessing about food and beating yourself up when you eat and that’s really lovely. But I am almost wary of framing it as a goal to work towards because that can be a sort of parallel dieting experience. Do you know what I mean?

Corinne

Yeah, that’s a good point. I don’t think it feels like you ever get to a point where you’re just like, “now I’m at peace forever.” I still am sometimes like, “oh, I don’t want to deal with airplane seats.”

Virginia

It’s maybe more like getting to a place where you can more quickly recognize the pattern of, “Oh, I am responding to this larger cultural situation. It’s not my fault.” Being able to place the blame where it belongs is in some ways more the goal, if we’re going to talk about it as a goal.

Corinne

So that the next question is: Is there a balance between slamming the thin ideal, but inadvertently slamming, less fat, slender-ish, petite bodied people as crappy?

Virginia

This is a very interesting question. It does remind me of the column we did where the question was, “what if I just don’t want to be fat?” I think there’s often something that comes up for less fat, slender-ish, petite-bodied people, when they start to hear us pushing back against the thin ideal, and they take it really personally. I’ve interviewed lots of women in thin bodies who talk about the constant shaming they get for being thin. And this is a real thing, right? People will say to a thin woman, like, “I hate you. You’re so skinny,” or “How can you eat whatever you want and never gain weight? Oh, my God, I’m so angry.” They get a lot of hostility for their thinness. But, the hostility is rooted in anti-fat bias. The reason people are angry at the thin woman is because they hate fat.

Like, yes, of course, we should not be yelling at skinny people, but I think it’s really important to hold that when those jokes get made, they’re actually anti-fat jokes. They’re not anti-thin jokes. So in terms of finding this balance, personal attacks help nobody, but it is fine to be critical of the thin ideal that is oppressive to all of us, and particularly oppressive to people in larger bodies. In doing that, you are not causing harm to thin people. 

Corinne

The next question is part two of the previous question: Is there a balance of accepting nutrition or GI research as beneficial and informative and slamming probiotic supplements, foods, and quick convenience powders?

Virginia

Okay, so I would flip this. As it currently stands, nutritional research is not terribly beneficial or informative for individuals. In part because it tends to be very poorly done. Most nutrition studies rely on people self reporting. People are really bad at self-reporting what they ate. A lot of nutritional research will do stuff like study what broccoli does if we feed it in huge quantities to a rat, and you’re not a rat who eats huge quantities of broccoli, so the fact that it prevented cancer in that rat is not applicable to your life.

There is a lot about nutritional science that is useful to nutrition scientists. But it gets reported on and marketed and communicated to the public as if we should be living by these lessons. It gets turned into best selling diet books. And then when you look at the source material, it’s like, this was a study on 30 people and we didn’t follow them very long. We didn’t ask them the right questions and it was only men, or something like that. There are all these limitations to the research. So I think that it’s really good to be critical and curious about nutritional science and to realize that it often doesn’t have a big place in your life.

At the same time, I’m much more forgiving of people finding a quick convenience protein powder as an efficient way to have breakfast in the morning. In my house, we have protein powder in smoothies every morning because my kids are both cautious eaters and they like it. It’s a useful way of making sure they get like a good amount of energy for the day, if they want to otherwise live on, you know, carpet lint, and Tic Tacs or whatever. I will certainly be critical of the marketing hype that these products come with. I don’t love when they’re claiming to be super foods, and everyone’s heard my rant on Athletic Greens. But if your take is, “These Clif Bars are so helpful to keep in my bag because I work an eight hour shift and I don’t get a lunch break and I can eat one and not starve,” that’s great. When I say let’s not shame foods, I mean all of the foods. We don’t have to shame any of the foods. But you don’t have to buy into the hype around these foods. You don’t have to buy into the claim that they should replace other foods in your diet or anything like that.

Corinne

That seems like a good distinction. 

Okay. The next one is a parenting question: How do you deal with judgment from health care providers who disagree with choices you make, i.e. breastfeeding past one year, not doing cry it out. So, not harmful choices, but choices that may fall outside the mainstream.

Virginia

I almost didn’t answer this question because I did not breastfeed past five months and I definitely did cry it out. So, I’m not judging your choices, but I am someone who can only offer the other side of this. But, if you only breastfeed your baby for four to five months, you’re gonna get judgment for not doing it long enough. So, I do know what you mean in terms of making a choice that’s different from “gold standard” advice about parenting. I think it’s so hard with your first because you don’t know what the hell you’re doing and it’s very easy to feel super unnerved by it all. I think that confidence is something that just comes with time. The more you parent your own kids and see what works for them, you feel more comfortable saying, “that best practice doesn’t actually apply to our life in any way.”

Where I do certainly relate is the advice on kids below two should have zero added sugar. I mean, what? That’s not useful, it’s not realistic. If your kids are eating food at daycare, if they have an older sibling who gets given a cupcake, you’re of course going to let your toddler or your baby have some sugar. And they’re going to be great and suffer no consequences from it. So, certainly around nutrition is a piece where I find myself often making the “unpopular” decision with a healthcare provider. We can link to that episode Sara Louise Peterson and I did on gentle parenting. We went a lot deeper into this. Because it’s not just healthcare providers, it’s also social media and mom friends and mom groups on Facebook that can get like really weird and dogmatic fast. All those places where they tend to present parenting in a binary state, that you’re either doing it right or you’re doing it wrong. And anyone who’s actually spent any time with a kid knows that you’re always doing it a little bit wrong, but it’s fine. That’s the best we can do on any given day.

Corinne

Man, I do not envy parents.

Virginia

It’s real fun to be doing something that requires you to be regularly sleep deprived and hungry at odd hours.

Corinne

And always slightly failing.

Virginia

I do have one quick story. So, my four year old has been home sick like every week for the past month with some nonsense because ever since we took masks out of schools, the kids are getting all of the diseases they didn’t get for the last two years. Last week she was home for three days straight. It was the third week in a row with this really bad cough. We’ve tested and tested and it’s not COVID. So by the end of the third day, I was like, we’ve got to get out of the house. We’ve got to go do something. It’s a beautiful day. She’s been watching TV for three days straight because Dan and I have to work and she’s here.

So, we pick up her older sister. We go to get ice cream and we’re down by the river. It’s a beautiful afternoon. I’m feeling so successful. Like, I got both kids out. We’re getting ice cream. How lovely. She inhales her ice cream, spills it all the way down herself, and then gets a coughing fit and throws up her ice cream all over herself and the park bench and multiple other surfaces. And I was just like, why do I try? 

There was an older woman on the park bench next to us, dramatically turning her head to the side. Literally like, “I can’t look at you, this is so revolting.” And then another mom from school and her kids were a little further down. Here’s my kid starting to gag and she’s like, “Do you need help?” And I’m just like, what help can you even offer?

Corinne

Oh my God.

Virginia

So there’s quite an audience for this whole experience.

The parenting win there is that I had remembered to bring baby wipes. I was so f*****g proud of myself because we’re past the stage where we need baby wipes all the time so I don’t always think to have them. But I went through a pile of baby wipes. I got a bottle of water, I was cleaning puke off the sidewalk and off this park bench. And then, I want to get her back in the car, but I don’t want her to puke again. So I’m like, “Okay, guys, why don’t you just play while we make sure she’s done puking?” And other people are clearly like, WHY ARE YOU STILL HERE? There was a lot of judgment. 

Corinne

I am so sorry. 

Virginia

It was fine. I was rage texting Dan while I’m cleaning puke off the park bench. But once you’ve survived your first—I mean, it’s not even my first, it’s probably like my dozenth—public vomiting, it’s like whatever! They can think what they want. Unless you’re the one here cleaning the puke off the park bench, you don’t get to judge. 

I’m sorry for that disgusting story. We can move on.

Corinne

No, I love it. Well, this is also kind of a tangent, but where does that advice about not giving kids sugar before two years come from? 

Virginia

Oh, I think it’s the American Heart Association.

Corinne

Is that based on facts? 

Virginia

We should do a deep dive on this. 

Corinne

Or is this where we’re like take nutritional studies with a grain of salt. 

Virginia

Yes, I think it’s definitely that. I would have to look into the source material on this, but based on where some of these other guidelines have come from, my guess is they’re taking a large-scale study and they’re finding a small correlation of kids who ate less sugar had lower rates of X, Y, and Z health conditions later on. So, it is correlation, not causation, right? Because you cannot prove a negative. You can’t prove that not eating sugar prevented it. All you can say is some households feed their kids more sugar than others and those households correlate to these other conditions. But what else might be contributing to that? Like, if you’re a low-income family, and McDonald’s is a really reasonable way for you to get calories in your kid, your kid is consuming more sugar than the Whole Foods mom’s kid has consumed.

The other thing that research doesn’t tell us is the harm caused by restricting sugar. It may be that you could even prove a causal link between kids who eat less sugar and future heart disease risk, but you may also be able to prove a causal link between kids who eat less sugar and kids who have eating disorders. And if I’m worrying about my kid’s mortality, kids are more likely to die of eating disorders than they are of heart disease. So, if we’re really gonna get serious about health risks, we have to consider all aspects. Being restrictive around sugar leads to kids who fixate on sugar. We see this over and over. We’ve seen this in experimental studies that are really well done. So we know that that is just not practical advice for parents.

Corinne

Well, too bad it’s not practical, because it’s everywhere.

Virginia

Yep, they’re still gonna make you feel bad about not doing it.

Corinne

All right. Let’s move on to our favorite topic! What’s your favorite house plant? And how do you keep it alive?

Virginia

I mean, I cannot pick a favorite house plant, people. It’s is really hard.

Corinne

Okay, do you have a least favorite? 

Virginia

Oh, that’s a good question. 

Corinne

I have a least favorite. 

Virginia

Let me think. Okay, what’s your least favorite? Because I’m thinking…

Corinne

Mother of Thousands? It’s the one that makes a million babies and I hate it. I literally just threw it away because I was like, I can’t. Too prolific.

Virginia

It is very prolific. I have one of those that my stepdad brought back from a trip. My mother was like, “please take this thing out of my house.” Because they can get really tall, too. They’re quite enormous. 

Corinne

It’s messy. I don’t want to be just throwing away all these little things all the time. 

Virginia

Yeah, you actually don’t need thousands of that one plant. 

Corinne

I don’t even want one.

Virginia 

I have it in a very small pot, so I think I’m containing it a little bit.

One plant that I am frustrated by, because I love it, but I’m having trouble with is my string of bananas. I’m doing really well with a string of pearls. String of bananas is similar to string of pearls, but instead of little pearls, they are shaped like little bananas. They’re just so finicky! If you overwater them, they don’t like it, but they do want some water and so we’re kind of in a little love/hate relationship where I’m like, I really like you but you don’t seem happy here. Is it me? We’re trying to work it out. 

One of my favorite houseplants is my polka dot leaf begonia. She’s just really lovely. And also a little high maintenance but I get it, you’re very pretty, you’re loud. I’ve got her in a good spot and she’s doing well. They’re really, really cool. Any of the fancy leaf begonias are pretty cool if you have the right conditions for them.

Corinne

Do you have a fiddle leaf fig?

Virginia

Oh God no. I’ve killed two, if not three, fiddle leaf figs.

Corinne

I killed one and I was like, that’s enough.

Virginia

Yeah, because they’re expensive if you buy a big one. I don’t think I have the right conditions in my house for a fiddle leaf fig because we have only have one south facing room and I don’t have space in there to get another giant plant in. I don’t know, figs are so hard. They’re the hardest.

Corinne

They seem like they’re always just slowly dying.

Virginia

Yeah, and they look so gorgeous when they’re working and then they’ll just drop all their leaves. And then they are just a stick. I had one that was just a stick for a year. I kept hoping it would come back.

I feel like if you like a big leaf plant like that, which of course I love big leaf plants, like you can do a Monstera. That’ll get just as giant for you. I have a Dieffenbachia that’s got pretty big leaves. And Elephant’s Ear. Elephant Ears can be a little finicky in the winter but they’re worth it. There are other options. You don’t have to fall for the fiddle leaf fig, is what I’m saying.

Corinne

The next question is: What does work life balance look like for you right now? And what do you wish was different?

Virginia

I was thinking about this because last month there was a question about how I get time for myself and I realized I forgot to share in that question that one of the main things I do is wake up really early. The rest of my family sleeps till like 7:30 and I get up at five and I have time to myself then. When my work life balance is not great, I get up at five and I work before my kids are awake for two hours. And since I’m finishing my book right now, a lot of my early morning time is working. So, when I’m done writing this book, I will get that chunk of morning time back, and then I really like to go out in the summer and be in the garden during that time, or read, or just not be talked to by my family.

In terms of general work/life balance: I love my family very much, but I am the only member of my family (of origin) who doesn’t work weekends. And it’s a really big accomplishment for me to be breaking the generations of workaholism, in that sense. My sister is an urban education high school teacher. It’s really hard not to work nights and weekends with that job. My dad and my stepmom are college professors. Working on weekends is what I grew up with. And I totally get it and I didn’t want it. So I’m very proud that I don’t work weekends, for the most part.

What about you, you’re kind of going through a big transition right now. Do you want to talk about that?

Corinne

Sure. I don’t know what my work life balance is gonna look like. I just left my full-time job and I’m focusing some time and energy on @selltradeplus and Burnt Toast and some other freelance-y things. I’m very much figuring it out and I’m trying to have a little break where I’m just spending less time on my phone, hopefully.

Virginia

Yeah, because you have been working weekends, as I know, because you often do Burnt Toast work on the weekends. You have been doing a lot.

Corinne 

Yes, for a long time my schedule was do @selltradeplus before work, go to work for eight hours, do @selltradeplus after work, do Burnt Toast on the weekends. So, just trying to shift that a little bit!

Virginia

I think we all want you to have more downtime. I’m really a big fan of changing that. 

Corinne

This past week has been my first week without going into my job and I have felt really weird. Just, it’s really weird not having like coworkers. But yeah, I’m sure I’ll adjust.

Alright. This is kind of a follow up question: Could you talk about finding time to write with young children? Especially making mental space for it. Young children being under four.

Virginia

Well, so, as I said, getting up at five in the morning. I realize it’s the least sexy advice ever. Something about having kids broke me and made me a morning person. I also go to bed at like 8:30 at night now. I just became my mother immediately when I had kids and got on that schedule. Obviously, if you are wired differently, you could make it a nighttime writing time. I know lots of folks who do that. Once the kids go to bed, that’s when they get time.

I’m assuming with this question, this is not your full-time job. Because I do want to acknowledge the privilege of, I was already a full-time professional writer before my children came on the scene. I was making a full-time income from it, therefore it had to continue because it was bringing in 50 percent of my household income. We’ve had daycare or a nanny, or now they’re in school, but we’ve had childcare built into our lives from the time they were really little, because it was necessary for both of us to work. Of course, COVID made that very different because then they were home all the time.

The hardest point for me is the days I pick them up from school and have them in the late afternoons. Because young children are terrible in the late afternoons, they’re really grumpy and need snacks. That’s why the ice cream seemed like such a good idea at the time, before it ended in puke. And my brain is still really in my work at that point, like I don’t have a transition. This is where I can understand having a commute must be nice, because you have thirty minutes in the car to transition out. So, often I’m parenting and still looking at my phone to check work emails or I’ll think of something and want to make notes. It’s really hard, having half attention for both. My advice is, whenever you can, even if it’s not a lot of time, carve out whatever time you can separate and protect that ruthlessly as your writing time. Even if it’s a couple hours a week when you can get a babysitter. Don’t try to do the half in both worlds thing because I think that’s where the burnout really comes.

Corinne

The next question is: Recommendations for a new homeowner to learn about gardening? 

Virginia

This is a fun one. This came from Instagram because I’ve been sharing incessant garden pictures because this is the best time of year for my garden. So you’re just going see it constantly, at the moment. If you are on the East Coast, and you want to be a gardener, my number one tip is the blog A Way to Garden by Margaret Roach. She gardens here in the Hudson Valley. She was a garden editor for Martha Stewart a long time ago and has the most exquisite garden in the world.  She’s a genius. She has a wonderful podcast. She knows just everything about everything. And the website is like a treasure trove of what kind of mulch to get, how to use mulch, how to start seeds, how to think about design, all of these different things. So that would be my first step. I think it’s probably useful even for people in other gardening zones, like the specific plants change if you’re in the Southwest, like Corinne, or on the west coast. But a lot of the principles are the same.

Otherwise, what I did with our second house that was more useful, was I did spend some time making a master plan of all the different little areas. Like, this is where eventually a fire pit might go. This is where a shade garden could go or whatever. And then like, just tackle one of those projects per year instead of trying to do it all at once. So we’re now five years into what is probably a ten year list of projects, but I’m more realistic about what we can get done.

The other tip I will give if you are a new homeowner and this is your first season in your house: Don’t do much this year, because you haven’t lived there through a whole growing season. You don’t even know what you have, where the light is, what your soil is like. So even though you want to get going and there’s stuff you want to change, like, just take a break. Get some containers and pot some stuff up and put it on your porch instead. Because doing too much before you really understand your property, I think can lead to wasting money and effort.

What about you, you’re starting to work on a garden now, right, Corinne? 

Corinne 

I have lived in my house for a couple years and that advice is definitely good. There’s still stuff I’m discovering, like, “Oh, there’s irises planted here, which makes no sense because they’re getting no water.” But yeah, someone definitely put a lot of like time and thought and care into my backyard. So, we’ll see. I’m hopefully going to start doing some more work. I’m very envious of your raised beds. I’m also curious if you’ve ever watched any Monty Don?

Virginia

Oh my god. We could do a whole Monty Don fan episode. 

Corinne

Okay, great, because I was going to recommend Big Dreams, Small Spaces or Gardener’s World.

Virginia

Yes, Gardener’s World, for sure. I can’t believe I didn’t start there. He was my COVID survival strategy. My older daughter and I would watch it together in the evenings and make lots of plans. I love it so much.

Corinne

It’s so soothing. 

Virginia

So soothing. 

Corinne

Also less relevant for the Southwest, but still just great to watch.

Virginia

I know. I’m interested that you like it because you’re gardening in such a different climate.

Corinne

I mean, I’m always like, “Maybe they’ll do an episode in the desert.” But yeah, I mean, I just think Monty Don is so lovely.

Virginia

Yes, and his dogs are so lovely.

Corinne

He has great style. 

Virginia

Oh, yes. My mom is British, so the reason I’m a gardener is because of my British DNA. Like, everyone in England gardens, pretty much. 

Corinne

I mean, there’s a gardening celebrity.

Virginia

Literally one of their number one celebrities. My grandfather was a really intensive gardener, my aunt, both my cousins garden… It’s a big part of our family. And, yes, he’s the epitome of British gardening style. It makes me so happy. He’s always in a little cardigan and Wellington boots and it’s just delightful. Everything about it so good and there’s tons of really practical advice.

Corinne

Yes. And tons of episodes if you need something to watch for hours.

Virginia

Yeah. They’ve been making that show for like a hundred years. Definitely recommend a Monty Don deep dive.

Corinne

Okay, here’s another fun one. What is your dream vacation?

Virginia

This is hard because since we’ve been travel-starved for so long and we’re just getting back to travel, I have such a long list. A dream vacation that I am waiting until my children are older to take is, I really want to do a very foodie trip in Italy. I did a trip like that when I was in my 20s and it was amazing. It’s the kind of trip I want to recreate with my kids, but I want them to be more fun to eat with first. Because right now, going out to restaurants is still hard with my four year old. And the fact that Italians eat dinner at 10 o’clock at night, all of that would be tricky right now. So we’ll get there. That’s a big one. I also have never been to Greece and that’s been on my list forever.

What about you?

Corinne

I would love to go to Italy and Greece. The one that comes to mind for me, which is kind of a never-gonna-happen one, I think. But have you heard of Amangiri?

Virginia

No. What is it?

Corinne

It’s a crazy resort, I think it’s in Utah. It just it’s like it looks very beautiful. Like it’s just like this kind of stark…

Virginia

I’m googling.

Corinne

It just looks beautiful and incredibly serene. I feel like celebrities always go there. I know one time I tried to guess how much it was, and I was like, maybe like $500 a night? Like thinking that was like wild. It’s so much more than that.

Virginia

No, it’s so much more than that. I’m on their website now, I can confirm it’s definitely going to be more than $500. 

Corinne

But it looks awesome, right? It just seems fun to go there and like turn off your phone for a week. It’s also on an incredibly large, like hundreds of acres, property where you can hike around and stuff. 

Virginia

Oh my gosh, this looks beautiful. This is a good fantasy one. 

Speaking of completely over the top hotel fantasies, I’m so mad at Highlights Magazine for this. Highlights Magazine had an article that was like cool hotels, which, like, why?

Corinne

What? For kids? That makes no sense. 

Virginia

It was supposed to be hotels that would be like very kid friendly. So there was like a Disney one, which whatever. But then there was one in, I want to say, I think it was in Bali? And it’s literally under the ocean. So it’s like the bedroom was like a giant aquarium basically. I will find it and link it.

Corinne

That sounds incredible. 

Virginia

And it’s $10,000 a night.

Corinne

And now your daughter’s like, “Please? For my birthday?”

Virginia

And I couldn’t stop laughing and she was like, is that a lot of money? She’s a kid, she doesn’t get money. She’s like, “What do you think? Are you saying we don’t have $10,000?” I’m like, “We’re not gonna spend it on that!!”

[Virginia’s Note: After we recorded Corinne did find this underwater hotel room for the comparatively bargain price of $1840 per night. I’m still not taking my 8-year-old!]

Corinne

Yeah, that’s very reasonable.

Okay, what about favorite podcasts?

Virginia

We have to give Maintenance Phase a shout out. Obviously, if you’re looking for anti-diet content and you’re listening to us and not Maintenance Phase, you did that backwards because you should have started there. They do excellent work, Aubrey gordon and Michael Hobbes. That’s a big one that I never miss.

I’m also really into Everything Is Fine with Kim France and Jennifer Romolini. It is a podcast for women over 40, which I admit just hearing that tagline I was like, fine, put us in a box. But it’s so good. They’re both former women’s magazine people. Kim France was the editor in chief of Lucky magazine during like Conde Nast’s big towncar heyday years. They’re very funny and smart. They did a great episode on Roe. They have really interesting authors on and the chitchat between the two of them is really good. It’s a great listen. And not just for women over 40, I feel like anyone could enjoy it. What about you?

Corinne

I’m really into this astrology podcast, Ghost of a Podcast. So if you’re into the woo side of things, I recommend that. I also love Reply All, which I know is very popular. I’m sure everyone’s listening to that. 

Virginia

That’s a good one. 

Corinne

The last question is, what’s the most destructive health or diet culture message you’ve received?

Virginia

I think one message that has taken me personally the longest time to work through was the message that exercise is only for weight management. When I was a kid, I was a skinny kid, and I hated sports and hated moving my body. I was an indoor cat, for sure. I just wanted to read and play pretend and not be physical. And it was fine because I was skinny, right? But that meant that then when I was no longer skinny, I felt like this obligation to exercise to get back to my thinness, which did not work.

I had a pretty disordered relationship with exercise in my 20’s. No one ever said, maybe you would love moving your body for other reasons, right? There was no option on the table to enjoy exercise or just joyful movement, whatever you want to call it, on its own terms or for its own pleasures. So it has taken me most of my 30’s to really get to a place where I do notice implicit benefits to exercise that are not related to body size. I want to do it when I wake up in the morning. I feel joy when I do it. And I don’t even have that all the time still, you know? There was a long time where I really couldn’t do any cardio because it was too triggering.

What about you?

Corinne

Well, that’s a really good answer. I think for me it would be that the path to happiness is thinness. Like, don’t you just want to be happy? Stuff like that, I guess.

Virginia

Like feeling like your life needs to be on hold until you lose weight?

Corinne

And also just that being thinner will make you happier. That has not been the correlation in my life.

Virginia

No, it very often is not. I think that’s a really common and super insidious one. And it’s holding a lot of people back from just living their lives. 

Butter For Your Burnt Toast

Virginia

All right. Well, let’s bring us up. I realized when I ordered these questions, I picked a sad one to end on. “Let’s talk about terrible diet messages. Okay, goodbye!” No. We will bring it up now with Butter for your Burnt Toast. Corinne, last time you were on, you set a very high bar for yourself.

Corinne

I know I was actually struggling a little bit because I don’t think I can really live up to that.

Virginia

I don’t think anyone ever can, so you can release yourself from that pressure.

Corinne

Okay. My endorsement is slightly related to what you were just saying, which is that sometimes, I’m just living my life and I get a feeling in my body of , I want to do something other than walk the dog and garden, which are like my usual exercise activities. I subscribe to a lot of Substacks, but one of my favorite is She’s a Beast, which is Casey Johnston’s newsletter about being strong and lifting weights. She recently started a couch-to-barbell program called Liftoff, so I decided that I would just look into it. I don’t have a good track record with finishing programs or following programs. But it’s divided into three phases and the first phase requires only your house and a broomstick. And there’s a YouTube video that you can follow along with and it takes less than 15 minutes, which is incredible!

Virginia

Oh my gosh!

Corinne

You just do like six exercises maybe? And they’re all probably stuff you’ve done before. I love that it starts off like so simply and I don’t know if I’ll make it to phase two, but I’ve done phase one.

Virginia

You’re enjoying phase one. That’s awesome.

Corinne

I’ve done it six times or something. I just think it’s great. So I want to just recommend that program and also Casey’s newsletter which is about fitness-y stuff, but she definitely has an anti-diet lens.

Virginia

Yeah, very fat-positive, strong critiques of fitness culture which are really well done. I want to do this, too, now. You’re influencing me. This looks great. 

Corinne

Well, let me know if you do.

Virginia

I will. I am endlessly in physical therapy, as people know, because of my back and ankle. I’m trying to get out now, but I can’t. The other week I was like, “I feel like I’m done.” And she was like, “No, I feel like you’re in that place where you’re no longer in active pain but if you leave, you will re-injure yourself immediately.” And I was like “Touché.” But I am getting bored. For a while I was an A student with physical therapy and would do my exercises every morning and now I’m just losing interest. I need a new program, so I’m gonna check this out.

Corinne

Yeah, it’s really so fun and easy to just follow a YouTube video. I just put it on and like put it on silent and listen to a podcast while I’m waving my little broomstick around.

Virginia

So, I am recommending an absurdly large water jug. A while back I posted on Instagram that I get migraines and I loosely tie getting migraines to the days when I drink only Diet Coke. This is not a criticism of Diet Coke, it’s necessary to my wellbeing, but I should drink water, too, to be a person. Sometime I want to do a reported piece on hydration culture. It’s a whole thing, for sure. However, I do need to drink water and I asked for recommendations and a couple of people recommended this. It is the Stanley GO IceFlow 64oz Stainless Steel Flip Straw Jug. It’s a beast. It’s enormous

Corinne

Is 64 ounces a gallon?

Virginia

It is a gallon. Yes.

Corinne

Okay, I also have a gallon water jug.

Virginia

This is maybe why we were destined to be friends. 

Corinne

Yours looks really good though.

Virginia

I appreciate the size, but I have never once drunk 64 ounces in a day. I’ve had it for a couple weeks now, I have never once drunk 64 ounces in one day. Like, that’s just, I cannot drink that much water in a day. That’s a ridiculous amount of water. But what I love about it is, it is so well insulated that it stays cold all day long. I do not like drinking tepid water. That is not interesting to me. It was 90 degrees here all weekend. We were out at the pool. I was out gardening the whole day. And I would fill this thing up in the morning with a bunch of ice cubes and cart it outside with me. And last night at eight o’clock, I was like Dan, you have to drink this water. It’s so cold. And he was like, thank you for sharing with me that your water is cold. 

Corinne

Do you have to like lift it over your head to drink it?

Virginia

No! You don’t have to lift it. It is not a barbell workout. You can just hold it up and tilt it a little bit to drink. I have been self conscious to drink out of it like on a Zoom. Because I don’t know, it’s so preposterous. I want to get their 20-ounce one, I feel like that might be more for daily use. But this is very useful for being outside when I’m out with my kids and like we all need water and they don’t have to carry multiple water bottles.

Corinne

It looks sleek, too, at least.

Virginia

I have the petal, the light pink.

Well, Corinne, thank you so much for doing this again. This was really fun! Do you want to remind people where to find you once again?

Corinne

Oh, sure. You can find me on Instagram at @selltradeplus that’s where I spend most of my time. And then my personal Instagram is @SelfieFay.

Thanks so much for listening to Burnt Toast! Once again, if you’d like to support the show, please subscribe for free in your podcast player. Leave us a rating or review and tell a friend, maybe a mom friend, about this episode.

And consider a paid subscription to the Burnt Toast newsletter. Until June 30, you can take 20 percent off and pay just $4 per month or $40 for the year! You get a ton of cool perks and you keep this an ad- and sponsor-free space.

The Burnt Toast Podcast is produced and hosted by me, Virginia Sole-Smith. You can follow me on Instagram or Twitter.

Burnt Toast transcripts and essays are edited and formatted by Corinne Fay, who runs @SellTradePlus, an Instagram account where you can buy and sell plus size clothing.

The Burnt Toast logo is by Deanna Lowe.

Our theme music is by Jeff Bailey and Chris Maxwell.

Tommy Harron is our audio engineer.

Thanks for listening and for supporting independent anti-diet journalism.

This is a public episode. If you’d like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit virginiasolesmith.substack.com/subscribe
Jun 23, 2022
Nobody Asked Mark Bittman Why He Needed Childcare.
Like yesterday, I included goldfish crackers in a lunch picture. And I’m like, how long is it going to take before someone yells at me about the goldfish?

You’re listening to Burnt Toast! This is the podcast where we talk about diet culture, fatphobia, parenting, and health.

Today I am chatting with fan favorite, and my best friend, Amy Palanjian. Amy is the creator of the blog Yummy Toddler Food, and she’s on Instagram and Tiktok, as we’ll talk about. She’s also my former podcast co-host of the Comfort Food podcast, and a frequent flyer here on Burnt Toast.

Today we’re talking about the business of kid food blogging, and the line Amy walks in trying to present realistic relatable content, but also have people be aware that this is a business and have that labor be somewhat visible. No one has ever asked Mark Bittman (or any other male food writer) if they are making a living writing recipes. We know and understand they run a business—but when women do this, and especially when moms do it, we act like it’s not work. We also get into broader themes about how we make domestic work visible and what happens when we do that.

If you enjoy this episode, please subscribe, rate and review us in your podcast player! It’s free and a great way to help more folks find the show.

For an upcoming bonus ep, I’m trying out a new format: Virginia’s Office Hours. If you have a question about navigating diet culture and anti-fat bias that you’d like to talk through with me, or if you just want to rant about a shitty diet with me, you can submit your question/topic here. I’ll pick one person to join me on the bonus episode so we can hash it out together.

Bonus episodes are for paid subscribers only, so join us here so you don’t miss out!

Virginia

This conversation is inspired by a piece you wrote for your newsletter a little while ago where you kind of… came out to your audience. You were like, “Guys, this is a business. I’m a blogger, recipe developer, influencer, cookbook author. This is a business.”

So I just want to start by saying it feels weird that you had to explain this to people. My first thought in reading it was: Does Mark Bittman have to explain to people that he runs a business? I don’t think so.

Amy

There’s this assumption maybe that the recipes that I share are like, a food diary. That I’m taking pictures of the food I’m making for my kids, and then just happening to share them. And I think that’s the way that blogging started many, many years ago. Blogs were sort of diaries. And there are a lot of people on social media now that are stille doing that. They don’t have fleshed out websites. They’re just sharing stuff on Instagram or Tiktok. I think the assumption is, Oh, she just happened to make this for her family and she’s sharing it with us. But most of the time when I’m cooking for work, my children are not even home.

I have a content calendar that is scheduled out many, many months ahead of time. I am doing almost nothing in real time. Because I can’t! There’s production time on shooting everything and writing all the content and doing all the videos. I have to be ahead of schedule, because that’s the way you run most businesses.

Virginia

You do run them with a plan. You don’t tend to just show up one day and be like, Hey, let’s make some stuff.

Amy

I think there are people that do that. But I run my website like we ran magazines. I have gotten a lot of requests like, “Can you show the ‘after’ plate?” Like, I’m not gonna sit there and videotape everything that my kids are eating, right? Because a that’s a giant pain. And it’s such a strange thing to do to a kid.

Virginia

It’s a real invasion of privacy to be like, “Okay, eat dinner, I’m just going to be here cataloging whether you like it and what you eat!”

Amy

And how much my kids eat has no bearing on how much your kids eat. It’s a strange request for information because it’s basically meaningless.

Virginia

They just either want some reassurance that your kid doesn’t eat it either. Or they want to feel bad because your kid eats something that their kid won’t eat. No good comes from these comparisons.

Amy

And my kids don’t eat everything that I make for the website. They are a sample size of three! I have enough food experience that I can taste a recipe and judge whether or not it’s good, from a much different lens than my children can.

Virginia

That’s another way I feel like the labor of all of this is made invisible. Because you are writing recipes for kids, there is an assumption that your children are the experts on your work. As opposed to understanding that you develop recipes because you have years of experience developing recipes, and you know what tastes good because this is your work. Again when any male food writer is like, here’s this amazing stew, we’re not like, But did your wife like it? Did your friends eat it? We trust them when they say this was amazing. I’m insulted on your behalf that people are like, Did Selway eat it? No offense, Selway, but it’s not really your job.

Amy

That would be the most maddening way to have my website.

Virginia

When your kid is going through the inevitable only eats mac and cheese for six months phase, what are you supposed to do for content? Just keep putting out mac and cheese recipes? It’s very strange.

When we’re consuming social media content, I think all of us need to understand the amount of work that goes into producing those images. And because they are images of domestic life, we assume that no work went into creating them. That feels really devaluing of your professional work and of domestic life. 

Amy

Well, it’s also questions like, Why do you need daycare? You’re just cooking. Why can’t your kids just be home? There was a lot of that during COVID. Like, what’s the big deal? I mean. Have you ever tried to write anything with a toddler on your leg?

Virginia

The way your photos are so beautifully shot and you’re so carefully styling the plate—you can’t do that with kids underfoot.

Amy

I know some people who have Instagram accounts who do it with their kids at home. There’s one person in particular who, once a month, will send me emails about how she’s drowning, and she can’t do all the things. I’m like, But you have no childcare! You’re comparing your output to mine and I have full-time childcare, because I’ve chosen that and you haven’t.

[Virginia’s Note: Or maybe it’s not in the budget/unavailable for other reasons. But that’s all the more reason not to expect to do all the things. The system is failing you!]

You have to give yourself a break. It’s completely not fair for people who are trying to do it while they’re taking care of their kids to think that they should be able to do all of the things. It’s all very muddy.

Virginia

That’s an example of the way these myths get perpetuated on Instagram by both the creators of the content and the viewers of the content. I’m not surprised someone thinks they can get into this work without needing childcare, because that’s an image that gets sold. You are very transparent about having childcare, but that’s not everybody. There are plenty of influencers who aren’t thanking the nanny or the daycare center workers, and are letting you believe that it’s all happening with their kids in tow. That sets women up to fail.

Amy

Or you see someone on TikTok who’s making an income by posting videos dancing with their babies. And you’re like, well I should be able to do that—TikTok in particular has really changed what is possible because it pays people once you have a certain number of followers. But I still feel like the assumption that you should be able to do all the things is just really murky.

Virginia

Also, let’s not discount the amount of labor that goes into making those videos. Like what if the baby’s cranky and you need to make them dance? We’re supposed to watch the video and think that she just happened to catch this totally charming moment with her child, but she learned a dance routine, figured out how to do it with the music, and then edited it afterwards. It’s a lot of production. 

Amy

So, for the most part, I try to let my kids eat without being videotaped, unless we’re gonna do something for a video and I tell them. But the other night, I was making dinner and my husband had the girls out of the house, so it was just the little guy and I. I had made some roasted carrots while the rest of dinner was cooking. And I honestly and truly do not know what made me start filming. There was nothing about me that was camera ready. I just was in whatever clothes I was wearing. My hair is kind of a mess. And I started filming it. So it actually was real. I put the carrots down and I asked Selway if he wanted them. And we went through this whole thing where he said I made the wrong carrots because I cut them into sticks versus circles. Then I just talked him through the carrot situation as I would in normal life. I compared the carrots to his crayons because they were sitting on the table. We got out some ketchup he wound up eating the whole thing of carrots. So I shared it on Instagram. It went like kind of nuts.

[Virginia Note: By “kind of nuts” Amy means that Selway eating carrots now has over 5.4 million views between Instagram and TikTok.]

As I was about to post it, I thought, okay, but now everyone’s going to think that my kids eat everything. Because this just happened to be a moment that went with this particular way. And I have not happened to catch a moment that went the other way. I do think the things I did along the way in that video do show the way I talk about food because I was not claiming that the carrots were gonna make him fly, I was not selling health messaging. It was like, “These are really yummy. These are mommy’s favorite. I’m gonna eat them all.” But there is this false promise when you see a kid eating something and you think, well my kids should eat that. And if they don’t, it’s either I’m failing or my kid is failing. I posted it and it immediately started doing really well and I’ve just been feeling so uncomfortable about it.

Virginia

Because you’re worried you were putting out that false expectation?

Amy

Right and I tried really hard to clarify that this doesn’t always happen in the caption. But anytime you videotape something, you are taking it out of context. It’s not what would be like if you didn’t have the phone on. And I think that’s the thing that we all forget. If you’re videotaping food, it is going to look different than if you didn’t videotape food, because you want the food to look a certain way. You’re going to choose something in the beginning that grabs people’s attention. You might put it in a different bowl or a cup that’s going to make people ask a question. You’re going do stuff to get people to engage in a way that you would not if you were just making yourself a bowl of oatmeal.

Virginia

Right. You wouldn’t be like, “I need to sprinkle something on top of the oatmeal because beige oatmeal doesn’t actually look good.” All of that is manufactured.

Amy

I think it’s really, really hard to remember, when you’re looking at videos of food, that there were lots of decisions made because people are going to be looking at it that are just a few steps away from “real.”

Virginia

I am curious to hear more about what motivated you to start filming. Does it feel hard to just be making dinner for your family and not thinking with one part of your brain, is there content here?

Amy

I go through periods that are better than others. I think it’s harder now because of the way that Instagram has changed in the past six months, where if you want to be growing, you have to be posting a lot of video. And so I can’t really turn that part of my brain off. To some extent, I am always like, “Is this something?”

We pretty much don’t tape anything at dinner. I try to do most of it during the day, but that is always on in my head.  My phone’s usually nearby, so I can turn on the camera pretty quick. [Another time] Selway had gone to the freezer and was getting himself a popsicle completely on his own, so I videotaped that because I was like, well, I might use this.

I mean, it’s hard. I sort of hate it because it’s putting my kids in a position that they didn’t ask to be in. And, you know, they’re getting older. This is a temporary phase of their life. But the potential for the number of eyeballs to see my content has drastically changed and it makes me feel really differently now to think about sharing them. But I’m not quite to the place where I feel like I can stop because it does seem so integral to my brand. Like, I posted that carrot video on TikTok an hour ago. I do not have a lot of TikTok followers and 30,000 people have already seen it. [Virginia Note: By publication time, that number was over 700,000 on TikTok alone]

I also find it to be incredibly difficult to take days off because of the nature of how connected this all is to my business.

Virginia

Let’s talk about how these misunderstanding about the business of making food content plays into diet culture standards. I think those “What I Eat in a Day” videos are such a good example. I was thinking about a reel I saw Cassey Ho do—she’s Blogilates. So she’s a fitness influencer and a diet influencer, straight up. She had a reel where she started by showing a beautiful shot of her protein pancakes covered and blueberries with the syrup dripping down them. And the caption says “sometimes I eat like this.” And then the shot changes, and it’s her eating canned chicken, plain out of the can, and lettuce out of a bag of salad. And she’s like, “and some days, I eat like this.”

And her message with the video was that you don’t have to always be pulling off this beautifully produced meal. Like, she was trying to show that the pancakes are fake and manufactured. But in her case, well, when you strip away what makes that meal pretty, it turns out, she’s just eating canned chicken and lettuce because she’s living on a really restrictive diet. So it was very revealing in a way that I don’t think she intended because it shows that in a lot of this “What I Eat in a Day” content, we’re making food look pretty to make up for the fact that it’s not very filling or satisfying. Which is obviously very different from your recipes, which are delicious and not diet culture content.

Amy

Well, like take the assumption that all the food I’m making is the food that my kids are eating. The reality is that 99 percent of what my kids eat, nobody ever sees. I’m not like taking videos of them eating their goldfish for snack because, there’s nothing to see. It looks the same in my house as yours! But then people say, “I wish my kids ate like your kids eat.” And I’m like, “Well, I think they probably do.” Or, “I wish I was as good of a mom as you.” I’m like, “This is my job.”

Virginia

And why are we measuring people’s quality as a mom by the food they serve? It’s a little more than that. Not to reduce what you do! But, that isn’t your mom work. That’s your business. That’s not what you do as a mom.

Amy

I think in kid food, particularly, the thing where it intersects with diet culture is in the types of food that we’re deciding to show or the types of food that we now expect kids to eat. Like which type of crackers you use. Yesterday I included goldfish in a lunch picture and I’m like, How long is it gonna take before someone yells at me about the goldfish? It’s making those choices. There’s a lot of behind the scenes thinking that goes along with that, so I think you have try really hard to not be sending those messages. 

Virginia

It’s hard too because you have to decide if you’re up for the goldfish fight, right? But if you don’t include the goldfish, then you’re upholding this standard you don’t agree with, even if it’s just inadvertently.

Amy

Here’s another example. I do a lot of content on storing produce or making your produce last longer or freezing things. I have six reusable stasher bags, like the fancy silicone ones that come in colors. I typically use those in videos, because they look nice. They are expensive, I’m not gonna lie. The big ones are like $30 apiece. I got them for free. And again, I have six of them. I do not have a whole stash of them. You literally see the same one in most posts. But a lot of people call me out for using something that’s expensive. And yet, if I showed a regular Ziploc bag, there would be a cascade of people complaining about the plastic. So, like, which is better?

Virginia

You can’t win.

Amy

Right, but I do think that showing the reusable fancy eco one is also perpetuating that feeling that you have to use this.

Virginia

 And that your freezer should be pretty this way.

Amy

Or that this is the only safe option. I did have a whole DM conversation with someone where she was like, “I’m trying to switch to all glass and silicone for my freezer it because I need it to be safe for my baby.” And then I have to explain like which plastic is actually problematic, what not to put in plastic, and then all the ways you can use plastic. But, so many assumptions are being drawn from those visuals and that’s tricky.

Virginia

For the record, I cheer whenever you put goldfish in the lunch and share it whenever you put more than three M&M’s in something. Oh and I also loved your banana sushi reel. Let’s talk about that one.

Amy

Okay, so banana sushi is where you put peanut butter or another nut or seed butter on a tortilla, you put a banana in the middle, you roll it up and slice it, so they look sort of like spirals. They’re cute. So I made the thing and then I took one apart with my hands and smashed it all together, acting like I was a toddler. I was like, this is either gonna do really well or it’s gonna look really dumb. And it did really well. I think it’s helpful for people to see that I’m going to make this thing for my kid and they’re going to rip it to shreds and maybe eat it. Because kids are really tactile. I did not want to make that video and be like, this is an amazing toddler lunch and leave it at that. Because I know there is no way I could give that to any of my children and they would actually just put it in their mouth.

Virginia

Right, right. I’ve done peanut butter and jelly that way and then watched my children unravel it all and I’m like, “Why are you monsters?”

Amy

I know. Why didn’t I just make a regular sandwich?

Virginia

Why are you not appreciating the adorable aesthetic of the sandwich I’ve made you? Occasionally, it has delighted my children when I’ve made stuff in shapes. I do have some of those little Japanese sandwich cutters and my younger one went through a phase where she was enchanted. And then they started coming back not eaten in the lunchbox and I was like well, back to regular regular peanut butter and jelly for you, kid. I’m not going to any extra trouble here. 

But it does seem really challenging to talk about that honestly with your audience, especially because I feel like influencers are under a lot of pressure to seem “authentic,” right? And often that version of authenticity is not authentic, right? 

Amy

It’s manufactured.

Virginia

It’s often like, “Mama, I see you.” And showing the chaos without being like, “If we had a better society, this would not be so hard.” So then we’re continuing to perpetuate the expectation that motherhood is so hard and you’re crumbling all the time, without directing the anger that we should have about that towards the institutions responsible.

Amy

Yeah, I’m trying when I can, especially with voiceovers, to be more realistic. But you have to do it on purpose.

There’s someone that I follow, Sarah Crawford, her account is @bromabakery. So, she does all this baking. She makes a giant mess. And I’m like, at what point did she realize that that was her thing? Because I doubt if she didn’t have her camera on that she would be playing it up that much.

Virginia

Oh, interesting. Do you think she’s making it messier than it has to be? 

Amy

I think she might be.

Virginia

Sarah, we want to know! DM us. 

Amy

She is very good at social media. She has a whole program that she sells, she’s very good at it. And that’s the thing that she’s decided that she’s doing, which, like, kudos to her for figuring it out. But also, it’s maybe not real?

Virginia

God. It’s like, none of its real. It’s so fascinating. I think the takeaway for those of us who just consume this content is just keep the lack of reality in mind all the time. I don’t know what shifted. I was reading Real Simple magazine last night. And I know none of that is real, right? And maybe that’s because I worked in magazines and I saw what went into photoshoots. Maybe you didn’t know all the tricks that they use to make the food look perfect, but you certainly knew—well, maybe you don’t know. I do remember when we used to shoot lifestyle stories together, being shocked at the first photo shoot when it’s like, oh, wait, we’re not going to eat the food that you had all these people over to be at a party. We’re shooting a party at our house, but…

Amy

You’re not actually having a party and taking pictures.

Virginia

Right. It’s also totally manufactured thing. So maybe we didn’t even know about magazines and that’s why we don’t know about social. But I do think we even more don’t know it about social. We expect that we are seeing what people are really cooking to feed themselves and it creates these unrealistic standards for the viewers And it devalues the work of content creators, too.

Amy

I think it’s giving us completely unrealistic expectations for what we should be making and feeding our families. 

Virginia

Like family dinner should look like a photoshoot every day?

Amy

Or you should have the baby who is like stuffing all the food into their mouths happily. There’s so much comparison that comes out of it that I think really is problematic. It’s hard to remember to run it through the filter of your own life.

Virginia

Agreed. Well, we also had a request from folks on Instagram to talk about maintaining mom friendships, which I think is a lovely topic. Amy and I have been best friends since.. How old were we? 22? 23?

Amy 

I think we were 23. 

Virginia

We were babies. Babies!

Amy

Maybe I was 23 and you were 22.

Virginia

So it’s almost 20 years of being friends. And the other thing about us is we lived in New York City together for five years and then the whole rest of our friendship has been long distance. You moved to Iowa. I moved to the Hudson Valley. Now you’re in Pennsylvania. So we’re still hours apart, and yet here we are. So how did we do it, Amy? How are we so great?

Amy

I think our texting is really the magic glue.

Virginia

It’s just texting.

Amy

I’ve got nothing besides that.

Virginia

Constant texting.

Amy

I mean, I think obviously it helped that we were working in the same industry. So we’re constantly talking about both work and life and we have a lot in common because of that. We’ve often been, I was gonna say freelance, but that seems like the wrong word, but like making your own businesses.

Virginia

I use freelance, for sure. You were an editor at magazines that kept folding. So it was a little different.

Amy

And then I learned how to be a freelancer for you.

Virginia

We were both figuring it out.

Amy

I think that had a lot to do with it. We did email a lot, before we started texting. We had these really amazing rainbow email threads.

Virginia

Yeah, that was a pre-kids thing. We couldn’t sustain that. We used to write long emails and we would respond in-line and we would change our font colors so you could keep track of the conversation. I hope our grandchildren discover those emails someday. 

Amy

Those were amazing. That’s like how we planned our weddings.

Virginia

I was going to say baby showers. And then we switched to texting because it was just much more efficient. It also helps that we’re on similar sleep schedules. We’re both awake early in the morning. There’s you and maybe two other people that I can text at five in the morning and fully expect a response, and who won’t text me at 10pm because I will lose track of the text because I’m asleep. So, I think texting is the only answer. I don’t know how previous generations did it. But I do think, keep your mom friends close. They’re very important. Very key to our survival.

Butter for your Burnt Toast

Amy

So I recently finished Book Lovers by Emily Henry.

Virginia

Oh, that’s a good one!

Amy

It was delightful read I was very sad when it was over.

Virginia

My recommendation is also a book, but it’s nonfiction. It is our dear friend Kate Tellers' book How to Tell a Story. I figured this was a good episode to shout it out because Amy and I are both Kate superfans. So I’ll even link to our very old Comfort Food podcast episode where Kate came on and we talked about family dinner. Kate Tellers is one of our longtime friends, also from our New York City days. She works for The Moth, the storytelling organization, and they have an incredible new book out about how to tell a story. It is great if you are someone who wants to do oral storytelling. I also got a lot out of it in terms of thinking about writing. It’s just a great craft book. It helps you really understand why some people are great storytellers and some people, when they start to tell a story, you just die inside, because you know the anecdotes going to take so long. They guide you through the process. So, it’s wonderful.

I do think we have to agree that on an anecdotal level, Kate is the best storyteller I think we both know, hands down.

Amy

Yes. Sometimes in our text messages it’s very funny because she’ll just start halfway through the story and then we’re like, but wait…

Virginia

Kate, bring us in. We need a little backstory! Yes, she’s also on the group mom text chain and we are regularly brought into car trouble or various shenanigans. It’s great. But the book is excellent and she’s not the only author, there are five co-authors and they all do a really great job. So, I recommend that if you are interested in working on your writing game or your storytelling game or just want to learn more about how stories get made.

Thank you, Amy, for coming back. Always a delight to have you on Burnt Toast. I really appreciate it. Tell people where they can find you!

Amy

I’m at yummytoddlerfood.com or @Yummytoddlerfood on all the socials now.

Virginia

Including her TikTok, guys.

Amy

Yeah, that was a decision that I did not take lightly. But it is what it is now.

Virginia

I’m watching and dreading maybe having to join you. I’m still on the fence. I appreciate you blazing the trail for those of us who may or may not follow.

Amy

Yeah, I often just have to cover my eyes if I’m on there.

Virginia

Well, thank you for doing this. We really appreciate it.

Thanks so much for listening to Burnt Toast! Once again, if you’d like to support the show, please subscribe for free in your podcast player. Leave us a rating or review and tell a friend, maybe a mom friend, about this episode.

And consider a paid subscription to the Burnt Toast newsletter. It’s just $5 per month or $50 for the year. You get a ton of cool perks and you keep this an ad- and sponsor-free space.

The Burnt Toast Podcast is produced and hosted by me, Virginia Sole-Smith. You can follow me on Instagram or Twitter.

Burnt Toast transcripts and essays are edited and formatted by Corinne Fay, who runs @SellTradePlus, an Instagram account where you can buy and sell plus size clothing.

The Burnt Toast logo is by Deanna Lowe.

Our theme music is by Jeff Bailey and Chris Maxwell.

Tommy Harron is our audio engineer.

Thanks for listening and for supporting independent anti-diet journalism.

This is a public episode. If you’d like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit virginiasolesmith.substack.com/subscribe
Jun 16, 2022
"Skincare Culture is Dewy Diet Culture"
1742
Because this is what we do to ourselves every day. We put in so much effort to just exist as basic people in the world. Like, we’re not like knockout celebrities. We’re not like stunning anybody. Like, we put in all of this work for a reward that doesn’t actually ever come.

You’re listening to Burnt Toast! This is the podcast where we talk about diet culture, fatphobia, parenting, and health.

Today I’m chatting with Jessica Defino. Jessica is a pro-skin, anti-product beauty reporter who is dismantling beauty standards, debunking marketing myths, and exploring how beauty culture impacts people. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Vogue, Allure, and more. She also writes the beauty-critical newsletter, The Unpublishable.

If you enjoy this episode, please subscribe, rate and review us in your podcast player! It’s free and a great way to help more folks find the show.

For next month’s bonus ep, I’m trying out a new format: Virginia’s Office Hours. If you have a question about navigating diet culture and anti-fat bias that you’d like to talk through with me, or if you just want to rant about a shitty diet with me, you can submit your question/topic here. I’ll pick one person to join me on the bonus episode so we can hash it out together.

Bonus episodes are for paid subscribers only, so join us here so you don’t miss out!

Episode 47 Transcript

Virginia

I feel a weird compulsion to tell you that as I contemplated this conversation, my skin broke out very dramatically. And I was like, do I need to disclose this to her? And then I was like, No, it’s fine. It’s fine.

Jessica

It’s totally fine. You’re just a normal human being with skin.

Virginia

Yes, exactly. But it was very funny timing. Why don’t we start by having you tell listeners a little bit about yourself and your work?

Jessica

I describe myself as a pro-skin, anti-product beauty reporter. I report on beauty and skincare, mostly through the lens of skin first, and then what we put on the skin and the consumerism of it all second, which is pretty rare in the beauty space. It’s also really hard in the beauty space. I was finding all this information about skin and skincare culture and beauty culture and really wanting to report on it, and found that I had a hard time placing these more controversial pitches. My bread and butter is still freelancing. I write for places like the New York Times and Vogue and Allure, but mostly these days, I’m working on my own newsletter The Unpublishable where I can dive a little deeper and explore some of these not industry-friendly topics.

Virginia

You’re speaking to my soul. As my readers know, I started Burnt Toast so that I could write diet culture stories that I can’t write in the outlets that run diet ads next to my work. I spent a long time at women’s magazines and the ethical conundrum of the beauty department is fascinating. And I don’t think people understand the extent to which advertising and beauty content are interwoven. Sketch that out a little bit for us.

Jessica

It’s intense. I had no idea until I started reporting on the beauty industry, too. Beauty media is pretty much funded by beauty advertisers, which means it’s not within a publication’s best interest to publish anything that goes against advertisers’ interest—which means a lot of beauty content is very product focused. It’s very sort of light and airy, and not diving deep to question, like, how are these products affecting our skin, our health, our endocrine systems.

Beauty media makes money in one of two ways: Through advertising or through affiliate sales. So there’s a big internal incentive to push a lot of products on people, because the publication will get a cut of all those products that are sold online. It’s very interwoven. I have had so many stories killed or completely edited to remove brand names, softened, just really toned down in order to appease advertisers.

Virginia

I want to tell you my story of this, which is taking us all the way back to 2007, pre- social media. I did my first big investigative feature piece, which was a deep dive into working conditions in nail salons. I wrote it for Jane magazine, when Jane was the coolest women’s magazine, and also the sort of counterculture women’s magazine. I spent all this time with these nail salon workers, exploring every aspect of this, and they killed it right before we went to press because of nail polish advertisers. And because a big portion of subscribers were nail salons, and they thought they would lose subscribers.

That was such a transformative moment for me as a journalist. I was like, Oh, I have to figure out different ways to do this. Because that was a media outlet that I don’t think you would have expected to be as beholden to their advertisers as they were. I can talk about this all now because they folded a million years ago and the piece did end up finally running in The Nation, which obviously has no beauty advertisers. But it also was read by a much smaller audience, not all of whom understood what nail salons were. I mean, the overlap between nail salon customers and The Nation readers is probably not that big.

Jessica

That’s the thing! It is a little bit easier to get some harder hitting pieces published in more news-driven outlets, but that’s not where the majority of people who are interested in beauty are getting their beauty information. And so I try really hard to infiltrate those spaces. But it is hard and your story doesn’t surprise me at all. Still, every time I hear something like that, it hurts.

Virginia

And when you’re trying to publish in the other outlets, you have to convince them that these issues matter. Because now it’s a women’s issue. It’s fluffy. It’s beauty. There’s that whole piece of it.

Well, we could rant about that forever, but I feel like we also need to talk about Kim Kardashian. And I probably need to apologize for making you do this, because it’s maybe bringing up some trauma. But we are recording this, it’s a week after the Met Gala when Kim wore Marilyn Monroe’s dress and went on this crazy diet losing a stupid amount of weight in three weeks. You wrote an incredible piece for Vice about your experience working for the Kardashians’ app company. You draw so many smart parallels in that piece between underpaid media work and beauty work. So what is your take on the whole Met Gala thing?

Jessica

So Kim was boasting about spending three weeks basically starving herself working out twice a day in a sauna suit. She did an article for Vogue where she said she spent 14 hours the day before getting her hair bleached. Like, that’s so much effort. And my thought was: She looked fine. It was a pretty boring look. It wasn’t a standout moment at the Met Gala. And that makes it such a perfect parallel for mass beauty culture because this is what we do to ourselves every day. We put in so much effort to just exist as basic people in the world. We’re not knockout celebrities. We’re not stunning anybody. We put in all of this work for a reward that doesn’t actually ever come and I thought it was a pretty interesting parallel there.

Virginia

Yes, it’s an amazing metaphor of what we’re all doing. She just compressed it all into three weeks.

My other thought was, this is a woman for whom beauty work is so non-negotiable. If she wants to leave the house without makeup, this is something that’s going to be covered and talked about. So for me, it just kind of felt like why are we even surprised? She’s saying out loud what a lot of other people were also doing to get into their dresses, they just weren’t making a media stunt out of it. It’s not uncommon for a celebrity to spend three weeks before a big event doing insane things to fit into a dress.

Jessica

It’s not uncommon for anyone. I had tweeted something to that effect and someone was like, “Please, this is what women do before their wedding day all the time. It’s not that big of a deal.” And I was like, “Just because it happens all the time doesn’t mean it’s not that big of a deal.” That’s a huge deal. That’s a huge deal that so many people are doing it constantly. It’s not just celebrities.

Virginia

A line I loved from the Vice piece is: “Beauty standards have always been physical manifestations of systems of oppression.” This, of course, applies to the diet industry just as much as it does to beauty and skincare. So I really want to explore the intersections of these two cultures. How are skincare culture and diet culture really one and the same? 

Beauty standards have always been physical manifestations of systems of oppression.

Jessica

I always say that skincare culture is dewy diet culture. There are so many parallels. In both instances people have been made to believe that a certain aesthetic signifies health, when that’s not the case. We’re sold products to help us achieve that aesthetic at the expense of our health. We’re sent to doctors who reinforce beauty standards and call it medical care. There are all sorts of doctors who subscribe to BMI as a marker of health, and will tell a patient “just lose weight” when they actually have cancer—and dermatologists are really not that different.

I don’t mean this as a slight against dermatologists. This as an indictment of the entire western medical system where beauty standards have been subsumed into medical care. When you’re going to a dermatologist, very often, aside from skin cancer screenings, you are getting treatments to help you look a certain way without ever exploring the root cause of why your skin is reacting the way it’s reacting. The entire thing is “how do we get rid of this as quickly as possible?” And very often achieving that goal goes against your actual skin health.

Virginia

And they’re often treating things that aren’t even health problems, right? Wrinkles are not a health problem. Even breaking out is normal.

Jessica

Yes. I hate skin types. I hate this idea of “normal” skin because normal skin reacts to the world around it. That is actually the the job your skin is supposed to play. It’s supposed to alert you to any potential imbalances, any internal health issues, any issues in your external environment. So when your skin is reacting in that way, that’s health. That is exactly what it’s supposed to be doing.

It’s our job to figure out if is this actually a cue about my health, and if so, what’s going on? Or to say, this isn’t actually about my health. This is just a normal thing that happens to people as they age or as they go through pregnancy or as they go through menopause, whatever. So much of it has nothing to do with health.

I think the other parallel is that we’re told that subscribing to this certain standard of beauty, whether it’s your body size or your skin, will increase your confidence and make you feel good. But the data bears out a very different story. Feeling held to this impossible standard of beauty to have like skin like a doll or a model who has been through Photoshop and filters and FaceTune and plastic surgery, increases appearance anxiety, depression, body dysmorphia, facial dysmorphia, eating disorder, self harm and even suicide. We’re told that it’s going to be good for us and make us feel better and really makes us feel like s**t.

Virginia

The thing about dermatologists gets me so fired up. We have a history of melanoma in my family so I do go in for my skin checks and one year, I couldn’t get my annual skin check appointment for 18 months. She was booked out that far for the annual cancer screenings, but they could get me in the next week to talk about acne. I just remember thinking, Isn’t making sure I don’t have cancerous moles like more pressing? It said a lot to me. There’s no product she can sell me related to cancerous moles, but there are many products to sell me related to breakouts.

Jessica

That’s horrible. And it’s also not surprising. I’ve had so many women tell me specifically that they have gone in for their annual skin cancer screenings and their dermatologist will start talking about Botox or filler and selling them during this health appointment. That messes with your mind because it’s coming from a medical doctor. They’re suggesting alongside a cancer screening, “Hey, maybe you should get your crow’s feet done. Maybe you should get your frown lines done. Maybe you should get your lips filled.” It starts to feel like these things are part of being a healthy human being when they’re not.

Virginia

I’m thinking about the intersections, too, with anti-fat bias. I think for a lot of us in bigger bodies, there’s often some added pressure around skincare. Like, if I’m not meeting the size beauty standard, I have to have good skin. There’s a tension between these two things. And we can also talk about the vulnerability of going into these appointments, to any medical appointment when you’re braced for medical weight stigma. Similarly, I think going to the dermatologist is often really anxiety provoking about appearance because you’re expecting to be dissected and told everything about your skin is wrong.

Jessica

I have a long history of being obsessed with dermatology and taking any pill or prescription that they would give me, starting from probably age 14. I started antibiotics for acne. I was put on birth control pills at 15 for acne. I was on retinoids, tretinoin, Accutane for too long. Then a topical steroid prescription that actually ended up causing something called skin atrophy. This is what kick-started my whole interest in beauty and skincare to begin with, because my skin just stopped working. It was peeling off of my face in chunks. It was a terrible experience at the hands of my dermatologist. I remember after I had pretty much healed my skin myself by learning about how the skin actually works and how unnecessary most products actually are and really paring back, I went to a dermatologist again for my skin cancer screening, and he was like, “Your skin is really dry,” in this very judgmental tone. I was like, “Yeah, it’s dry, because you and your colleagues put me on Accutane for years, which killed my sebaceous gland function and now my skin can’t moisturize itself. That’s not my fault. It’s actually your fault.”

It is really frustrating. Especially as somebody who has been through the wringer with dermatology to still get that judgment. Because I’ve actually tried everything you’ve suggested, and it doesn’t work.

Virginia

Oh, my gosh, that’s so infuriating. I loved the piece you wrote in the newsletter where you talked about Katie Sturino, who is a really great body positive fashion influencer. But she did this whole thing about Botox. It felt like a very weird left turn.

Jessica

Yeah, for sure. I actually see this a lot in the body positive community, especially on Instagram. When it gets to your face, when it gets above the neck, all of that rhetoric goes out the window. In Katie Sturino’s post, she celebrated Botox’s anniversary with a huge cake. So it was like, “eat the cake!” but “freeze your frown lines.” These things really are the same and I see them put together so often, as if they don’t stem from the same exact tenants of oppression. It’s harmful to position yourself as taking a stand against beauty standards, and then use that same platform to feed people another set of beauty standards. People trust you, so it’s really easy for them to internalize that as something that is good and healthy.

So what I like to tell people is: Take the beauty content that you consume and swap out certain phrases. For instance, if instead of “frown lines” this Instagram caption had said “fat rolls,” would it feel good to you? If they were like, “get rid of your fat rolls in five minutes?” No, that would obviously be problematic. But for some reason, when we put frown lines in there, it’s like, oh, yeah, no, I have to get rid of this. Or wrinkles and stretch marks, or acne and cellulite, or dull skin and that extra five pounds. It’s a good exercise to insert one for the other and see how empowering it feels to you. I think in the large majority of instances, you’ll see, oh, this is really harmful messaging coming from these these beauty influencers.

Virginia

I am so glad you are connecting these dots. I think that ageism hasn’t been touched by the body positive movement, at least not online. I don’t think it’s a conversation we’re having yet. Shout out to my mom, who will be listening to this and saying, “Yes, that’s why I text you every week and say write about ageism.” I’m on it! But she’s right. Even among friends of mine, or folks in this community who would no longer say “I feel fat” in a pejorative way, it’s still very normal and acceptable to say, “I’m so old” or to express remorse about your birthday and about any physical signs of aging.

Why do you think we’re still so locked into anti-aging as the goal? Especially since, as you put it in the newsletter piece, it is literally the most unattainable of all beauty standards.

Jessica

It’s physically impossible. Never gonna happen. Which is great for the beauty industry. The reason they can push this so hard is because it’s a never-ending goal. There is no point at which you will have bought the right product or gotten the right Botox shot, and think, “I’m done. I’ve anti-aged.” They get you forever once they sell you on anti aging.

I also think that this attraction to anti-aging has very spiritual roots. I think that it’s an extension of our fear of death, and our fear of facing our mortality. That’s a very human thing to fear, but we don’t live in a culture where we actually explore those feelings. And then, because we live in a society that also rvalues external appearance, it’s like, okay, well, if I can just look young forever, I won’t actually have to face any of these issues.

A big thing I hear from women who are telling me that they need to get Botox, they need to get filler, they need to get the facelift, is: “I look in the mirror, and I don’t look like myself anymore.” And that’s a really scary thing for a lot of people to face. And I get that. But also the point of life is not to look like yourself forever. The point of life is to grow and evolve and change and find a way to be comfortable with that change. If we keep reverting back to former versions of ourselves and calling that progress, that causes a lot of problems.

Virginia

People say the same thing about weight gain, and particularly postpartum weight gain: “I just don’t feel like myself anymore.” But why is your 16-year-old self or your 26-year-old self the only you that you’re allowed to be? Why did you have to freeze in time with that body? Why can you not change and grow in terms of your physical appearance?

Jessica

That’s such a beautiful way to put it. I think with anti-aging, too, there’s a lot of it tied up in productivity culture and also in the way that we treat our elderly community. If we really wanted to address our fear of aging, we would need to start investing in community care and advocating for human rights and health equity and economic security for the elderly and age diversity in the workplace. This idea that once you stop being able to produce output for the economy, that your value as a person diminishes—I think all of that is tied up in what we’re doing to our faces as well. 

Virginia

I’m thinking this also intersects so heavily with misogyny, right? Because women are held to very different aging standards than men. In the workplace, that plays out in terms of whether you can get a job and whether you can literally financially support yourself. I’ve talked to women who’ve said, “I don’t care about gray hair, but I can’t show up to work with gray hair.” How do you navigate that piece of it?

Jessica

It’s really tough. When I get the same question, I do tend to draw a line here between beauty culture and diet culture. Because we’ve gotten to the point in diet culture where we can all agree that life is easier for you in terms of how people treat you, when you’re thin. Is that a good justification to starve yourself and put yourself through these unhealthy practices in order to be thin? I think most people would agree that’s not a good justification. But when it comes to beauty, when it comes to wrinkles, when it comes to gray hair, we allow that. We say okay, yes, this is a good justification. I would like to see us get to the point as a culture where we can agree that giving into these beauty demands is similarly not a sustainable way to exist in the world. Sometimes we feel like we do have to alter our appearance in order to deal with these external judgments. And coping mechanisms aren’t always bad. But you have to understand what is a coping mechanism in your beauty routine and what is truly something you’re doing for your health. What is for “feeling good,” what is a self-expression lipstick and what is actually giving into a really harmful, ageist, sexist standard in order to exist in the world. And then: Where can we divest? Where can we invest in changing those standards instead?

Virginia

Maybe a first step is just being honest with yourself. If job security is on the line, you’re not going to stop dying your hair, and I don’t think either one of us is saying you should. You can only challenge what makes sense to challenge. But there’s probably some clarity that comes with being clear and honest with yourself about why you’re choosing these different standards. It can be so interrelated and hard to sort out for yourself why these different things matter.

Jessica

Right? There’s a great quote that I love to reference from Tressie McMillan Cottom’s book Thick: “‘I like what I like’ is always a capitalist lie.” Oh my gosh, when I first read that it hit me so hard. I repeat it constantly to people because just saying, “Oh, I like doing this,” or “I do this for me,” isn’t really a good enough answer, because there’s always something deeper that informs why you like it and why it makes you feel good. And it normally stems from something in the external culture making you feel really bad first, and that is the thing that we have to address.

Virginia

A reader question I answered recently that I think made people the most uncomfortable was someone saying but, what if I just don’t want to be fat? Like, what if that’s just my preference? It’s so hard for us to recognize we didn’t get there in a vacuum. 

Butter For Your Burnt Toast

Jessica

I’m working on a post for my newsletter now and I’m trying to create a list of songs, movies, poems, art that reference ugly women—not necessarily ugly, but things you wouldn’t necessarily find attractive. Just to romanticize these features that are often neglected by mainstream beauty media. I was listening to “Thunder Road” by Bruce Springsteen the other day, and I love that line where he’s like, “You ain’t a beauty, but hey, you’re alright.” And then it’s just this like bleeding heart love song to this woman who’s like, fine, I guess. I just love that and I want more. I want more art about plain, ugly people.

Virginia

Yes! That’s a great recommendation. Mine is also music, we’re in sync there. This is actually a double recommendation. So novelist Emma Straub, who I recommend just as a human, as a fashion icon, as a writer, everything. I recommend her, and I recommend her new book This Time Tomorrow, which is the best novel I’ve read all year. So that’s your first recommendation.

But, a very cool thing Emma does, that she talked about in her newsletter, is she makes playlists for each of her novels, which you can find on Spotify. And they are so good. Particularly for my peers who were teenagers in the 90’s. The one for This Time Tomorrow was really great. It starts with the Kinks song, which is not a 90s song, but it’s a beautiful song. And the one for her novel Modern Lovers, I’m really obsessed with. It starts with Melissa Etheridge. This is the soundtrack that I’ve been putting on—I talked in a recent podcast about how I’m into puzzles now. So that’s my puzzle soundtrack when I’m working on a puzzle. And my eight-year-old really loves it, too. I was like, “do we need a different soundtrack because we’re starting a new puzzle?” And she was like, “No, we need Modern Lovers again.” So we’re really into it.

Jessica

I’m gonna go listen to it now.

Virginia

It’s so good. Jessica, thank you for being here! Tell us where we can find more of you and support your work.

Jessica

Thank you so much for having me! Pretty much all my work now is through my newsletter The Unpublishable.

Thanks so much for listening to Burnt Toast. If you’d like to support the show, please subscribe for free in your podcast player and tell a friend about this episode.

And consider a paid subscription to the Burnt Toast newsletter! You’ll help keep this an ad- and sponsor-free space, and as you know from me and Jessica, that is hard to find.

If you subscribe, renew, or gift a subscription to someone this month, you can also enter to win one of 15 books that have been featured on previous Burnt Toast podcasts.

The Burnt Toast Podcast is produced and hosted by me, Virginia Sole-Smith. You can follow me on Instagram or Twitter.

Burnt Toast transcripts and essays are edited and formatted by Corinne Fay, who runs @SellTradePlus, an Instagram account where you can buy and sell plus size clothing.

The Burnt Toast logo is by Deanna Lowe.

Our theme music is by Jeff Bailey and Chris Maxwell.

Tommy Harron is our audio engineer.

Thanks for listening and for supporting independent anti-diet journalism.

This is a public episode. If you’d like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit virginiasolesmith.substack.com/subscribe
Jun 09, 2022
Do We Owe It To Our Kids To Be Healthy?
1886
We have to disconnect the idea of good parenting from health and fitness. Because people don’t have a moral imperative to health.

You’re listening to Burnt Toast! This is the podcast where we talk about diet culture, fatphobia, parenting and health.

Today I am chatting with Amanda Martinez Beck. Amanda is a fat activist, author and host of the Fat and Faithful podcast. She focuses on the ways that fatphobia and ableism have intertwined with American Christian culture. We are discussing Amanda’s second book, More of You: the Fat Girls Field Guide to the Modern World which came out this week.

Some news: Beginning with today’s episode, I’m now able to pay every podcast guest a $100 honorarium, to compensate them for their time and labor. This will make it easier for the podcast to center the voices of marginalized folks (a goal I previously discussed here). And our incredible community of Burnt Toast subscribers is making this possible! So thank you so much, if you’re already subscribed, for helping me do this. And if you’re not, but want to hear more conversations like this one, consider joining us. (I also offer comp subscriptions—just email if that would be helpful to you.)

PS. If you enjoy this episode, please also subscribe, rate and review us in your podcast player! That’s free and a great way to help more folks find the show.

And: I wanted to note that Amanda and I recorded this conversation before news of the Uvalde school shooting broke, so you won’t hear us discuss it, though of course it is now all I can think about. As I said, all too recently, after the Buffalo shooting: Remember that gun reform is now a states issue. Everytown has a website that lets you see — state by state — what the laws are in each state. We know that electing new majorities in our target states will make it possible to pass gun safety legislation. The States Project helped flip Maine in 2018, and were able to deepen that new majority in 2020 — this was an outcome in their 2021 session. So this is, yet again, where the Burnt Toast Giving Circle can do some good. Join us, if you need a place to put your rage.

Episode 45 Transcript

Virginia

Hi Amanda, I’m so glad to have you on! And big congratulations on the new book. Why don’t we start by having you tell us a little bit about yourself, your work, and your family?

Amanda

Okay. I am a fat activist. My middle name is Martinez, which alludes to my Cuban background. My dad was a Cuban refugee, so I grew up in a home that was half Latinx, half white. My husband Zachary is a university professor and we have four kids, and they’re in bodies that don’t conform to societal standards, most of them. So I’m doing this work for myself and for my kids. I have a podcast called Fat and Faithful, which talks about fat liberation through a Christian lens. I wrote a new book, which we’re going to talk about. And I have an Instagram, which is called @your_body_is_good. In addition to my body image coaching that I do, that’s the work that I’m doing right now.

Virginia

That’s not a short list of work, so thank you for all of that. We met when I interviewed you for a story on how anti-fat bias was impacting the treatment of fat folks with COVID. You were in early recovery, at that point, from COVID. I would love, if you don’t mind, to talk a little bit about how that’s gone. How are you doing?

Amanda

I’m doing really well, but it has been a long road. I was hospitalized for 40 days and was on a ventilator for two weeks and lost the ability to walk, in addition to just all the respiratory things that come along with COVID. While I was in the hospital, I encountered fatphobia in some very glaring ways and some very systemic ways—you wrote a whole piece on that. But I am on a good path right now. I have been off of oxygen since October of 2021. I was on oxygen for about a year. My lungs are doing really well. And I have more mobility than I did even before going into the hospital. I credit that to a fabulous doctor who’s taken my post-acute COVID syndrome really seriously, or what we call long COVID, to help me with getting on the right medicines, and specifically, to help with the brain fog, to get on medicine for that, and I feel like a new person. Really.

Virginia

I worried about you for a long time. I know there are a lot of us who have been rooting for you. I’m glad to hear you’re in a better place and also so grateful that you did share your story, because it was so important, I think, for us to continue to follow this path, past the initial COVID and through long COVID. I know when you’re in the middle of something like that, I know how much additional labor it is to share that and put that out there, so thank you for doing that. 

I’m curious to hear a little more about what misconceptions came up the most? What do you still find yourself having to challenge or correct with folks around COVID and weight?

Amanda

In the beginning, I felt really guilty for getting COVID because there was definitely a narrative that fat people were at higher risk for developing complications from COVID. Even though those risks were correlated, not necessarily caused by, body size, I always felt like people were blaming me. I got blamed explicitly by people on social media for catching COVID in a fat body. I think that people still believe that fatness is an underlying condition or a precondition to getting COVID—which, it’s not. People of all sizes get COVID complications. And long COVID is affecting all types of people. COVID is an equal opportunity virus.

Virginia

We have so much work to do to reframe that conversation. People want to be able to say like, “Well, I’ll be safe, because I can blame this person for getting it. I don’t have the same risk factors,” or whatever, but it’s such a callous way to approach this global pandemic. 

Amanda

For sure. Not necessarily connected to weight bias, but I think one other misunderstanding about long COVID is the effect that it has on mental health. You remember watching update videos from me in the hospital, and I go back and watch those now and realize just how impaired COVID had me. I’m also encountering heightened mental illness in long COVID. I think that’s something that’s a part of COVID that people are still not taking seriously, which affects so many aspects of health.

Virginia

And again, there’s the stigma. Anytime there’s a mental component to it, it’s very easy to stigmatize that as well.

Well, somehow, while you’ve been doing both your own recovery work from COVID, and putting the story out in the world, you’ve also been writing a book.

Amanda

I have. 

Virginia

So, let’s talk about that. The new book is called More of You. Tell us what inspired you to write this. I also do want to hear how you got it written during all of this.

Amanda

The memory of writing is a bit of a blur, but I have a fantastic editor, who walked me through the process very graciously. So the book is called More of You: the Fat Girl’s Field Guide to the Modern World. Before I had COVID, I realized I’d stumbled through fatness, learning how to exist in my today body and how to take up space. I wished that I’d had some sort of guidebook that could walk through these different things before I had to experience them. And I didn’t have anything like that. And so I wrote More of You to be the guidebook that I wish that I had had, when I was first coming to accept my body and not wanting to take up less space. Specifically, I targeted it towards what I wish I had known in grade school: That I have the right to exist in my body today, that I have the right to take up space, that I have the right to wear what I want, and eat what I want, and that I have the right to compassionate medical care. And just stating those things, what I call The Fat Girl’s Bill of Rights, is transformative for me today. I can’t imagine how transformative it will be for my own children and the children who get to know these truths that their parents are trying to put into practice in their lives. I know that you’re doing that work, too.

Virginia

One of the things I find most valuable about the book is the way you hold fatphobia and ableism accountable for each other. I think this is a common tension in the disability rights and fat rights communities. We often see fat folks leaning into “But I’m healthy” as this defense against anti fat bias. I’ve certainly done it. And I would imagine there may be a parallel experience of wanting to perform being a “good” disabled person through your thinness. And we know that relying on health as this sort of marker of virtue is really problematic. How does this hold us back from making progress on both of these issues?

Amanda

So I first encountered the idea of performative fatness, “I’m healthy, so I’m a good performing fat person,” in a web comic by the fat activist Stacey Bias called The Good Fatty Archetypes. And she has a list of 12 different ways that fat people can adapt to their environment to prove that they’re worthy of dignity. And one of them is the Fat Unicorn, where it’s like, “I am just fat even though I exercise all the time. I’m just, you know, a unicorn.”

She talks about the different ways that you can perform fitness virtue signaling. And it’s setting up this idea that we have to earn our our position of dignity, to earn respect. That’s really a very capitalistic idea, which Stacy talks about in her comic. We don’t have to earn dignity, we possess inherent dignity. To be able to look at a fat body as morally neutral or even morally good takes digging below those good fatty archetypes of, “but I’m healthy, but I’m an athlete.” In a disabled fat body, there is inherent goodness. So we have to look at how assuming that someone’s health and ability is based on their moral virtue, how that is not a fair assumption. That’s actually ableism.

I’m coming from a Christian lens, so we see this in the Christian scripture when there’s a man who was born blind, and the people asked Jesus, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” And Jesus is like, “Neither.” And so I really feel that for a parallel to fatness. It’s not a moral failing of anyone that someone is fat. It just is. And fat people themselves perpetuate this idea that “as long as I’m healthy, it’s okay to be fat.” I say, “If it’s not okay for everyone to be fat, it’s not okay for anyone to be fat.”

Virginia

I’m just looking at how Stacy explains the Fat Unicorn here and she says, “What does it mean to seek legitimacy for the fat body on the basis of its capacity for health? Who gets excluded or silenced when we do so?”

Amanda

Someone much wiser than me has said that ability is a temporary condition. We are all headed towards disability of some sort or another. We have to separate that from morality. In the same way we have to separate body size from morality. Because body size and ability are a lot of genetics, systemic issues, and societal issues. We can’t just say A plus B equals C when we’re looking at a body like that.

Virginia

Another line that really resonated with me from the book, is when you wrote that “Nobody has a moral obligation to be healthy, and we don’t owe health to our community or our families or our kids.” And that believing that you do is this cornerstone of ableism. I think this is often a line people come up against where they may say, Okay, i’s fine to be unhealthy. But of course, we we should all be trying to be healthy for our kids. And I think particularly for mothers, right? There’s this huge pressure that being a good mother is synonymous with being a mother who can chase your kids around the playground.

Amanda

The question that I probably get asked most frequently, when I talk about being okay with my fatness is, but don’t you owe it to your kids to be healthy? To live a longer life to be with them? There’s two layers happening there.

One, I’m accused often of being on the verge of death, like I’m just about to keel over—which, post-COVID, okay, there were some rough moments. But just because I inhabit a fat body does not mean that I am more susceptible to early death. The numbers actually show that people in the BMI category of overweight live longer than people in the normal category. People assume that I’m going to die young, which is really hard to encounter day in and day out. When I was young, someone I loved, told me, in tears, “I just don’t want you to die of a heart attack at age 20.” Which is a very emotionally manipulative thing to say to a teenager—and to anyone, because none of us is guaranteed another day. We’re all in the same boat. My life is lived, as as much as I can choose, in a morally upright way. And I define morality as treating my neighbors as I would treat myself.

So, number one, it’s not good for mental health to live with that assumption. Number two: The claim that I can’t be a good mom, if I’m in a disabled or, quote, “unhealthy” body is really an ableist thing to say. Because there are parents of all stripes, with all different levels of ability, who are amazing parents. And just because someone’s in a wheelchair, we don’t automatically assume they’re a bad mother. But if I’m fat and walking with a cane, there is that assumption. And it is inherently ableist to say because you don’t have full capacity of your body, you cannot be a good parent. And this has real consequences, because children are being taken from their fat parents. It’s not something that we’re just fearmongering about. We have to disconnect the idea of good parenting from health and fitness because people don’t have a moral imperative to health.

Virginia

It’s such a narrow definition of good motherhood. And it’s implying that there’s only one way to love your kids. That there’s a right way to love your kids, as opposed to allowing for this diversity of experiences. I’m glad you brought up the issue of how it gets used around parental rights. I did some reporting on that for Slate and what I heard from lots of folks in the foster system is that it’s not always the top reason that parents lose parental rights, but it’s something that caseworkers know to look for. It’s something that they can add to the list when they’re building the case. That struck me as, in a way, almost more chilling. Because if you’re a parent going through a really hard time with mental health, addiction, whatever, the knowledge that your body will also be weaponized against you in that conversation is really scary.

I admit I myself, in the past, have started and stopped at well, of course, I want to be healthy for my kids. But it’s just like, “of course, you want a healthy baby” without unpacking the ableism of that. Children are born with disabilities every day, and they are very worthy of our love.

Amanda

I think that we all have this innate desire for goodness. We’re looking to be good, to experience goodness. And I think a lot of people assume that to have a good body means to have a healthy and fit body. But I like to go old school and look at Aristotle. Aristotle says that a thing is good when it fulfills its purpose. So this is where the conversation about what is the purpose of my body comes to the fore. And when you say that the purpose of my body is health, then you have to also acknowledge that health is much bigger than just physical health—it’s also emotional health, mental health, and spiritual health. If you have an ATV four wheeler and you just pump up the air on that one physical health tire, it’s gonna be a rocky road. So, even if we agree at some point that health is the purpose of my body, we have to recognize that physical health or the way that we look cannot be the end all be all.

But I say that the purpose of my body isn’t health or thinness or perfection. It’s relationship. My body can be good, no matter my ability or my size, because I can have relationship with anyone and it can be a fruitful and deep relationship. And that’s what really keeps me going with my kids. When I do feel that shame of sitting in my car when they’re playing on the playground. I know that the other 95 percent of the day, they’re with me, and we’re investing in our relationship. And it’s part of my relationship to let them go and experience things that I don’t have experience with.

Virginia

I love reframing it around relationships. That’s so beautifully put.

Amanda

When we treat health as a moral imperative, we wind up applying individualistic “answers” to a complex, system-wide situation. Because if we see morality on an individual basis, which we do, then person A, person B, Person C all have the same responsibility to health, but they might have vastly different access to resources. We don’t have universal health care. That’s a big deal. And then the racism, transphobia, and fatphobia that exists in our current system makes it look like certain types of people are not being morally upright if they don’t achieve some sort of health level that we think they should. 

Virginia

You also talk a bit in the book about the anti-fat bias you’ve experienced in the church, and as someone who’s not Christian, I would just love to understand this a little more. How do diet culture and Christian culture intersect? And how do we start to untangle them?

Amanda

I grew up believing that thinness was next to godliness. That the smaller I was, the more my body would reflect the submissive woman that I thought God was calling me to be. And there’s nothing small or submissive about me. I’m very big and my personality is big, my voice is loud. I take up more space than a lot of people. My journey of clawing my way out of a fundamentalist, elitist version of Christianity to find that that’s not what God is requiring of me showed me that diet culture and Christian culture in the United States have a lot in common. Number one, that idea that being smaller is morally better. Number two is purity rules. Christian culture is full of ways that you can be sexually pure, but also there’s this idea of being dietetically pure. In diet culture, we see that where we talk about “clean” and “unclean” food. We’re moralizing food. Bad and good food, that all that kind of language is religious language.

Virginia

Now that you spelled that out, that makes total sense that that didn’t just begin and end with Gwyneth Paltrow, but has deeper roots. It’s fascinating.

Amanda

I’m reading the Christian New Testament, and there’s a scene where the The apostle Peter, who’s the first pope, right? This really important guy gets his vision of all these different kinds of foods, foods that he thought were unclean. And God says, “Don’t call what I’ve made clean, unclean.” And there’s this way that Peter applies it. “Oh, I can’t call people who eat unclean foods unclean either because God has made them clean.” And so what for whatever reason, there’s this thing that we do when we talk about clean and unclean foods, we apply it to the people that eat those things. 

Virginia

Yeah, we go right to their bodies.

Amanda

We go straight to their bodies, and that is classist AF. Because access to fresh fruits and vegetables, and what we our culture considers, quote, “good food,” it’s just inaccessible to a large swath of the population. It enables people to discriminate against the poor, those who live in food deserts, people who eat free lunches at school, like my kids. There’s there’s just a huge amount of classist behavior there—and of course, racist and fatphobic behavior. So really finding that all food is good food is has been something instrumental in my journey towards fat liberation.

Butter For Your Burnt Toast

Amanda

I am lately obsessed with Jon Batiste, the musician. He is the leader of the band on the Stephen Colbert show, but he is much more celebrated than that. His album called We Are won Album of the Year at the Grammys this year, and he helped write, or did most of the writing for the soundtrack to “Soul.” the Pixar movie.

Virginia

Ooooh, excellent.

Amanda

And I’m just obsessed. I highly recommend his new album and also the Soul soundtrack.

Virginia

Amazing. We have not watched “Soul” yet. My kids adore “Inside Out,” but I’ve been holding off on “Soul” because my four-year-old is in that phase of being very anxious about death.

Amanda

Been there. Yeah, I have one sentimental kid who laments over the death of leaves. 

Virginia

The other week, she picked a flower and said, “Can we put it in a vase?” And I said, Yes. And she said, “But will it die?” And I said, “Well, yes.” And she was like, “I don’t want it in the house then, it’ll make me too sad.”

Amanda

I feel you strongly.

Virginia

But I am dying to see “Soul.” And in the meantime, I can listen to his music. So that’s a great recommendation. 

My recommendation is a podcast. I just listened to the first episode of Ghost Church by Jamie Loftus. Sara Louise Petersen, who was on the podcast a few weeks ago, recommended it in her newsletter, and I checked it out. It is fascinating. She is investigating American Spiritualism, which is the tradition of communing with the dead. It’s a fringe religion, I guess, is the technical term. I just knew nothing about this whole world. And I think it’s always challenging with this kind of journalism, trying to understand a culture in a world that you don’t belong to, whether you’re going to come in and completely interrogate it and take it down, or whether you’re going to fall on that spectrum. And she walks the line really nicely. She’s very respectful of the people. She is herself, somewhat of a believer in some of the concepts, but also has a lot of questions. It’s a really well done exploration where you’re sort of allowed to draw your own conclusion. She’s not saying it’s all garbage. She’s not saying it’s all true.

Well, Amanda, thank you so much for being here. I really loved this conversation. And again, cannot encourage readers enough to get your book. We covered some of the heavier aspects of the book, the book itself is a really delightful read. Amanda is a very light and fun writer. So I hope people will check it out. Tell us where we can find more of your work and support you!

Amanda

I am on Instagram as @your_body_is_good. I’m on Twitter at @AmandaMBeck. And I am on the interwebs on Facebook, too. I’m a millennial, so good Facebooker. I have a group on there called All Bodies Are Good Bodies. It’s a fat positive, body neutral space where people can have community apart from diet culture. 

Virginia

Thank you for being here!

Thanks so much for listening to Burnt Toast! If you’d like to support the show, please subscribe for free in your podcast player and tell a friend about this episode.

The Burnt Toast Podcast is produced and hosted by me, Virginia Sole-Smith. You can follow me on Instagram or Twitter.

Burnt Toast transcripts and essays are edited and formatted by Corinne Fay, who runs @SellTradePlus, an Instagram account where you can buy and sell plus size clothing.

The Burnt Toast logo is by Deanna Lowe.

Our theme music is by Jeff Bailey and Chris Maxwell.

Tommy Harron is our audio engineer.

Thanks for listening and for supporting independent anti-diet journalism.

This is a public episode. If you’d like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit virginiasolesmith.substack.com/subscribe
May 26, 2022
Skinny Husbands, Bad Bras, and Talking Bodies with Kids.
You’re listening to Burnt Toast! This is the podcast where we talk about diet culture, fatphobia, parenting and health.

Today we’re doing a very fun Ask Me Anything episode. A lot of great questions came in, so I’ve asked Corinne to help out with this one. For folks who don’t know, Corinne works on Burnt Toast with me and she is also the founder of @selltradeplus, an Instagram account where you can buy and sell plus size clothing. She very graciously agreed to come ask me your questions and even answer one of her own.

Also! We’re planning another AMA ep for next month, to celebrate ONE YEAR of Burnt Toast (in its current fully-formed newsletter/podcast iteration). So if you’ve got even more questions for us, and especially if you have questions about the newsletter, or my book (which is also getting done next month!) put them here.

If you enjoy this episode, please subscribe, rate and review us in your podcast player! And subscribe to the Burnt Toast newsletter for episode transcripts, reported essays, and more.

Episode 44 Transcript

Virginia

Hi Corinne! I have drafted you to come on and help with this AMA episode. These things are always so weird and I have feelings about them. So, I’m glad you’re here to do it with me.

Corinne

I love an AMA.

Virginia

They are the kind of thing that I kind of hate doing myself but also love other people’s. So I recognize that people enjoy it.

Corinne

Here’s our first question:

I’d love to know if there’s any body related topic you ever have a hard time discussing with your kids. And if when that happens, what do you do to get better at having the conversation / beginning the conversation?

Virginia

So for context, my kids are four and eight. I’m sure there are many body conversations we have yet to have that may be hard for me in the future. But, I have covered genitalia in a lot of detail. I’ve explained what the clitoris is for. And certainly, there’s a lot of fat positive talk in our house. All of those conversations I sort of weirdly enjoy. I guess because often in parenting, you’re not really having meaningful conversations with your kids, you’re just trying to move them through the day. When they ask a question like that, it’s like, oh, this is an opportunity to actually tell you something I know something about, it’s weirdly rewarding. So those questions don’t throw me too much. 

The stress point for me on this is more related to food, when I’m navigating my children’s strong feelings about not wanting to eat what I’m serving, what they wish I was serving, that kind of thing. I’m just more exhausted by it and annoyed by it, whereas with the curiosity about bodies I’m like, “Yeah, man! Let’s be curious about bodies! That’s great!” But when it’s more feelings about me wanting to keep all foods neutral but maybe once a week we eat a vegetable, I can sometimes feel more unsure in the moment. My kids also can use my work against me, which is very smart of them, but also frustrating. There will be a lot of, “It’s my body, my choice” when it’s like, “But can you brush your teeth?” And then it’s like, well, crap. Good work, guys. 

I would also say there are definitely conversations where I was overwhelmed the first time we had them. The great thing is you never have the conversation just once. I remember trying to explain periods to both my kids. The first time I kind of traumatized them a little bit. I explained what a period was and my younger daughter was like, “Then it’s over and you’re better, right?” And I was like, “Oh, no. You do it every month for the rest of your life.” And then she sobbed “I don’t want to bleed forever,” and went upstairs to her room. And I was like, Do I explain about IUDs? Or have I already taken this too far?

I have plenty of examples of we had a conversation, and I kind of fucked it up. But then you get another chance! And you can normalize it and come back to it. Even if you feel like you really freeze in the moment, or tell them more than they’re asking for and they cry, you can fix it later.

Or, you know, it’s good for them to have stuff to work on in therapy. 

Corinne

That seems like good advice. Next question!

I am pregnant with my second, due in mid July. My first kid will have just turned four. Seems like your kids have a similar age gap. Got any tips for handling this major life transition for our four year old? I feel like he will inevitably hate us and the baby occasionally, but hoping to find ways to maintain some sanity and happiness at the same time. Hopefully?

Virginia

I love this age spread! My kids are four years and two months apart. It was awesome in the baby stage because the older kid can really get into being a big kid. When my kids were three, they didn’t really want to be big kids, they still wanted me to do everything for them. Then sometime around four, they both have switched into “No, wait. I can do it!” and feeling good about that. So, you could lean into like, “Can you go get me the diaper? Can you go get the bottle?” and they would like having the jobs and like being in charge. 

And the other thing about four, I don’t know what your situation is, but mine was in a full day of preschool at that age. So she had her own world. And she would get a lot of attention for being a big sister, but she also could just be with her friends and get attention and wasn’t competing. I think that is easier than when you have two under two. That would be a lot more exhausting. 

I did buy some new cheap coloring books and stickers and that kind of thing and I stuck them in a box and it was called her “big sister box.” Then when I was breastfeeding or bottle feeding or going to be stuck in one place with the baby for a bit, I could say, “Do you want to get out your big sister box?” and she would have an activity she could do so that she was less enraged that I wasn’t actively paying attention to her. We didn’t end up having to use it a ton, but it definitely helped in the first couple of weeks. 

But it will be a huge shift. My relationship with my older child did change a lot, just because now there are two of them. So just looking for ways to carve out time with your older kid can be helpful to reinforce your bond with with him. Especially in the early stages, there would be a lot of like, “The baby’s just gonna like sleep on the floor here while I’m doing something with the bigger kid.” It is funny because with your first kid you would think I should be paying attention to you all the time. You do ignore the littler one a little more the second time, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

The other thing I will say for four years apart, there are ages where they can really play together and be really close. Ours were really close at six and two and three and seven. Four and eight, there’s a little bit more of a developmental change. But it’s actually starting to come back again. I give two thumbs up to this age spread. 

Corinne

What’s your childcare situation? Do you feel like you get enough time for yourself and your marriage? I have a one year old and I’m definitely struggling on the enough time front, even though I outsource most tasks.

Virginia

You have a one year old, so it’s just terrible right now. And it will get better. I’m sorry, you’re in a very hard time. I think one is, in some ways, harder than the newborn stage when they’re like a little cute house plant and you can put them places. But one, you really can’t multitask because they’re always one head injury away from a hospital trip.  

Right now, we don’t have childcare outside of the school day. Our kids are in school from about 8:30am to whoever’s picking them up has to leave at 2:30pm. Except two days a week when they have after school activities, so they stay later and get picked up between four and five. Dan and I trade off on who does the afternoon pickups. I do Mondays and Fridays. And he does Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday (which includes their later activity days). So I get three days a week where I have a pretty full workday. I’m back from school drop off by nine-ish, and I’m at my desk till between four and five. So it’s pretty manageable, although I do have to plan carefully to remember to leave my desk at 2:30 on the days I have to pick them up from school. But it is not a 50 hour workweek, it’s not compatible with a corporate job. That’s for sure. We’re lucky that we both have pretty flexible careers. 

In terms of feeling like I get enough time for myself and my marriage, it’s like one or the other, I would say? There’s the hours they’re in child care, but there’s also the morning of getting kids out the door, then the afternoon and early part of the evening is very family focused. We’ve got one kid in bed by seven and one kid still around until about 8 or 8:30. And I like to go to bed at 8:30, so that’s kind of my day. So, yeah, it is tricky to fit in either time together or time alone.

[Virginia Note: I completely forgot to give my best tip for getting alone time, which is: I get up between 5-6am and the rest of my family isn’t up till 7:30am. So I start my day with a chunk of time to myself. This is essential to my ability to love them when they wake up.]

We’re still working on it, I would say. We do try to watch a show together a few nights a week, and on Friday nights, we feed the kids early and order takeout for ourselves after they go to bed, so we can have dinner without them. Other nights, he does his own thing and I do a puzzle and maybe the 8-year-old hangs out and reads. Now that we’re not in COVID craziness, we are able to get babysitters for date nights or nights out with friends. Also at these ages—and you are not here at the one year old—but with a four and eight year old, it is much less of a big deal for one of us to go away with friends for the weekend. So we’ve been doing that more, or even just saying, “I’m going to be out for a chunk of hours on the weekend.” Like I would feel rage at being left with small children when they were under three because it’s just so much work. Now it’s much more like my kids can entertain themselves and play together and I can be out in the garden while they’re doing stuff and it’s not as draining. So, it definitely gets better. But yeah, the one year old year is a time where having enough time for yourself is very hard.

I feel like I just convinced a lot of people not to have kids. Well, maybe I’m not wrong.

Corinne

You have mentioned that your husband is thin and athletic. So is mine. How do you manage your feelings around gaining weight while he has stayed thin. This is an area that I’m struggling with for myself.

Virginia

Yes, skinny husbands are the worst! One thing that has been helpful is, as I have been able to untangle weight and health, I understand that both of our health pictures are quite nuanced in different ways. Just because he’s thin and can run a lot does not necessarily mean he’s “healthier” than me by every marker, if that makes sense. I don’t feel like I need to compare our cardiovascular abilities. Which, obviously his are superior because he’s a marathon runner and I’m not.

The other thing about me and Dan is we went to high school together. We actually went to middle school together, too. 

Corinne

Whoa. Big reveal.

Virginia

It’s a whole thing. So we know a lot of people who knew us a long time ago and when we run into people who knew us a long time ago, I do have to do some self talk. I look very different than we looked 20 years ago and he looks like the same, but a little more gray hair. It just is what it is, you know? His whole family is built that way. They have of one type of person they make with their genes. My family has a different type of person that we make with our genes. And our person changes more through the years, and this is normal. It’s not a value judgment on either of our body types. But I’ve had a few moments over the years of feeling weird about that and needing to process it. 

What it also really comes down to is that he’s never made me feel weird about my body. He has been a fan of my body throughout its journey. So I think as long as you’ve got that in place, then it shouldn’t matter. My sense of my body does not hinge on my husband’s feelings about it. But if there is a way in which your thin partner is making you feel bad about your larger body, that’s a whole other thing you need to unpack and work through. And that’s not a part of our story. It’s very tricky because it’s not just about what your weight is. It’s also about how you both think about weight. 

Corinne 

There was a TikTok going around for a while where some thin lady was like, “I have to tell you, try on your boyfriend’s jeans! They’re amazing!” and then all these bigger women responding like, “LOL, Yeah. They go up to my knees.”

Virginia

The other day, I grabbed the wrong coat to take the dog out to pee. And I was like, “Why doesn’t it zip?” Oh, right. It’s not mine. We have similar looking Northface coats. And that is irritating, but also should not be irritating. It is such a stupid stereotype. It is rooted in no reality that women can’t be bigger than their male partners or that you can’t be bigger than your partner of any gender. This is such an odd thing that we are so locked into. 

Another thing I would say is anytime you start to feel weird about it, remember that the person to blame is not your thin husband and not your fat body. It’s the culture that’s making you think there’s something wrong with a totally normal dynamic. There are millions of thin men married to fat women who think that their fat wives are amazing. And they are not heroes, by the way. That’s the other thing.

Corinne

The next question is, What do you guys think about the “you gotta find the perfectly fitting bra” craze?

Virginia

Okay, I’m going to want to know your thoughts about this because you are more of a fashion expert than me. My first feeling is, it is a ton of marketing hype. And, I do hate a badly fitting bra. This one’s tricky! What do you think?

Corinne

God, I don’t know. I have such a complicated relationship with bras.

Virginia

They’re a very hard garment. It feels like such an industry-created problem, though. Maybe we should do bra science at some point. 

Corinne

I go through waves of like, “F**k bras!!!” where I don’t want to wear a bra or I just want to wear a sports bra. And then like, “No, I really need this architectural garment that fits me perfectly.” But it does sometimes seem like they just don’t make enough sizes. There are too many variables.

Virginia

It is a complicated garment. I shouldn’t say it would be so easy to make bras that fit everybody. The human body has infinite variations. And this is a particularly variable section of anatomy. 

At least not since I had kids—I don’t know if it’s a pregnancy/postpartum thing that never quite went away—I cannot say f**k bras. I wear a bra every day, even in COVID when everyone was not wearing bras. I was like, I’m wearing one. What’s wrong with me? Am I bad feminist? I just am more comfortable in one.

Corinne

I mean, that sounds like an argument for finding the perfectly fitting bra! Weirdly, I just want to ask you, what is it?

Virginia

What is the perfect bra?

Corinne

Is that TMI for the podcast?

Virginia

No! I buy them from barenecessities.com and I think they carry the best variety of brands. I have found their customer service quite helpful. There are two brands I like on there. One is Birdsong, for like more of a structured like, you take it off and it’s still shaped like boobs kind of bra. The other one is Curvy Couture. Terrible name. 

Corinne

I’ve never heard either of those. 

Virginia

This is not sponsored! We don’t do sponsored content. But I’ve been wearing both those brands for years. Because I wear a bra every day, they do wear out after a year or two and I replace them. I find them both pretty comfortable. I’m not saying I put them on and it’s like I’m in a warm bath. They’re still an underwire bra. But I have issues with chafing and movement. I don’t feel comfortable. I am a larger breasted person, but it’s not like, “Oh, I wish they were smaller.” It’s just like, I feel uncomfortable with the way they move around without support. I don’t enjoy that experience, from a physical pain perspective. I’m more comfortable in one.

But this feels like a problem the industry created by not making good bras and then they could say 60 percent of women are wearing the wrong size bra. You need to buy all new bras. If you had just made them better from the beginning, Oprah wouldn’t have had to reveal that to us. 

Corinne

Also like, could there be a little standardization? It just feels so confusing.

Virginia

One thing I like about Bare Necessities is they convert the sizes between brands. So like, I’m like a 38DDD in most brands, but in some brands that’s a 38H and in some brands, that’s a 36F. They seem to have grasped how the different brands change. That’s a very helpful feature that saves me a lot of returns.

I will say Thirdlove bras are s**t. With all their claims of so many sizes. Nope. Nope. Didn’t work for me.

Corinne

At some point, during the pandemic, I did the—there’s a bra Reddit that goes really deep into measuring yourself. And I did that. They have a calculator. Then you can post photos for fit feedback. So, I did that and I was like, oh, none of these fit. And it was like a lot of math.

Virginia

I don’t want to do math when I’m shopping. 

Corinne

If I were going to try again, I would try to go somewhere in person, which is another recommendation I’ve heard. Go get measured by a person who knows what they’re doing. 

Virginia

I haven’t done that in years. I haven’t done that since pre-COVID, if not longer. I live an hour from any good stores. I’d have to be like, “Instead of taking an afternoon to have lunch with a friend, I’m devoting four hours to a bra shopping mission.” Like, I don’t have that much time to myself.

Corinne

“I’m taking a weekend just to find a bra.” Yeah.

Virginia

That is not what I’m going to do with my precious child-free hours.

Corinne

That’s a good point. It’s definitely just not a priority for me. 

Virginia

On the sports bras, have you found a sports bra that you feel like is actually supportive? 

Corinne

I’m more in the soft bra zone right now. There’s a few I like. I like the Free Label Dani Bra. It’s bamboo. The Dani is the biggest bust Free Label style and that is the one that works the best for me. I also wore those True & Co bras for a long time. They’re very thin and very stretchy and I’m definitely outside of their size zone, but it kind of fits.

Virginia

Yeah, I do feel like there is a place for the soft t-shirt-y kind of bra. Mostly just like giving you a piece of elastic and that’s it. Yeah, I do I have ARQ. That’s the one that crazy high waisted underwear, right? I have the one of their bras and I like it for that.

Corinne

Wow, I hate their bras, so… 

Virginia

So guys, don’t feel like we’re giving you hardcore recommendations!

Corinne

There is no perfectly fitting bra.

Virginia

Don’t be influenced. We’re not here to influence. But I do enjoy that ARQ bra because I feel like underwire is wearing permanent grooves in my body at this point.

Corinne

Sometimes I feel like underwire bras like push my boobs out too far. You’re creating an impediment for me going around corners or whatever. You know what I mean?They just need to be strapped down and we’re good to go.

Virginia

Just be efficient and not too much in my way. That’s what I’m looking for.

Corinne

Exactly. So that’s the perfectly fitting bra.

Virginia

In conclusion, yes, we think it’s marketing hype. Also, we wish the the bras fit better.

Corinne

Alright. Next question.

Would you rather 1. talk about food or 2. talk about bodies?

Virginia

I was thinking when we were talking about conversations that are hard to have with your kids, I for sure am more comfortable having the body conversations. But my whole entry point into this world and my authority as someone in this world definitely began with food, because I wrote about my experiences with my older daughter and the feeding tube. And then, breaking out of diet culture. I’ve done so much reporting on diets. So it’s kind of funny that in my own life, I don’t want to talk about food. And I can’t decide if that’s actually because it’s hard or I’m sick of it because this is also my work. But I do find food really annoying to talk about. I feel like when you talk to friends or family members about food, or just in the world about food, food brings up so much. People get really performative and people want to tell you about their diets and they want to be really definitive about it. It’s such an annoying thing to navigate. They want to apologize for how they’re eating like, then you have to deal with that. So I guess I still would rather talk about bodies. There’s pros and cons to it.

Where would you land on that one?

Corinne

I agree with you. Food is really annoying to talk about. Similarly, I used to work with cookbooks and I worked in restaurants. I’ve done a lot of work with food. I feel like maybe people are less aware of cultural stuff around food, like people are more willing to just be like, “I’m Paleo and sugar is bad for you.” And I think people are a little more like connected to their bodies and understand how criticizing how people look can be bad. Or something like that?

Virginia

 I mean, they can both be landmines, for sure. But yeah, I think people tend to say more definitive things about food. And then you’re in this position of like, do I question that? Do I agree with that? What do I do? It can be trickier to navigate.

Corinne

Maybe everyone has a little more sensitivity about their own bodies? 

Virginia

A smidge more sensitivity, depending on the room. 

I mean, from a journalistic perspective, I would say I enjoy both equally, like researching a diet and debunking it, that’s very satisfying. And I like writing about questions about our bodies. I guess I’ve just done more of the food stuff and so now it’s sometimes the body questions are more interesting or feel fresher to me just because of like my trajectory.

Corinne

How did you decide that sharing your personal life, home, children, husband, vacation, etc, will be part of your public professional persona? I follow you on social media because I’m interested in your writing, but because of that, I see what feels like a lot of your personal life. Was this a conscious choice? Can you be a writer in the era of social media without the sharing?

Virginia

I don’t think you can and I hate it. It feels necessary to share in order to be a person people want to follow on Instagram and then hopefully read their work. 

There’s also the fact that I did make the conscious decision to write about a personal experience, which was having a child on a feeding tube. In doing that, I sort of tipped myself into a category of writer who shares some personal things. I could have made the decision to stay a much more straightforward journalistic reporter. Prior to having that experience, I don’t think a lot of my life was on the internet in the same way. I had my first kid in 2013. Instagram was just a baby. All of it was new. I don’t think we were having to do as much sharing in the same way. 

If I had stayed in the more traditional New York Times health reporter type of beat, you don’t know a lot about those people’s lives. But that type of writer doesn’t get to take stands on issues and has to stay in a very traditional model of journalism that I was ready to break out of and do a little more activism journalism, like I do now. So some of it was conscious. 

I do also want to say that, yes, there are categories of my life that I share on Instagram, but there is so much of my life you are not seeing. I think it’s really important that people understand that even when it feels like you’re seeing quite a lot, you’re seeing so little. I share houseplants and gardening because they are actually quite impersonal topics that are fun to talk about with people. I do have other interest that would feel more sensitive to share, you know what I’m saying?

Well maybe I don’t. That’s kind of all I do. But I could!

Also: I no longer show my children’s faces on social media. That was a decision I made a few years ago, as they’ve gotten older and more distinctive looking. Every now and then one slips into a story, but I pretty much don’t. And I don’t share a lot of specifics about their personalities or struggles they’re having. I’ve never talked about toilet training either one of them, and I never will. There is a lot that is off limits. If I have a fight with my husband, you’re not going to hear about it.

I think everybody in this space is constantly drawing and redrawing those lines for ourselves. And it’s really hard because there is the pressure to share more and more. I can draw a direct line towards when I’m being more open and personal on Instagram, I get more engagement and then that brings more people over to the newsletter to engage with my work. That is a shitty thing you have to decide. Getting a dog was helpful because dog content feels innocuous. I can talk about the dog and then share less about the kids, I guess. Penelope has no boundaries with social media.

What are your thoughts on all of that?

Corinne

I am glad to not have to do more of it. It seems really hard. I definitely appreciate that there are lots of things people aren’t sharing on social media.

Virginia

But people do often feel like they know you really well. And I get that because I do it too with people I follow! And it’s sort of funny to then exchange DMs with someone or get an email from someone. Like, of course it feels like you know me because you see my face talking to you or I’m showing you the garden. It’s an odd way of knowing people, I guess.

Corinne

Have you ever gotten recognized on the street?

Virginia

No, that would be so weird. I am not big enough for that. I have friends who have, though, and it is a weird experience.

Interestingly, some of the weirdness has come less from social media and more from traditional media. When I first wrote about my daughter’s condition in some bigger media outlets, we did get some really weird emails and mail. Nothing that was endangering my family—although that absolutely happens, and is revolting. Just things where people were assuming a familiarity with my family that I was not comfortable with.

One other small decision I made is that I never show the exterior of my house on Instagram. Even though I show you the garden, I don’t show you the house. And I don’t plan to change that because that doesn’t need to be a thing people who live in other states can find.

So it is an ongoing question. And it is something everyone I know who is any kind of public persona on Instagram has revisited and struggled with.

Corinne

How does newsletter writing compare to book writing, compare to magazine writing? And which do you prefer?

Virginia

I love this question. I have to say writing the newsletter is probably my favorite job I’ve ever had. It is for sure better than magazine writing. Watch me block myself out of any future magazine work!

When I say magazines, there’s only like three magazines left in the world, so I’m really talking about magazines and websites. Any sort of prestige media outlets, I guess we could say. The big difference is when you write for other people like that, the pro is you have an editor and a fact checker and a copy editor and an art person and a whole team, in most places, going over the piece making it really perfect. There’s a lot of added support that I have had to, with the newsletter, figure out which parts I need to replicate and how to replicate. And Corinne, you are doing it—so, thank you. There were also times when I wrote pieces that were really controversial and it was nice that the publishing house had a lawyer who would vet it and make sure we wouldn’t get sued. 

But when you’re writing for another outlet, you have to fit your work into their vision. If you want to write about fatphobia, that’s hard because a lot of these media outlets either haven’t heard of it or are perpetuating it daily in their health coverage. It’s such a relief to not have to make those have those negotiations and make those compromises. I don’t miss that at all. 

I will also say from a work/life balance perspective, it’s so much better, because when you are freelancing for many different outlets, the odds of somebody emailing you the night you go on vacation to say they need a complete revise of a 3,000 word story—Oh my God, it probably happened to us at least 50% of vacations, if not more? I have friends who are just always working on vacation. They bring the laptop, they know that an editor is going to need something. So the fact that I can now carve out that time for myself and do a rerun episode that week—that control has been amazing. Newsletter subscribers don’t seem to get mad if we skip a week. So that’s been really lovely!

Book writing I do also really love, although I am at the point with this book where I’m ready to be done writing it because I have written over 80,000 words. It’s a lot of words, and I’m tired. But I do really love it. The thing about book writing is you’re kind of alone, right? You’re in this little world writing the book. You don’t get a lot of feedback. So you do sort of worry at times, I’m thousands of words into this thing. And if it’s bad, no one’s checking on it right now. And with newsletters, we’re getting feedback from readers every week. So that part of it also I do love. That’s been a nice balance because I have days where I’m in book mode, really feeling really detached from the world and then I get to come back to the newsletter and this conversation is happening and I’m participating in it.

They are three very different mediums for sure. I’m sure I will write for magazines again. So, magazine editors, don’t take it too personally that I don’t like it. 

Now, can we have one question that came in for Corinne! So I’m throwing it over to you now.

What is @selfiefay’s favorite thing to cook for company? And how does she rule so hard?

@selfiefay is Corinne’s personal Instagram handle. Corinne, tell us, what do you cook? And why do you rule so hard?

Corinne

The best, most recent thing I’ve made for company—which, such a funny question, because who’s having company right now? I’ve had company not very often recently, which is sad. But the thing I’ve made that was great most recently was this “a nice lasagna” from Julia Turshen’s cookbook, Small Victories.

It is special because you make your own pasta, which is both easier and more delicious than I was expecting. You also use a food processor, so it’s a little bit less messy. And you mix creme fraiche into the tomato sauce instead of using ricotta or making béchamel. It was very delicious and sort of impressive.

Virginia

You made your own pasta. That’s very impressive!

Corinne

Yeah, I would definitely recommend that recipe and that cookbook and Julia Turshen in general.

Virginia

Yes! General recommendation of Julia Turshen. She is amazing. The lasagna sounds awesome.

Corinne

Do you have a favorite thing to cook for a company?

Virginia

I was actually just thinking about this because we have not had friends over for dinner. We have not had a dinner party since COVID and I really do want to have one soon. But I was paralyzed trying to remember what to make. I often do a pasta because I make really good pasta, but I have a couple friends who are gluten-free by necessity, so then it’s figuring that piece out. I need some dinner party inspiration, for sure, so I will check out Julia’s cookbook. That’s a great suggestion.

Corinne

If you could do any job in the world, including the one you invent, what would it be?

Virginia

I mean, I think I’ve invented it, to be honest. I do not and have never, for the last 20 years, had a job that is easy to explain to people at parties. My grandmother was always like, what does she do? Now when I’m like, “Well, I used to write a column for the times and now I have this Substack,” people are like, “What?” So yeah, I did invent it. 

That said, if I couldn’t be a writer, for some reason, you know, like writing didn’t exist, I think my other dream job would be garden designer. Not a landscaper, but I would come out and putter around and prune things and plant things for people. The design piece of it I really love.

What would yours be?

Corinne

This is a tough question. When I think of my dream job, I think I want to be somewhere really beautiful and not have to work a lot. Making jam in the countryside or something. I’d make tiny batches of jam and sell them for a lot of money. 

Virginia

That sounds delightful. I would buy your overpriced jam.

Corinne

I also really need a garden designer.

Virginia

Well, we can trade services. I’ll design the garden where you grow the fruit for your jam.

Corinne

Oh, perfect. I’m loving this future. 

Okay, what are your goals for the podcast for your writing? And for your advocacy? What is next for you?

Virginia

So, I will say, I am finishing a book. So it is hard. Every writer hates when people ask what your next book is going to be about. I’m like, “There are no other books. I’m just trying to finish this one book. All the words go to this book.” So, I don’t know is one answer. 

But certainly finishing this book, getting it out into the world. It’ll be out next spring, 2023 some time. So that will be the big focus of my work in the next year and a half because launching a book and promoting a book is a full time job for at least three months and often longer.

In terms of the goals for the podcast, I just want to keep bringing on more people we need to hear from in this space, more diversity of voices. I think it’s really important that my platform be available to folks who need this platform. And similarly, I do have a goal for the newsletter of bringing on other writers. I’m not quite ready to launch that because I want to make sure we’re in a place where I can pay really well. Because I have been underpaid as a writer in the past and I know how shitty it is and I will not do it. So, that is something we are working towards being able to do. 

In terms of advocacy issues, I really want to tackle the issue of kids plus size clothing. That is one that’s burning a hole in my brain right now. Always open to feedback and thoughts from folks! You all are in this community with us and have a sense of what work we need to be doing. So tell us!

Butter For Your Burnt Toast

Corinne

As true fans may remember, I live in New Mexico. And it is sadly already getting very hot. So my butter recommendation this week is for sun protection. I’m really hoping this recommendation inspires a lot of people because I really want to feel less weird walking around my neighborhood wearing a solar face shield, which I just purchased.

Virginia

I don’t even know… I’m googling it. What is a solar face shield?

Corinne

I don’t even know if that’s really what it’s called. But it’s basically sunglass material that covers your whole face.

Virginia

Oh my gosh. Yeah, it looks like when people were wearing the shields during COVID?

Corinne

Yeah, it looks like a COVID shield, but it’s sunglasses. Like, tinted. 

Virginia

You are committed to your sun protection.

Corinne

Yeah. I just bought that and I do feel self conscious wearing it around the neighborhood. I’ve worn it driving. It’s great for driving. And then I also got one of those fold up-able Baggu hats that everyone had last summer. And I got some prescription sunglasses

Virginia

Wait, so do you need the sunglasses and the face shield?

Corinne

Well, I’ve had these just like really ugly over-glasses sunglasses. They look terrible. Like, not even in a cool way. They’re always really dirty and they get scratched super easily and they feel too expensive for what they are. So I was like, Well, if I get the sunshield, I can just wear that over my glasses and it covers your whole face. I mean, it seems like a great product. Aside from making you look like a space alien.

Virginia

Also, let’s deal with the fact that in the first Google image search result, it’s a woman in a bikini top and the face shield. I feel like these things are at odds with one another. If you  were so concerned about sun exposure that you’re wearing the face shield, why are you not also in a rash guard?

Corinne

My request to listeners is, can we make this cool?

Virginia

Can we embrace the face shield?

Corinne

Are you gonna get one, Virginia?

Virginia

Well, I’m wondering about how it would be for gardening? Where I live, bugs are a big problem, like we have a few weeks of gnats. And then we have a few weeks of mosquitoes. Would it help keep bugs from flying in my face while I’m gardening?

I think of myself as someone who take sun protection seriously. There is skin cancer in my family. We are a very white, pasty people. But I have settled apparently for decent prescription sunglasses and a strong sunscreen and you’re making me realize I could take that further. Do I have to buy the $68 face shield from Nordstrom? Or can I buy the $15 one?

Corinne

I will say I bought these $68 one from Nordstrom. I don’t know. It also very tight on my head. So I would be interested in maybe checking out some other models. It’s adjustable, but maybe I just need to break it in. It’s tight. 

Virginia

Like shoes. 

Corinne

When I take it off I have like a little imprint on my forehead, just making it even cooler.

Virginia

I mean, I have I do own a bug net that I wear during these peaks. So yes, I could see it also being helpful for like holding the bug net because a breeze comes in and it’s like smushed up against your face in an annoying way.

This is an amazing recommendation. This might be the best recommendation we’ve ever had. I’m very excited.

I’m recommending an app for your house plants called Planta. I have been using it for a few months. I didn’t want to recommend it right away in case I didn’t like it. But I learned about it when Anne Helen Peterson did her houseplant series, which I also recommend. It’s a great read on the history of houseplants and someone in the comments said they were using this app. 

If you are a person who regularly kills your houseplants or you are a person like me with an excessive number of houseplants that are hard to keep track of this, it is worth it. You do have to spend some time upfront. You have to take pictures of all your plants and put them in the app and get them all organized. I spent a whole Saturday on that and it was a very satisfying project to catalog my plants. Then it gives you reminders of when you need to water them and fertilize them. Some plants like a lot of fertilizer and some plants, you really can kill them if you over fertilize. So the Planta app is helping me keep track. It does make me feel a little guilty because sometimes they want me to be doing more. It thinks I should be misting and I don’t really believe in misting house plants. So, sometimes I have to ignore the notifications. But yeah, if you’re trying to keep houseplants alive, it’s a good one. I recommend it. 

Well, this was very fun! Thanks for being here to help me, Corinne. Remind everyone where they can find you and follow your work?

Corinne

Mainly you can find me on Instagram at @selltradeplus, which is an Instagram where people buy and resell plus size clothes. My personal Instagram is @selfiefay.

Thanks so much for listening to Burnt Toast! If you’d like to support the show, please subscribe for free in your podcast player and tell a friend about this episode.

Or consider a paid subscription! It’s just $5 a month or $50 for the year.

The Burnt Toast Podcast is produced and hosted by me, Virginia Sole-Smith. You can follow me on Instagram or Twitter.

Burnt Toast transcripts and essays are edited and formatted by Corinne Fay, who runs @SellTradePlus, an Instagram account where you can buy and sell plus size clothing.

The Burnt Toast logo is by Deanna Lowe.

Our theme music is by Jeff Bailey and Chris Maxwell.

Tommy Harron is our audio engineer.

Thanks for listening and for supporting independent anti-diet journalism.

This is a public episode. If you’d like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit virginiasolesmith.substack.com/subscribe
May 19, 2022
Essential Labor and Essential Pleasure, with Angela Garbes
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We hear so much about Betty Friedan, and the Feminine Mystique. And the whole thing was women find power and fulfillment and identity outside of the home by working professionally. Right? The thing that that leaves out is when you go outside of the home, who’s in the home? Like that work never went away.

Hello and welcome to Burnt Toast! This is the podcast where we talk about diet culture, fatphobia, parenting and health.

Today I am chatting with Angela Garbes, author of Like a Mother and the brilliant new book Essential Labor. I am a huge fan of Angela’s. We’ve been sort of admiring one another from afar over the internet for several years now, and this is our first IRL conversation (Well, IRL+Zoom, if you will.) We talk a ton about her new book, which is about the social construction of modern motherhood and what we need to do to truly support mothers, but also all caregivers and care work. It’s a really fun and sort of surprisingly funny conversation for what’s a pretty heavy topic. I think you will get so much out of it and even more out of her book Essential Labor, which I really recommend you run right out and get.

If you enjoy this episode, please subscribe, rate and review us in your podcast player! And subscribe to the Burnt Toast newsletter for episode transcripts, reported essays, and more.

PS. The Burnt Toast Giving Circle is over $11,000! You are all amazing. We will be picking which state election to fund in the next few weeks, so stay tuned for details there. And if you’ve been thinking about joining, we still need you! Here’s the Burnt Toast episode where I announced it, ICYMI, and the link to donate.

Episode 43 Transcript

Virginia

So the new book is just incredible. How are you doing? How are you feeling?

Angela

Thank you for asking! I’m feeling so many things. I’m feeling tired. I hate to be the person that leads with “I’m tired,” but I feel like writing a book is is a frankly terrible process. I feel like my brain is still sort of recovering from that. And I was on kind of an accelerated timeline. I finished edits on the book in like December/January. And now it’s coming out. But I mean, I’m excited. I feel like I have been cooped up with these ideas and these thoughts for like, two years, and I am ready to like, be on the loose. COVID variants willing, I’m ready to go on tour and connect with people. I’m really desperate for that contact and conversation. So I feel really good. And I feel proud. I feel really proud of the book I’ve written. I’m trying to just hold on to that because amidst all the chaos that is going to happen, and hearing what other people think, I want to always remember how good I feel about this book and how that’s really the only thing that matters.

[Virginia Note: So far, people think it’s amazing. Here’s Jia Tolentino and Sara Louise Petersen saying so, among others.]

Virginia

Your book is very of the moment. Did the idea come out of the pandemic? Or was it something you’ve been thinking about, because it also ties so closely to your first book?

Angela

The secret history of this book is that I sold a second book right after my first book came out in 2018. It was a book of essays about the human body, like the body as a lens for how we move through the world and how we process the world. I was trying to write that book for two years, and it was due the summer of the pandemic. A couple of weeks into lockdown I contacted my editor and I was like, “There’s no way. There’s no way I can meet this deadline.” I’m a professional, like, I always get it done. And luckily, she was totally understanding because she was like, “I just told my husband, I think I have to quit my job.” So like everyone was going through this thing. So we pushed the deadline back several times. 

I used to co-host a podcast called The Double Shift with my friend, Katherine Goldstein. She invited me, during the pandemic, to cohost this with her because she wanted to continue to make the podcast during a time in which it felt almost impossible to do it and during a time in which we both felt mother’s voices, and the voices of caregivers, were both vitally important, but on the edge of being erased. And just consumed by domestic work. In September 2020, 865,000 women dropped out of the workforce in one month, because no one could be a caretaker, a virtual school proctor, and a professional worker at the same time. So I said, “women’s participation in the workforce is directly tied to their participation in public life. And what happens if women disappear for a year? Or more?”

So, from that lighthearted thought, I had a wonderful editor who reached out to me and she was like, “Do you want to write about this? I want someone to write about it and I think you need to do it.” I had not been writing and I was scared to do it. But I basically put every bad thought I’d been having about disappearing, about feeling unsatisfied by domestic labor, about questioning ambition, about just everything, and I wrote this piece for The Cut that ended up going a little bit viral. Elizabeth Warren retweeted it—career highlight for me. And I realized I’ve been isolated and alone with my depression and my concerns, but I’m not alone. So many people are feeling this way now, as everyone’s trying to force us out of the pandemic. Which, facts to the contrary. These problems aren’t going away. Childcare, figuring it out on your own. Our society’s treatment of mothers and care work. We have not solved that problem. It is a longstanding problem that we have never properly reckoned with.

So that’s a very long answer to how I wrote this book. The one nice thing about it is that there’s a lot about embodiment in this book. And while I was not unfortunately able to cannibalize everything from the first book, it did feel good because all of that research that I had done that I couldn’t figure out how to make it work. A lot of that research and some snippets of writing made it into this book. And it also made me feel like everything I’ve been doing has not been a waste of time.

Virginia

You give us this whole history of care work, tracing your family’s history. It helped me, and I think it will help a lot of people, put what happened in the pandemic into context. People with privilege were caught by surprise by how hard it is to live. Obviously, it was not news to the majority of people, but it helped me put in context, like, what is happening right now? And why is it so bad? Why is it happening in this way? So it absolutely transcends the pandemic because you’re explaining this much larger systemic issue and also looking ahead into where do we go from here with that.

There is a snippet from the book I wanted to talk about in detail. Okay, so actually two little quotes I’m gonna read. You wrote:

The pandemic revealed that this can happen to anyone. That work won’t save affluent white women, despite Betty Friedan’s theorizing. Ultimately, they cannot ever fully outsource domestic labor, it still comes down to them.

And then later you wrote:

It makes white women uncomfortable to think that they are no different from their hired help. What they chase and  have been given is validation, acceptance, and success—but only on terms set by white men.

I mean, Angela! So good! I read those, I underlined them, I came back and read them again. I was just flashing back to so many phone calls with editors. So many reporting trips. I remember being on a reporting trip when I was visibly pregnant with my second daughter, and feeling like I had to hide it and downplay it. This weird guy who worked for the Philadelphia Mayor was making comments about it. It was like a whole thing where I was like, I can’t be pregnant in this public space because it’s getting so weird for everybody.

Angela 

I can’t be who I am. 

Virginia

This is what my body’s doing right now and I have to do this work. There are these ways in which we are conditioned to downplay our kids, to downplay our responsibility to our kids, in order to seem professional and successful. For a lot of us, the pandemic is what made it impossible to maintain that lie. Like your editor, I was in the same boat of like, “Okay, I’m just not working for several months here.”

I would love for you to unpack for us a little further why this is so specifically a problem of white feminism.

Angela 

I mean, I want to start by saying that I’m really glad that you want to talk about this. As I was writing it, I was like, “This feels risky.” Do I want to call out white women? As a woman of color that felt and still feels a little bit risky. But this really gives me hope, because you know my joke is “some of my best friends are white women.” And I feel like there’s a reckoning that’s happening. I know that word has been overused in the last couple of years. But I think that people really want to understand what’s happening and why they feel so betrayed, and why so many white women felt and were righteously angry, you know? I want to harness that power which is why I want to keep talking about it. 

Mainstream feminism, which is white feminism, has always had a race problem, just like the United States. We have never fully acknowledged the history, right? Susan B. Anthony, a great suffragette, did not think that black women deserved to vote. Betty Friedan—and I shouldn’t have to say this, but these women contributed to society. I am not trying to take away, I’m not trying to come for them.

Virginia

You’re not canceling Susan B. Anthony. 

Angela

Exactly. I just feel like these people were human. We hear so much about Betty Friedan and the Feminine Mystique. The whole thing was women finding power and fulfillment and identity outside of the home by working professionally. The thing that that leaves out is when you go outside of the home, who’s in the home? That work never went away. There’s a history of slavery in this country. We have a history of Black women working for free in the home and taking care of children and cooking and cleaning, black women as property. And so it was easy to slot women of color and Black women into these roles as domestic workers because they’d always been doing this labor. So, I just want to point out that women—and specifically affluent white women—were sold a bill of goods. I think Boomer women especially. I think a lot of white women now are reckoning with this. A lot of Boomer women were like, “I can have it all.” And that’s the huge lie that we’re still grappling with. Like, you cannot have it all. Even if you come close to it, someone will be like, “can you hide your pregnant body?” It’s very inconvenient that you are overflowing with life, right? Because white women are also oppressed, right? But there’s a better chance for white women to attain success or to fit in.

You know, oppression sucks. The thing that marginalized communities and marginalized women and people of color understand is that this world wasn’t built for us. So success is sort of unattainable. At least, I’m speaking for myself now, this classic, shiny version of white feminist success is out of reach. 

I started self-identifying as a feminist when I was 12 years old. But nothing I read ever talked about my mother, who was an immigrant from the Philippines who worked and raised three kids. Marginalized people have a better understanding of who is left out of conversations. White women haven’t been challenged to imagine themselves in other people’s shoes. They’ve been encouraged to lean in. 

But to go back to history, when we think of feminism, we don’t think about Johnnie Tillmon or the National Welfare Rights Organization, who were contemporaries of Betty Friedan. Their work was organizing to make sure that women and families who received welfare, which was called aid for families with dependent children at the time, were able to access aid from the government. There was a time when women receiving that aid were subjected to impromptu searches of their home because the government thought that if they were giving them money, then they had the right to come in and make sure they weren’t sleeping with men. Because if men were in the picture, then they shouldn’t have any support.

So the NWRO and Johnnie Tillmon were working in a multiracial coalition for poor people. And their analysis, when faced with the same scenario that Betty Friedan had, was that we should have a universal basic income. We should eliminate poverty and we should make life better for as many people as possible. And that’s also history that we don’t hear about.

What white women are taught is white feminism, and actually, there is and has always been a much more inclusive feminism. The feminism of women of color, of marginalized people. It’s time for people to understand that and reckon with it and realize that it’s solidarity.

I quote Sylvia Federici in the book:

“All women are in a condition of servitude when it comes to the male world.”

Virginia

This distinction between Johnnie Tillmon and Betty Friedan is so important because it shows us that the answer was never to try to live on men’s terms. What you’re arguing for is that we need to reject that whole system. We need to do something really different.

Angela

Care work is essential to life. It is the work that makes all other work possible. It’s mind boggling when you realize the extent to which we have tried to make care work invisible. The way we have devalued care work. You either do it as a labor of love as a woman or you outsource it to women of color and you pay them poverty wages. Domestic workers are three times as likely to live in poverty than workers in any other field. The median wage in America is close to $20. The median wage for domestic workers is $12. What I’m arguing is that, actually, the only work that matters as a human being is taking care of people.

I was struggling with this in the pandemic with the “mask debate.” I’m at a loss. I don’t know how to convince people that they should care about other people if they don’t already have a sense of that. I think it’s a very human and innate and beautiful urge that we have to take care of each other. And I think our culture has beat it out of us. This culture of individual, of hustle and grinding, every man for themselves, I’m looking out for number one. It’s not working. The pandemic showed us that we can’t do it alone. What I’m arguing for is the visibility of care work, the absolute insistence on the importance of care and viewing care as labor that should be respected and valued, culturally and financially.

Virginia

It makes a ton of sense and is tricky to implement because you just keep coming up against the ways in which the systems don’t allow for it. Do you know what I mean? But I think holding that as the starting point and the goal feels critical to making any change.

Angela

I do feel hopeful that we’re having a moment. I think it’s going to take longer than I thought. When we got the Biden administration, we were talking about paid leave. We had been experimenting with direct stimulus payments to people. There was, in the American Rescue Plan, the advanced Child Tax Credit which did lift a lot of families and children out of poverty—like four million of them for the brief time. Even though we have a Democratic leadership in Congress that died and the funding lapsed and so we’re backsliding. I definitely have felt really disappointed and disheartened by that. But the fact that we are talking about these things, the fact that we had those things, there are these glimmers of hope. 

I also just see, too, that maybe the government isn’t coming to save us, right? Like we’ve known that since the start of the pandemic. Certainly the Trump administration wasn’t going to come and save us. The Biden administration feels like a grave disappointment to me in this sense, too. But what I do see and what I always saw through the pandemic is that we take care of each other. We have pods. We have mutual aid societies. We have playdates, we have community fridges, we have little free libraries. I’ve seen a flourishing of that and that, again, is to me the most beautiful human thing of caring for each other. Maybe we don’t name that as such, but I want to spend some time naming that and acknowledging that and saying that that is how people survived. 

Virginia

I’m glad you brought that up because that was a big takeaway I had from the book. I would read a chapter, and I I would think, I am craving community so deeply.

Angela

Didn’t you have COVID at the time?

Virginia

Oh right! I read it while I had COVID. I was like, why did I feel so alone? It was because I couldn’t leave my house.

Angela

I think I was like, “Virginia! You don’t have to do that!” 

Virginia

No, it was actually amazing to read it while I had COVID! I highly recommend it to anyone getting COVID now.

Angela

Well I’m honored that I got to keep your company during this dark moment in your life.

Virginia

It was fantastic. Well, and because it was this moment where I was having to parent really intensively because the four of us were locked in our house together. So, it was a great book to be reading. I was like, I am really in this care work right now in a very intense way. 

I want to go back to the community thing in a minute, but this does remind me. One other thing I thought about as I was reading was that I often don’t like care work. I don’t enjoy it. I love my children—you know, standard disclaimer—but I don’t enjoy a lot of the minutia of negotiating with someone about socks or making a potty try happen. I’m not someone who was ever like, “I would love to be an early education teacher.” Maybe this is my white feminism coming up again, or maybe it’s just my being a heartless person who doesn’t like children enough. Or both. But I have fallen into this trap of no, no, my career still needs to matter so much. My motherhood is going to be a smaller part of my identity because I am not taking the pure pleasure in it that I thought it was supposed to.

What I like about what you’re arguing for is: If we really value care work and elevate it, I think we can make it more pleasurable, right? Because it can be less isolating and draining. And it creates an opportunity where, if you don’t love it, it’s less awful that you’re outsourcing. You’re valuing who you’re outsourcing it to, right? It creates a more collaborative community approach towards it. 

Angela

The thing that I feel when you say that is like, you shouldn’t have to choose. That’s the thing, you should not have to choose. I hate that. So many of us are left feeling bad or like, “Is it me? Am I heartless? And am I a bad feminist?” We internalize that and I just really want to press pause. Let’s back the drone camera up and be like, this is a systemic issue. We hate women. Our country hates women. It really hates women of color, and it doesn’t value care work. That’s not for you or me to solve individually. We can’t. I just want to point that out, too, because I think that’s a very familiar feeling that people have.

I am someone who actually did take great pleasure in care work. Not all of it. Straight up, a lot of it is drudgery. So many fluids. Little silver corners torn off of fruit snack things are everywhere. That’s my thing these days. And also just the feeling that no matter what happens in life, it somehow always comes down to me, on my hands and knees, with a sponge. So, you know, care work is not great when that’s all you have to do, right? Which is what the pandemic showed us. Like, as someone who actually enjoys like a certain amount of care work, like loves to cook, is satisfied by sweeping, I felt like I saw the pleasure bleed out from it in the pandemic. It was really hard to enjoy the things that I used to enjoy.

So I don’t expect everyone to be suddenly like, “Oh, I love doing care work and domestic labor.” But I’m talking about some of those physical pleasures of care and how satisfying it can be to care for yourself, too. Meaningful self care, taking care of your body, it feels so nice to give yourself a rest. And I just wanted to give people space and I wanted to give myself space to reimagine these things. If I’m going to be doing this care work, I can’t hate it. Life is so hard. If you do nothing else today but keep yourself alive and love on somebody else, you did a lot. That’s a really good day. 

Virginia

This allowed me to take more pleasure in the parts I do enjoy. I do find it really rewarding and have sometimes felt embarrassed to admit I enjoy it, too. That’s the other piece.

Angela

Oh right. Because then you’d be like, “I’m a housewife.”

I mean, I don’t like imaginative play with my children. I don’t want to play hide and seek. I don’t like to do the kitty cat game or meow. It’s just not really my thing. And I’m always like, “Oh, my husband’s more fun,” because he’s willing to do that stuff. But I have more patience to sit and read on the couch with them.

The other thing is, young children are so different. My children are seven and four now and I feel like I’m emerging from a dark tunnel. 

Virginia

My youngest is four, too, and it is a turning point.

Angela

Yeah. Thank f*****g god. Because it was really hard for a while there.

Virginia

So as I said, while reading your book is trapped in my house, I really missed community. But you know, I’ll be honest, even when I don’t have COVID, I’m an introverted person. We live in a fairly rural area in the Hudson Valley. We are part of a small town but we don’t even live down in the town. We live out in the woods. What advice do you have for us? Being a better part of our communities feels so fundamental to mothering as social change to valuing care work, but how do you start if you’re not naturally good at that?

Angela

That’s a great question because I think a lot of people feel challenged or like, I want to do something but I don’t know what. The first thing I would say is that small is great. I remember  when you were in COVID, you had posted that a friend brought you groceries. So I think part of it is just that these little gestures actually do go a long way. If it’s safe to have a playdate, having a kid over to explore the woods by your house is very cool. Maybe it’s reaching out to someone you don’t know very well, maybe even a parent that you suspect you might not like that much, but just inviting them. Community doesn’t have to look any particular way. I think it is stepping outside yourself, feeling part of something bigger than yourself, and contributing to it in a hopefully positive way.

If you’re in a position of privilege, one great thing to do is to be a community member who does not reap the benefit of community. Who is in fact the person who is giving, whether that is money, or time.  It actually feels really good to care for somebody else and expect nothing in return. We always think community works in a reciprocal way. But maybe the effects are not immediate. This is my existential, philosophical answer. I think you can start small and simple.

Virginia

I like focusing on small, it feels doable. 

Angela 

It’s the littlest things that are so meaningful and that make you feel like a human being and make you feel like part of something. We are not all made for the grand gesture. You know, like, I am not. I’m so grateful to activists who are in DC, not giving up, talking to people. That’s not my role. Those are not where my energies are best served. I used to think maybe that I was rationalizing and then I was really just lazy and not that good a person. 

Virginia

I do struggle with that. 

Angela

I think Everyone has a role to play and sometimes it takes some work to figure out exactly what that is.

Meanwhile, you just started a fund through your newsletter to support democratic elections happening in states! I’m not blowing smoke up your ass. Like, that’s huge. And it’s really important and engaging your community.

Virginia

I appreciate that. I do think, especially for us introverted types, online community can be much more doable.

I also, of course, want to discuss your beautiful chapter “Mothering as Encouraging Appetites. I am quoted in this chapter, so full disclosure, I’m obviously biased to loving it.

Angela

Your writing and your work is definitely a guiding force and spirit in the chapter. So thank you for your work.

Virginia

Thank you. Well, it’s a really powerful piece of writing. You’re talking about owning our appetites, coming to terms with our bodies, and how one of the most powerful things we can do as mothers is help cultivate that in our kids. You wrote about realizing you don’t take after your own mother physically. You wrote:

I decided that being a little bit fat was the price I paid for always wanting seconds. I don’t know why I didn’t shrink myself, only allowed myself to expand both in size and in personality.

I love this so much. This is my mission for my children, just not wanting them to shrink themselves. And realizing that if this is the body that you have that allows you to be a happy and fully present person, this is the right body.

Angela

Yeah, that’s a perfect body.

Virginia

So can you tell us a little more about how you arrived at that place? And how it informs how you’re parenting your daughters now around food and body?

Angela

I’m not a stereotypical petite Filipino woman. I really struggled with that. I mean, now I look at pictures of myself in high school, and I’m like, I can’t believe I thought I was fat. But the message is so clear. Being thin and being white, that’s how people will recognize you as beautiful. I have struggled with my own self esteem issues with my own body acceptance and body issues. But I feel so grateful that diet culture didn’t interest me. I just really love eating. And I was like, I’m not gonna stop. I mean, part of it is that I really think like, to go back to something we were talking about earlier, I am just all about physical pleasure. And leisure. I love fudgy cheeses. I love really sour vinegar. I love spicy soup. I love chewy bread. I love all of these things and they make me so happy. And I’ve never been good at denying myself pleasure, which isn’t great in terms of impulse control as an adult sometimes. Definitely not in my 20s.

But there was something in me, this spirit, that I’m so grateful to little baby Angela for. There was just this spirit that was like, “No. I’m not I’m not going to be crushed.” And so, and I don’t know how I did it. Honestly, like, I’m not sure what I did. So there’s part of me that’s like, I want this to be the same for my girls but I’m not sure how to replicate it.

Part of it goes back to white feminism. I was just like, I’m never gonna fit in, so I might as I might as well just be me. And there’s something very freeing in that.

Virginia

I wondered if that was a piece of it. I often find women in very small bodies who live very close to the ideal have large struggles, in terms of internal struggle, because it’s like they’re so close and they can’t get there. I mean, fat people are experiencing oppression for their fatness. That’s different. But I’m talking about the internal stuff. And it’s not to say that fat folks don’t also have those struggles, because we do. But I think that when you are like a 98% on a scale that is completely unrealistic, the extreme tactics to get there feel reasonable because you could get there. Whereas I think if you have a body type that is never going to be it, you have to reckon with that earlier in some way. 

Angela

There is still a very dominant image of beauty in the United States. But I have this language now where I can say to my kids, like, “Being beautiful, it’s not like the most important thing. Because you decide what’s beautiful. And because it’s not the most important thing to be. The most important thing to be as a nice person, an empathetic person or a kind person.”

We have a long way to go, but representationally they see more. They go to school with mixed race kids now. My girls are mixed race. You know, my daughter’s already talking about how I am Brown Filipina, Daddy is American White.

My daughters looked at a picture of me from like 10, 12, 14 years ago, and they were like, “Mommy, you got fat.” And I was like, stay in it. Stay in it. You’ve been training for this, Angela. You’ve been training for this. And it was so hard, but I was like, “Yep, I got fat.” They weren’t weird in the moment. Fat to them is an adjective. And that’s all it is. The person who was making it hard was me! And I have tenderness for myself in that moment. But I felt like, oh, no, I’m doing a good job here. One of the things that I hear mothers committing to is like, I am going to continue to struggle with my body, but I want to do my best to not say disparaging things about my body in front of my children. Or to be honest with them about what’s hard about it.

What do you do?

Virginia

I’ve had that same conversation of “Yep, I’m fat. That’s right. Fat bodies are great bodies.” And I definitely have had that same experience of like, “Oh, God, this is the moment that I have been preparing for. And also people ask me for advice on this and so I really better get it right now.”

Angela

No, totally, that’s a lot of pressure.

Virginia

I better get a newsletter essay out of this. 

Angela

Writers are such traitors. When that was happening to me, I was laying on my bed and having that discussion with my girls like about how I’m fat. I’m trying not to cry, and I’m having all of these feelings. And this thing popped Into my mind. I was like, “Well, I’m gonna have to write about this.”

Virginia

Thanks, kids. Sorry that I do this with our conversations.

The other piece of it that you were emphasizing: That being beautiful doesn’t matter that much, and that it needs to matter less—that we both need to broaden our definition of beauty and we need to care less about beauty. It’s hard to hold both of those together, but it’s really the crux of it.

You had this line in the book which I really think you need to put on t-shirts:

Eating is a necessity. Being beautiful is not.

Thank you. That’s it.

Angela

That’s what it comes down to.

Virginia

You are allowed to reject this whole system that’s telling you your body isn’t good enough. You’re allowed to just say f**k it, and center your own pleasure and your own hunger. 

Angela

And you’re allowed to talk about how that is really hard sometimes. I’m contributing to the conversation and cultural change. But we can’t solve problems that we don’t talk about. And there’s so much shame and stigma around talking about bodies and how we feel about our own bodies. But yeah, like, 100% I just want to enjoy my life and my body. I could spend my whole life trying to make my body do a thing or I could just live my life in the body that I have. I take option two.

Virginia

Option two sounds much easier and less stressful. And more fun, for sure.

Butter For Your Burnt Toast

Angela

I recommend falling in love with your friends. I just went away on a weekend. It was supposed to be a writing retreat with my friend, the novelist Lydia Kiesling. We became friends because we published our books around the same time, our first books, and our books were both about mothering, so naturally, we were lumped together. But we’ve never lived in the same city and I’ve met her just a couple of times, but I’ve always had this feeling like I think we would be friends. And then I was like, how would we ever figure out how to do that? And then, one of the things in the pandemic is, I’ve just been like, I don’t want to waste time. I want to see my friends, I want to spend time with them. I want to make the most of it. And I want to invest in this friendship. And so I invited her to go away on a weekend with me and we were gonna write.

We had these adjacent little studio cabins, I would bring her coffee and a bagel with a fried egg. And then I would get into her bed and we watched “Love Is Blind” together. Like, speaking of physical pleasure, these are the things that we have been denied. And you know, I’m not saying, everyone go jump in bed with all of your friends. But thank God for vaccines, right? Like, that’s an option that is open to us again. I want to remind everyone that we can reawaken to things that are pleasurable and spending time being in the company of friends. What is better than friendship? There’s nothing better. Sex is great, but have you had a friend?

Virginia

I did a weekend with my three best friends from when we were in our 20s. And now we live in all different places. We haven’t seen each other, obviously, in a whole pandemic. We did a weekend together last month. I came home feeling high. Like I was just like, I had long conversations with these women that I love so much. Oh, it was amazing.

Angela 

It was like three days of one running conversation. 

Virginia

It is such a good feeling. Well, that is a wonderful recommendation. Mine is also very pleasure related, because I felt like that was gonna be a theme in our conversation. I am recommending romance novels, specifically Talia Hibbert and Jasmine Guillory. I have just discovered both of them. Two Black novelists who write about Black characters. The women are usually in larger bodies, and they are really hot and there’s a lot of good sex in these books. They’re romances, so happy endings are guaranteed, but they’re fun and sexy and I haven’t read romance in years and years. My image of Harlequin romance was very like, skinny white lady and you know, big ripped brooding guy and there’s been a total evolution in the genre. There’s all these great feminist writers writing very sex positive, women-centered—like the woman always get taken care of first. Like, chapters ahead, often. She gets hers and then they get around to him much later on. It’s pretty great.

Angela 

I love it! I feel like that’s all the stuff that were taught we don’t deserve. And to see it really front and center? It’s beautiful.

Virginia 

They’re just delightful. And very heteronormative so disclaimer on that. If listeners know of good, queer romance novelists, drop them in comments, because I’m here for that too! I just want people to be having sex and loving their bodies.

Well, Angela, thank you again, this was an amazing conversation. Tell people where they can find you and follow your work.

Angela

Thank you so much, Virginia. It was a little bit like falling in love.

You can find me on my website and on Instagram.

Virginia

And you all need to go and get Essential Labor. It is everywhere you get your books and required reading for Burnt Toast listeners. 

If you’d like to support the show, please subscribe for free in your podcast player or tell a friend about this episode.

The Burnt Toast Podcast is produced and hosted by me, Virginia Sole-Smith. You can follow me on Instagram or Twitter.

Burnt Toast transcripts and essays are edited and formatted by Corinne Fay, who runs @SellTradePlus, an Instagram account where you can buy and sell plus size clothing.

The Burnt Toast logo is by Deanna Lowe.

Our theme music is by Jeff Bailey and Chris Maxwell.

Tommy Harron is our audio engineer.

Thanks for listening and for supporting independent anti-diet journalism.

This is a public episode. If you’d like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit virginiasolesmith.substack.com/subscribe
May 12, 2022
Calf Liver Gummies Are Not Delicious.
2999
If you asked any of these gentle parenting experts, they would say parenting is the most important work in the world. But they are also perpetually downplaying the hardest parts of it—which means not ever making visible the parts of parenting that we most need to change.

Welcome to Burnt Toast! This is the podcast where we talk about diet culture, fatphobia, parenting, and health.

Today I am chatting again with Sara Louise Petersen. She’s the Burnt Toast resident momfluencer expert, and you can catch her previous episodes here and here. Sara is also the author of an upcoming book about momfluencers and the awesome new Substack newsletter In Pursuit of Clean Countertops, which is a must-subscribe!

Today, Sara and I are chatting about the gentle parenting trend—and how it intersect with our conversations around gender roles, diet culture, and more.

If you enjoy this episode, please subscribe, rate and review us in your podcast player! And subscribe to the Burnt Toast newsletter for episode transcripts, reported essays, and more.

PS. The Burnt Toast Giving Circle is almost to $9,000! We are so close to our goal and will soon be picking which state election to fund. So if you’ve been thinking about joining, we still need you! Here’s the Burnt Toast episode where I announced it, ICYMI, and the link to donate.

Episode 41 Transcript

Virginia

Hi Sara! You are the resident Burnt Toast momfluencer expert, which I admit is not a category of expert I knew that I needed when I launched the podcast, but it turns out it very much is. And you just started your own Substack newsletter! So let’s talk about that first.

Sara

It’s called In Pursuit of Clean Countertops. It’s not about countertops. It’s not about cleaning. The title is a nod to all of the things that momfluencer culture invites you to pursue and desire and want. I started it a little over a month ago based on an inflammatory post by @BallerinaFarm, Hannah Neeleman. She’s a big one. Her husband Daniel Neeleman started his own Instagram account relatively recently. He posted about the way that Hannah loves to clean and natural light and children like to congregate around her. It just made me feel a lot of a lot of feelings, Virginia. So that was the the post that started it at all.

Virginia

I had a lot of feelings about that post, as well. I also love your new Weekly WTF which is so cathartic to read.

Sara

My goal is to take the text threads that we all have with our friends, which can be more like, “Holy s**t. Did you see this? This is enraging this is infuriating,” and explore why is it infuriating. Why am I feeling these feelings? To expose the systemic issues at play.

Virginia

Today you are coming back on this podcast because we want to dissect a sub-trend of momfluencing culture. We’re talking about “gentle parenting.” I also see it called “positive parenting.” It’s important to say right off the bat, there is no official definition of this concept. Jessica Grose wrote a piece for The New York Times where she described it as “a sort of open-source mélange, interpreted and remixed by moms across the country.” And yes, that is really what it is.

Sara, do you want to read this definition that we found in this piece in The New Yorker by Jessica Winter, just so everyone’s on the same page about what we’re talking about here.

Sara

So, okay:

In its broadest outlines, gentle parenting centers on acknowledging a child’s feelings and the motivations behind challenging behavior, as opposed to correcting the behavior itself. The gentle parent holds firm boundaries, gives a child choices instead of orders, and eschews rewards, punishments, and threats—no sticker charts, no time-outs, no “I will turn this car around right now.” Instead of issuing commands (“Put on your shoes!”), the parent strives to understand why a child is acting out in the first place (“What’s up, honey? You don’t want to put your shoes on?”) or, perhaps, narrates the problem (“You’re playing with your trains because putting on shoes doesn’t feel good”).

The gently parented child, the theory goes, learns to recognize and control her emotions because a caregiver is consistently affirming those emotions as real and important. The parent provides a model for keeping one’s cool, but no overt incentives for doing so—the kid becomes a person who is self-regulating, kind, and conscientious because she wants to be, not because it will result in ice cream.



Virginia

That is what I want my children to be, is the thing. This is the goal I think a lot of us have for kids. And yet the path for getting there is so convoluted. Let’s talk about when we each first became aware of this trend and how it’s showing up in our parenting.

Sara

I became aware of it by way of attachment parenting, which was just everywhere when I had my first kid, who is now almost 10. Attachment parenting is the whole 'if the kid is crying, the kid is not being annoying. It’s expressing needs or desires and it’s your job as the parent to interpret the cries.’ In attachment parenting, you’re not thinking of the kid’s behavior as an impediment to your life, but as the kid expressing his or her or their individuality. I was all about this when I was pregnant. I read all the Dr. Sears books. And then, almost immediately after having my first child, I just felt like I was being gaslit. I remember reading something... Kelly Something?

Virginia

Oh, yes, KellyMom. Oh, I’m having a trauma response. It’s been a minute.

Sara

I know. So my kid was not sleeping and I remember reading on KellyMom something like “when cluster feeding happens and baby only wants mom, consider it a compliment.” And I was just like fuuuuuck this. F**k this!!

Virginia

It’s not a compliment. I’m so tired.

Sara

Attachment parenting kind of feeds into gentle parenting really well in that it’s all about prioritizing the child’s needs. And very rarely are the parent’s needs anywhere in the conversation.

Virginia

I had a pretty knee jerk reaction against attachment parenting, although, you know, my oldest is eight, so same time period. It was everywhere. But I was like, this is just code for the woman does everything. And I didn’t sign up for that. It’s not what we’ve agreed upon in my house. We’re not doing it.

But then the gentle parenting thing for me, it was discovering Janet Lansbury’s work when my older daughter was a toddler and the toddler tantrums started.

(Note from Virginia: I forgot to mention in our conversation that I’ve interviewed Lansbury for parenting articles a few times and think she’s incredibly smart and thoughtful, even if her tantrum advice didn’t always land for me. If you are also a Lansbury fan, this Ariel Levy profile is a must-read.)

I was constantly having to negotiate with this person who is totally irrational, according to the way I understand the world. And who is demanding a lot from me in ways that just don’t make sense anymore. At least with a baby, you’re like, well, you’re hungry, or you’re cold or—their needs are just more concrete and not emotional. But suddenly, in the toddler years, you’re sorting through this emotional stuff, as well as—I’m now going to get mail from people saying babies have emotions. I know they do. I know they have emotions. But there’s something about engaging with a tiny verbal child or quasi-verbal child that is just much harder for me.

So this whole gentle parenting approach, I sort of clung to it like a life raft. Will someone explain why these children scream so much? And gentle parenting has these '“answers” for you. But what was interesting, even when my older daughter was two or three, was how much it didn’t work with her. All this advice about, like, “What’s up? You don’t want to put your shoes on? Or you’re playing with trains because shoes don’t feel good?” She would just be enraged when I did that. I think it felt like very patronizing to her. She was like, “I am telling you how I feel through my yelling. You putting words to it is not making me better.”

Sara

Well, one of my challenges that you’re speaking to is: You’ll get this script and the lines that you’re reciting are at odds with your feelings, which are often rage, impatience, annoyance, frustration, despair. So if you’re reciting this script that is like, “I can see you’re having really big feelings right now. And that’s okay. Your big feelings are valid,” kids, I think can tell that you are feeding them a line from a script. Or at least my kids definitely can. It oftentimes in my household has made things worse.

Virginia

Yes. Because then you’re getting more frustrated while trying to recite the script.

Sara

And then you’re doubly frustrated because the script isn’t working.

Virginia

So, let’s talk more about the scripts because they are one of the most common tropes of the way gentle parenting is performed online. I want to talk about this Dr. Becky post. (Above.)

If I have a child screaming, “I hate you! I hope you die!,” which has happened in my life, me responding with calmness is almost denying the feeling. The goal, ostensibly, is to label their feeling, but you’re denying the feeling because you’re responding so stoically to their feelings. Something about it feels so inauthentic.

Sara

The other thing that just really stands out to me in this mantra is “the real story is my child’s pain.” There’s no room for the parents’ feelings in this mantra.

Virginia

I don’t disagree with the argument here that a small child using that word doesn’t really mean the word the way an adult does. Like, this isn’t them being verbally abusive. I understand that. But that doesn’t stop it from feeling bad when it happens. And we are supposed to so totally center the child’s emotions to the point of having no emotional response to it. It’s just never going to happen, that way.

Sara

What if the kid is saying “I HATE YOU” to the sibling? You have to attend to the kid who’s having feelings and saying I hate you. And you have to attend to the kid who is the target of the “I hate you.” It’s just so much more complicated than any of these scripts would have you believe.

Virginia

I think what’s interesting about this movement is there’s a lot of emphasis on not being punitive towards kids when they do bad things. When they hit, when they bite, when they say I hate you. An older model of parenting would have been to punish those behaviors. And their argument is: We’re never going to help kids move past these behaviors if we demonize the kid who’s doing the bad thing. Which I understand. But if you have a dynamic where an older brother has just slapped his little sister in the face, what is that girl learning? That someone who loves you can hurt you like that?

Sara

We don’t want our children to internalize our feelings. But I also don’t think it’s terrible if our kids see us have an emotional reaction, such as anger or frustration. It’s natural to have a reaction when somebody says, “I hate you,” or when you get slapped in the face. We need to allow for the parents’ humanity in all of this. If your facial expression becomes angry, that’s okay. You can still value the child’s humanity and individuality and hold space for both things.

Virginia

There’s a lot of talk about how if you tell your child how you feel, you’re making them codependent. I just feel like this is a real big leap because the alternative is you’re teaching your child their emotions should always be centered. That feels like a terrible model for future relationships.

Sara

In the Jessica Winter piece, she gives the example of if your kid is having a meltdown and you’re in the middle of vacuuming, you should by all means stop vacuuming and say to the kid, “your feelings are more important than housework.” Winter writes:

The housework that [Robin] Einzig says to put off is a synecdoche for everything that the gentle parent—and, perhaps, the gently parented child’s invisible siblings—must push aside in order to complete a transformation into a self-renouncing, perpetually present humanoid who has nothing but time and who is programmed for nothing but calm.”

Virginia 

And when is the vacuuming getting done? Maybe you don’t want to spend your whole day being interrupted during a chore that should take 15 minutes. This feels very much of a piece with what we see in momfleuncer culture. That’s @BallerinaFarm cleaning her house with a smile while the kids are frolicking around. This image of joy and calmness through domestic life doesn’t line up with anything I’ve ever experienced in domestic life. I don’t think it lines up with most people’s experience.

Sara

No. I constantly talk to my kids when I’m feeling overwhelmed or how a lot of work goes into keeping a house and raising kids. I’m sure some gentle parenting advocates would tell me I’m burdening my kids with my own suffering or whatever. But it’s true and nobody ever talked to me about this openly, about how being a parent and being a grown up is hard.

Virginia

Making that work visible is so important for so many reasons. We are never going to make progress on our larger cultural gender roles if we are continually downplaying this work. I’m sure if you asked any of these gentle parenting experts, they would say parenting is the most important work in the world. That’s why they’ve devoted their careers to giving us all the scripts! But when you’re perpetually downplaying the hard parts of it, and when you’re needing to perform it in this really controlled way, you’re not actually ever making visible the parts of it that we need to change. 

Sara

I can see a future where kids who are parented perfectly according to the gentle script, turn into parents themselves and say, like, “What the f**k? This is hard as s**t! Why did my parents always present as so calm and pulled together?”

Virginia

I mean, that assumes anyone’s able to actually execute gentle parenting. I f\have my doubts that anybody is this parent, even three days a week. The other night, my child who, like I said, screams in fury if I try a gentle parenting script, we were having a thing. I finally said to her, “I am a human being with emotions, and you are hurting my feelings right now.” And one part of my brain was like, You are breaking all the rules. You aren’t supposed to tell her that she’s hurting your feelings. But that was what turned the corner in that particular moment. I’m not saying she was like, “Oh, I’m so sorry, I hurt your feelings.” There was no apology. But it did make her pause for a moment and have this recognition of, Oh, right. I am powerful here. My words have impact. She took a slight step back and we were able to then get on a much better track.

A thought I had a lot, especially when I was parenting toddlers was: If an adult treated you like this, it would be an abusive relationship—and yet we are supposed to accept this wholeheartedly from children. It’s one of the things that is so hard about parenting. Because they are children and emotional capabilities are not fully developed, so you literally sign up for accepting abuse for several years. It’s not abuse, but it does not feel great.

Sara

I’m sure you’ve had this experience, where you are heated, you are furious, you’re having big emotions and the person you’re arguing with is stoic and calm and seemingly unaffected by your big emotions.

Virginia

It’s the worst!

Sara

It’s the worst. So I can totally understand why being the kid at the receiving end of these scripts would be infuriating. Like, I’m kicking and screaming and like spitting at you. Why isn’t this having any impact?

Virginia

It feels kind of manipulative in that way, like you’re trying to make them feel powerless. Because kids want a reaction. They’re looking for connection. Often the yelling is an attempt to get your attention and get your connection. So if you’re giving them Robot Mom, you’re not connecting with them authentically.

Virginia

Okay, so another big theme, and also m big division point with gentle parenting, is the fact that they frame timeouts as an act of trauma. This is a @biglittlefeelings post. They are big in this space and I have a lot of feelings about that. Because, with both my kids, there are times when timeouts save my family. We all need to step away from each other. I don’t think it is punitive or traumatizing to teach a kid that when your feelings are so big that you can only deliver them in hurtful ways that you need to take some time alone We call them “cool downs” which is totally trying to soften the language. But giving myself permission to use those with my kids has helped so much.

Sara

I have a kid who, when she’s having her biggest feelings, will remove herself. Like, her instinct is to go and sob sob, sob for 15 minutes. But if I try to go in before 15 minutes, it’s bad. It’s only after that she has that cathartic release that she’s even capable of connecting. 

Virginia

I am sure there are kids who want to collapse on you and need that sort of experience. But recognizing that, if you yourself are someone who needs to go be alone to think through your big feelings, maybe your kid needs that, too. And maybe it’s okay.

Sara

Another thing that I want to highlight that’s giving me some big feelings is the caption. It says:

When the parental response is to isolate the child, an instinctual psychological need of the child goes unmet. In fact, brain imaging shows that the experience of relational pain–like that caused by rejection–looks very similar to the experience of physical pain in terms of brain activity.

This is not great. 

Virginia

There’s no citation, there’s no science. We would need to fact check the heck out of that.

Sara

It just feels so manipulative and like playing into parental shame and guilt.

Virginia

I bet it’s stemming from the same research used to argue for attachment parenting, about how if you let a baby cry it out, you’re inflicting physical pain on them. And then when we looked at which data they were using, it was children who’d been neglected for months in orphanages. It was not children in loving homes who are being asked to cry for 15 minutes to fall asleep. I’m guessing this is orphanage research again and that research is very important for understanding the impact of true trauma. But it is not helpful to give to parents who are trying really hard to be decent parents. 

The other trope I wanted to hit on is: Speaking in the child’s voice. This is a post from Robin Einzig’s Facebook page:

Sara

I just want to describe the image because it’s doing a lot of work. It’s a painting of a very cherubic looking three or four year old, whose eyes are just full of innocent wonder and who has like rosy little pursed lips. She just looks like a blank canvas that you as the parent might be in danger of destroying. So it says, “When you cut it for me, write it for me, open it for me, set it up for me, draw it for me, and make it for me or find it for me. All I learned is that you do it better than I do. So I’ll let you do it. In the textbooks, this is called learned helplessness, but actually I call it clever on the part of the child and less than clever on the part of the adult.”

Virginia

Sick burn from a gentle parenting expert. 

Sara

Also the quote says “quote unknown.”

Virginia

I mean, obviously the quote is unknown. They just made it up. They’re not quoting a human child because no child has ever said, “You know Mom, when you do this for me, all I learned is that you’re better at things than me.” 

Sara

So this one’s really thrown me for a loop.

Virginia

It’s another one of those super paralyzing pieces of advice. I remember reading some advice like this. The argument was, if you’re drawing with your child and if they see how you draw a cat, then they’ll never learn how to draw a cat themselves, like in their own vision of a cat. And I remember trying to do that and being like, well, this just sucked all the fun out of drawing. I’m actually kind of good at drawing cats and now I feel like I can’t draw a cat. You’re simultaneously supposed to do nothing for them so they can have all of these learning experiences, yet also be emotionally available to the point you can’t get your vacuuming done.

Sara

How the hell are you supposed to get anything done if you’re letting a two-year-old do all these things? You will spend your entire day having the two-year-old cut something. 

Virginia

This is just one of those constant tensions of parenting where of course they have to eventually learn to do these things for themselves. But when you’re trying to get out of the door or set them up with an activity, so you can get things done, of course, you’re going to do the hard parts for them. Because life demands it.

Sara

Because of life! Like really. Because of life.

Virginia

One more good quote from the Jessica Winter piece:

Gentle-parenting advocates are near-unanimous in the view that a child should never be told that she “made Mommy sad”—she should focus on her internal weather rather than peering out the window. “Good job!” is usually not O.K., even if you corroborate why the job is good. “Because I said so” is never O.K., no matter how many times a child asks why she has to go to bed.

So Sara, when we were talking about this trend, you really found the mom influencer to end all momfluencers. She’s definitely at the most extreme end of the spectrum. So tell us about @milkgiver, please.

Sara

So I’ve been following her for a long time. This type of momfluencer is catnip for me because they present with this very cool hipster, maybe used to live in Brooklyn type of vibe. So I’m initially attracted by their Shaker style fisherman’s sweaters. And then I get lured into the messaging, which often gets into very intense prescriptive nutrition stuff. There’s a lot of beef liver gummy making. 

Virginia

She’s in a striped caftan type garment. I mean, I think I have the same mug as her right here because you know, #influenced. I’m pretty sure she has an East Fork pottery mug. So I’m not here to hate on her mug choice.

Sara

I have yet to pull the trigger, but I’m sure I will, Virginia. I’m sure I will.

Virginia

You will not be sorry.

Anyway, she’s basically buried in children while having her morning coffee, is the image.

Sara

You know Mary Cassatt paintings? It’s giving me those vibes. Like, you know, adoring children, beatific mother. It’s a long post, the thesis of which is that we, as mothers have so much power over giving our children happy, trauma-free childhoods. She says,

…for the most part, I, as a mother, hold the incredible power of creating happy childhoods for my little ones or not so happy childhoods…

And this is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.

there have been so many recurring themes in my life and something I keep hearing in the health and wellness circles is how disease or illness can be caused by past trauma. how interesting is that to think about?

So, I’m not loving the direct connection between “I slammed the door or put my kid in timeout or lose my temper” and “down the road my kids might get cancer.”

Virginia

It defies the major thesis of all parenting research, which is that good enough parenting is all you really need. It’s reminding me quite a lot of the shaming that fat moms get. That your unruly body will be the cause of all of this downfall to your children. And again, that’s not borne out by research.

Sara

I have a therapist friend who is always like, “I actually take a lot of comfort in the fact that like, my kids can talk about whatever parts of their childhood in therapy later down the road. That’s okay.”

Virginia

That’s a great point.

Sara

It’s okay if 20 years from now, my kid is like, “Mom always bitched about cleaning and how hard childcare was.” That’s not the end of the world.

Virginia

There are a lot of tools we can give our kids—including future therapy—to make up for our imperfections. I’m just looking at @milkgiver’s grid now and it is many whimsical hats. It is a lot of homemade. A homemade dollhouse, a homemade garland. Oh, and we should talk about the nutrition piece a little more because I definitely want us to hit on the way gentle parenting intersects with diet culture. Did you say she’s into calf liver gummies?

Sara

There are so many gummies. So many.

Virginia

How do you even make liver into a gummy? I know she’ll have a tutorial for me.

[Note from Virginia: Our post-recording fact-check revealed that @milkgiver actually makes beef gelatin gummies. We regret this error but not too much because calf liver gummies will surely be next.]

Wait, can we also talk about the fact this woman doesn’t have a name? She’s just @milkgiver. 

Sara

I do know her first name just because I’ve been following her forever, but yeah the fact that her identity is the giving of milk to children by way of her Instagram handle says a lot. 

Virginia

Even in the bio line, it’s just wife and mother of three, homeschooling, gentle parenting, Orthodox Christianity, knitting, nutrition, simple living. No name, no identity for you outside of how you serve your family. 

Sara

Do you see the photo on the grid with the dried oranges?

Virginia

Okay, so she writes:

How did I get here? From being a fast food junkie, to vegan teen, to full out cigarette and alcohol addicted young adult to mama of three religiously wearing her blue blocker glasses in the evenings, taking raw liver shots and avoiding fluoride at all costs. This crunchy mama road isn’t always an easy one, and high five to anyone else desperately trying to keep their kids away from the junk being thrown at them right and left, I see you! It’s not always an easy path, but it is one I enjoy and ultimately follow because I like feeling good, I like keeping my kids healthy, and I like having energy, because that helps me to be a better mom. That’s my top goal in life currently, and being mostly healthy helps A LOT with it. It’d also be cool to live a long time. But who knows 😉🤎 #crunchymama #embracethecrunch

Oh, Sara. I don’t like it. I don’t like it at all.

Sara

I knew you wouldn’t.

Virginia

I mean, she’s just combining so many different things. “Fast food junkie” is not the same thing as an alcoholic. Let’s be real clear about that. Addiction is a terrible disease that destroys lives. Eating a lot of fast food is not the same thing.

Sara

Even even the term junkie in that context.

Virginia

You are not a junkie because you like fast food.

And then this, this whole message of, okay, you have to take the hardest road to do everything. Even if you don’t want to eat fast food every day, there’s a big gulf between that and taking raw liver shots and avoiding fluoride. We’re just combining every possible wellness trend. It’s like she needs to check every single box here in a way that’s exhausting and overwhelming, and not at all doable for anybody. And also not necessary. Nobody needs to take raw liver shots in their lives. People have lived to be 100 years old without ever taking raw liver shots.

Sara

I also don’t like the the use of the word “desperate.” She says, “high five to anyone else desperately trying to keep their kids away from the junk.” How about we desperately try to like give all kids access to food, period?

Virginia

That would be cool.

Sara

It just feels like such a classic trope of the self-optimizing white motherhood stuff. “Because I like feeling good. I like keeping my kids healthy.” The implication is that if she were not to follow all these super strict guidelines, she would knowingly be not giving her kids a healthy life. 

Virginia

Also this vibe of, “oh well, that’s just me! I like feeling good. I like having healthy kids.” Oh, really? Do you think mothers living in poverty don’t like to feel good? They’re not feeding their kids enough food every day because they don’t like having healthy kids? This isn’t a whimsical choice for you. This is something you can do because you have a ton of privilege.

Let’s also talk about if you are a parent desperately trying to keep your kid away from junk food, how fast that’s going backfire and harm your child’s relationship with junk food. I mean, how many letters do I get? (For starters: This one, this one, this one, and this one.) This is probably the number one question I am asked. Sneaking food is just how it plays out every time because your kids know that your raw liver gummies are not as delicious as their friends gummy bears.

Sara

The other thing that’s kind of hysterical to me is this is also not in agreement with gentle parenting. We’re supposed to enable our kids to have the tools within themselves to navigate life. So this feels like a direct contradiction. 

Virginia

The interesting thing about the way gentle parenting and diet culture intersect is most gentle parenting folks are really big proponents of Division of Responsibility, which is about empowering kids to listen to their bodies and trust their own hunger and fullness. So you’re not counting bites, you’re not requiring them to finish stuff or eat their broccoli before they have the cookie. The problem is, it gets layered in with this idea of, “I have to choose things like calf flavored gummies and green smoothies and all of these perfectly healthy things.” And then I’m frustrated because my kids still is asking for Little Bites muffins and not my homemade spelt muffins or whatever. It’s using Division of Responsibility as a script for diet culture. You’re still trying to control them, but you’ve coopted this other rhetoric to do it. 

Sara

I’m sure you’ve written and talked about this before, but what happens if you are so hyper-controlling the environment that your kid is choosing from? What happens when your kid enters the real world of actual food choice?

Virginia

Those are the kids who go on playdates and eat the whole sleeve of Oreos at their friend’s house or eat sugar by the spoonful. I am not shaming those kids, I am not shaming those parents. It’s a totally natural response. You’ve been restricted, these foods have been banned. Forbidden fruit is really powerful and really tempting. Your mom’s not gonna let this stuff in the house. So it’s super understandable.

This is another thing where they give us a lot of scripts! Let’s talk about this @biglittlefeelings post (above).

Sara

My response as my kid is, “I don’t want either bowl. F**k the bowl, lady!”

Virginia

Giving them a choice of the bowls is not going to distract them from the fact that they want cereal. Especially if you’re not offering cereal very often. I’m not saying you should cave in the moment and be a short order cook and just like immediately whisk off the bowl of yogurt and granola and give them the cereal. But you might do better to say, “let me pack cereal for your snack for school,” or “I totally hear you. Let’s make sure we have cereal for breakfast tomorrow.” If we’re gonna give kids permission to have all their big feelings, let’s spend some time on the big feeling about cereal instead of just like moving right past it and trying to distract them with the bowl choices.

Again, it runs so counter to the larger message of what they tell us to do. But she doesn’t want to give in on the cereal, so she’s trying to control the food from a diet culture perspective— and then the gentle parenting quickly falls apart in the face of that goal.

I also want to say it’s fine if sometimes you do say, “yeah, you know what, I’m gonna grab you the bowl of cereal.” Making a bowl of cereal is not the most time consuming thing. If this allows you to move on with your morning because it’s just been one of those mornings, it’s fine. It happens. We don’t need to feel like we failed because we did that. That’s another piece of this: When you don’t follow the scripts, you have to feel like you got it wrong.

Sara

Totally.

Virginia

Let’s wrap up by talking about some parenting folks we do like.

The person that I really liked that I wanted to talk about is Claire Lerner. She is the author of the book, Why Is My Child in Charge. I am going to put in a caveat that her chapter on food is not totally there. There’s definitely some diet culture stuff in it. But this was a really useful book for me to read because she does help parents understand why we end up in those power struggles. And a big thing I like is that she’s pro-timeouts when the kid needs it. She recognizes a place for them.

She also really encourages parents to hold boundaries and not feel guilty about it. One line that she uses that I like is “you don’t have to like this.” I’ve started using this when I do say no to my kids about something and they throw a fit. I’m like, “You don’t have to like it, but this is what we’re doing.” And that has been so liberating. Because of course they’re having a tantrum. They don’t like being told TV is done for the day. But they don’t have to like it, we’re just doing it.

Sara

@Destini.Ann is someone I love. She’s just so approachable and the mother’s emotions are always valued. Her Instagram bio says “sign up for parent coaching below. Peaceful parent, but real AF.” That kind of tells you what you need to know. 

Virginia

Yeah, I like it. I like it a lot. “Gentle is not my default.

Sara

Yes. Let’s acknowledge that gentleness is not everybody’s default and is labor.

Another great one is @EricaMBurrell. I’ll limk to one of her reels where she’s talking about how gentle parenting is not something that white people own.

Virginia

That’s really interesting because that certainly is the impression you get on Instagram.

Sara

Black parents have talked a lot about how Black culture plays into parenting mores and how there is a lot of judgment lobbed by white people towards Black parenting, without bothering to engage with Black culture.

Virginia

Yeah, that’s excellent. And then @supernova_momma?

Sara

In her Instagram bio it says “Certified Positive Discipline Parent Educator, Mother of Two, Autism /Neurodiversity Acceptance, Sometimes I twerk.” A lot of her content speaks specifically to neurodiversity, which I can imagine being so so tricky to maneuver in the gentle parenting space.

Virginia

I think anytime your kid is dealing with something extra—whether it’s a disability, neurodiversity, or certain life experiences—there is this disconnect. You try to follow the rules they’re laying out and your kid has a completely opposite reaction to it and then you feel like you did something wrong, when in fact, the advice wasn’t inclusive and wasn’t thinking about your kid at all.

Sara

Almost all the problems with gentle parenting arise from not respecting both the parent’s individuality and the kid’s individuality. Both you and I have talked about specific parenting experiences where we recognize, we intuit what our kid needs in that moment. We can intuit that this script is not going to work for either of us. So we make a choice based on our knowledge of our kids’ specific needs and specific personalities and our own specific needs and specific personalities.

Virginia

I think it speaks to the fact that, as a culture, we don’t really empower parents—we especially don’t empower moms—to have that confidence in ourselves. You’re simultaneously expected to know exactly what to do and to have all this motherly intuition that guides you perfectly. But you’re also not really empowered to feel like you can make the right choices without outside experts, because we have such rigid standards and expectations. I just think it is helpful to start to realize you can make choices for yourself on this stuff. There is not a parenting police. Dr Becky’s not going to come to your house and edit your scripts.

Butter For Your Burnt Toast

Sara

My new obsession is Jessica Defino’s newsletter. It’s called The Unpublishable and it’s a takedown of the beauty industry. I just find it so, so delicious. She’s so funny. She’s so smart. I interviewed her recently for my newsletter

Virginia

It is so rare to find beauty content that is not tied to advertising—like so, so, so rare. So she’s a great voice. Hopefully she will be on a Burnt Toast episode soon. Stay tuned! It’s in the works. 

Okay, my recommendation is a recommendation that I feel I’ve been journeying to for a long time, that I was always meant to be this person and now I finally am.

I am now someone who does puzzles.

I think no one is surprised, if you know me at all, that I am now in the puzzling phase of my life, that I am I am a puzzler. I started it while we were on vacation. We had two days of a sick kid because that’s how family vacations roll. And so we were in our Airbnb and they had a bunch of puzzles. And I was like, I’m gonna do some puzzles while we’re hanging out here. It was so soothing!

I think my husband always knew this about me, before I knew it about myself because several years ago for Christmas, he had given me an 1000 piece puzzle and he’d given me this cool felt mat thing (similar to this one). So you can do the puzzle but you can also roll it up if you’re not done. Because I have a dog and kids and you know, I can’t leave the puzzle out all the time. So I came home and dug it out of the closet and now I’m working on this puzzle in the evenings. I’m so happy. I’m just so happy. It was definitely at the point on vacation where my kids were like, “can we have lunch?” And I was like, “No, I’m doing this puzzle.”

Sara

It sucks you in. 

Virginia

Yeah, I was like, “I’m not a parent right now. I’m a puzzler. You have to raise yourself.”

Sara

When I will start a puzzle, the kids will be nowhere in sight to do the hard edges or whatever, and then they’ll come in like little vultures as soon as I’m down to like 50 pieces. Like, back off. Don’t steal my thunder.

Virginia

Yeah, mine did not want to do it at all. My older daughter did sort of like sit and haze me while I was doing it for a while, which was fun for both of us. But I think she’s got a puzzler in her, too. She’s just not there yet. I think it’ll come out, especially now that this is my life.

Sara

And your identity.

Virginia

It’s my identity now. And what it’s really great for is, this week I had a piece getting some pushback on Twitter and I was having a day where looking at Twitter was not going to be helpful to me. That evening, I put the phone down and puzzled away instead of looking at Twitter. I was really proud of myself!

All right, Sara. Thank you so much for being here. Tell everyone where we can find you and find your newsletter!

Sara

Definitely check out my newsletter, it’s called In Pursuit of Clean Countertops. I’m on Instagram at @SLouisePeterson and I am on Twitter as the same thing.

The Burnt Toast Podcast is produced and hosted by me, Virginia Sole-Smith. You can follow me on Instagram or Twitter.

Burnt Toast transcripts and essays are edited and formatted by Corinne Fay, who runs @SellTradePlus, an Instagram account where you can buy and sell plus size clothing.

The Burnt Toast logo is by Deanna Lowe.

Our theme music is by Jeff Bailey and Chris Maxwell.

Tommy Harron is our audio engineer.

Thanks for listening and for supporting independent anti-diet journalism.

This is a public episode. If you’d like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit virginiasolesmith.substack.com/subscribe
Apr 28, 2022
Stop Apologizing For How You Cook
1963
“Sometimes I’ve just shoved some granola in my face, because I knew that I needed to have some fuel in my body. I didn’t really enjoy it. And that’s okay. That’s absolutely appropriate for that moment.”

Welcome to Burnt Toast! This is the podcast where we talk about diet culture, fatphobia, parenting, and health.

Today I am chatting with Leanne Brown who is the author of the cookbooks Good and Cheap and Good Enough. Leanne focuses on making cooking more accessible and affordable. She also does a lot of important work challenging our perceptions around what cooking should be and how we can make it into whatever we want it to be, including stuff on toast or bowls of cereal.

If you’re feeling stressed about family meals or about feeding yourself, or if cooking is feeling hard for you, whether it’s because of who you’re feeding or your relationship with food: Leanne’s work may be a helpful starting point in terms of growing your confidence around food and cooking and recognizing what’s useful and what’s not useful.

If you enjoy this episode, please subscribe, rate and review us in your podcast player! And subscribe to the Burnt Toast newsletter for episode transcripts, reported essays, and more.

PS. The Burnt Toast Giving Circle is almost to $9,000! We are so close to our goal. And if you’ve been thinking about joining, we still need you! Here’s the Burnt Toast episode where I announced it, ICYMI, and the link to donate.

Episode 40 Transcript

Virginia

Hi Leanne! Why don’t we start by having you tell us a little bit about yourself and your work?

Leanne

I’m a cookbook author, but at the same time, I don’t think that that really describes what I do. It’s certainly a huge part of what I do—I love the creating cookbooks aspect. What I really want to do is welcome anyone and everyone into the kitchen. And I think I have a particular soft spot in my heart for people who don’t really think of themselves as cooks or aren’t necessarily as naturally attracted to cooking. I believe that they have a place in the kitchen. Becoming comfortable with cooking—not even cooking but simply making food for oneself and for those in your life that you want to make food for—brings so much empowerment. My passion is in connecting with people, and finding a way to make peace with food in your life. 

Virginia

I am someone who loves cooking, but I’m also very big on not putting cooking on such a pedestal, because it’s so often held to these impossible standards. So I went on this little journey reading your work where at first I was like, Oh sure, cooking solves everything, fine. And then I was like, Oh, wait, but she’s also saying it’s okay if you don’t like cooking!

Leanne

When I introduce myself as a cookbook author, it puts me into the world of food media. Which is all these videos, TV shows, and beautiful magazines, and it’s all this glorification of food. There’s obviously a place for that. I think it adds so much to our lives and our culture. There’s this artistic aspect to it, and there’s so much beauty in it. 

But at the same time: I hear from so many people who say, “Oh, I’m a terrible cook.” Why are any of us judging ourselves like that? So long as you’re able to feed your body every day, that’s really all that matters.

I’ve been going through a lot of family emergency stuff and that means that I don’t have a very big appetite a lot of the time because I have a nervous tummy. So sometimes I’m just like, well, I just shoved some granola in my face, because I knew that I needed to have some fuel in my body. I didn’t really enjoy it. And that’s totally okay. That’s appropriate for this moment. There are so many times in life like that and I shouldn’t internalize them as ‘I’m a failure,’ or ‘what kind of a cook am I?’ But I’ve gone through periods of life where I’ve felt that way. So I really want to share this message with others, because I think it’s such an important balance to all that beautiful, curated stuff that we see all the time.

Virginia

As you’re talking, I’m just thinking: Why do we expect ourselves as home cooks to live up to this standard? It would be like expecting to do your taxes as well as a professional accountant or solve your own medical crisis. We need professionals! Cooking is a professional skill. And it’s this thing we have to do day-to-day. But why do you expect yourself to execute it like someone who’s had years of training and has a whole team and a huge budget? I feel like this has to be somewhat rooted in the way we devalue cooking as women’s work. We’re socially conditioned to have cooking be a default part of our gender identity, so it’s not valued or made visible—and yet we’re also expected to be effortlessly great at it.

Leanne

We could absolutely do a whole episode trying to unpack that.

Virginia

Well, let’s talk about the new cookbook. So it’s called Good Enough and it is so much more than a cookbook. It’s a different genre of book because you have recipes—and the recipes are wonderful—but then you have just essay after beautiful essay. Many of them are about why it is okay, and even necessary, to lower the bar and to lower our standards around food and ourselves. You’re giving us permission to do less. Tell us a little more about what made you want to write a cookbook that essentially gives people permission not to cook.  

Leanne

That’s such a great way of framing it. That’s exactly what I’m doing! So my last book, Good and Cheap was a book created for people on a very, very tight budget, people who are on a food stamps budget. It was this surprise hit. It sold really well, a ton of people were interested in it. It was also this project that was created to be freely available for people. So I ended up traveling all over the country and getting to meet so many people from so many different kinds of backgrounds. And I kept having this one experience over and over and over, where someone would come up to me and they’d say, “Oh, I love what you’re doing. This is so cool. But I am hopeless. I’m a terrible cook.” This really, really struck me and I just couldn’t stop thinking about this. I would try to have a deeper conversation. I’d say, “What makes you say that? Why have you judged yourself this way?” And it was almost always something so innocuous, like, “My kid doesn’t like my food,” or I’ll never forget this woman who said she put on a dinner party, and she said, “I poisoned someone.” I was like, “Oh my gosh, that sounds terrible.”

Virginia

That, you could carry with you for a bit. 

Leanne

I get that. But then I delved deeper into it and it turned out that a person was allergic to something and they just hadn’t disclosed that to her. 

Virginia

Oh, well, that’s not on her!

Leanne

Right? I know! Oh, it’s so heartbreaking. But there are these experiences that we carry around with us. There just needs to be more to support these people. Because I can see this longing. They are walking toward cooking, toward food. They want to have a good and healthy relationship with it. And yet they feel less than for some reason or other. My heart went out to them.

I also had to notice that I was seeing myself reflected in that, to a certain extent. I’ve always been, I think, naturally gifted with cooking and food. But a year or so after Good and Cheap came out, I got pregnant and I ended up being really, really sick, for longer than the first trimester. I was really ill, really nauseous everyday. Throwing up a lot of the time. Food was just not a fun place for me. And I found myself having an identity crisis. If I can’t do this, who am I? What do I even have to offer? What do I do? How do I approach this? Everything I’ve ever said to people, is it all a lie?

And then, in the early days of parenting, when life changed so much, my relationship to cooking and to how I fed myself was also changing all the time. I realized we need to change our approaches to cooking all the time, depending on which phase of life you’re in, and what is going on. No one really talks about that. It’s all about like, you’re good cook or you’re bad cook and that’s just such nonsense. It’s so disempowering, and it leaves us so confused. I wanted to create something that talked about cooking as a part of our real messy lives.

Virginia

I want to spend a little more time on this thing you noticed, of people feeling like they need to apologize. I interview people a lot about their relationships with food, and I see this all the time too. We’re all conditioned to apologize for how we eat, whether that’s our cooking ability or the fact that we’re eating someone else’s food. It’s that thing of apologizing with, “I can’t believe I’m having the third brownie.” I would love to hear more on how you’ve been working to break that cycle for yourself?

Leanne

I think the journey begins in the noticing. Noticing and then asking, why do I feel compelled to apologize when someone is offering me food? What if I didn’t do that? What if I believed that this person who is offering this genuinely wants me to have it? What if I took them at their word and just did what my body is wanting right now, which is to take another brownie? And then I can appreciate that and thank them for it. What if I did that, rather than apologizing for how I’m not showing up in this gendered, sort of perfectionist way where we’re supposed to “only take one” and not eat indulgent food and not be a bother to others or not be an inconvenience?

The last chapter in the book is about putting on a dinner party. I think having people over is often what we’re motivated by when it comes to cooking. Like, “I want to put on a big show for others.” But I think it should actually be one of the later steps. It’s really important to learn first to feed yourself, in your life. Because otherwise, you’re only seeking others’ approval around food, and that it’s never going to really feel good enough, right? Like, no matter how much they say, “We love that it’s great,” if something inside you is like, I don’t know if I deserve that, it’s never going to feel like enough.

So I think it’s important, when you have people over, to be honest about “this has been a lot of work for me.” And to really welcome them into your home and really offer with full openness, that you want to love them. For me, having people over and feeding them, is an act of love. And I think I’ve always tried to minimize that act by being like, “Whatever. It’s no big deal.” Because it’s uncomfortable. It’s vulnerable to be like, “I love you so much that I went to the store and got all these things and obsessed over this. And I worked really hard on it and here it is. And now I hope you like it and if you don’t, I still love you and that’s okay.” That is just a lot to hold!

So, I think about, in that moment, when I, as the visitor, want to do that thing of, “Oh, I won’t take too much,” it helps to remember that when I’m in their shoes, I want people to take it! I want them to like it! I want them to feel that joy, I want to feel that connection. We’re so often doing this dance of connection where we all long to be in true, intimate connection with others, but it’s terrifying. There’s this will-you, won’t-you, do you like me as much as I like you? All that comes up. It’s hard. 

Virginia

I’m thinking about that standard we talked about where not only do we expect ourselves to execute meals like professional chefs, we also want the work of it to be invisible, right? That’s what you’re talking about when you have people over but trying to hide how much that is an act of love. You don’t want them to know that actually your kitchen was a wreck an hour ago. You don’t want them to see the dishes. You don’t want them to know how much you stressed about whether the sauce turned out right. Is this the legacy of Martha Stewart? We feel like we have to effortlessly present a meal to communicate love. But all that really does is devalue the labor further. Because we’ve made it invisible.

Leanne

And it puts up a wall, too. It’s a way of shutting people out from the truth of your experience. Because it makes you look anxious or it makes you look like you care too much. It’s so self-defeating. Because I actually want people to know how much I care.

Virginia

So do you leave the dirty dishes in the sink before people come over? Or do you still ry to get it all cleaned up? 

Leanne

I think for the longest time, I absolutely would always clean up. And to be honest, I think sometimes I still do, just out of practicality. Because I do tend to clean as I go when I’m making food. But I’ve really tried to make it a practice that when people exclaim over a meal, I don’t say, “It was nothing.” I say, “Thank you so much for noticing. I worked hard on it.”

And I try to allow people to help. It was my daughter's fifth birthday a couple of weekends ago. I was trying so hard not to do everything myself. We had some friends from out of town over a little early and I tried to keep stuff aside for them to do when they would arrive and to allow others to help me. It kind of worked. But it was hard. Because when you don’t do everything yourself, you also have to release your own standards and your own perfectionism. When you ask others for help, they may not do it the way you want them to. And that’s okay, actually! It doesn’t mean they don’t care and they don’t love you. That’s part of being in community.

Virginia

And maybe the end result is better for it. Even if it doesn’t align with that Instagram version of the meal that you felt like you were supposed to be executing. Maybe there’s something more beautiful in that fact.

Leanne

Yes. Why did it need to be that way for it to be okay? The answer really is just building more awareness around all the ways in which food is just so inextricably linked with connection for all of us, with connection with ourselves, and then so much with others and the way that we want others to view us.

Virginia

Since you mentioned your daughter, there was a quote in a profile of yours in Input Magazine that I loved:

People tell me, ‘Oh, your kid must eat so well because you’re a cookbook author,’ but I eat takeout all the time,” she adds. “I frequently skip meals. My daughter eats way too much mac and cheese, just like every other kid. There is no “right” way to feed yourself.

Where do you think your ideas about the “right” way to feed yourself have come from?

Leanne

From the sea we swim in. From diet culture and food culture. And I think for me, personally, I have long wanted to be seen as a good person. What I’ve had to reckon with is: That idea comes from outside of me. It is a performance for others.  Say I’m with a group of other food industry people. To be a “good” eating performer there would be to be an adventurous eater, to eat everything that’s there. And say “It’s no big deal. Of course, I’ve had this a million times.” That might be the way that we perform goodness in that space. Maybe at a children’s birthday party, at least in certain socioeconomic situations, it would be about making sure you have a lot of veggies and really healthy snacks. So we’re all performing how much we care about making sure children eat a variety of fruits and vegetables. That is the the way in which nutrition absolutely has become conflated with morality. They have really nothing to do with each other.

Virginia

You said your daughter is five now. Does feeding a kid look different than you would have expected?

Leannne

You know, I’m doing my best. I try not to get hung up on what she eats in a given day. I really, in general, try not to analyze it too much and to trust. I think that’s something that I’ve learned from my daughter over these last years: To trust myself and to trust her. So often it can feel like, oh my gosh, they’ve been doing this behavior, they’re not eating something, or they’re not sleeping—you know, sleep is always such a big thing. And it feels like something is wrong. But when you look at it, it’s really that this is inconvenient. For me, as a parent, this is challenging. Like a kid being like, “I literally only want to eat mac and cheese.” Yep, that’s very challenging for us. So often we think this has to be a problem because I’m feeling so challenged by this. I’ve found that I have to ask, “Is this really just challenging for me? Or is this an actual problem?” And mostly, it’s “This is really challenging for me, but this is also normal.” And it’s okay. It’ll shift. And it always does!

Virginia

Yes. It’s often helpful to step back and say, “Is it a problem for me? Like, is there a real health concern with the way they’re eating? Or is it a problem for me because they’re not eating in the way I wanted to perform my child eating?”

Leanne

Is it embarrassing to me that my child will only eat white and yellow food? Does that make me feel like I’m a bad parent?

It’s so normal during this age, and even a lot older, for them to restrict the amount of foods that they’re eating and to be really easily disgusted by new foods. It’s just exactly what their bodies are supposed to be doing because of this biological imperative that’s millions of years out of date. And it’s very annoying, but it’s still there. It’s a real thing they’re feeling in their bodies. Millions of years ago, if they were off in the woods and they ate an unfamiliar food, it could kill them. And their bodies still have that programming. So when you see your child’s nose wrinkle up and they look scared, they are! They’re not faking it. They’re not pretending to have that “I’m almost going to throw up” response. That’s real.

I think that can bring a warmth and compassion, frankly, to the hearts of parents. Like, Oh, right. This is hard for them because this is a real thing that they’re experiencing. That, I think, is what brings in compassion and patience, which is really what parents need more than anything.

Virginia

This makes me think of where we started this conversation, about apologizing. Because so often we feel like we have to apologize for how our kids eat.

Leanne

Yes! And how does your kid feel if you’re always apologizing for them? Because they’re listening all the time. You’re giving them that message of something’s wrong with them. And I think something’s not wrong with them almost all the time. 

Virginia

Another thing I want to talk about was meal planning. You talked about, in the book, how you almost never meal plan. I love this. I have a lot of complicated feelings about meal planning. Do you still not meal plan? Do you aspire to do it? 

Leanne

I do aspire to do it. I lately have been building more and more drive towards that. For simplicity, and to relieve some mental load, honestly. When I was younger, I loved to cook. It was such an important part of my life and it was something where I expressed my creativity, and it was fun. And I had a regular nine-to-five and so I could dream about what I was going to make for dinner. It was really meaningful to not decide and to just go with the flow.

But where I’m at now, it would be so helpful to just not have to stress about that for multiple hours in the day. I would really like to get my my act together, and just have a basic meal plan figured out. That’s the place in my life that I’m at now, where I want to relieve myself of so much overthinking about food.

I think recognizing that in the past, I really relied upon food as a source of pleasure in my day. And now, I am finding a wider variety of places to find pleasure. I’m not as reliant on food as the only place for pleasure. 

Virginia

That’s interesting. 

Leanne

That is a growth for me.

Virginia

That’s kind of how they got me with meal planning, too. I still get very frustrated with the current culture of meal planning, and the performative aspects of it and how it can lead into all that perfectionist stuff, particularly for women. But yes, the reality of my life in a household with two working parents and two young children is that these decisions have to get made. And realizing that 5pm Me is so much happier when I’ve made the decision already.

Leanne

There’s this point where it’s not serving you. When you’re just doing it because you haven’t figured out a better way.

Virginia

Something else I’ve found helpful, and that you do so well in your work, is to distinguish between: When are we cooking for pleasure? Like, when is it a weekend of puttering around in the kitchen that’s relaxing and creative? And when is it just getting dinner on the table? Let’s recognize that one is work that has to happen, and someone’s got to do it. And it’s really valuable labor, but it’s okay to not find it creatively fulfilling,

Leanne

Totally. And if making it creatively fulfilling is something that you value, there could be a way to work with yourself, or your kids, maybe, in the planning part, to find some creativity there.

Virginia

Yes. And I’ve saved myself that work of having to figure it out in the moment when everyone’s tired and hungry.

Leanne

Right, which is so predictable. What universe do I live in where I actually think I’m going to get smarter and more creative the later it gets in the day? I’ve lived in this body for 37 years and yet I still haven’t figured that one out.

Butter For Your Burnt Toast

Leanne

I have gotten so into my yoga practice over the last year and a half. For me, what has been so beautiful about it has been developing a really different relationship with my body. I can notice more of the signals that are happening in my body because of that practice. And I have noticed how much it affects me outside of the actual time practicing. Like being able to notice and honor that I have a nervous stomach. And that makes sense because the stomach is a place where we digest food and we ask it to do that, but it needs to do that when it’s calm, and it’s not right now, so that’s okay. And of course, I’m not calm right now because there’s something difficult that’s going on. This practice happens to have been the place where I’ve really connected to that. For me, that’s been transformative because I’ve always looked so much outside myself. I love learning and want to connect to outside sources and learn more about the world and others, and what other people think and history and all of that. But there’s something so profound about being able to listen inward, and to trust our own bodies and our minds and to trust the wisdom that’s actually already there.

Virginia

My butter this week is libraries. I am a really big fan of our local library for many reasons. But the children’s librarian at our little town library just started a book club for elementary school kids. My eight-year-old is going and it is the happiest hour of my month, watching this group of seven- to nine-year-old girls. It’s all girls at the moment, but boys can join the book club, too! But for the moment, it’s this group of girls and they are all lit up talking about whatever book they just read. Seeing this love of reading thing is great, but also watching this group of girls find this connection and this confidence. They’re all talking over each other, they’re not waiting to raise their hand. They’re just so enthusiastic and this amazing librarian is cultivating this whole thing with them.

Leanne

They’re learning that books are not this solitary thing! They are a beautiful, solitary, peaceful experience and they are something you can talk about with each other.

Virginia

I’ve been working on this chapter in my own book about puberty, so I’ve been thinking a lot about how a lot of girls shut down in the middle school years. Just seeing these girls having this experience now of being loud and proud of their knowledge and taking up space with that. I’m just like, yes. Go Libraries! So shout out to local libraries for doing amazing work.

We’ll also say, as authors: Supporting libraries supports authors, too. I think so often, people are like, “Oh, I’m sorry, I got your book from the library instead of buying it.” But it is really helpful because if libraries know that people want this book, they buy more copies. It’s all helpful!

Well, Leanne, thank you so much for being here. I want everyone to check out Good Enough. Tell listeners where they can follow you and find out more.

Leanne

My website is Leannebrown.com. And I’m on Instagram from time to time @LeanneEBrown and I would just be oh so delighted to hear from you anytime. If you want to talk about more deeply about any of this stuff, please do reach out. I’d be thrilled to hear from you!

Virginia

Awesome. Thanks for being here!

The Burnt Toast Podcast is produced and hosted by me, Virginia Sole-Smith. You can follow me on Instagram or Twitter.

Burnt Toast transcripts and essays are edited and formatted by Corinne Fay, who runs @SellTradePlus, an Instagram account where you can buy and sell plus size clothing.

The Burnt Toast logo is by Deanna Lowe.

Our theme music is by Jeff Bailey and Chris Maxwell.

Tommy Harron is our audio engineer.

Thanks for listening and for supporting independent anti-diet journalism.

This is a public episode. If you’d like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit virginiasolesmith.substack.com/subscribe
Apr 21, 2022
“The More You Feel Like You Don’t Have Permission to Eat It, the More You Will Crave It."
2506
NOTE: We're planning a special AMA episode of the podcast and we want your burning questions! Please submit your questions via this Google Form to help us stay organized.

Welcome to Burnt Toast! This is the podcast and newsletter where we talk about diet culture, fatphobia, parenting, and health. We don’t have a brand new episode for you today because I’m on spring break this week.

As many of you know, I used to co-host another podcast with my best friend Amy Palanjian, the creator of Yummy Toddler Food. Our podcast was called Comfort Food and we had to retire it in 2020, for a whole lot of reasons. Amy has given me her blessing to occasionally pull some of our best episodes and share them, which I’m really excited to do because there were a lot of great conversations. A lot of these are more parenting-focused, but I’m hoping everyone can get something out of it.

The episode I am sharing today first aired on March 5, 2020, right before the world shut down. Definitely do listen to this like you’re a historian, looking back at our earlier work. You can see where a lot of my thinking on these issues started—I don’t think I was all the way there yet. We’re all works in progress. 

In particular, Amy and I were really just beginning to understand how we wanted to talk about kid diet culture on Instagram. You’ll hear moments where we’re both chafing against some diet mentality of our own. I think we do a pretty good job of naming those things as they come up, but I just want to be clear that I wouldn’t necessarily repeat all of this today and neither would Amy. If that makes you nervous or if you’re worried about potential for harm, certainly feel free to skip this one. We do talk about different forms of restrictive eating. If that’s something you’re interested in hearing and puzzling out with us and you bump on something as you’re listening, feel free to put it in the comments so we can discuss! I welcome that accountability and the chance to revisit and give you a take on where I would land now.

Episode 39 Transcript

Virginia

Hello and welcome to episode 65 of Comfort Food! This is the podcast about the joys and meltdowns of feeding our families and feeding ourselves.

Amy

This week we’re exploring how food restriction can creep into our everyday without us even really being aware of it, and the impacts that this can have on our own relationship with food and the way that we’re feeding our kids.

This topic has been on my mind lately because often when we talk about food restriction, we think of it as a calorie counting diet or strict portion control, but there are a lot of other ways that it can creep in and cause harm or confusion, or just make us not super clear on our goals with both how we eat and how we’re feeding our kids.

Virginia

Totally. I have also had those moments of kind of recognizing in yourself that this is a restriction thing. It can just pop up because it’s so conditioned into us. This might sound a little radical, but if you think back to like elementary school, when we were given the food pyramid—the food pyramid may not be the most harmful diet out there, but it still was like teaching us this hierarchy of foods, good and bad and less of this and more of that. It’s really difficult with kids who think so concretely in black and white about food, to tell kids how to eat in that way. Then we all grow up and get into diet culture, and more messages and more messages about restriction. So I think restriction is like at the core of how a lot of people interact with food in ways they just don’t even realize.

Amy

It’s extra hard, because as you’re talking about that my gut reaction is “but I want my kids to eat more nutritious foods.” How do you do that without limiting the other foods? Some foods tastes better than others and that’s the primary driver that kids have when they’re eating. They want it to taste good. They don’t have the capacity to understand about nutrients in different foods.

Virginia

Nor should they! That’s not an age appropriate expectation, that a six year old is like, “You know, what I’m worried about today? Cholesterol. What’s happening with my arteries in 40 years?” It’s not where we want their minds to go.

Let’s back up and talk about why restriction does backfire. Because some people listening may be thinking exactly like you, like "give me back my food pyramid or my ‘my plate’ or whatever, this is totally fine.

What we need to understand is that research shows over and over that the more limited you feel around a food, the more you feel like you don’t have permission to eat it, the more fixated on it you will be and the more you will crave it. Just saying to kids, “I want you to eat more fruits and vegetables” makes the fruits and vegetables less interesting. We can put in the show notes the famous study done by the iconic food researcher Leann L Birch, where they told half the kids in the study that they could have as much soup as they wanted, and then have dessert. And then they told the other kids you have to finish your soup before you’re allowed to have dessert. The kids who had to finish their soup, both ate less of it and liked it less than the kids who were allowed to self regulate between all the foods on offer. It’s a really powerful piece of research and it’s been replicated many, many times. It really showed that primary human psychology of feeling limited makes you crave it more. That is why this cannot be the way we approach nutrition with our kids.

Amy

What do you say to someone who doesn’t have a lot of understanding of nutrition, but they still want to raise their kids eating a “healthy” diet? How do you do it without having any of those boundaries?

Virginia

This is where I think Division of Responsibility is so helpful, because Division of Responsibility isn’t about good foods versus bad foods. Instead, it’s a way of feeding your family that lets kids play to their strengths. Kids, when left alone, really do know when they’re hungry and when they’re full. They will apply that knowledge to any type of food—even the “treat food” or higher flavor food, things that they’re really drawn to. None of us need nutrition degrees to feed our families. You don’t actually need to know all this nitty gritty about macros and micronutrients and potassium and sodium. All you need to know is that you’re in charge of offering a range of foods. That can mean lots of different things based on your budget, preferences, cultural values around food, whatever. You offer a range of foods, you’re in charge of what is served at the meal, and kids are in charge of how much they eat. That sounds overly simplistic—and of course, we’ve done plenty of episodes where we get into the nitty gritty of all of that—but fundamentally, that’s letting you bypass this whole issue of “is it nutritious enough?”

Amy

I’m on the same side as you, and I’m still like, “But wait!” On some level, it might be even easier if you didn’t have nutrition information.

Virginia

That is completely true. Let’s be real, when we say “nutrition information,” we don’t mean unbiased, exactly right, unequivocally true statements about food. We mean a whole mishmash of what we’ve learned in the media, what we read in diet books, what we’ve picked up from something a doctor said, something our mom said, something my neighbor said, my yoga teacher said such-and-such. All of this information in our brains about food is not all necessarily useful and it is really difficult to silence. I think that’s important to think about when you’re getting fixated on the nutrition piece. Is it really nutrition? Where are you getting those messages? Why does this feel so important?

Amy

When you are fixated on something, I think asking yourself, “What is my goal here?” When you’re worried about whether your kids eating enough protein, what’s the underlying goal? What’s your underlying worry?

Virginia

Because if you drill down into that, you may realize this is a restriction thing. This is actually me worrying about their body size or me worrying about whether I’m feeding them in a “perfect” way because I feel a lot of judgment about how I feed my kids. That’s not just basic nutrition, right? It’s often other anxieties we have that we’re filtering through this lens of wanting to control how our kids eat. It’s a way of spotting your own hidden restriction traps—which, to be clear, I have, too.

Amy

They’re never going away. It’s just a process of recognizing them.

Virginia

Recognizing them and then realizing you can let go a little bit. We had it just the other day. One of my daughters was eating some cookies with her afternoon snack, and we had bought the ones that come in little baggies of six cookies. She finished them and wanted more, and my husband was like, “But that was the portion.” And I was like, “Yeah, but that was just the portion the manufacturer decided. That’s not like some unequivocally correct amount of cookies for her. If she wants two more cookies, it’s fine.” These restriction traps come up all over the place, and social media does not help because they are everywhere.

Amy

So we’re going to share some other examples of where we’ve seen this and realized that there might be something else going on with restriction, just as a fun exercise.

Virginia

The first one is a message we have seen on Instagram where there’s a message that “processed foods will make kids feel grumpy.” What even are processed foods? That’s an enormous category. They all make kids grumpy? Bread? Everything makes kids grumpy? Those kinds of statements are definitely rooted in restriction because it’s definitely playing into good foods and bad foods.

Amy

That’s such a common belief, too. It’s hard. Even when you know that it’s not necessarily true, because those messages are just everywhere.

Virginia

This is one I see parents like apologizing for a lot. Like, “I can’t believe I’m letting them eat this,” or “I’m being such a bad mom today.” And this is where we have to push back because it’s not fair for moms or for dads to feel shamed about feeding kids perfectly nutritious and valid food choices because of this mysterious hype that doesn’t really make sense. I’m actually starting to dig in right now for my next New York Times column into the sugar high thing. Because none of this is cut and dry, it’s definitely not. It’s been interesting to look at the data and realize just how much myth goes into those kinds of messages.

Amy

Last week, I did an Instagram story on sodium because I was getting so many questions on it. That same day, I shared a snack plate of my three year old’s lunch. I looked at it and I was like, okay, so she basically hit her sodium, like a “maximum level,” in that lunch. Because there was cheese and there was crackers and there were veggie straws. But that’s actually the lunch that she ate, and she was happy. And that’s the lunch that I chose to give her. And it doesn’t mean that it’s wrong just because one of the nutrients is high. When you take that out of the context of the rest of what someone might be eating, it’s possible for any meal to look like it’s not balanced or “healthy.”

Virginia

You tell parents all the time to take the big picture view on their kid’s intake! Look over the course of a couple of days or a week to get a sense of how things are balancing out. Because unless you are an intense bodybuilder or Hollywood celebrity who has to control your nutritional intake to the gram, I don’t see why anyone needs to obsess over this to that degree. It’s not a happy or healthy way to live. I think a lot of us can recognize that and don’t want to go down that crazy path. It’s just hard in the moment. If your kids have a few snack-based meals for a few days in a row, and you suddenly think, wait, do I remember the last time they had a vegetable? Then you can spiral off.

Amy

The second example is one that has been really bugging me lately. This has come up maybe four times for me in the past month: that there’s only one right way to feed a baby. And that you 100% cannot do baby-led weaning and purees at the same time—I’ve actually had two different people say that to me, that you can’t do them both at the same time because you will confuse the baby. You’re basically putting the baby at risk for choking because they cannot possibly understand how to manipulate those two different foods at the same time. That’s not true.

Virginia

Why do these people think babies are so dumb? It feels very anti-baby. I have one child where baby-led weaning was the only option that was going to work for her and I had one child who was so ravenous that she needed purees because she lacked the motor skills to feed herself well enough. In both cases, we also basically did both at all times. Because, as humans, we do both, right? As an adult, I eat both solid and pureed food. I don’t know why you need to make this distinction.

Or you may have a kid who’s really not doing well with purees but doing great with self-feeding. Again, I had that child. There’s definitely going to be kids on the extremes that need one approach or the other. But that doesn’t mean that that’s the only way to do it.

Amy

A lot of the supporters of baby-led weaning feel that it is the right way to start solids and if you do that, you are going to set your kid up to be a healthy eater. You’re not going to have a picky eater and you’re going to have a perfect child. No matter how you feed a baby, they’re going to get to be one and a half or two, and they’re going to hit that developmental stage where they’re fearful of new foods. I don’t care what they ate when they were nine months old, it’s not going to be the same.

Virginia

The pressure we’re putting on ourselves! It’s not a realistic expectation to think that your child will never ever be a picky eater, because being picky is part of having preferences and will. As frustrating as it is for all of us, it’s normal for toddlers to go through this because it’s how they’re becoming independent people. And we want that for our children!

So number one, let’s stop making picky eating the enemy of everything, because it is part of normal child development. But also, I think you’re totally right. This ties into needing to raise a “perfect” eater and this idyllic, perfect nutrition at every meal type of approach. It’s so much pressure on yourself, it’s so much pressure on your kid. It’s not realistic, it’s not sustainable. There’s just so many other ways to measure yourself as a parent. You are not how your child eats.

Amy

This falls into the category of restriction because you’re putting up these artificial boundaries on what’s right and what’s not right.

Virginia

Totally agree. If you’re literally saying, “I’m not going to spoon feed my child yogurt,” that is a restriction you are making that may at times be quite inconvenient.

Amy

Or you have a child who goes to daycare and that’s the way they feed them! You may not always have the choice.

Virginia

You’re setting up a certain inflexibility. I’m painting with a broad brush, but I do see a certain trajectory between the parents who are very hardcore about baby-led weaning, who then pack the rainbow bento lunchboxes, who then also don’t let sugar in the house. This can be putting you down a whole path of being very controlling about how your kid eats.

Amy

Yeah. And just to say this again, we empathize if that’s where you are because it’s so easy to find yourself there.

Virginia

Yeah. Feel free to read chapter one of my book, you guys. It’s free on my website. I was there with you in a pretty intense way.

The next one that we have noticed is definitely pretty clear cut restriction. It’s when you see pictures on social media, of kid meals and they’ve added a portion of dessert or fun food and it’s like three M&Ms in the lunchbox around the dinner plate. I think people really believe in their hearts that that is an appropriate portion size for a kid. I remember struggling because I would see this all the time and I would think, oh, yeah, they only need three M&Ms. And my kids would just inhale three M&Ms and look at me like, why are you not giving me more M&Ms? Nobody is satisfied by three M&Ms. What’s underlying this is that you are anxious about giving them a treat food and you’re trying to control how much of it they eat. With Division of Responsibility, you stay in your lane. You’re blurring responsibilities there. You need to give them a little more freedom to decide. Maybe it’s six M&Ms or twelve. Or, you don’t count the M&Ms! That’s also an option.

Amy

The thing that can be hard about this is Ellyn Satter says to give dessert with dinner and give one portion. Well, what’s the portion? Is this portion the same for me as it is for my child? Is it the same for an 18 month old as it is for a five year old? That’s a lot of choices that you need to make.

Virginia

I disagree with this piece of Ellyn Satter. I think it is too confusing for parents. You do then get really hung up on portion size. I think it’s better to put out something that you can all share on the table and let the kids still help themselves to how much it is. Maybe you don’t put out 1,000 brownies, but you put out a plate so that everyone’s going to have one or two. Getting hung up on the different portion sizes for your 18 month old versus your six year old sounds crazy-making.

Amy

We often have dessert with dinner and I often force myself to make the portion larger than I think it should be as a way to get myself out of the habit of trying to control how much of the dessert that they get.

Virginia

Fighting back against your restriction, I like it.

Amy

It’s a very interesting. Last weekend I made rice krispies treats in a 9x11 baking pan. I remember very clearly standing there and debating how big to cut them. Then I was like, you know what? I’m gonna cut them as big of a size as I would want my rice krispies treat to be. That probably wound up being less bars than specified in the recipe. Everyone wound up having two and it was fine! Just be aware of what comes up. It can be a very, very interesting and eye opening experience to consider. And the same thing with ice cream!

Virginia

Yeah, I admit, we do tend to serve ice cream in smaller bowls, mostly because ice cream is expensive and I want the pint to last a little longer. There’s probably also some restrictive mindset of thinking surely they don’t need a full cereal bowl size. I think that the Satter advice of “serve one portion of dessert with dinner” is great if you are consistently serving dessert every single night with dinner. There’s always a treat food on the table and your kids can trust and rely on that. Then you could have it just be one thing because they know they’re gonna get more tomorrow. You’re not going to trigger the scarcity mindset. Whereas if you serve dessert a little more infrequently, I would probably peel back on needing to control the portion. View this as a learning opportunity for everybody to learn how much they want to eat cookies or ice cream or whatever, which she also does say you should do from time to time.

Because we don’t tend to do it every single night, I take that approach of letting them regulate their own portion. And I definitely see them leaving stuff in the bowl. Some nights they want a lot and some nights they don’t really care about it. We’ve avoided the restriction of mindset there. I think if you find yourself counting M&Ms or really struggling, do exactly what Amy’s doing. Err on the side of giving more and just be curious about what happens.

Amy

My overall goal is to expose and offer my kids a range of foods throughout the week. That includes all sorts of vegetables and produce, all sorts of food groups, and also to have these moments of food that is purely for pleasure. Aim for a mix of all of those experiences, so that at the end of the week, they’ve had a lot of different food types, and not to get caught up in the counting. That’s why it’s hard for me when people ask me about appropriate portion sizes. My answer is to always trust your child’s hunger and that is not a satisfying answer for a lot of people.

Virginia

Because they are still working through their own restrictive mindset.

Amy

And because that’s the cultural norm! Someone was telling me the other day that they went to their pediatrician and their pediatrician actually recited the Division of Responsibility to them, and I was like in Des Moines? Somebody knows what that is? I was so shocked. I’m going to drive an hour now to go find that person. That’s the first time I’ve ever heard a medical provider even know what that was.

Virginia

You’re definitely fighting some bigger cultural stuff. We can also put a link in to my column from December because I did get into a little more of the research supporting it. That’s a good thing to have handy if you are getting some pushback from doctors or other family members. I often hear from, interestingly, mostly women saying, “How do I explain this to my husband?” This article is a useful link to share. It can help explain why you are relaxing about portion size. If we are having a fun food experience, the first thing that kills the fun food experience is worrying about portion control.

Amy

Do you want to share a tip for, when we’re looking at health information or food or things we see online, how to spot this sort of thing? How to evaluate whether it’s information that we want to take in?

Virginia

If we’re talking about social media posts, I would say—I mean, Amy’s photography is lovely, so lovely photography is not an automatic reason to write it off. But, a photo that is hyper styled, hyper controlled, everything in the box or on the plate, and perfectly portioned out in this really beautiful jigsaw puzzle way, I think it’s a sign that they made that meal to shoot a photo and not to feed to an actual child. There’s probably some other stuff going on in the advice that’s not about what you actually need to think about with your kids.

A great thing about social media is it has given more attention to things like division of responsibility, so there are a lot of people talking about it now, which is awesome. There are also plenty of people using those concepts to promote a diet mindset. If you see somebody claiming to be intuitive eating or division of responsibility but also talking about controlling a portion for food for a child, that’s a big red flag, because that goes against both of those concepts. Overly obsessing about different types of micronutrients and macronutrients, anything that feels like it’s really, as Leslie Schilling would call it, “health propaganda,” versus basic advice about how to feed your kids.

Amy

We got this really awesome question from a listener. They have twins who are a little over two years. They do division responsibility. They’ve tried family style, they’ve done deconstructed meals, they try to always have one food on the table that the kids like. They’ve put at least two hours between snack and dinner and they sit down together. Basically, like, they’ve done all the things. A+, gold star students. Great family meals. But then the kids don’t want the food. They will sometimes eat plain rice or bread. She and her husband are underwhelmed by the meals because there’s a lot of leftovers and food waste. So, she’s gone back and forth between trying to make a meal the kids will like and trying to make a meal that she’ll like.

At the end of the day, the kids still aren’t eating a lot. I think at the root of this, she—and often I and many parents—feel like they’re failing and that they’re not doing family dinner the right way. For some reason, they just can’t figure out what to feed their kids. Which is where I would say, it is 100% possible that your kids are just not hungry for dinner. That is a really, really normal thing. And which can make you also feel like you’re failing because nobody wants to send their kid to bed on an empty stomach. But it’s normal.

Virginia

It’s so normal and it comes in phases. Beatrix is right around the same age as these twins. And oh, dear listener, I am right there with you. She is so over dinner right now. Basically, I feel like I could set a watch for five minutes and both of my children would be gone from the table before the timer went off. That is what’s happening with dinner right now. We sit down, they eat like three bites, and then they’re both like ping pongs, just gone. Because they’re over it! They want to go play. They’re just not in a super hungry for dinner phase. A lot of it is in our schedule, they are having snacks closer to dinner. They’re both ravenous at 3:30-4:00 and so by 5:30 they’re actually not that hungry anymore. So it is what it is right now.

Amy

I ask, “How are the rest of their meals? Are they eating well, the rest of their meals? Are they meeting their milestones and gaining weight? Do they generally seem happy? Do you feel in your mama gut that something is wrong? Or does it seem like they’re not hungry?” The last thing they want to do is to work at eating something that they may not be super familiar with. They may just legitimately not be physically hungry. But that’s not a common message that we’re given.

Virginia

Definitely not. Just as you were running down that list, I was like, yep we’re fine on milestones, we’re fine on all that. She’s not eating a ton in general. She’s also getting over a cold like, I think her two year molars were coming in. There’s a lot of things that can just throw off eating for a short period of time that you don’t need to panic about. You just had this with your kid being sick and giving up on solids and then bouncing right back once he felt better. If that’s going on, don’t stress. The times to stress are when you feel like you’ve only got a handful of foods that they’ll consider and you’re worried about their growth and milestones. It is important to take that big picture view.

Amy

Yeah. I like to remind people and also myself that Tula basically didn’t eat dinner for the entirety of her two year old year. She just wasn’t interested in it. And now she’s like, maybe 50/50. She will very happily stand in her Learning Tower to help me chop vegetables, and she’ll eat a pepper and then like that will be her dinner. Like, even if there’s pasta, she’s just not super hungry at that time in the day. So, public service announcement: you’re not doing anything wrong. This is a normal phase of childhood. It may come and go. They may go through months where they’re inhaling dinner. And then it may back up again and not be much. Keep it in perspective and trust that. Don’t make it your job to get them to eat a certain amount of food. Make it your job to give them the opportunity and then trust whether or not they eat.

Virginia

This may even be a time where you decide you are going to do a simple kid dinner early and then eat what you and your husband really want after they’re in bed. It’s completely valid if it’ll help reduce your food waste and your stress. Maybe try that out for a few weeks and see how that feels. Make a different meal of the day your family meal and worry less about the dinner piece. I would also say this is definitely a “feed yourself first” moment. Pick the meals you want keep offering, the one or two safe foods you know that they’ll eat if they are hungry. There’s bread or whatever on the table they can go for. But don’t kill yourself making meals that are overly catering to them and then feeling sad about what you’re having to eat.

Virginia

Thanks so much for listening to Burnt Toast and that flashback episode to Comfort Food March 2020. I hope you enjoyed it! I would love to hear your thoughts.

If you’d like to support the show, please subscribe for free in your podcast player or tell a friend about this episode.

The Burnt Toast Podcast is produced and hosted by me, Virginia Sole-Smith. You can follow me on Instagram or Twitter.

Burnt Toast transcripts and essays are edited and formatted by Corinne Fay, who runs @SellTradePlus, an Instagram account where you can buy and sell plus size clothing.

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Our theme music is by Jeff Bailey and Chris Maxwell.

Tommy Harron is our audio engineer.

Thanks for listening and for supporting independent anti-diet journalism.

This is a public episode. If you’d like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit virginiasolesmith.substack.com/subscribe
Apr 14, 2022
You're Missing: Homeschool Diets and Monomeals!
72
Hey there! Just wanted to make sure you know that the April subscriber-only bonus episode came out this morning!

I’ve got another diet trend deconstruction for you, and this time we’re getting into Whole30, Bright Line Eating, and Raw Till Four. I also explore what happens when diets become homeschool curriculums and why Jennifer Aniston allegedly lives on baby food but this one reader’s ex eats only potatoes.

To listen to the whole thing, you’ll need to be a Burnt Toast subscriber. It’s just $5 per month or you can save $10 and do $50 for the year.

Producing a weekly podcast and newsletter requires a significant investment of time and resources from several talented people, and paid subscriptions make all of our work possible. Subscriber support also makes it possible for me to keep most Burnt Toast content free and accessible to all, and to offer comp subscriptions to those who need them. (If that’s you, just email and let me know, no questions asked!)

In addition to getting these fun monthly bonus episodes (with transcripts!), you’ll also become a part of the Burnt Toast community with commenting privileges and full access to my Ask Virginia columns, and our awesomely helpful Friday Threads. You can read more about my decision to add paid subscriptions to the newsletter here.

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This is a public episode. If you’d like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit virginiasolesmith.substack.com/subscribe
Apr 07, 2022
The Myth of Visible Abs
2880
It was just this overnight conversion. Like, oh, okay, yep, the way I've been doing things my entire career is super wrong, and super harmful, and has hurt a lot of people. And that's terrible. And I'm very done with that.

Welcome to Burnt Toast! This is the podcast where we talk about diet, culture, fatphobia, parenting, and health.

Today I'm chatting with Anna Maltby. Anna is a longtime magazine and digital editor and someone I've worked with many times over the years, including at Medium’s Elemental Magazine, where I wrote features on diet culture and fatphobia that she edited. And right here on the Burnt Toast newsletter, Anna is often the person who does a top edit for me on particularly tricky reported essays.

Another cool thing about Anna is that she’s a certified personal trainer and Pilates instructor. In addition to her editorial work, she does a lot of fitness consulting and training. That gives her this pretty unique perspective on the world of fitness journalism and the fitness industry —and on the harm that these industries have caused to folks in marginalized bodies, what changes are happening, and where we still need to make these spaces better and safer for all kinds of marginalized folks.

But Anna is really here to talk to us about the myth of visible ab muscles.

I want to say really clearly before we start the show: Health and fitness are not moral obligations. Core strength is certainly not a moral obligation, although it is practically useful. We are talking about core strength in a very different and much more functional and accessible way. But if even that feels triggering to you, I get it. There was a long time where I just couldn't engage in abs talk at all.

One more disclaimer that Anna is a thin white lady. We both have a lot of thin and able-bodied privilege in this conversation. I'm seeing this episode very much as the start of a conversation about fitness I want to have on Burnt Toast. There are lots of folks in marginalized bodies doing really amazing work in the fitness space that we also need to center and hear from and we talked about some of them on the show. I'm hoping some of them will be joining me in future episodes.

PS. Friends! The Burnt Toast Giving Circle is over $8,000! We are so close to our goal. And if you’ve been thinking about joining, we still need you! Here’s the Burnt Toast episode where I announced it, ICYMI, and the link to donate.

Episode 37 Transcript

Virginia

Hi Anna! Why don't we start by having you tell us a little bit about yourself and your work?

Anna

I started my career as a magazine editor. I worked mostly in the service space, so magazines that tell you how to do things: Men's Health and Self and Marie Claire and Real Simple. I've worked in the digital space as well for a while: Refinery29 and one of the in house publications at Medium. I've done a lot of things, but but health has been a main thread for me. I've also been a certified personal trainer for about seven years. I'm a pre- and postnatal certified exercise specialist, and I received my mat Pilates certification about a year ago. I now do a bunch of freelance editorial and fitness-y things, like fitness programming, fitness performance coaching, and then I also train a few clients every week. I do a mix of Pilates and weight training.

Virginia

Did you start out as a journalist and then go into the health and fitness stuff? 

Anna

I definitely was not into sports or exercise or movement at all, as a kid. I always loved reading magazines and that was what I focused on in school. I sort of fell into this internship at Men's Health when I was in college, and my manager there was like, “Okay, if you're going to write stories for us, you're going to need to know some of the basics of scientific reporting.” Like how to read a study, how to talk to a researcher, how to interview a medical expert. I loved that process. I suddenly had at my fingertips just being able to pull a study and understand what it said.

Then, through a random series of magazine world misfortunes—which I'm sure you're very familiar with—I ended up going freelance. I got a job as the fitness editor at Fit Pregnancy magazine and I really loved that work. I found more flow in it, honestly, than more hardcore health reporting. One of the things that I did for that job was to be on set during workout photoshoots. We would always have to hire a personal trainer to be on set as well, to oversee the form for the models to make sure everything was safe and accurate. I was just so interested in it and I felt like I kind of had the basics of what these people were doing. So I was like, “For the cost of this person's day rate, my company could just pay for me to become a personal trainer.” Which was like a lot easier said than done, because it's really hard. All of the studying that you have to do and the reading and the test is really intense.

I recently made kind of a big career change and went freelance again and started building my own business and training clients has become part of my week to week work, which has been so cool—just working with real people and seeing how their bodies work and how they respond to movement and how they learn things and seeing them get stronger and more motivated and more confident in the way they move. It has also really informed the sort of content work that I do. Like, how do I explain this to my client? I've seen in practice, that this concept is difficult for people or that this movement is not actually that accessible to people.

Virginia

That makes sense because so often people who are naturally good at certain types of exercise are not necessarily the greatest at explaining them to other people.

Anna

Having an editor brain is really helpful for training clients, as well, because I'm so in tune with what language people understand and how to break things down in a way that's accessible. I think the two things really do complement each other.

Virginia

I want to go back to you being not athletic as a kid because I completely relate. I was a very un-athletic child. I think I played one season of Little League and just sat down in the outfield for several months and was like, why are we doing this? I think I tried one season of field hockey in middle school. Oh, no, I did not try a season, I tried one practice of field hockey in middle school. I got there and they didn't wear the cute skirts to practice and they had to run a lot of laps. And I was like, “Nope. Peace out. Not for me.”

I should also say, I was a skinny kid and I was really given a free pass to not be athletic because of that thin privilege. People didn't think I needed to be athletic because my body was already the acceptable body. My then my understanding of exercise was definitely in this category of either you're some kind of hardcore jock or you do this because you're making yourself thinner. And if I'm already thin, I don't have to worry about it. 

Anna

Totally, I find that very relatable. I was a very skinny kid and very inactive. I remember in maybe in fifth or sixth grade, we played this game called mat ball, which was sort of like kickball, except they put big gymnastics mats out for the bases and for some reason as many people could be on the base as could fit. And I was like, great! I'm going to kick the ball. I'm going to run to the mat, and then I'm going to sit down. My teachers loved me. I have to say, I think I might have been sheltered from the fatphobia of it all. It wasn't really on my radar at that point, that exercise was for weight loss. I just didn't understand what it was for.

But then in my early 20s, a couple of things happened. For a few years, I had been throwing my back out. I was a young, relatively healthy person and I was just throwing my back out. I would sneeze and not be able to turn my head for three days—that kind of thing. My first job out of college, I worked at Men's Health. I was the assistant to the editor in chief. They gave us all really cheap gym memberships, so I got a fancy gym membership for like 10 bucks a month. And I was surrounded by this Men's Health gym bro culture thing. I was like, okay, I've been working on some of this content, I'm starting to understand it a little bit more, I feel like I can stand to get stronger. That sounds interesting. I had a couple of sessions with a free personal trainer. I joined the gym and started doing some of the exercises that person taught me and I was like, Wait a second, I don't have back pain anymore. My back does not hurt. I'm not throwing it out. Although if I skip the gym for a couple of weeks, I throw it out again.

It was just a really clear connection between pain and to my ability to function and live my life comfortably. And that became this incredible motivator for me. I need to work out because if I don't, I will feel terrible.

Virginia

You talking about your back pain leads me perfectly into what I want to talk about next, which is the real reason I was like, “Anna you have to come on the podcast.” It was this great Twitter thread you did recently about the myth of visible abs. 

Anna

I got this mat Pilates certification a year ago and a lot of my work is focused on sort of the prenatal and postpartum period. I think a lot about the core, the pelvic floor, the diaphragm—all of the things that we work on in Pilates, all of the things that change and are affected by pregnancy and the postpartum period. I think the core is so amazing, especially for the pelvic floor, and is not talked about enough. It's something I think about from a very functional perspective.

So, a few weeks ago I got a message from a friend of mine, who is a few months postpartum after having her second kid. She sent me this message and she said something along the lines of like, “Can You please help me get my abs back? I am doing everything I can think of. I'm doing Pilates a few times a week, I'm doing HIIT workouts a few times a week.” She said, “I'm restricting. I'm doing Whole 30 about like, 80% of the time, I'm not drinking alcohol. I feel really strong and feel really toned but I can't get to my lower belly pooch. Like, what's your secret? What do you do?”

It really took me by surprise and made me feel sad. For someone who has two children and a really busy professional life to like, be spending so much time—

Virginia

So much time in pursuit of this one thing.

Anna

Exactly. And of course, hearing that she was restricting was pretty disturbing to me. I tried to respond in a very kind and non-judgmental way while also being like, “Please don't do this. Please eat bread, please take care of yourself, please feed yourself please do movement that feels good to you. It's great that you're building your core, but…”

I actually, I sent her a mirror selfie. I was like, “I want you to see my stomach right now. It's not flat. It’s not ‘toned.’ It's bloated and round and cushiony.”

Virginia

Because that’s what bodies look like when they’re not fitness models on photoshoot.

Anna

That's what a belly looks like.

So I was thinking about that and this is the time of year when a lot of us start getting advertisements on the internet about workout plans and supplements and workout clothes, and all of those things. I noticed a couple of them popped up in my feeds that had people with very visible, cut abdomens. And I was really surprised, by my initial gut reaction to those ads, which was, “Oooh!” I was so drawn to those images of people with really defined, visible abdominal muscles. Of course, immediately, it was like, What are you doing Anna? You know that's not achievable. You know they're trying to sell you this thing. Move on.

But those two experiences started me thinking, what is this pull that abs have on us? I'm sure you remember from your magazine years the many cover lines that we had to write about “get a toned, taut, tummy” or whatever. Or when I was at Men's Health, like “get shredded in six weeks” and stuff. You always had to have some kind of abs cover line. 

Virginia

It sells magazines, it sells media. You have to talk about abs.

Anna

Abs just have this pull on us and marketers know this. Companies know this. It's such a central point of insecurity for so many people. So it inspired me to write this thread that you're talking about on Twitter. Because the way that our culture deals with abs is so messed up.

Look, abs are so amazing! They do so many things for you. They're this like miraculous muscle group that we don't really show the right kind of love to because we're so focused on how they look. But how abs look is the one thing that you're never really going to be able to affect unless you engage in potentially disordered eating patterns or pretty toxic exercise habits. 

Virginia

I just want to say this really clearly: The ability to do ab workouts and develop really visible abs is primarily genetic, right?

Anna

It's primarily genetic, because it's really about the way that you carry weight and fat, like how much subcutaneous fat you have on top of your abdominal region. Fitness models and people who compete in fitness competitions, there are things that those people do to change their nutritional intake to really minimize the amount of fat that's showing so that the muscle definition can show through. But even those people only do that some of the time because they know it's not sustainable. It's not actually good for their for their muscles. It's not safe. They eat to build muscle a lot of the time, and then for a very short period of time they eat to cut down on visible fat.

Virginia

I'm so glad that is not how I spend my life. That just sounds exhausting.

It's powerful to think that you, who has all this knowledge, are still looking at a photo of visible abs and feeling that pull towards them. Even people who know that it’s all fake are still caught up in what we're seeing. We can't say often enough that this isn't real, this isn't realistic, this is unsustainable.

My reaction to a lot of this has been to stop doing ab exercises, to be very honest. Exercise for a long time was only about weight loss for me. As I divested from that and stopped dieting, stopped pursuing thinness, it was really important for my mental wellbeing not to do abs exercises because I knew they would trigger a whole set of body aspirations that were not good for me. So I didn't do the ab exercises for a long time—including during the period when I had two children and my abs had to work real hard. I've been through some stuff, they've seen some things. As all my listeners know, in January, I threw my back out and couldn't walk for five days. That is probably the 10th time in two years that has happened. That was when I emailed you in a panic and was like, “What is happening?”

So talk about what abs do, and why they matter, in the non-aesthetic sense.

Anna

It frustrates me so much, as someone who personally has benefited from this kind of exercise, who's seen my clients feel so much better after strengthening their core. It’s so fraught, it's so tied to these feelings for so many people.

But in reality, your core is the most important area of your body to build strength, because it supports your spine that supports your pelvis. It supports these centers of the way your body functions and moves. Your abdomen is where all your organs are too. It's also important for the health of your back, your posture, the way that you breathe, the way you walk, if you're a runner, the way that you run, protecting yourself against injury—even things that seem like totally far away and unrelated, like people who have wrist issues or ankle issues or foot issues, some of that can really be tied back to the core and the pelvic floor.

Another part of all of this that gets me is that fitness is so fraught for so many people for lots of reasons. But, getting into a really like healthy and positive movement practice—I think we can agree that that's a really lovely thing for people. It really makes you feel good. It's good for your mood and your sleep and your health, by and large, if it's something that's available to you. When you look at the science around motivation, like what gets people to start and stick with a new habit, there's good evidence that things like reducing pain, feeling good, moving more smoothly, feeling more energetic—all the things that can come from a movement pattern like Pilates or focusing on core and strength—those kinds of things are way stronger motivators. You're much more likely to stick with that kind of practice, if that's what's driving you, than external motivators like pounds lost or visible abs, partly because those things are really hard to attain. Even if you ‘achieve’ a certain visible goal, you're probably not going to be able to sustain it. We all know the research about that. So that's another area about this that frustrates me. Visible abs is such a bad motivator. Strong abs, functional abs—that's a great motivator.

Virginia

It's a fascinating disconnect. We've really been taught to focus on the aesthetics. It helps you find the lie in the “We're worried about people's health” b******t. If we were really worried about people's health, we would be focusing much more on how to motivate people to exercise for all those reasons that really work.

You and I both started on the dark side, in women's media and Men's Health, these creators of the pro-ab agenda. You've had this evolution and so have I. I would love to hear your evolution story and what got you into a different place with fitness. 

Anna 

Looking back, I was 100% one of the bad guys. To forgive myself a little for that, I think it was pure cluelessness, not anything malicious. I wanted to be a journalist. I wanted to work at magazines. Here's the magazine where I got my job, this is what they do. Sure, like, I will do it. Like I said, I started my career at Men's Health and I was specifically spending almost all of my time helping write and edit this series called “Eat This, Not That.”

It started off as a little column in the magazine. It was like, if you're at McDonald's, get the this thing instead of this other thing because it has fewer calories and less saturated fat. So they turned that into a book. They turned it into its own website, my boss went on the Today show all the time to talk about it. I was like helping write and edit those books, writing and editing blog posts, and Today show appearance scripts. All of those were all entirely focused on weight, all entirely focused on calorie counts, which I didn't enjoy. It wasn't the diving into science that had drawn me to that field. So I did move away from that, although unfortunately not like for “the right reasons.” A few years later, I was at Self Magazine—I was not like editing the drop 10 plan or anything each each year, but I was very adjacent to it.  Then when I was fitness editor at Fit Pregnancy, our postpartum fitness story every issue was called “Bye Bye, Baby Weight.”

Virginia 

Oh, that is so cringe-y. I wrote for Fit Pregnancy a lot in my early freelancing days and I had blocked out that part of it. 

Anna

It sucks. It was actually such a great magazine. Then I started talking to Refinery29, in about 2015, about an opportunity there to be the health director. The person I was interviewing with, Kelly Bourdet, gave me some links and some things to look at as I did the interview process. One of the things was the first year of their Take Back the Beach project. I don't know if you remember the project, but it was sort of in response to all of the like “bikini body” stuff. I think there were those big ads that year in Times Square with the really skinny person in a bikini and like maybe it was for some kind of weight loss supplement or something. I'd been seeing things around the internet about body positivity. This was like really the first large scale, very thorough takedown I'd ever really ingested about diet culture and all the messages the media sends to people, especially women, about what makes an acceptable body and how harmful those messages are. It was so eye opening for me. It was this overnight conversion, like, oh, okay. The way I've been doing things my entire career is super wrong and super harmful and has hurt a lot of people probably. And that's terrible. I'm very done with that.

Virginia

So that's what led you into, as you were doing your own work becoming a trainer, taking a really different approach.

Anna

I think all of those building blocks that were set for me at Refinery29 really changed the way that I edit. It changed the way that I work on content. Even after Refinery29, I continued to work in health coverage for several years, taking the reins at different publications and saying, “Okay, this is the stance that we're gonna take on this.” I fought those battles, I brought in fat voices, I made sure that we were doing right by that subject matter. That has all really deeply informed the way that I approach fitness with my clients. I think also, continuing that education process by following other thinkers in this space, especially people who aren't thin or white or straight or cis, like Mikey Mercedes is just amazing. She's been with you before on the show.

Virginia

Yeah. Someone I learn so much from all the time,

Anna

She's just brilliant and she's really helped push my thinking. I think I owe her a lot. I try to support her as much as I can. And then people more specifically in the fitness space, Ilya Parker of Decolonizing Fitness is someone. I'm a supporter of their Patreon, and they just have amazing resources for fitness professionals, making sure that the spaces that we're creating are trauma informed and welcoming to people of all body sizes and abilities. Especially as a thin white lady, how can I make sure I'm creating a safe and positive relationship to movement for my clients and in whatever content that I'm helping create.

Virginia

I felt like the fitness industry for a long time was really lagging behind the anti-diet conversation. There has been this sort of steady growth of Health at Every Size, anti-diet, weight-inclusive dietitians trying to get away from the weight loss focus that most dietetics is based on, but there wasn't a parallel shift happening in fitness for a long time. I think in mainstream fitness brands, it's still really in its infancy. I look at what brands like Peloton are doing, and there's certainly lip service and use of rhetoric, but I am not yet convinced it is backed up by a full rejection of intentional weight loss. I think that they're still trying to have both. Like, for the folks who want weight loss, we do that and then for the folks who want something else, of course we want you to love your body. But I think there is more creeping progress in fitness now. The folks you mentioned like Ilya and other people who have just been doing the labor for so long. We owe them so much for starting to shift these conversations. 

Anna

What I'm finding now in my consulting work is that people are really open to it. When I come in and I say, “Okay, if you want to create this body of editorial work or this fitness program, it's going to be it's going to be body neutral. We're not going to talk about visible results. We're not going to talk about calorie burn. We're not going to talk about weight loss. Here's how we're going to approach this.” They're actually surprisingly really open to it. I don't get pushback on that. But it's things like sizing. What are we going to put people in for a shoot? It's things like casting. Like, “Oh, it's, it's kind of hard to find somebody in the larger sizes. I hope this like size 12 person is good enough.” There are all these process hurdles which are ultimately pretty b******t. If people cared enough about it to invest the time and money, they would. 

Virginia

All fixable problems. 

Anna

All fixable problems, but when you're in the room and you're trying to make it happen, it is hard. It isn't as easy as waving a wand and magically a size 20 model appears. Like, are they working with a casting agency that offers those options? It's those little cogs in the machine where each one has to be set up for success. If that kind of representation and accessibility and inclusivity isn't centered in the process, it's just going to end up being not a priority.

Virginia

We've been kind of bashing women's media and I'm comfortable with that, but brands like Self have done a real 180 on these issues. It's not a print magazine anymore, but self.com is very committed to an anti-diet, weight-inclusive, pro diversity perspective. That's just a world away from what it was, ten years ago. Man, if you had told me I would live to see the day that women's magazines would care about fat people. 

Anna

Self has gone through such an interesting process now. When I started there, there was no fat representation. Of course, it was talking about weight loss and all of that stuff, but the vibe overall of the magazine was about being kind to yourself and about exercising and participating in sports because it made you feel good and felt fulfilling and felt like putting yourself first and taking care of yourself, which is a pretty positive message, if you take out the weight stuff. 

Virginia

And if you ignore the fact that they're only showing skinny white people.

Anna

Absolutely, absolutely. I remember while I was there, we went through this rebranding, like they brought in some outside consulting agency. And the determination was we need to go younger. The way to reach a younger audience is to focus entirely on aesthetics. So any recommendation we were giving, even if it was in a freaking like breast cancer story, “Make sure you get at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week. As a bonus, you'll get toned for the summer!” Every single story had to take it back to being hot which just like, I hated that. A lot of people that work there hated that. We started getting letters from readers who were like, this isn't why I read Self. So it just kind of sucked. Then a few years later, the magazine folded and they went digital only. I know Carolyn Kylstra, the prior editor in chief, did so much work to bring that brand to where it needs to be from the lens through which they cover health and bodies and from the visual representation standpoint. 

Virginia

Oh, man, I feel like we could talk about different women's media brands all day. But I do want to go back to abs.

So, as I was saying, like, I have had this experience of throwing my back out. I finally started physical therapy, in large part because you encouraged me to—thank you very much. It is amazing how well it works. Maybe because I took a fairly long hiatus from doing any kind of ab exercises, this is the first time in my life I'm noticing when I do ab exercises how much better I feel the rest of the day.

I have to admit, as someone who has this whole other experience with fitness being really toxic, I almost feel like a traitor to myself being like, Wait, doing core exercises makes me feel good. It's like this weird, disconnect. But if I do five minutes of core exercises in the morning, my back doesn't hurt. I'm sleeping better. I'm feeling better walking up a flight of stairs in my house and picking up my four year old who I really felt like I'd gotten to the point where I couldn't pick her up that much anymore. And now I'm like, oh, I can pick you up again.

I feel like I've been lied to for a long time. But I also just want to hear more about like, is that the deep core? What is that that just doing a few minutes of ab exercises can actually produce that. I feel like I'm in an infomercial now.

Anna

The visible abs, if you were to able to see them are the rectus abdominus, which is sometimes called the “six pack muscle,” unfortunately. It's those muscles that are right on the front of your stomach. Basically, when you're bending at the waist those are the muscles that are working. They certainly serve a purpose—abdominal flexion is a functional movement, like you use it to get out of bed and off of the sofa and things like that.

The deep core muscles that that you mentioned—specifically the transverse abdominus, the multifidus, which is like a really small, deep muscle on the back of the deep core, and then the diaphragm at the top, and the pelvic floor muscles at the bottom. That’s the deep core. That's what really has to expand to accommodate a pregnancy. Obviously, the rectus abdominus has to expand for that as well, but working the deep core during pregnancy really helps protect you from the activities of daily life putting too much pressure on the pelvic floor and potentially leading to a pelvic floor dysfunction. They really are what supports the spine and the pelvis. Strengthening those deep core muscles—the TA especially—really supports any other kind of movement that you want to do, whether it's picking up a kid or walking up and down the stairs or standing. Bringing strength and bringing activity to that area is so good for you. It feels amazing. It's a different.

Sometimes working the TA, working the deep core can be as simple as a deep breath—breath work essentially. I like to teach this: if you place your hands either on your ribcage or on your belly—you could even do one hand on your ribs, one hand on your belly. You take a really deep inhale and really send the air down into your belly. Instead of just letting your chest rise, you're really breathing, you're sending the air as deep as you possibly can. And you're feeling your belly get bigger on the inhale, like there's a balloon inside your stomach. And that inhale fills it up with air so the balloon gets bigger, your belly relaxes and expands. Hopefully your pelvic floor is also relaxing and expanding on that inhale. And then on the exhale, it kind of zips back up into more of a neutral position. If you really use a strong exhale like a “ssss” or like a “hah” you could actually feel those deep core muscles kind of tightening and turning on underneath your hand. It should move in just a little bit. 

Virginia

For listeners at home, I'm doing it and I'm feeling it.

Anna

Yeah, so that kind of breath work. Both the inhale and the exhale are really important. Because being able to relax and release the tension in that area is almost as important as like building the strength. It's so functional, because your breath and your deep core are so connected. You could do this kind of breath work any time of day. You can do it before bed. It'll help you get stronger, it'll help you get more relaxed. Your deep core, your pelvic floor in particular, holds a lot of stress and tension. If you have a really stressful day, sometimes your pelvic floor tightens up a little. So deep breathing at the end of the day will both release that tension in the pelvic floor and also help you relax a little bit emotionally.

Virginia

I love that. The idea of relaxing and letting your belly expand runs so counter to the diet culture version of abs. Like, that's all about sucking in and keeping everything tight. Whereas what you're saying is actually much more beneficial and also lets you relax. That seems great. 

Anna 

A healthy pelvic floor can do both—can be strong and engaged when it needs to and can be relaxed and released when it needs to. So many of us are just by habit, since we were kids probably, going around trying to suck in our gut all day. It is so bad for your pelvic floor to do that. It puts so much pressure on that part of your body, it can end up causing more discomfort and bloating and all that stuff.

It's really hard if you're used to walking around that way and you feel self conscious about your stomach, but: Anytime you can, let your stomach go.

Virginia

I love this. This is the new Burnt Toast mission.

Anna

Let it go. The other thing that's ironic to me about sucking it in is it actually doesn't like align with anatomy. Exhaling brings your stomach in. You can't suck it in. When you suck air in, your belly gets bigger.

Virginia

All of this stuff you're talking about isn't going to give you a visible ab definition. That's not the mission. So another misconception I want to have you speak to is the misconception that fat people can't have strong cores and that if you're fat, all of this is out of reach for you. Can you help us debunk that? 

Anna

Yeah, I think it is so similar to health misconceptions about body size. Just like you can't look at someone's body and tell whether they're healthy or unhealthy—whatever definition of that you subscribe to—you can't look at someone's body and tell whether they're strong or weak. I mean, obviously, there are people—The Rock, of course he's strong. 

Virginia

I'm willing for us all to make a snap judgment about The Rock.

Anna

Although, I don't know what's going on with his pelvic floor. I hope it's okay. You know, you never know.

Virginia

He's not keeping us updated on that.

Anna

There's certainly research out there about—I hate to say the word BMI—people with higher BMI sometimes have more muscle strength than those with lower BMIs. It's on an individual level, there's no correlation.

Virginia

Weight is not predictive. They may be finding research showing that people in larger bodies have less abdominal strength, but it doesn't mean that's their weight that's the deciding factor there right? Like there could be other things at play 

Anna

I follow all kinds of like amazing like fat fitness influencers on Instagram and they post their workout routines and they do like ab exercises that would have me panting on the floor. I am definitely not as strong as they are. It's so important for everyone to feel like this is something that that is accessible to them and that they can work on and that they can feel the benefits of. That's such a good thing for everybody.

Virginia

I love that. You know, health is not a moral obligation. Fitness is not a moral obligation. Nobody needs to do these exercises. But if you're listening to this, and you're thinking, huh I am interested in a weight neutral approach to abs, here is what Anna recommended. You can take it or leave it, but it's stuff I've been personally finding really useful. 

Anna

Yeah, and on that note, I do want to say I am a thin white person. I did used to write this column where I posted a move of the week on Medium. That's what I sent you, a few exercises that I really recommend for abs strength and back strength. I stopped writing that column because I just started to feel uncomfortable with being a thin white lady putting more images of thin white bodies performing fitness on the internet. It just didn't feel useful or additive. So I want to caveat those resources by saying, “Hey, you're gonna see a thin white lady doing ab exercises.” If that feels like something that would be fine for you, great. If not, don't look at it, it's fine. I agree that it's not the most necessary perspective to have out there.

Virginia

I so appreciate that. And we will also link to the other folks of color, fat fitness folks you talked about. We'll put some resources in so people can see what they're doing. I think that was a tough, but kind of important conclusion to come to. But also your take on fitness is really helpful. You do write exercise moves very clearly. And I appreciate that. So thank you for that. 

Butter For Your Burnt Toast

Anna

Well, we are talking in late March and I have been—I'm sure you'll appreciate this—daydreaming about gardening, and just plotting. I haven't had time to do any seedlings or anything like that, but we had kind of a warm day yesterday in New York and I went out on my balcony and started clearing things out. I noticed my little strawberry plants are starting to regenerate. I was on hold or something and I just spent three minutes clearing out old, dead branches and taking a look at what was going on in the beds that I haven't touched for a few months. It was such a wonderful, restorative feeling and just held so much promise. So I would recommend spending a little time with some dirt.

Virginia

I love that. I mean, I am a well known plant lady so I've given a couple gardening recommendations lately. I think getting out with some dirt is so calming. 

My recommendation is the movie “Turning Red,” which I'm hoping everyone has already seen. If you haven't and if you have kids in your life of any age and any gender—and I really want to emphasize that part—Turning Red is such an important movie to watch with your family. It is the story of this 13-year-old Chinese-Canadian girl who is going into puberty. It turns out in her family when girls go into puberty, when they have big feelings, they turn into a big red panda. It is obviously a metaphor for periods. There's also some great normalization talk of periods and bodies and teenage girls having crushes and sexual desire. I love it so much. The backlash is hilarious and very irritating and outrageous. Particularly the older white men who say that they can't relate to the movie because I guess they were never a child or a person with emotions because that's all you really need to have to relate to this movie. So Turning Red, we love it so much. 

So Anna, thank you so much for being here. Tell people where they can follow you and find more of your work.

Anna

They can follow me on Twitter at @amalt.

Virginia

Awesome. Thank you for being here.

The Burnt Toast Podcast is produced and hosted by me, Virginia Sole-Smith. You can follow me on Instagram or Twitter.

Burnt Toast transcripts and essays are edited and formatted by Corinne Fay, who runs @SellTradePlus, an Instagram account where you can buy and sell plus size clothing.

The Burnt Toast logo is by Deanna Lowe.

Our theme music is by Jeff Bailey and Chris Maxwell.

Tommy Harron is our audio engineer.

Thanks for listening and for supporting independent anti-diet journalism.

This is a public episode. If you’d like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit virginiasolesmith.substack.com/subscribe
Mar 31, 2022
When The Pregnancy App Talks About "Belly-Only Weight Gain," We Have Work To Do.
How you feel about your body does not exist in a vacuum. It’s not just about your body, it’s about all the things in your life. So I ask people to really reflect on how size-friendly is their life?

Welcome to Burnt Toast! This is the podcast where we talk about diet culture, fatphobia, parenting, and health.

Today I am chatting with Mia O’Malley, a content creator on Instagram and the creator of @plussizebabywearing. Mia’s work sits at the intersection of fat advocacy and momfluencing. She’s doing a lot of important work on access to fat friendly doctors and we also talk about influencing—and the potential and promise for fat advocacy in the space.

PS. Friends! The Burnt Toast Giving Circle is up to almost $8,000! We are so close to our goal. And if you’ve been thinking about joining, we still need you! Here’s the Burnt Toast episode where I announced it, ICYMI, and the link to donate.

Episode 36 Transcript

Virginia

Hi Mia! Can you tell listeners a little bit about you and your family and your work?

Mia

Hi, I’m Mia. I am @MiaOMalley on Instagram and @plussizebabywearing on Instagram and TikTok. I’m a content creator. I’m based out of Connecticut. I’m a mom of an almost four year old and I do a lot of work on my social platforms on advocating for people in larger bodies and sharing resources for people in larger bodies and how to navigate the world. I’m a babywearing educator, as well, with a focus on celebrating parenting in larger bodies.

Virginia

Sara Peterson was on the podcast recently and we sang your praises on the babywearing piece in particular. That was something I struggled with, with both of my babies. The bias against fat bodies, fat moms— all of that came into play for me. So I’m grateful for the work you’re doing to change that conversation.

As I was doing my homework for this episode, I read your interview on Cup of Jo—which has great fashion inspiration—and I love that you said you look at fashion as an advocacy issue. Was this always your plan? How did this come about?

Mia

I was pregnant with my son around 2017-2018 and I felt very isolated as a fat pregnant person. I had taken these beautiful maternity photos. But when I shared them, I was like, “This isn’t the whole story.” Because those photos were really hard for me to take. I couldn’t find anyone who looked like me who had done maternity photos. Like for inspiration, if you looked on Pinterest, there were no bodies like mine. And that’s how I felt going through all of my pregnancy. I never saw people in similar bodies being pregnant. I felt very underrepresented and isolated. So when I posted my maternity photos, I kind of said that quiet part out loud. I said, “I feel invisible as a plus-sized pregnant person.” And my world kind of opened up with that post, just in the sense that I kept saying those things that I kept to myself. I realized that there are other people like me who are feeling the same way. To be in community with those other people is amazing. It made me realize that the fat experience is so, so shared. We’re all going through a lot of the same things, across generations.

And fashion is just another one of those issues. I can’t talk about fashion without seeing it as an advocacy issue. There are people who can’t find winter coats! There are people who literally don’t have a bra that fits them at their size. It doesn’t exist. I talked to someone who was a C-suite executive and she has nothing to wear to meetings with her colleagues! She had no suits that fit her. She talked about just how humiliating that was for her. When we say those quiet things out loud, they become advocacy issues because so many people have that shared story.

So yeah, I talk about fashion, but it often becomes about sharing resources because there’s so many people that feel like certain things are inaccessible for them—and are truly inaccessible for them. The same thing goes for babywearing. So many parents said to me, “I didn’t even think I could wear my baby at this size.” And that’s not true! There are plenty of options for all bodies to wear their babies. But there’s a perception that this is an inaccessible thing to do because of marketing, because the lack of representation.

Virginia

Was it scary to start sharing? Because I think a lot about how what advocacy asks of us is to share in this very personal way. It’s so important because you’re articulating something that someone else hasn’t been able to say out loud, but that also means you’re the person who has to say it out loud.

Mia

I have to take really long breaks from some of the work that I do. I will take a week or two long break where I don’t post content and I step away, because I hold so many people’s stories. Most of my time spent online is in DMs, sharing stories and resources. But that comes a lot with having to face my own experiences that were hard. It’s a lot to hold on to. So I do take a lot of breaks and I do experience burn out, but I also find it incredibly rewarding. It’s the part of this work that I love the most.

Virginia

I’m glad you have that strategy. It has taken me a long time to figure out that I also need those breaks and need to build in that time. Previously my experience as a writer / advocate was as “medical mom,” and a sort of similar thing happens where once you’ve been public about your experiences, people send you their stories and those stories are often tragic and linked to my own trauma. I can imagine there’s a similar thing here where people are sharing with you traumatic experiences that you have also lived.

Mia

That’s why I’m so passionate about resources. Some people will ask, “What’s your advice for feeling better about your body?” And there are so many strategies and there are people who do this professionally. But I tell people that how you feel about your body does not exist in a vacuum. It’s not just about your body, it’s about all the things in your life. And so I ask people to really reflect on how size-friendly their life is. How comfortable are you in your body on the day-to-day? Is your work chair comfortable? Is your partner supportive of you? Is your car comfortable? Do you have a winter coat to wear? What is your workspace like? How comfortable is your bed? Is your couch comfortable? You know, all these things. It’s about the world that we operate in and how comfortable we are in the body that we’re in right now. That really influences how positively we can feel about our body. It’s just not about how positively we feel about our thighs or our belly. It’s much bigger.

Virginia

Diet culture teaches us that weight is this personal responsibility project. And we know that’s b******t. But often, the next part of the conversation is that loving yourself is a personal responsibility project. And that’s also b******t, in a world that’s not built to support your body. Instead of saying, “How do you do this internal work?” which may or may not need to happen at some point, it’s “How do you recognize how the larger systems of your life are failing to support you?”

Mia

Yeah, it has to be looked at that way. And we can’t discount how chronic discomfort and chronic pain influence how we feel about our bodies. Sometimes there are small changes that can make you physically comfortable. But a lot of us who exist in larger bodies are so disconnected from our actual bodies that we can’t even tap into that.

Virginia

So I recently wrote about this big debate that comes up every so often about whether to get weighed or not at the doctor’s office, and if you do want to decline it how to decline and I think it’s an important conversation. If you have a fat friendly doctor, it basically becomes moot because even if you get on the scale, they’re not going to use that number against you. If you don’t have a fat friendly doctor and you’re fat, your weight will be weaponized whether or not you get on the scale. So you have been doing the hero’s work of building this database of fat-friendly health care providers. So tell us about this project.

Mia

I would love to, but first I do want to shout out Jen McLellan from Plus Size Birth. She’s @PlusMommy on Instagram. Literally, her work changed my life as a pregnant person. She wrote the book on plus sized pregnancy. Her resources on plus size birth are so critical. And she does a lot of work training other medical professionals on how to be more size friendly. I just want to shout out Jen, who I’m proud to say is my friend. She has a directory for for doulas, OBGYN, and midwives on her page.

There’s another colleague of mine, Nicola Salmon, who runs Fat Positive Fertility. She also has a book and resources on fertility services for people who exist in larger bodies and how to support yourself as you’re navigating how to conceive in a larger body, which is incredibly fatphobic and very hard to do. She also has a directory! So I want to shout out those two resources.

Obviously, there are other directories that exist, but my community is a very interactive community for Instagram. We share a lot of recs and I couldn’t get around not sharing recommendations for health care providers. People need size-friendly care providers. I don’t know that a lot of people understand how critical it is to connect with a medical professional that does not operate with a weight bias or weight discrimination. It’s a literal life or death issue. So I have a sheet—a Google Doc, basically—of providers that have been recommended to me that I’m pulling together into a more formal database as we speak, actually. But right now, it’s a Google sheet of shared recommendations.

Having a size-friendly care provider means that you have people who are going to see a doctor more. A lot of preventative care can happen there. It also can mean a vastly different experience in your pregnancy, your birth, your postpartum. I have spoken to countless people who have been trying to conceive for years and have been told to freeze their eggs and seek weight loss surgery first. I have talked to people who have been unable to have doulas at their birth because of a high risk determination that was not evidence-based, because they are with a non size friendly care provider. I’ve talked to people who have serious issues, life or death issues, that were ignored for years because everything was so focused on weight. This is such a critical resource for people in larger bodies to have. Just to be able to do that work is the most important thing to me, out of all the things that I spend my days doing. 

Virginia

We will definitely link to the size friendly care provider list. You also have a form for people who want to submit their providers.

Mia

Yes, I hope that there’s going to be more of a universal database. Also Jen is focused on the training, and I think that’s something that needs to be talked about more. As well as the sharing of these gems of care providers that are somehow treating us with dignity and giving us medical care that we need.

I was four months postpartum and I had decided to go to my PCP at the time. I had horrible, painful water retention and my legs were swollen. It was hard to move my legs. It was hard to sit down. She barely looked at my legs, she was focused on the fact that I had gained weight after my pregnancy. She really dismissed me. It was because of my community that six months later, I went back and I demanded that I get a water pill. Within like a week after that, my swelling was gone. I’m not directing anyone to go get a water pill, but I am directing them to advocate for themselves if they feel they’ve been dismissed. And immediately.

Virginia

That’s six months you were in pain.

Mia

I was in so much pain! Immediately, you have to seek out those other care providers. Those care providers that will treat you well and will listen to you, they do exist. You have to decide that you want this for yourself. If your insurance allows for it, if you’re able to make that change, please make that change. Because those care providers do exist.

Virginia

I’m so glad Jen is working on the training piece because it seems like we haven’t even yet agreed upon the standards that you should have to meet to be a weight inclusive provider. What I was seeing come up in a lot of my DMs were people saying like, “Well, I don’t know if this person is really Health at Every Size, but at least they didn’t give me a hard time about X.” The bar is way too low about what we’re willing to accept. We need more of a consensus about what this really should look like and what you should be able to demand. I think fat people are just so used to expecting nothing—or worse than nothing—that it can be hard to even know where to start advocating for yourself.

Mia

It also becomes really tricky, because fatness is a spectrum, right? So, someone who goes in at a certain weight might be treated one way. Someone who is 30 pounds over that weight might be treated vastly different and categorized completely different. Then you have further intersections of that—if you are BIPOC, if you are of the LGBTQI+ community—those intersections would make one healthcare provider considered size friendly by one person be completely different with another. So it does get tricky. I would always tell people to call first. Or if you don’t feel comfortable calling, maybe have a friend or a partner come with you or advocate for you. Or you can go in and and talk to the front desk and just say these are the things that I’m looking for. Or you can email, whatever. Somehow to just start the conversation and go in advocating for yourself and be ready to advocate for yourself because even with these directories, you never know what the experience is going to be like and you have to be prepared to advocate for yourself.

Virginia

Shilo George, who is a wonderful advocate on these issues, I interviewed them for a Health.com piece last year, and a strategy they have is writing up a one sheet of your primary health concerns and stating some of your boundaries. Just being clear about what you need from the provider. I think that can feel very scary and people are worried that they’re going to make the doctor angry or start off on the wrong foot. That tool may not be for everybody, but I just want to throw it out as another suggestion. I think there are ways to do it that can be really empowering and very helpful.

Mia

Yeah, it could be good. It could be a gentle hand. There’s a lot of different ways to do it. Ragen Chastain, on Instagram, has amazing resources and a course that you can take and a lot of free resources, and has been doing this work for so long—discussing medical fatphobia and how to advocate for yourself. 

Virginia

I do think it’s worth thinking through what strategy feels comfortable to you. Maybe you want to write down that sheet and it’s not something you hand to the doctor but it just helps you organize your own thoughts. That could be a useful tool.

Mia

I just want people to know that if you are in a larger body, you deserve to be treated with respect in a doctor’s office. Shame is not a an effective tool. If you don’t want to talk about weight, you do not have to talk about weight. I want more people to realize that that’s even a thing, because there was a time in my life where I didn’t realize that was a thing.

Virginia

I’m curious, for someone who’s doing the work and doing the work in a fat body, how do you think about your work as an influencer? What do you love about it? What do you want to see change?

Mia

That is such a good question. I don’t know where the industry is going, but I do know that the representation has gotten much better since I started doing this in 2017. As more body positive influencers become parents, it’s changing the momfluencer world to be a little more inclusive. But I think that some of the strongholds in mommy brands and parenting brands need to also change with that. I’m not necessarily seeing that change in terms of choosing parents that are in different bodies or represent different communities. I think they could be doing more to use different bodies in marketing. Why am I not seeing more bodies that represent the average? When you go on Pinterest, and you’re looking for maternity outfits for your photoshoot, or you’re downloading an app for your pregnancy and the first thing it talks about is “belly only weight gain”— is that influence really happening? Is it influencing the spaces that it really needs to to change how people feel about their parenthood?

Virginia

It’s making me think about when we do see influencers in bigger bodies doing a campaign with a brand, it’s often because the brand has decided they want to brand themselves as body positive, right? We’re not yet at the point where body diversity is a given, and you would just be the influencer selling this brand of cute diapers because you had the platform and the metrics they wanted. You’d be selling cute diapers because they went about running a body positive campaign this one month and that’s it. That kind of thing is coopting the rhetoric of the movement rather than furthering the movement.

Mia

This is such a pain point for me, too, because there are so many brands that will do a campaign about plus size clothes that they have, right? They will work with plus size influencers to market that campaign and use the budget to market that campaign for those clothes. And you walk into the store, you can’t buy those clothes.

Virginia

Right. They’re not stocked.

Mia

So, they’re using these campaigns to look good as a brand and you’re not actually given the access that everyday people can use to make their, their lives easier. Old Navy was one of these! They’ve changed. I forgot what they called their campaign, but they’re now have all sizes in stores except for size 30. That one is that one’s online.

Virginia

So close, Old Navy! Almost there.

Mia

But for so long, they excluded plus size from coupons. They excluded plus size from stores. Not to make it about Old Navy, but they have such a huge customer base that’s plus size and they actually were excluding us from so many different things, yet doing campaign work with plus size influencers. The same thing happens within the momfluencer space with brands. I think there are brands that are doing great things, especially in the babywearing community. But some of the very popular websites and apps and things for pregnancy where pregnant people really need to see themselves represented to feel good in their bodies and to feel good going through this special time. We need to see more.

Virginia

Aubrey Gordon had a great tweet recently where she said when brands do that kind of thing, they’re really using plus size people as cover to make their thin customers feel better. This is a brand that’s trying to be inclusive without having done the work of talking to fat customers, of making things that that customers need. I think it’s important for all of us with any degree of thin privilege to think about. We might feel good that Anthropologie is carrying our size now, but who are they not serving? How much further do they need to go? And how do we hold them accountable?

Mia

Who’s not at the table with me? That’s something that I’m asking myself a lot, as I do this work. I gained weight after my pregnancy and that shift from a size 16 to a size 20 was so eye opening for me. Because I was either out of certain ranges for certain brands, fashion-wise, or I was like the last size, right? So I found that things I was sharing, people were like, “I wish it came in this size!” or “Oh, that won’t work for me.” It’s really hard to share something with your community and then realize that so many people are left out. So I try to share as many inclusive brands as I can that have an extended size range or have a very inclusive size range. I wish there were more of them. The same thing is true of the momfluencer space. Who isn’t coming with me? You have to look around.

Virginia

I just love that you are using your role as an influencer so thoughtfully and raising these questions that are sometimes uncomfortable but that really need to be asked. It’s really important work, so thank you.

Mia

I try. It’s a lot of reflection and I’m certainly not showing up perfectly. But, I hope I’m getting better every year. 

Butter For Your Burnt Toast

Mia

Clothes-wise, Universal Standard has some amazing pieces out, like these foundation turtlenecks. They have my favorite t-shirt, which is the Tee Rex, and they have the essential tee. I highly recommend those. They are pricier but they last and they are really worth it. You’ll be happy with the quality.

Virginia

You’ve been influencing me about this turtleneck the whole time we’ve been chatting. It’s very cute. I’m very glad that that was your recommendation because now I can go look it up. 

My recommendation is going to be pretty off topic, as they usually are. My recommendation is to go buy yourself some flowers. It is March. March is very long. I live in the Hudson Valley of New York where March is 19 months long every year because spring does not happen. This is when I’m just really grateful we have a very cool local flower store. So I go in once a week and buy myself some flowers. You don’t have to spend a ton of money on this, but the amount of hope I feel having like something green and pretty is worth it.

Thank you so much for being here! Tell listeners where they can follow and support your work.

Mia

Thanks, Virginia. Mia O’Malley and Plus Size Babywearing on Instagram and you can find me on TikTok on under Plus Size Babywearing, which is not just baby wearing—it’s a lot of everything.

The Burnt Toast Podcast is produced and hosted by me, Virginia Sole-Smith. You can follow me on Instagram or Twitter.

Burnt Toast transcripts and essays are edited and formatted by Corinne Fay, who runs @SellTradePlus, an Instagram account where you can buy and sell plus size clothing.

The Burnt Toast logo is by Deanna Lowe.

Our theme music is by Jeff Bailey and Chris Maxwell.

Tommy Harron is our audio engineer.

Thanks for listening and for supporting independent anti-diet journalism.

This is a public episode. If you’d like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit virginiasolesmith.substack.com/subscribe
Mar 24, 2022
"They Say 'Failure to Thrive' but Moms Hear 'Failure To Feed.'"
2036
I remember the my daughter’s gastroenterologist saying, “Wow, you’ve really found a lot of great foods.” And, “We have so many patients who are less compliant than you.”

I said, “Well, you know, it was really hard. It was, at minimum, a halftime job. Do all of your patients, families have the time and energy for this?”

And he said, “Well probably not.”

Welcome to Burnt Toast! This is the podcast where we talk about diet culture, fatphobia, parenting, and health.

Today I’m chatting with Debi Lewis, author of the beautiful new memoir Kitchen Medicine: How I Fed My Daughter Out of Failure to Thrive. Debi has also written for the New York Times, Bon Appetit, Huffington Post, and many other outlets. She lives in the Chicago suburbs with her husband and teenage daughters.

This conversation is close to my heart. As most listeners know, my own daughter spent the first two years of her life dependent on a feeding tube. So reading Debi’s memoir hit home in all sorts of ways that we talk about, but I think this is a book that will resonate with so many of you. If you are a parent who has fed a kid—even if it went swimmingly, without medical complications—there is so much here that you will relate to about Debi’s journey, and the struggle to live up to external expectations about what feeding our kids looks like, and what it means for motherhood.

CW: We do discuss critically ill kids, medical trauma, and fatphobic comments that people (maddeningly) make in those situations. Take care of yourself.

PS. Friends! The Burnt Toast Giving Circle raised over $6,000 in less than a week! I am so insanely proud of us. And if you’ve been thinking about joining, we still need you! Here’s last week’s Burnt Toast ICYMI and the link to donate.

Episode 35 Transcript

Virginia

Hi Debi! Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, your family, and your work?

Debi

My name is Debi Lewis and I am the mom of two teenage girls, 19 and 16, and married to my husband and we live in the suburbs of Chicago. This is my first book that I’m very excited to share with all of your listeners. And in the rest of my day I make websites.

Virginia

We are here to talk about your new book Kitchen Medicine and when this episode airs, it will be your launch week. So folks, it’s in bookstores everywhere! It is just the most beautiful memoir of your experiences feeding your daughter, Sammi, who was diagnosed with failure to thrive at a really young age.

Let’s start by talking a little bit about that failure to thrive diagnosis. Tell us about your experience with it, because I think it is such a horrific term in a lot of ways. It’s both very common and deeply misunderstood.

Debi

I think there’s a lot of things wrong with the term. “Failure to thrive” is not a very specific diagnosis. It’s kind of a catchall and the real search is for why. Why would you diagnose a child with that? It’s not the end, it’s a symptom. And the other problem is that it’s a wildly inaccurate term. Because if you had met my daughter during most of the years in which she fell under that umbrella of “failure to thrive,” you would never look at her and think this child is not thriving. This was a pink cheeked, energetic, bubbly, cute little girl, meeting all her developmental milestones except for the ones that required her to be tall enough.

FTT was really diagnosing the fact that she wasn’t growing on the trajectory that doctors wanted. If you looked over many years, you could see that that growth trajectory was her own and steady and she didn’t drop very often and it was nothing that, in retrospect, I should have been worried about. But because she was tiny and because she wasn’t getting less tiny compared to her peers, we kept hearing that. And the way that diagnosis comes out is when a doctor or nurse points their finger at the parent and kind of wags it a little and says, "Whoops, Mom! She’s still failure to thrive! Got to get a few more calories in her," as though that isn’t the one thing you spend most of your life trying to do. As though I wasn’t chasing her around our house with a cup of Carnation Instant Breakfast already. So that’s the problem with that term. The diagnosis says “Failure To Thrive,” but what it sounds like, at least what it sounded like to me, is failure to feed.

Virginia

There’s so much inherent judgment and blame in that failure concept. The idea that we would be labeling a child’s body as a failure in some way is horrifying. And that we would be putting that on parents without giving the benefit of the doubt that, of course, this is a parent who loves their child and is trying so hard. It reminds me, too—on the flip side, obviously on Burnt Toast we talk a lot about kids in bigger bodies—and it’s so often the same thing. It’s the same judgment and the same assumption that somehow a parent needs to be informed of their child’s body, when you’re living in the world with this kid who’s not in the 50th percentile in whichever direction, so you’re getting the comments from strangers and family members and people all the time. People are watching your child eat or not eat. The idea of the medical establishment feeling like it’s their job to educate parents about this is something that I find problematic.

Debi

There are things that we miss when all we’re focusing on is the amount of food or the number of calories, either too many or too few. You miss the the the mechanisms behind whatever you want to call it instead of Failure To Thrive—not meeting standard growth trajectory or some other kind of more descriptive term. The question should always be, if this is a problem, why do you think it’s a problem? And why do you think it’s happening? That is really hard for a parent to dig into, when all they can hear is that they’re doing it wrong.

Virginia

It’s narrowing the conversation in this really unhelpful way. The why is the piece that the parent can’t solve without the help of the medical establishment most of the time. If there is an underlying medical condition, of course you need doctors to be doing their best work to help you figure that out and treat that. Instead, when you’re put into this confrontational, adversarial relationship with doctors, then there’s this lack of trust, and no good comes of that.

Debi

In both directions, right? We need to be able to find doctors that will work with us, but doctors also need to see us as parents as part of the team. If we’re shut down because we’re told we haven’t fed our kids enough Carnation Instant Breakfast that day, it’s hard to participate fully when you’re sort of drowning in shame. The erasure of self when you’re being called “mom” by someone who is not your child—it’s intense.

Virginia

Oh my gosh, I remember that from our years of hospital living with my older daughter. Yeah, just being “mom” and thinking, “I am Virginia. I’m a person beyond this.” And I get that doctors are busy and overworked—to be clear, Debi and I are also big fans of the doctors who have helped our kids. But taking that extra three seconds to learn someone’s name and look at them as a human is everything. 

Debi

Yeah, in a hospital setting I understand that every single person can’t learn my name, but a doctor who I’ve worked with, with my daughter, for three years should have written my name somewhere on the top of the chart.

Virginia

So, you and I both have this experience of the child who’s struggling to eat enough. And the medical system both blamed us and also did not have the answers. They’re saying “do Carnation Instant Breakfast,” as if that’s a newsflash. They don’t have any more revolutionary guidance for you. When did you realize that figuring out the food piece of this was falling completely on you? 

Debi

It happened several times that a medical professional would prescribe a specific diet to my daughter. She was on several restrictive diets over the years, trying to uncover what was going on. So they’d prescribe the diet and they’d hand me a packet of photocopied sheets with food information on them and then say, “Do you have any questions?” If I couldn’t think of something in the moment, reaching them later was really hard.

There were actually several moments—because we’re a family that is vegetarian, most of these doctors didn’t want us to add meat to our daughter’s diet and complicate the process since it never had been in there before. But so many of these diets had a lot of meat in them. And when I would ask, "What would you replace meat with, in our case?" There would sort of be a blank stare and the question of had we’d ever tried beans. As vegetarians, we’ve heard of beans. We’ve tried them a few thousand times.

So I think it was one day sitting on my kitchen floor with the photocopies and all my cookbooks, and realizing, there wasn’t another roadmap for me. Nobody was coming to rescue me. I was just going to have to figure this out. And partly, that’s why I wrote this book, because I think that’s a very common situation. If you enter any kind of online support group for any medical issue that has a diet associated with it, whether that’s families with children with type one diabetes or Celiac’s disease. It’s very peer supportive because there isn’t anything out there that we can find elsewhere.

Feeling that it was all on me was overwhelming but also it meant I didn’t have to consult with anybody. It was quite empowering. Once I had my groove going, knowing that I could do it myself and seeing it as a creative challenge was sometimes really satisfying. In the course of all of this, as hard as it was, learning to cook this way helped me fall in love with food in a way that I couldn’t before. I had to see it as important fuel, and also love and nurturing. Doing that for my daughter was a way of doing it for myself, too.

Virginia

There was a phase in our journey when Violet was still on her feeding tube and we were doing a blended diet for the feeding tube, which is not something I recommend everyone do. It’s incredibly labor intensive. But at the place I was then, with our relationship around food, it was also the first opportunity I had to feel like I was feeding my child directly. And this is not to formula-shame, because formula also saved her life. But I had spent the first year and a half just pumping formula into her feeding tube. So to be able to take a more active role in cooking for her, even though she couldn’t yet eat by mouth, was healing. Whether or not that was an important part of her recovery, it was an important part of my recovery. So if you’re a parent in this kind of situation, finding the ways to find your confidence with it and find some joy in it is everything.

Debi

Yeah, absolutely.

Virginia

I wanted to talk a little more about the experience of being on these medically supervised diets. You talk about a couple of different ones in the book. We also had to do fat-free for a while, and that is a brutal diet to do with a small child. When you’re on one of these weird diets, people say really idiotic things to you about how your kid is eating and their own food stuff comes up. So you did touch on this a few times in the book, but I’m just curious to hear a little more about how diet culture intersected with all of this for you.

Debi

It was bananas. I assumed that if an adult was on a diet like this, for medical reasons, that they would hear these kinds of things. I wouldn’t have been surprised. But I was horrified and shocked to hear people talking like this about my four-year-old to eight-year-old. There’s there’s one instance, I don’t talk about this in the book, but my daughter was on a six food elimination diet, which was no dairy, no soy, no eggs, no nuts, no wheat, and no fish—but we were already vegetarian. The results of that trial, of taking all of those things out, if it was successful, was that her esophagus would heal the damage it had sustained prior. And then we would be able to start adding things back in. But if she didn’t heal, then at the age of five, she would have been put on an elemental formula.

Anybody who’s fed their babies elemental formula will recall the smell of elemental formula. And babies don’t know any different, but four-year-olds and five-year-olds certainly do. So we had been warned that if she ended up on this formula, there was a chance she wouldn’t be able to bring herself to take it in and she’d need an NG-tube or a G-Tube. I was really afraid of that. I know I would have been grateful for it if it had kept her alive and healthy, but I really hoped it wouldn’t happen. And a friend of mine said, "Well, the upside of that, if she ends up living on that kind of food for the rest of her life, is that she’s never going to be fat. And she’s never going to have, you know, all these emotional issues around food. At least you could know that."

I remember where I was when she said it. I remember how it felt when she said it. My instinct was to kick her out of my house. I never wanted to talk to her again. I just couldn’t believe someone would say that there was an upside to never eating food again.

Virginia

I’m just taking a minute with that one. This idea that being fat is something to be so avoided, even if the cost is actually eating food. That’s so wrong and harmful.

Debi

It was awful. And I was angry, really angry in the moment, especially because I like food. I’m not afraid to say I think food is fantastic. I think it’s delicious. I think it’s adventure and joy, and love and community, and all of those things. I didn’t want my daughter to miss out on it. But when I really thought about it, I also felt really sad for my friend that her relationship with food was so fraught and so negative, that she could see the upside to never being able to eat again. I mean, it’s a sign of sickness to feel that way.

Virginia

It is a deep heartbreak to feel that alienated from food that the idea of injecting a formula into your stomach feels better, which is what life on a G-tube with elemental formula is. I also have so much gratitude for G-tubes and they are a valid way to feed somebody who needs to be fed that way. But you are missing out on a lot of life if that’s how you’re eating.

Debi

It’s not that I think there wouldn’t have been joy, community, family, and love in my daughter’s life without eating regular food. Of course, there would have been. But it was a big part of our lives, as it is a big part of most people’s lives. I was hoping that it wouldn’t be necessary.

There were other times that people said other crazy things to us about about her diets, including on that fat-free diet. Like when an administrator at her school crouched down and asked her how it was going. We both said it was awful and we only had three weeks left or whatever. And then this administrator asked my eight-year-old daughter to make a list of all of the foods she was eating so this person could then use that list to take off her holiday weight or whatever. I said “No!” loudly in that moment and pulled Sammi away from her. And I said, "This isn’t safe. Eating this way isn’t healthy for anybody. It’s only for right now because of the complications she has had in surgery, and it wouldn’t be good for you."

Her response was, "Oh, I don’t care. As long as it helps me lose this weight." And she wasn’t the only person who talked like that. Not everybody talked like that to Sammi, but many people talk like that to me about it.

Virginia

Yeah, we got a lot of those comments, too. I remember combing the grocery store aisles because the other thing about doing a fat-free diet when I did it about five years ago, is fat-free is really out of vogue with diet culture in general. So it’s hard to find fat-free foods now. I’m combing the aisles looking for the one dusty box of Snackwell’s. Because what cookie can I give a three year old who can’t eat fat? And people were still saying, “Oh, lucky kid,” or something. It’s enraging.

And, as you say, it’s also deeply depressing because it’s speaking to this larger dysfunction that we have normalized anti-fatness to the point that we will say these things to children. And, it’s minimizing their struggle. It’s minimizing their experience going through this really tough thing.

Debi

Sure, and also what other people think of as a fat-free diet from the 80’s or whatever was actually not really fat-free. Because a real fat-free diet that’s used for the treatment of, for example in Sammi’s case, chylothorax—where there was a break in one of her thoracic ducts—means that you need to limit yourself to under half a gram of fat per serving. An example of something that has more than that is air-popped popcorn. Chickpeas. Edamame. All these are foods that we think of as really healthy and we don’t think of them as fatty, but that’s too much fat. Can you imagine feeding a child on that little fat? I mean, it has huge effects on their mental health. It’s awful to watch.

Virginia

It was also chylothorax in our case. At the time Violet’s favorite food was guacamole. My best friend, Amy Palanjian who runs Yummy Toddler Food, worked so hard to figure out a fat-free guacamole. She came up with a recipe with I think we were trying to use peas in Greek yogurt, like fat-free Greek yogurt. And Amy, thank you again for going down that rabbit hole for me! But it tasted terrible. I could see the betrayal on my child’s face because I was like, “This is a guacamole you can eat!” and it tasted nothing like what she was hoping to have.

Debi

What fat does to food, from a culinary perspective, is all kinds of things you don’t think about. Even that spritz of olive oil on the bottom of your pan helps the spices stick to the food. It creates a mess when you take fat away. On top of it, that little dietary fat in anybody’s diet affects how your brain operates. It really made me understand the 80’s in a totally different way. All these angry women pushing their carts through the grocery store with their Snackwell’s. Like, of course they were cranky.

Virginia

I think the experience you and I both share is this understanding that these medical system failures are reinforcing this larger cultural failure, where we make feeding kids the main project and problem of mothers. In reading the book, I resonated with how much feeding Sammi became central to your identity during these years. It was something you were spending hours every week on and it really becomes your whole world. Yet it feels so unfair to reduce mothering just to food, just to the act of feeding kids.

I’m curious to hear how you have reckoned with that relationship between food and mothering? How do you see these things relating to each other now?

Debi

I became the default person at home for some of the same reasons that a lot of women end up the default person at home. When doctors told us that Sammi would end up in the hospital with every cold and she really couldn’t go to daycare, I looked at the cost of a nanny and what I was making, and it would have been like a treadmill for as long as we needed a nanny. We didn’t make as much money as we would have spent on one. And also she was was breastfeeding and I was the one with the breasts, so it just made sense for me to be the one that was home. Then whoever was home with her had to be the one who learned best how to feed her.

I will say also that my mother, who was the cook in our house when I was growing up, had said to me when I first quit my job and was worried that I was becoming boring and that all I was was a stay at home mom. It wasn’t enough for me in the moment. My mom said to just try to get into whatever it was I was doing at the time. So if that meant that was home and I just had to get into the mothering thing, I got into it. It was good advice for the moment for me. I really tried to get into it and find my little daily small wins in the kitchen. Sometimes that was a good strategy and sometimes it was not. But it did become my whole world for a long time.

I don’t think that’s so different from the ways in which other parents who are parenting medically complex children have their whole world become how to move their child who’s in a wheelchair from place to place and advocate for better services. Parents who are parenting kids with any kind of disability spend a lot of energy and effort on the things that will make their children’s lives better. Because we love our children, you know? We want to make everything as easy as we can. So in that way, it was not so different from other ways in which parents get really dug in on their thing.

Virginia

Because the world’s not built to get the wheelchair from point A to point B, because the world’s not built to help kids learn to eat when they’re struggling in this way. The culture is set up so that in general, with parenthood, to assume that there’s going to be this undue burden on the mother most of the time. Then certainly, when you add medical complexity to that, it just pushes so many of us into this box. This is not about not loving our kids, but some larger systems in our culture that were there for us would also be really useful.

We should also acknowledge, we both have a fair amount of privilege at play. And you in particular are, obviously, a very gifted chef, who is able to cook just from scratch to a degree that most people—myself included—cannot. Which is why things like formula are so important because not everyone can do the alternatives.

Debi

I would love to talk about that for a moment because the cost of feeding a child on one of these elimination diets is intense. It is wildly expensive. Our grocery bill at minimum doubled on that diet, on the six food elimination diet. I thought all the time about how could parents with less means ever do this successfully?

I remember my daughter’s gastroenterologist saying, “Wow, you’ve really found a lot of great foods. You’ve really figured this out. We have so many patients are less compliant than you.” And I said, “Well, you know, it was really hard. It was like, at minimum a halftime job. Do all of your patients’ families have the time and energy for this?” And he said, “Well, probably not. But they should just do the formula then if they’re not going to do what you did.”

That was horrifying to me. I couldn’t believe there wasn’t a consultant in that office who could, say, take a family to the grocery store and walk them through the brands of gluten-free noodles that work on this diet. Here is a coconut milk yogurt that you can usually get on sale.

Virginia

His use of the word “compliant” is so interesting there, because it shows how much more marginalized parents—whether we’re talking about parents of color, lower income parents, parents with their own disabilities, fat parents, etc—get dismissed by the medical system and judged.

And to bring it back to the whole “Failure To Thrive” concept, often that diagnosis is used as a justification for removing parental rights. For privileged white moms not so much. But if you’re a lower income mom of color, that’s gonna be a really terrifying diagnosis in a different way.

Debi

I remember, when my daughter was in the hospital for her final surgery, a friend of mine had his kid in the hospital getting treated for leukemia. He asked me how I had found the social work team, was I getting a lot of help. And I said, “What social work team?” And he said, “Oh, when we got the diagnosis, they were literally waiting outside the door.” You know, when you get a cancer diagnosis for your kid, there’s a trigger in the hospital system that just activates the Social Work team. And I thought, why are there not triggers like that for any diet that a doctor prescribes? Why is there not an immediate trigger for both nutrition and dietitian teams and a social worker?

Because changing your diet like this, it changes your whole life. And it’s emotional. Food is love and emotion and care. When there isn’t an immediate set of supports, other than someone handing you a sheet of paper with a list of foods on it, it’s a recipe for failure. No pun intended.

Virginia

Unfortunately, if there were those triggers, I would worry in our current system it would become a way to stigmatize parents struggling to follow the diet, right? Because maybe you’re going to bring in people who have these different biases that they haven’t reckoned with and are going to hold them against the parents. What you really want is a psychologist or social worker who’s trained in disordered eating and trauma-informed care. But that’s a whole level of support that I don’t think is even part of the puzzle, usually. So then that means the only people who can access it are people with other means.

For other parents, who are in this boat now, it might be really helpful to hear a bit about how you were able to hold on to your identity during that time —as Debi and not as the anonymous “Mom” the doctors talk through. Or. how have you worked to find your way back to that?

Debi

Yeah, I think probably during that time, not so much. I might have been indignant. I certainly was lonely, sometimes. But I had no time to be involved in the things that would have made me feel more like me. The exception would be that I did have a regular band that I played in. I’m an old-time Quebecois fiddler. I was lucky to get out and do that, usually once every week or two for an evening or an afternoon. That was great. It was actually great to be in that world where not everybody was even a parent. They didn’t really know or understand my kids or my situation. So it was a little bit of an escape.

But other than that, no. Feeding Sammi was the main job. I certainly worked and when I look back, I’m kind of amazed at the places and situations in which I worked. In hospital rooms, waiting outside surgeries, or in the midst of 500 other things. I would have a computer on the counter, finishing a website for a client while also soaking some weird starch in some weird liquid to try to form the ingredient for some weird thing I was trying to make that night. So you know, I fit it all in. But I was probably mostly running on an autopilot, as I think a lot of a lot of parents are.

I’m lucky, I’m so lucky, our family is so lucky that in the end, Sammi was curable. Sammi’s issue, it turned out, really had nothing to do with what she was eating at all. And so once we resolved the problem fully, I didn’t have to do this anymore. That took some getting used to: Trusting myself, trusting her, knowing that she would eat what she needed to eat and she was capable of it. And that I didn’t have to push. It took some time. I think writing this book was the thing that brought me back to myself, to appreciate all that we had achieved together, Sammi and I, and to appreciate all that I had survived. And to appreciate that, in the end, both of us are thriving.

Virginia

I look back on those years of my parenting and wonder how I was functioning as a person. I think that’s normal. I think it’s good to know that it won’t be that way forever. In my own family’s case, it’s not a curable condition. It’s something we continue to live with. But there have still been ways to find myself again.

We hear all the time, you have to take care of yourself to help everyone else and whatever. And it’s sort of a garbage message a lot of the time. But it is true that you cannot care for a kid in any circumstance, but especially not a complicated circumstance, if you aren’t holding on to one little piece of yourself. Even if it’s just and every two weeks band practice.

Butter For Your Burnt Toast

Debi

We are loving this season of Kids Baking Championship on the Food Network! This is one of our family favorites. It is a baking competition show, but all the contestants are kids. This season is the youngest group of bakers ever! There are some as young as eight or nine. They are making amazing baked goods that I could never achieve here in my 40’s. I absolutely love this show. I feel like sometimes these baking shows were what brought me back to the creative and joyful part of cooking. I learned to make layer cakes and eclairs and macarons and all kinds of other fancy things from watching these baking shows.

Virginia

I love that! I want to watch it with my eight-year-old because we’re at the stage where she’s still a cautious eater and when she knows how to make something herself it is hugely empowering. I think her seeing other kids baking and loving food would be good. I’m definitely gonna watch that. That’s a great recommendation. Thank you!

Debi

It’s very, very sweet. No pun intended there either.

Virginia

We love a good food pun here, obviously. My recommendation is for folks who are, like Debi and I, in northern climates. Probably the ice and snow is making you crazy, even though it’s March. If you have a garden or anywhere you can grow things, I recommend you get some poppy seeds. You just throw the poppy seeds out into your flower bed. You don’t have to dig holes. You don’t have to do anything fancy, you just literally scatter them around. Come July, you will thank me when you have spectacular poppies. I just sowed mine and I have a couple of raised beds. I just did the poppy seeds last weekend right on top of the snow and it’s just this little moment. I try to do it around this time every year when I’m giving up all hope that spring will return because it gives me that minute of like, okay, it’s coming back. Then I look at pictures of last year’s poppies and I feel really happy. So if you are a gardener or a garden-aspiring-person, poppy seeds is my recommendation.

Well, Debi, thank you so much for being here! I loved this conversation so much. Listeners, you need to get Kitchen Medicine right now! Debi, how can we follow your work?

Debi

You can follow me on on Twitter at @growthesunshine—my Sammi’s nickname is Sammi Sunshine—and also on Instagram @growthesunshine. If you have ordered the book, send me a message on Twitter or Instagram and let me know that you have. I will dedicate one of my quirky weird kitchen tools to you with a little story about it up on my Instagram account. 

Virginia

Those have been so fun to see. You have the most amazing collection of kitchen tools. Thank you for being here!

The Burnt Toast Podcast is produced and hosted by me, Virginia Sole-Smith. You can follow me on Instagram or Twitter.

Burnt Toast transcripts and essays are edited and formatted by Corinne Fay, who runs @SellTradePlus, an Instagram account where you can buy and sell plus size clothing.

The Burnt Toast logo is by Deanna Lowe.

Our theme music is by Jeff Bailey and Chris Maxwell.

Tommy Harron is our audio engineer.

Thanks for listening and for supporting independent anti-diet journalism.

This is a public episode. If you’d like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit virginiasolesmith.substack.com/subscribe
Mar 17, 2022
It's Time to Stop Panic Giving.
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These are the folks who are going to a state capitol and deciding whether to expand Medicaid or deciding whether there’s one abortion clinic left in the state or deciding whether there’s LGBTQ protections for folks on the job. It’s wild that there aren’t more eyes on it, but it’s not the way we’re trained.

Welcome to Burnt Toast! This is the podcast where we talk about diet culture, fat phobia, parenting and health.

Today I am chatting with Melissa Walker, who is the head of Giving Circles at The States Project. This is a little bit of an unusual episode for Burnt Toast! I know you come here for the analysis of diet culture and anti-fat bias, but today we’re gonna save democracy. I am so excited to launch the Burnt Toast Giving Circle, which will raise money to flip state legislatures in battleground states.

If you have been in a rage about the state of our country and you want to do something about it, I am hoping this will be your thing! Because together we can have a huge impact. I’m setting a goal that our can raise $10,000 — which is 1,000 Burnt Toast listeners giving ten bucks each. There are a lot more than a thousand people who listen to this podcast and read this newsletter. So even if you’ve only got five dollars or two dollars to give, please join us. And if you want to give more, that is great, too. (And keep listening, we’ve got more ideas for how you can get even more involved.)

Episode 34 Transcript

Virginia

When I think about the political issues that are keeping me up at night, it’s stuff like: What’s going to happen when we lose Roe? Why did Build Back Better fail so spectacularly around paid family leave and child care? What is happening in Ukraine right now? Thinking nationally about politics is how I’ve been trained to think about politics. So, let’s start by helping people (me) understand why does state government matter so much?

Melissa

State governments have really been overlooked for a very long time. When I started looking into this work, which honestly was in late November 2016, I started to understand that most folks don’t really know who their state representatives are. When I looked up who my state senator was, I had never heard of him. I did not have eyes on the people going to Albany for me. I started to understand that everything that I was worried about, and everything that I cared about, in terms of our country was actually being controlled in state legislatures and not in Washington, DC. State legislatures are in charge of everything from environmental policy to education funding to gun safety to healthcare to civil rights.

They’re also in charge of the very core of our democracy: Voting rights are decided state by state. State legislatures decide whether to suppress or expand voting. They have the power to gerrymander. They are drawing the district lines that decide who goes to the state legislature, who goes to Congress, who goes to Washington DC.

So I started to see that there were all these kitchen table issues being decided in state legislatures and that they were also incredible tools of federal power. A lot of things started to make sense to me that hadn’t before. I started to think about things like my home state of North Carolina, where the bathroom bill passed, and I started to understand that lawmakers in Raleigh did that. Things like the Stand Your Ground gun law in Tallahassee that let Trayvon Martin’s murderer go free (and then passed in 25 other states)—that was lawmakers in Florida, and then in those other states. And in Flint, Michigan, I realized, oh, that’s a Lansing problem. That’s not a Washington DC problem. 

Virginia

This is blowing my mind. Why do you think we are so trained to focus on Washington? Why am I now having this epiphany? Why don’t we think about states?

Melissa

Well, it’s complicated. There are really 50 mini Congresses in this country and they’re deciding things state-by-state. These are local races. They do not get national attention. The truth is that there is someone who’s been paying attention to state legislatures and it’s the radical right. They’ve been organizing for state legislative power for a very long time. From 2010 to 2016, we lost nearly 1,000 state legislative seats. And in those states where Republican majorities took over, people’s lives got bad. They defunded education. They put in right to work laws. They gutted environmental protections.

And when people’s lives got bad, they didn’t say, oh, that must be my state senator, I’m gonna go down to Main Street and talk to them, because they have an office there (because they do). Most people don’t know who their state senators are, even maybe that they have one. So they blame what they could see on what they hear about on the news every day, which is Washington DC, often the president, sometimes something about Congress. The roots of Trumpism were being seeded in state legislatures. It’s a body that operates in darkness and it really has been overtaken by special interests.

Virginia

It makes me think a lot about the role of the media here. You and I both come from journalism and those headlines are always Washington-based. Local media is so decimated right now. Local newspapers are so underfunded, and non-existent in so many places, that they’re not able to play that crucial role. And I mean, how many times as a national magazine editor did you say, “That story is too local, that’s not going to be interesting to our national readers.?” It happens all the time. 

Melissa

When we hear “Oh, Texas just passed this law limiting abortion,” people say, “Well! That Ted Cruz is terrible.” And this law has nothing to do with Ted Cruz. This is lawmakers in Austin who are in the state legislature and they only officially have session every two years. Something that people don’t know about state legislators is that in 40 states, it’s a part time job. It pays very, very little. These are the folks who are going to a state capitol and deciding whether to expand Medicaid or deciding whether there’s one abortion clinic left in the state or deciding whether there’s LGBTQ protections for folks on the job. This is where this stuff has been decided. It’s wild that there aren’t more eyes on it, but it’s not the way we’re trained.

Virginia

For those of us who live in blue states, why should we care about the laws in other states? 

Melissa

Well, states are meant to be laboratories for democracy. Like marriage equality going from state to state to federal or healthcare going from Hawaii to Massachusetts to becoming the ACA. They really are meant to be incubators of good policy, ideally. Right now, a lot of states are incubators for voter suppression bills and bans on choice and bans on trans kids playing sports. Those laboratories for democracy should not be allowed to be laboratories for autocracy.

We should also care about state legislatures because they are immense tools of federal power. As I said, state legislatures in most states have the power to draw the district lines that decide who goes to Congress. So they are promoting their own party in many cases in the drawing of those lines and making it so that the folks in power at the federal level are coming from from the party of their choice. They also control voting laws. So if you care who wins the presidency, you should care whether votes are limited in certain states or not.

The last thing I’ll say is, if you care about the Supreme Court, you should care about state legislatures. Because the Supreme Court does not write laws, they rule on laws, many of which are written in state legislatures—sometimes explicitly written in state legislatures to rise up and challenge a Supreme Court ruling, like in the case of the Mississippi law that’s currently challenging Roe v. Wade.

Virginia

This feels like something we should have been covering in 10th grade social studies and we definitely didn’t.

Of course, some of my listeners are going to be like, “Why are we talking about state legislatures on a podcast about diet culture?” So we’re going to connect those dots for everyone right now. Yes, this is a podcast about anti-fat bias and diet culture, and there are a lot of reasons why people don’t realize how political those issues are. You know, we think in terms of body positivity and body image and we don’t think enough about ending weight discrimination, which is absolutely a legal and social justice issue. And a really great example of the potential of state legislature is Massachusetts, which right now as we’re recording this, has a bill pending that would prohibit size discrimination. That’s one of the first places in the country that would be formally legislating against fatphobia.

I’m curious if that’s at all on your radar. As you said, states are incubators. So is this the place where we could be getting this work done?

Melissa

Although we know that federal law does prohibit employers from firing employees on the basis of race, color, age, gender, religion, or national origin, those laws don’t provide any protection for weight discrimination, even though obviously, there’s plenty of evidence that it’s a real phenomenon. And that’s also true for LGBTQ+ discrimination—federal law does not protect against that, but certain state laws do. Many states have made progress on that front. But so far, the only state that I found that has an explicit law on the books that forbids discrimination and employment based on weight is Michigan. So Michigan has a law that passed in 1976. It also forbids discrimination on the basis of age and height, but that is the only state at this point that has that on the books. I believe Massachusetts would be the second.

Virginia

Well, way to go Michigan! There was some amazing fat activism happening in the 70s and I’m guessing a lot of those folks were in Michigan and got that done. And I guess the point we want to make here is that another reason to be focusing on state legislatures is that there’s real potential for this issue to get traction in states with your state senator down on Main Street, where you can go have a conversation about this, as opposed to ever getting this issue to have traction in Congress.

Melissa

Looking up who your state reps are, knowing them, and then making them people you that you talk to and really engage with and advocate with is a great thing. State reps will take your call. They will take your meeting. They are not as busy as your federal reps, and they are interested in having an engaged voting bloc—or they should be. You have a lot of influence there.

I’ll also say that this is a method that’s been used by really big movements. After Sandy Hook, when federal gun legislation just didn’t move, Moms Demand Action focused on state legislatures. That’s why you may have seen the Moms Demand folks out there in their red t-shirts, gathered in state capitals. Because they know the only way to move on this right now is state by state by state by state. They’ve been able to pass red flag laws in a lot of states and get things done. So it is definitely a way in.

I would also like to argue that it is a more foundational shift than changing federal law, because when you shore up something at a state by state by state level, you’re really shoring it up. A law like the Affordable Care Act, that is a federal health care law but twelve states still haven’t expanded Medicaid. You’ve got these majorities in states that are in charge of implementing federal law and if they don’t have that law as part of their state priority, it’s just not always a guarantee. So it’s really great to shore things up at the foundations.

Virginia

And the the legal and social justice issues that come up around size, things like parental rights, health care access—all of these really are local issues. These are issues where you need to see the change made in your school or in your local child welfare office, or in the doctor’s offices in your community.

Okay, let’s talk a little bit about what is happening this year. Talk to us about what states are you most worried about or focused on? Where do we have the chance to have some real impact?

Melissa

Absolutely. So, yes, the midterms are coming. There will be so much national media focused on Congress, on the US House, the US Senate—and, of course, those are important. This year, we have so far identified six states where we think we can be most impactful and those are Arizona, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania. And then Maine, where we want to protect a blue majority, and Nebraska where we’re trying to defend against a Republican supermajority.

In the first states I mentioned, we are trying to change the balance of power in the legislature to flip those states. What’s interesting about these races is, as I mentioned, they’re still local. They’re often won on the margins and we’re very, very close in states like Arizona, where just one seat in each State Chamber would tie the chamber and two seats in each State Chamber would flip the chamber. Michigan, it’s the same low numbers: three seats in each chamber would tie; four seats in each chamber would flip. After the 2020 census, we’re seeing in certain states that we have fairer maps. In Michigan it’s because of a ballot initiative that instituted the drawing of maps by an independent commission. 

Virginia

Wait, I just need to pause there. That’s new that they’re not always drawn by an independent commission?

Melissa

It’s true.

Virginia

Okay, taking a breath with that.

Melissa

I know. They’re drawn by the legislative majority who, of course, want to secure their own power. 

Virginia

That’s not at all screwed up. So yeah, good job, Michigan!

Melissa

So, we’re seeing better maps in a couple of states. These are places where we really see the potential to shift power. And, I will say this: It is often cheaper to change the balance of power in a State Chamber than it is to win a single competitive congressional seat. Because congressional races cost millions and millions of dollars and state legislative races don’t. It is absolutely a place where there is major bang for your buck, in terms of trying to affect the outcomes.

Virginia

We are distracted by those congressional campaigns and by the whole federal narrative when this is where real work is happening. 

Melissa

One moment to define it is that in 2020, we saw Sarah Gideon run against Susan Collins in Maine for the Senate seat. She finished her campaign with $15 million left over. Which was much bigger than The States Project’s entire budget in 2020 to work on twelve state legislatures. We know that these big races get a lot of attention and a lot of emotional giving, right? You’re angry at Susan Collins, you’re gonna give money to her opponent. You’re angry at Mitch McConnell. You’re angry at Lindsey Graham. And those races tend to kind of eat up people’s emotions and have them just doing that panic giving. And that’s not strategic political giving.

Virginia

It’s not. It’s just what I do at five in the morning when I’m angry. So, panic giving is not actually sound political strategy?

Melissa

Right. But it’s hard to know where to dig in. Those are the places that are in the spotlight. That’s why I think it’s really exciting to do something like a Giving Circle where folks are coming together and have this strategic focus on the specific district in a state that it’s going to take to change the balance of power.

Virginia

Yes. Let’s talk about how this works. What is a Giving Circle? And how is the Burnt Toast Giving Circle going to either help flip a state or shore up a majority? Walk us through the process.

Melissa

Giving Circles are groups of people who come together to raise resources to try to change the balance of power in a state. Every Giving Circle starts with one person who says, “Okay, I’m raising my hand, I want to start this, I want to do it,” and then engaging the other people in their orbit, whether it’s neighbors, friends, listeners, readers. And saying to them, “Will you do this with me?”

And what it really is, is a math problem. Because again, like I said, small dollars are hugely impactful in these races. When a Giving Circle comes together and raises $10,000—that’s 100 people giving $100—that kind of money can be incredibly impactful in a state legislative race. And that is what we’re seeing when we have giving circles come together. We have giving circles who choose Michigan and giving circles who choose Arizona, and some giving circles raise a lot more and some giving circles raise less. But everyone together walks with power. That’s one of the most incredible parts of being part of the giving circle. In my giving circle, I know that there are individual donors who give $10 and there are individual donors who give $10,000. But we all come together and walk into a state with a total that makes an impact. And that’s what we’re trying to do.

Virginia

That is very powerful. So for the Burnt Toast Giving Gircle, I am the person raising my hand saying I am doing this and I want Burnt Toast listeners and readers to all join in. There are way more than a hundred of you, like many times that, so we have the potential to raise some real money here. And Burnt Toast, the newsletter, is going to match the first $1000 that we raise. And at some point we are going to pick which state the money’s going to—right, Melissa? That’s phase two of this?

Melissa

Yes, absolutely. The second piece of this is which state from The States Project’s targets do we want to choose? And that’s a decision that giving circles often make together through a vote, or sometimes the leadership team comes up with a decision. Either way, it’s participatory and fun. Then you get to dig into the stories that are coming out of the states that you choose and you get to see the landscape and the stakes and the opportunity. What the balance of power is, which districts do we need? Which candidates are we with? That’ll happen after the primaries.

At some point, another Giving Circle leader said to me, “Oh, I get it, we’re a giving circle, we hit our goal, and then we become a learning circle. And we learn all this together.”

Virginia

Yes! I want it to be a participatory process. I want everyone who wants to join in to join in today and give money. Then in future podcast installments, we will talk about these different states. We will have some sort of poll. I think that’s really important. I want everyone to feel like we all are making this decision together and that we all have a stake in this.

Melissa

One more thing, just in terms of practical actions for the Giving Circle, if someone’s thinking like, Okay, I want to donate but maybe I also want to join in somehow in a deeper way. There are a couple of things.

If you feel moved, like “Oh my gosh, we’ve got to focus on state legislatures and I want to help Burnt Toast get over the top,” I would ask that folks think about: Can I give some and can I raise $1,000 for the Burnt Toast Giving Circle?

Raising $1,000 for the Burnt Toast giving circle means asking 25 people for $40 or asking 40 people for $25. It’s really a math problem. De-emotionalizing the money part of it and saying, “I have a mission. I really believe in trying to change the balance of power and state legislatures for all these reasons. And I’m going to talk to my friends about it” does two things: Hopefully it raises $1,000 for the circle. It also helps people understand that they should be looking in this direction and thinking about state legislatures because part of our goal is to just get more people reading the news in a different way. When they read about the Texas abortion ban, they’re not cursing Ted Cruz. They’re finding out the name of the Texas Republican legislators who passed that bill.

Virginia

If there’s anyone who wants to take it to that level, I can help with that. We’ll put some language in the transcript for this episode that you can forward around to your twenty-five to forty friends. Obviously, sharing this episode will be a great way to do that, but I’ll try to make it real easy with some bullet points to help with this. I’m really excited. [VSS note: Scroll down for a template you can copy and paste!]

Melissa

We are in this moment when there are so many kind of big doom and gloom articles about the death of democracy and what we’re really facing here. And I am glad those articles are being written because they’re absolutely true. We are on the precipice. We are on the brink of a really big moment. But we need to not get tired in that moment. And those articles can make you feel like you want to lie down on your couch or pull a blanket over your head. Let’s be honest, like, how could you possibly plug in and do anything about what’s happening? And how could one little person do something?

But here’s the thing, those articles don’t light a path to action, they just lay out a big plan by the radical right to steal the presidency in 2024. If you read them carefully, you’ll see that they’re laying out a plan to steal the presidency in 2024 through state legislatures. So the answer is: It’s one State House seat in Arizona and one state Senate seat. It’s three State House seats in Michigan and three state Senate seats. It’s 12 State House seats in Pennsylvania on better maps than we’ve had in a decade. I could go on and on. But there is a path to action here and it is not as big and scary as federal races.

It’s about getting involved at this level and understanding that when you get involved at this level, you are working on the foundations of democracy, the place that is starting to crumble and the place that we have to shore up. So I’m excited that the Burnt Toast Giving Circle is lighting that path to action.

Butter For Your Burnt Toast

Melissa

So at the risk of being a one trick pony here, I will say that the the book that I’m currently recommending is a book called Laboratories for Autocracy by David Pepper. He is an amazing former head of the Ohio state party. He has really laid out why state legislatures matter so much and what has been going on in them for a very long time. So I’m really loving that book and recommending it. He’s doing some amazing organizing around it as well.

And I’m also going to recommend a podcast called PoliticsGirl, because, yeah, she’s wonderful. She talks about politics in very tangible terms. And she always brings us so much hope. Her drumbeat is hope and action. I think we can all use a little bit of that right now.

Virginia

Oh, man, we really can. Those are great recommendations. My listeners are often much smarter than me, but I have definitely approached this whole conversation with an awareness of how much learning I have to do about these issues. I think that is a common experience for a lot of us who have been just doing the panic giving and the raging. So, if you’re listening and you’re new to this, we are all learning together, and I really appreciate these recommendations to help with the learning.

My recommendation is going to be totally off topic as they very often are. My recommendation is, if you have an injury, you should go to physical therapy and actually do your exercises. Because as loyal listeners know, in the last month I both threw out my back and sprained my ankle. It was a real good January. And I am now going to physical therapy twice a week. It’s kind of amazing how well it’s working. I was feeling very much like, well I’m over 40 now and this is my life. My body just hurts all the time. The thing about physical therapy exercises is they’re super boring and unglamorous. It’s not a workout where you’re like, “Wow, I crushed that. That was an amazing experience.”

Melissa

Oh my gosh, I feel like this is a metaphor for state legislature.

Virginia

It kind of is! Okay, we’re really in sync, even though I didn’t intend it. It’s very boring, like I’m gonna move my ankle 20 times to the left, and then 20 times to the right.

Melissa

But then what do you have? You have a working ankle! Amazing! Big changes!

Virginia

The foundation of my body’s democracy!

Obviously, physical therapy is not accessible to everyone due to all of the problems with our healthcare system. But I just want to say if you’re struggling with any kind of injury and not dealing with it, as I did not deal with my back pain for about three years, it turns out that actually dealing with these things is a good thing to do. So that’s my little tip for the week. 

Melissa, thank you so much for being here. This was a great conversation, and I’m really excited about where we’re going to go with this. Tell our listeners how they can learn more about The States Project and your work.

Melissa

Absolutely. So if you go to The States Project you’ll be able to read more about what we do, look at our target states, dig in and see the balance of power in each State Chamber and go as deep as you want. So we’ll be there.

Virginia

Awesome. And again, here is the link for the Burnt Toast Giving Circle. So click that right now and make your donation. 

Thank you so much for listening to Burnt Toast!

The Burnt Toast Podcast is produced and hosted by me, Virginia Sole-Smith. You can follow me on Instagram or Twitter.

Burnt Toast transcripts and essays are edited and formatted by Corinne Fay, who runs @SellTradePlus, an Instagram account where you can buy and sell plus size clothing.

The Burnt Toast logo is by Deanna Lowe.

Our theme music is by Jeff Bailey and Chris Maxwell.

Tommy Harron is our audio engineer.

Thanks for listening and for supporting independent anti-diet journalism.

Sample Email

Feel free to copy and paste this, or make it your own!

Hi friends!

Wow, so things are terrible right now. Texas is investigating the parents of trans kids. States are shutting down abortion access all around us. Voter’s rights are decimated in too many states. Ukraine. And, although this year is not a presidential election, it’s never too soon to start worrying about what will happen in 2024. Our democracy is on a precipice right now, in so many ways.

I’ve been trying to figure out what I can possibly do and one path to a better democracy, and a better world, has become clear: We need Blue majorities in as many state legislatures as possible. Abortion rights, trans rights, healthcare access, voters’ rights and so many other issues are decided by state governments—and in ways that then determine who makes decisions at the federal level.

I’ve decided to raise $1000 for the Burnt Toast Giving Circle, which will be working to flip a state legislature in November. Small dollars and early money make all the difference in these races, which are usually incredibly tight and won on the margins. But that also means we have a chance to make a huge impact. I just need 100 of you to give $10, or 40 of you to give $25, or 25 of you to give $40 and we’re there.

To learn more about the importance of state legislatures, and the power of giving circles, here’s a podcast episode from Burnt Toast creator Virginia Sole-Smith in conversation with Melissa Walker, head of Giving Circles for the States Project.

I hope you’ll join us!

PS. Any questions? I’m keeping comments open to everyone this week, so if you have questions or suggestions on how we can make our Giving Circle as successful as possible, post them here and Melissa or I will weigh in! (I do this with some trepidation and will be moderating closely for toxicity, so be cool! We’re all working towards the greater good here.)

This is a public episode. If you’d like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit virginiasolesmith.substack.com/subscribe
Mar 10, 2022
This Diet Wants You To Throw Out All Your Food.
I think any time you’re wondering, “is it a diet?” And they have a bridal program? The answer is obviously yes.

We’re doing something a little different with this month’s bonus episode! I polled folks on Twitter and Insta about the diet trends that are bugging you most right now, so I could spend this episode deconstructing their marketing. And also just, um, reacting to the nonsense? My algorithm is a mess now, but that’s how committed I am to helping you sort the b******t from the… other kinds of b******t. We’ve got mysterious green powders, we’ve got Internet doctor scams, we’ve even got a gizmo you can breath into every day for a little dose of oxygenated judgment!

So enjoy this preview. And if you’d like to listen to the whole thing, you’ll need to be a Burnt Toast subscriber. It’s just $5 per month or $50 for the year.

Producing a weekly podcast and newsletter requires a significant investment of time and resources from several talented people, and paid subscriptions make all of our work possible. Subscriber support also makes it possible for me to keep most Burnt Toast content free and accessible to all, and to offer comp subscriptions to those who need them. (If that’s you, just email and let me know, no questions asked!)

In addition to getting these fun monthly bonus episodes (with transcripts!), you’ll also become a part of the Burnt Toast community with commenting privileges and full access to my Ask Virginia columns, and our awesomely helpful Friday Threads. You can read more about my decision to add paid subscriptions to the newsletter here.

Thanks for supporting independent, anti-diet journalism!

This is a public episode. If you’d like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit virginiasolesmith.substack.com/subscribe
Mar 03, 2022
"If My Daughter Wanted to 'Eat Healthier,' I Would Respond Like She Wanted to Smoke Cigarettes."
2326
Teens have the ability to know how much they need to eat. And when we interfere with that, as parents, we start to break down their natural ability. When we model that we trust our children to listen to their bodies, that they are in charge of their bodies, it also models consent.

Welcome to Burnt Toast! This is the podcast where we talk about diet culture, fatphobia, parenting, and health.

Today I’m chatting with Signe Darpinian who is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, certified eating disorder specialist, and host of Therapy Rocks, a personal growth podcast. She is also the co-author of No Weigh!: A Teen's Guide to Positive Body Image, Food, and Emotional Wisdom and the new book Raising Body Positive Teens: A Parent’s Guide to Diet-free Living, Exercise, and Body Image. I’m really thrilled to have Signe on the podcast because she is someone who can answer all your questions about intuitive eating and anti-diet life with teenagers.

If you enjoy this episode, please subscribe, rate and review us in your podcast player! And subscribe to the Burnt Toast newsletter for episode transcripts, reported essays, and more.

ICYMI! I joined Signe on her podcast last week. We focused on how to talk about fatness and fatphobia with teenagers; listen here.

Virginia

I am such a fan of your work, and especially the new book. Can you tell our listeners a little more about yourself and your work?

Signe

I’ve been treating eating disorders now for over 20 years. And I actually had the good fortune of being exposed to non-diet and weight-inclusive approaches right in the beginning, when I was really green. It’s something that I was very lit up about right from the beginning. 

It’s been interesting in 20+ years to see the different trends. Like you talked about in your book, The Eating Instinct, to see the trends of diet culture, which were more straightforward in the beginning, like Jenny Craig, to today’s wellness culture.

A couple other things about me: I started a podcast right in the beginning of the pandemic. And I’m what some people call a single mother by circumstance, a little bit different than a single mom by choice. It was a happy accident! It can be interesting being a single parent and doing this food piece. My lived experience is more like, well, we’re going to do it this way. That’s not always a parallel to what other people experience — doing food when partners feel differently about diet culture can be tough.

I have a 12-year-old daughter and this book was a much bigger project. My daughter threatened to stab the book in the heart when it comes out.

Virginia

Is that because of the time it took or because she disagrees with the content?

Signe

She doesn’t really know the content. It’s a funny question because the teen book is actually just perfect for her. Age 12 would be a great starting age. She has it on her bookshelf and I asked her if she would consider reading it. She’s like, “Only if you pay me.” I’m like, “Are we talking about twenty bucks?” She’s like, “More like one hundred.” I’m like, “Forget it.” So no, it’s not the content because I don’t think she’ll ever know. She has no interest. It’s more like, you know how it is with writing. It took a lot of time. It was a much bigger project and those last few weeks are pretty daunting. It’s a lot of hard work—and really fun! But she was ready for it to be done, which I understand.

Virginia

My eight-year-old often asks, “Oh, are you still writing that book?” And there’s a little tone there! A little judgment. She’s like, “How many chapters are you trying to do?”

Signe

Virginia, what about your recent post about your eight-year-old never wanting to be a writer unless she had to for the money?

Virginia

I was like, “Oh, how do I explain to you that if you have to do things for the money, this is not the thing?”

Signe

I’ve definitely got a reluctant reader over here.

Virginia

Mine’s a reader, but she does not like writing. She feels sorry for me with this career choice.

Okay, so the big reason I wanted to have you on is because I get lots of questions from parents of teenagers. I really relate to the sense of panic I get in these emails where parents say, “I’m just now discovering concepts like intuitive eating or diet culture or fatphobia.” Maybe during their kids’ earlier childhood they were more controlling around food or they were on diets themselves. And they’re just feeling like, well, now, what do I do? My kid is 14 or 16 or 20, and this is a shift we want to make. But is it too late?

Signe

The short answer is: It’s never too late. We’re not modeling perfectionism, as parents. We’re modeling humanity. I don’t know about you, Virginia, but I try to do my best in modeling good mistake-making. I’m really taking ownership for my part in things more than I’m trying to model being perfect. Well, because I couldn’t anyway. I’ve tried that it doesn’t work. 

We are all immersed in diet culture and it’s really, really sneaky. There’s so much morality around food. Parents are in the same culture. Just thinking about their evolution, the evolution of their body image, and the messaging they received when they were young. What was going on at their table with food? What was happening with body image? And the conditioning that they come with. 

So on one hand, I think parents hold a lot of power. Our hope in writing the parent book is that we can give parents a point of reference for what a friendship with food might look like or a friendship with body might look like. Because we’ve really lost our way as a culture. We hope for them to become awake and aware about when did they become disembodied? When did they become disconnected from their own body? Thinking about ways that they might like to be different as it relates to food and body image, so that they can extend it outward. 

I have friends, for example, that by now know about body positivity and intuitive eating. They know the right things to say, but there’s an incongruency with what they’re saying and what they’re doing themselves. Our kids and our teens, they can sniff out those incongruencies. So we can think about the ways that we would like to be different and think of it in terms of a process, not a finished product. I think that’s a great starting place for parents.

Virginia

What you’re really modeling is recognizing mistakes and learning from mistakes. Because kids know we’re making mistakes all the time. They’re not fooled. For us to own that and say, “Yeah, I’ve been getting this wrong, and I’m trying to do it differently.” That feels so powerful. I would imagine kids would appreciate it, even if they don’t say, “Oh, thanks, Mom, I really appreciate that.”

What does this shift look like if you’re starting this with older kids? Concepts like Division of Responsibility can be so helpful when you’re developing this with younger kids but the guidance gets a little hazier as kids get older. They are more adept at preparing their own food, they’re out in the world more. They can take more responsibility in some senses. Parents often don’t know how and when to really hand over that responsibility.

Signe

The Division of Responsibility, the way that I understand it, is the parent is in charge of the when to eat and the what to eat. I like to put a lot of emphasis on being very mindful about the what to eat not being only “healthy” food. It can be problematic when somebody is in charge of the what to eat and they are immersed in their own diet culture. That could go really badly. Then of course, the child or the teen is in charge of the how much.

I want to make one disclaimer about Division of Responsibility. In my caseload, by the time people come to me, there is already a very serious problem. There is already a clinical eating disorder. The thing that I’m hearing most often from parents, when there’s already a clinical eating disorder, is “I just thought they were trying to eat healthier and exercise more.” That’s the way this looks right now. I’m on the frontlines in this work. If my daughter came to me and said she wanted to eat healthier, I would respond to it in the same way as if she told me she wanted to start smoking cigarettes.

Virginia

So it’s a big red flag.

Signe

“Eating healthier” is a big red flag. And just don’t want to do any false advertising around Division of Responsibility.

Virginia

It doesn’t work for people in the acute stages of an eating disorder. That’s not where you start when you’re in treatment. 

Signe

Exactly. Division of Responsibility is going to really look very different with my 12-year-old than it is with somebody else’s. At one end of the continuum, we have households that may have been modeling externally imposed restriction. Externally imposed restriction might look like a parent micromanaging a teen or a child’s food and feeding them in a way that really has to do with their concern about their weight. On the other end, you might have a household that almost looks too loose. That’s actually the the household that I had, up until my daughter was in kindergarten or first grade. I was so aware of attuned ways of eating and how important a more connected way of eating is that I actually wasn’t providing enough structure for my particular child. That doesn’t mean that other children couldn’t do just fine with a very loose household with food. In my own circumstance, my daughter was needing more structure and guidance around food the same way she needed a bedtime. 

With teenagers, I think parents can still incorporate a lot of the Division of Responsibility paradigm. Making sure that the foods are there. One of the guidelines that we use in our book is making foods equal. Not only equal in morality, but equal in availability. Equal in availability might look like if the refrigerator was full of foods that sort of matched an “all foods fit” paradigm, not just the ones deemed “healthy.” Foods are there and equally easy to grab. Maybe there’s cubed up fruit and there’s cheese sticks and there’s fun size candy. They’re equally easy to grab. We can then grab the food that our bodies are actually calling for versus what’s easiest. I also want to make the disclaimer that we don’t always have the time to do the preliminary work to make foods equally easy to grab, equal in availability. So I just want to name that sometimes we will, sometimes we won’t. No big. 

One of the things that really resonates with me is not micromanaging what they’re up to with their food during the day. They’re clearly going to have a lot more autonomy with food. Some of them are driving now. They have their own money. They’re going to friends’ houses. So you would never assess or take an inventory of what was eaten that day and base your dinner decision or dessert decision on what they had during the day.

Virginia

That’s their opportunity to be practicing these skills. It’s not on you to say that if they had ice cream after school, then they can’t have cookies with dinner.

Signe

Exactly. If I asked my daughter, “What did you guys have for snack today?” Like, if I know somebody brought something in. If my intention is to see if she had sweets and that will determine if we have dessert tonight, then I’m not going to say anything. But if my intention is just genuinely, I’m curious, then I might ask.

With teenagers there’s another component that comes in and this piece would really come more from my co-author Wendy Sterling, the dietitian. She says the teenage years are also a really nice time to start introducing some basic food prep skills. Maybe they’re in charge of one recipe for dinner or maybe they’re putting together their own lunch. You’re making the food available and accessible, but they’re in charge of some of those chores that are related to food prep or cleanup as it relates to a meal.

One other thing I want to bring in around that, and this comes from a podcast I did with somebody who’s an expert on adulting, Julie Lythcott-Haims. She was talking about how when we grew up we didn’t experience a culture of busy-ness in quite the same way that we’re seeing today. Sometimes, these meal prep chores, we’re not having our kids do them, because they’re too busy. Everybody is too busy. I can empty the dishwasher quicker than they can, I can set the table quicker than they can, so I might as well just do it for them. So I just wanted to bring in how the culture of busyness may show up in what we’re talking about, as well.

Virginia

I think that applies for parents of all ages. I even think about that now with my eight-year-old, she could be clearing the table more. We do have them clear their own plates, but we were just having a conversation about starting to build in small opportunities for these skills. Because I want a 16-year-old who can make her own lunch! I don’t want to be packing lunches when they’re 16.

Signe

Before before I did that interview, I don’t know that I was as aware of it, you know? My 12-year-old is like, “Can you get me some water?” I’m like, “Hey, you’re as tall as I am. Go get it yourself!” Right now I’m noticing how often I’m like there’s no time for her to empty the dishwasher. I’m just going to do it.

Julie Lythcott-Haims, who was a Stanford Dean for several years, noticed a trend that a lot of these kids that are entering school nowadays, it looks like somebody has been cutting their meat for too long. Way too long.

One other skill, as far as parents thinking about first steps that they might take in getting more attuned and connected to their body’s wisdom, is the hunger meter. We have a pretty basic hunger meter, which is one to ten. At the higher end is fullness. So, say six to ten, those are the fullness gradations of the hunger meter. At the lower end, the one would be famished, starving. A three would be the first sign of appetite, whatever that feels like for a particular person. When somebody is going from eating with a diet mentality or eating “from the chin up,” which means reducing their food choices to nutrients only and what I “should” and “shouldn’t” eat. When you go from years of eating from the chin up in a very disconnected, disembodied way and you’re going to start trying to eat from your body’s cues, the hunger meter can be a nice tool. Some people aren’t calibrated enough to start eating intuitively and so they might need to do mechanical eating. A simplified definition of mechanical eating might be eating by the clock on the wall. It may require some calibration first.

Virginia

That’s for folks who maybe in the past have been skipping meals or eating really erratically, so this is to make sure you are eating during the day and not skipping and ending up over-hungry.

Signe

Thinking about getting recalibrated, doing some mechanical eating, ultimately that might give you some access to your body’s cues. And then the hunger meter as a tool may come in handy. 

We get told a lot that that’s probably one of the most helpful tools, and we have a chapter on the different gradations. Here’s what it would look like once you’re recalibrated. Maybe you just ate lunch at noon and it’s two o’clock and you’re feeling a pull toward food. Okay, so just trying to identify where you might be on, on the hunger meter. Maybe you’re at a five and you’re neutral. You’re not hungry and you’re not full, but you’re feeling that pull toward food. The hunger meter is meant to really just be used as a tool that you’re checking in and deciding from the inside. Becoming awake and aware about where you are. It’s all about choice. The target behavior here is really about creating a little bit of space between you and the food and just assessing where you are. oh, I’m at a five, I’m neutral. I’m not hungry, I’m not full. Just to be awake and aware of what’s going on for you—and then what you do after that is up to you. That’s your choice. The intervention or the target isn’t so much what you end up doing with the food—maybe you eat it, maybe you don’t, who cares? The intervention is just becoming awake and aware so you have more choice around your food.

Virginia

That’s a helpful distinction, because I do think there’s a risk of using hunger meters and feeling like, Well, I’m not hungry enough. There’s definitely a way to turn it into a diet,

Signe

You can turn it into a diet in a nanosecond. It’s just creating that space between you and the food. 

Virginia

Another thing you have in the book that I really love is the chapter on boundaries. I loved one you just highlighted, setting a boundary of not policing what your kid eats out of the house. What else do parents of teenagers need to understand about boundaries? What kind of boundaries should we be trying to respect when kids set them around food and body?

Signe

One of my favorite excerpts around boundaries and food is from the chapter co-written with Anna Lutz, RD. [You can also hear Anna on Burnt Toast here!]

Anna says: “Teens have the ability to know how much they need to eat. And when we interfere with that, as parents, we start to break down their natural ability. When we model that we trust our children to listen to their bodies, that they are in charge of their bodies, it also models consent.” So I think this really illuminates the importance of not interfering with children’s or teen’s stopping place. You are really helping them strengthen the muscle of listening to their instinct and honoring it. We might be talking about food right now, but in allowing them to do that with their food and not saying like, “you’re not going to get up from the table until you eat your broccoli,” or “you can’t have your dessert until you do this,” or “you’re not going to have another piece of pizza,” or whatever it is.

Virginia

That’s such a powerful moment, for parents to realize that the concepts that we’re working out around the dinner table is going to translate into how your kids trust their bodies in so many different settings. And that’s all we want, right? We want our kids to listen to their bodies first and foremost, in dating, all of a that.

Signe

That’s my favorite boundary as it relates to food. In the body boundaries chapter, we did this effective communication model, we call it ad libs for effective communication. It’s an effective communication model that I see in a lot of places, it’s pretty well documented. 

When you have a body boundary to not let other people comment on your body, whether it’s positive or negative, letting them know where you stand. Like, “Hey, it’s not okay when you comment on my body without my consent.” So you stick with the facts, then you grab in one or two feeling words: “I feel angry.” And then the because. Because is what it is about them commenting on your body that makes you feel this way. “Because it gives me the impression that you’re scrutinizing my body.” So it’s a really simple formula and of course, you want to make it yours. You don’t want to sound like a therapy session. 

The person may come in and say, “Well, gosh, I just thought you looked great and I thought I would just tell you. It looks like you’ve lost weight.” The best way to win the game is to not play. So you just say, “That maybe be your perspective, but I wanted to let you know how those comments affect me.” Sometimes it helps to practice in your journal or with a therapist or to a friend that you’ve really felt safe with. Sometimes it’s helpful to just write out what you would have liked to have said that you didn’t feel comfortable saying, as you’re practicing and getting ready to do boundaries.

Something I think we leave out when we talk about boundaries is they’re really hard. Especially if somebody has been taught to not make waves in their family of origin or if somebody’s temperament is conflict avoidant, it’s not very comfortable. I think it’s important, when we’re talking about boundaries, instead of just saying, “Oh, be sure to have a boundary and don’t let anybody comment on your body,” to also bring in this preparation. We need to tell people: When you do have these boundaries for the first time, it may feel really bad. I mean, really, really bad. In the chapter, I talked about my own experience, where I would feel so awful in practicing boundaries for the first time, like I robbed a bank or something. It might feels bad in that situation, not because your boundary is wrong, but because you’re breaking a pattern. 

Virginia

I appreciate the script you’ve given us because I think the other person’s reaction is often what makes it feel so dangerous. You can’t control whether or not the boundary will be respected or how they’ll respond. So that follow up of, “That may be your perspective, but I wanted you to know how these comments affect me,” is so helpful, because that gives you a way to get out of that.

Signe

You’re right, you’re right. Because it of course it depends on who you’re giving the boundary to. If it’s a person that feels really safe and you have an egalitarian relationship with, then then they’re going to hear it and be very receptive. That’s going to be different from delivering a boundary from somebody who is out of balance. When you give a boundary to some people, they’re not going to be happy and that’s okay. It’s important for us to really get comfortable with tolerating somebody not being okay with us.

Virginia

And not feeling like it’s our job to fix them not being happy about the boundary we needed to set. 

Signe

Yeah, you can say it in the most eloquent way, and some people may still not be happy and that’s alright.

Virginia

The last thing I wanted to talk to you about was your social media chapter. This is a major route that teenagers are being exposed to diet culture. Talk a little bit about how you advise parents to engage with kids on this. How do we talk about the negative food and body messages that kids are encountering online while holding that kids want to be on social media and that there’s a real need for it. 

Signe

One thing that I learned while writing this book comes from dialoguing with Sara Pipher Gilliam about social media. In preparing for the 25th Anniversary of Reviving Ophelia, they did 18 months of focus groups with adolescent girls and their parents. What was interesting is that every single one of those teenagers were told up front when they first got their devices, “We are going to be checking in on your social media on a regular basis. Whatever you put out there in a text or group chat, it’s for the whole world to see. I am going to be looking at it regularly.” And almost every single one of the parents never did follow up on that.

This is something I’m dealing with regularly with with my particular caseload, but also with my 12-year-old. We have really good intentions and we know that the technology genie is out of the bottle and not going back in. We want to check their social media on a regular basis. But it’s mind numbing. It’s not fun. We want to be sitting down every few days or weekly and scrolling through and having them give us a tour of their TikTok or what they’re seeing and talk to them about it. But it’s just not very fun and we don’t want to do it. There’s a little bit of avoidance.

Virginia

I already feel that way hearing my eight-year-old talk about Animal Crossing, so I can’t even imagine how I’ll feel when it’s TikTok.

Signe

Yeah, it’s super boring. So let’s just say that out loud. In that chapter, we did use one of Sara’s interventions that she calls peer-to-peer peer agreements. I think we need to have parent-to-parent agreements, where we’re checking in with each other. Did you check your kid’s TikTok this week?

The peer-to-peer agreements are really powerful, more so than what they might hear from a teacher or from a parent. It’s not uncommon for me to have a teenager in my caseload totally distraught because her friend was mad at her for not being on call at 2AM because she had a breakup. There’s a lot going on behind the scenes with social media, a lot of expectations. So maybe one of the agreement is we’re putting our phones away at 10PM, depending on the age. So that people know ahead of time and they don’t have unrealistic expectations for accessibility to each other. The other thing is, I’ve seen parents who are checking social media too often. It feels a little like dimming the kid’s light. It’s really different for everybody, but we need to be finding something that’s that sort of in the middle of being too strict or too loose with social media.

Virginia

You’ve talked about needing to respect to what kids are getting out of it, too. There’s the social piece and the creative expression that comes with social media.

Signe

I did an interview with a colleague and good friend of mine who is a registered Art Therapist. She talks a lot about how we really see our kids trying to express themselves creatively through social media, through music and dance. They’re looking for art, as well as creating it themselves. On one hand, that can be okay. On the other hand, we know that not all the images that they’re seeing are positive. What she says so eloquently is that social media is not meant to take to take the place of going to see art in real time or doing our own art.

Over this last holiday, my mom was in town and she really had to push us out the door to go to the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco. I didn’t really want to go, like the parking, you know. We ended up getting there and I’m so glad. We brought my daughter and one of the times we brought her friends, too. They didn’t love everything, but it’s good for them to get exposed to art in different ways than on an online platform.

Virginia

In a museum, there is still an audience for the art, but it’s a much different audience than when you’re only putting things on social media and thinking of art as something you make for the whole internet. It’s really powerful for kids to realize that art is something they can do just for themselves.

I think that’s really helpful for parents who are trying to appreciate what kids are getting out of it. But also figuring out the self regulation piece and kind of helping them learn those tools. It’s a messy thing we have to keep muddling through.

Signe

And making sure that there’s plenty of time where we allow our kids to be bored, and not sort of swoop in and rescue them from the boredom. Having art supplies available and accessible would be great. I do want to mention, the ability to have art supplies, and to go see art, depending on where you are, can be a privilege. Nowadays, places like the dollar store have a lot better art supplies than they did 10 years ago. So there are ways to get it cheaper than you used to be able to, so that’s cool. I like the idea of making sure they have a fair amount of time just hanging out in their boredom and learning to tolerate it and giving them an opportunity to come up with their own creative and imaginative expression through their own art.

Butter For Your Burnt Toast

Signe

Something that I’ve been up to lately that I used to do in my 20s and 30s and I rediscovered it recently is collaging. What’s really cool about collaging is that I don’t have art skills. I don’t know how to draw, I don’t necessarily know how to paint. So collaging can be one of the least daunting forms of creative expression. What I like about it, too, is that you can use the catalogs that come in the mail to just kind of spend time cutting out images that inspire you, which can be really meditative. My colleague calls it visual journaling. It’s kind of cool because it can give your journaling a three dimensional quality.

For teens that maybe don’t want to be writing in their journal because they’re afraid a parent might see it, journaling through art or visuals can be a way to express and get your dark thoughts out on paper so that they’re not staying private. Only you really know what the symbols and the metaphors mean in the art. So it’s something that I’ve been doing myself and I’ve also been doing with clients. It’s been really helpful. I have a couple of clients that I’m doing that with right now that struggle with unhealthy perfectionism. So just spending time cutting out images and doing collage in a way that you can’t really get it wrong teaches is a nice mindfulness practice. It helps them pace themselves.

And lately, I’ve been making collage cards. Cards are pretty expensive, at least the ones that I really like. You can personalize a collage card for a birthday card and make it uniquely for somebody that you’re close to. It’s just a fun way to share your art.

Virginia

I mean, I’m obsessed. I want to start collaging immediately. It sounds like a great thing to do with teenagers with younger kids. It’s something I also did for a while and sort of dropped. And now as you’re talking about it, I’m like, where did that go? I need to bring collaging back. That’s a wonderful idea.

Signe

It’s a really fun thing to just get totally lost in.

Virginia

Well, my Butter this week is a movie recommendation. It’s not a new movie, so probably most people have seen it. I think it came out one of the years I had a baby because the year you have a child, you’re kind of culturally illiterate. It’s Inside Out and I had a feeling you would be a fan, Signe. We just watched it with our kids a few weeks ago. It was so funny because our four-year-old was really resistant. She had a lot of feelings before we started, but then she was just mesmerized. I think she has watched eight times since then. I mean, we were all stuck in the house with COVID for two weeks. It’s been so cool because she is really using the tools from it.

So for people who don’t know, the premise of inside out is that it’s this 11-year-old girl Riley, who’s going through some big life stuff. And the movie is narrated by the emotions in her head. So you see the sadness and joy and anger, and disgust and fear constantly narrating what’s happening to Riley and what’s happening within her head. Now when my four-year-old gets mad, she goes, “Oh, angry guy, you’re being so loud in my head right now.” It’s amazing because she’s labeling the emotions and it takes her down a notch. She’ll scream and be frustrated and then we can talk about what the angry guy is so angry about. So yeah, if you’re looking for a way to talk about feelings with kids in a super accessible way, it’s such a beautiful movie.

Signe

It is so well done. My co-author, Shelley Aggarwal, MD, she’s an adolescent medicine doctor. We were just talking about Inside Out because in our friendship with body image chapter, we have this section on how it’s really normal for adolescents to over-identify with their peer groups. She was talking about how perfect the movie is to explain and show over-identification with a peer group. Diversifying our interests is a really great way to protect ourselves from body image dissatisfaction or eating issues. I’ve been talking about watching it with my daughter again.

Virginia

I can see it being something we come back to throughout the years. You’ll get different things out of it. Right now the four-year-old loves angry guy,- and she loves the imaginary friend Bing Bong, because she has many imaginary friends. My eight-year-old is a little more close to the vest with feelings and she, I think, felt very seen by the movie. Like, oh, other people have all these big feelings inside them. That was so wonderful to see.

Signe

It’s just a brilliant movie. That’s going to be our movie this week.

Virginia

Good to hear. Well, Signe, tell listeners where they can find more of you.

Signe

So the pre-order link for Raising Body Positive Teens: A Parent’s Guide to Diet-free Living, Exercise, and Body Image is now available. My website has a books tab and both books are there.

Virginia

Thank you so much for being here. I really appreciate it,

Thanks so much for listening to Burnt Toast. Once again. If you’d like to support the show, please subscribe for free in your podcast player and tell a friend about this episode and consider a paid subscription to Burnt Toast. You get a ton of cool perks including next week’s bonus episode and you will keep this an ad- and sponsor-free space.

The Burnt Toast Podcast is produced and hosted by me, Virginia Sole-Smith. You can follow me on Instagram or Twitter.

Burnt Toast transcripts and essays are edited and formatted by Corinne Fay, who runs @SellTradePlus, an Instagram account where you can buy and sell plus size clothing.

The Burnt Toast logo is by Deanna Lowe.

Our theme music is by Jeff Bailey and Chris Maxwell.

Tommy Harron is our audio engineer.

Thanks for listening and for supporting independent anti-diet journalism.

This is a public episode. If you’d like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit virginiasolesmith.substack.com/subscribe
Feb 24, 2022
What Thin Fashion Designers Don't Know About Fat Bodies.
2440
I have only recently put my foot down and said, “No, I deserve to be here and I will be here and I’m staying here,” and I’ve been in the industry almost 10 years. It’s taken a really long time to not only convince people that I have the talent and the staying power, but also convince myself.

Welcome to Burnt Toast! This is the podcast where we talk about diet culture, fatphobia, parenting, and health. Today I am chatting with Kyeshia Jaume, a senior apparel designer for Forever21. She’s also one of the only working designers at a major corporate fashion label, who both makes plus size clothes and lives in a larger body. Regular newsletter readers will know Kyeshia from Jeans Science. She’s working hard to change things in fashion from the inside. Her story is really important and I’m so excited to share this conversation with you.

If you enjoy this episode, please subscribe, rate and review us in your podcast player! And subscribe to the Burnt Toast newsletter for episode transcripts, reported essays, and more.

Also! I had a great chat with Signe Darpinian, host of the Therapy Rocks! Podcast on Monday. We focused on how to talk about fatness and fatphobia with teenagers; listen here.

Episode 31 Transcript

Virginia

Hi, Kyeshia. Thank you for being here. 

Kyeshia

Hi, Virginia. I’m so excited to be joining you.

Virginia

Tell us how you got into fashion design. What called you to this work?

Kyeshia

Up until maybe 11th grade, I wanted to go to music school to pursue music. I just wanted to be a singer and I loved music. But I took a fashion merchandising class my senior year of high school and just fell in love with it. And I was like, I could do this. I could be in the fashion industry. I feel like I could really influence and impact it in some way. My fashion merchandising teacher was amazing, really encouraging, really excited about hearing that I wanted to be in the industry. And I remember she said something specific to me: “We need more people like you in the industry.” 

Virginia

Were you interested in clothes as a kid? Like always playing dress-up, that kind of thing?

Kyeshia

Yeah, I was. My mom is a very fashionable person. She always made sure that we had really fashionable things to wear. And she was always very strong about individuality and really making sure that we stay true to ourselves and not follow trends that other people were doing. It’s so interesting, too, being a child who loves fashion, but also a child who couldn’t wear the fashion. Because I remember only being able to shop at like, Dillards and JC Penney. I couldn’t go into Limited Too. We would get Delia’s catalogs and I remember just flipping through and circling things I wished that I could wear. Back then that’s how you shopped.

Virginia

The Delia’s catalog was formative to my existence. Remember the belts with the seatbelt buckles? Which, now that I think about it, is many layers of problems. We know airplanes are not a size inclusive space, but I didn’t really think about it as an eighth grader. I just wanted that belt so badly. 

Kyeshia

I wanted to be a Delia’s girl! I wanted to wear the denim. I wanted to wear the fun prints. Even like the house section, the bedding. I was all about it. Also I was a Nylon girl. I remember just dreaming and wishing that could be me. I wished I could have that stuff for myself and just being really sad that I couldn’t.

Virginia

Especially back then, those were not brands that were remotely size inclusive—or really any kind of inclusive. You were seeing the same skinny white girl over and over again in that Delia’s catalog. The low rise jeans and all that visible torso really, really did a number on our generation. And fashion, historically and currently, is a very thin, white industry. So how has that been for you, as a plus size woman and a woman of color getting into those rooms?

Kyeshia

I was born and raised in Utah. Utah’s like a bubble. You don’t understand anything outside of what your world is inside this very cookie cutter picture. Not only that, but I was a biracial brown girl who was not Mormon being raised in the middle of Utah. Religion is a very big part of the community in Utah, especially where I was living. The county that we lived in everybody calls “Happy Valley.”

Virginia

It’s an evocative name.

Kyeshia

So I don’t think that I was fully aware of my diversity and how different I was from other people. I lived in my own little world. I moved to LA after university, to pursue fashion. I went to FIDM. I was aware of how different the world is outside of Utah, but not fully aware of how I would be treated differently, not only for the color of my skin, but also being a fat, brown woman in the industry.

Going through fashion school, I think a lot of my peers underestimated me. I didn’t understand how hard it was going to be to get in the industry. I didn’t realize how difficult it would be to advocate for myself and to really say, “I deserve a seat at this table.” I have only recently put my foot down and said, “No, I deserve to be here and I will be here and I’m staying here,” and I’ve been in the industry almost 10 years. It’s taken a really long time to not only convince people that I have the talent and the staying power, but also convince myself. 

The fashion industry is such a girls club and a popularity contest. No matter what company I’ve been at, that has been consistent. There’s always the cool girls. There’s always the people who have each other’s backs. Even if they’re not very good at their jobs, because they look the part and they play the part, they’ll keep the part.

Virginia

Do you feel like people have a preconceived notion of what the fashion girl needs to look like?

Kyeshia

Absolutely. Not only that, but my name is Kyeshia. Straight out of the gate, you’ve already got an idea about who I am, without even meeting me. You’re probably already overlooking my resume because my name is too hard to say and you’re probably assuming what race I am, without even diving deeper to see what kind of skill set I have. It was hard, for a long time, to constantly feel like every single day I was going to work I don’t belong here. But this is what I love to do. 

And once you enter corporate fashion, you’re also up against people who have such thin bodies. Their whole lives are about diet culture and being thin and fitting into clothes and fitting a certain beauty standard. Lunches are always talking about who’s dieting and the next diet you’re on. I was very concerned about why we always had to talk at the lunch table about what we’re eating and why we’re eating it.

Virginia

So exhausting. And it’s so boring.

Kyeshia

It’s so boring! Like, “Oh, Kyeshia. What did you bring for lunch today? Your food always looks so good. Oh, I just have a salad today. I’m so bummed about it.” When I’m eating leftover pasta for lunch. Like, it doesn’t matter. I’m feeding my body. The whole thing is uncomfortable. You start thinking well, I should just eat at my desk because I can’t handle another day of this diet talk and listening to people hating their bodies. Because if they hate their bodies, I can’t imagine what they think about mine.

Virginia

That narrative is so toxic. I remember when I worked in women’s magazines, my nightmare was office birthdays. Magnolia Bakery cupcakes were very big back then—they were the Sex and the City cupcakes. So someone would always order this tray of amazing cupcakes and then it was like cupcake chicken. Nobody could eat the cupcake. All these women would just stand around being like, “Oh, no, no! I couldn’t! Oh, I’ll just have like a little lick of the frosting.”

Kyeshia

The funniest thing is when you bring donuts into a design room. Everybody wants the donuts. You know everybody wants the donuts. But you know what we will do? We’ll take a knife and we’ll cut it into fourths and we’ll just eat little pieces. Everybody is going back and forth to the table to get a little bite of donut and it’s just like, take the freakin’ donut. Just eat the donut and be okay with it! But it’s weird, every company I’ve been to is like that.

Virginia

The irony, too, of food on photoshoots for fashion. These elaborate spreads for lunch?

Kyeshia

It’s such a waste.

There is also this feeling of, I have to constantly look like I’m busy because of the stigma of I’m fat, so I must be lazy. I’ve always heard I have no sense of urgency. I don’t know what that looks like. What does a sense of urgency look like? Running from place to place? For what? 

Virginia

You’re not putting out fires, you’re designing clothes.

Kyeshia

I’m answering the emails. I’m hitting my deadlines. I’m doing my job. So I don’t know what you mean by, “there’s no sense of urgency.” If I’ve completed my task, isn’t that urgency enough? 

Virginia

It sounds like a lot of very coded language.

Kyeshia

It feels that way. Because you don’t say that to other people who have been scrolling on their computer for days now, but the second you see me pick up my phone to answer a text message, I have a lack of urgency for my job.

Virginia

That’s a really toxic double standard.

Kyeshia

Yeah. And a super big microaggression. What do you mean when you say I have no sense of urgency?

Virginia

I would be interested to hear them try to explain it, even though it would not go well. They would only dig themselves deeper.

Kyeshia

I started out in handbag design, straight out of fashion school, because that was the only assistant designer job I could find. My second job was at an activewear company. So it was my first experience with women’s apparel and I had a lot to learn. I was maybe two weeks in and we were sprawled out on the floor, going over line sheets. I remember her saying to me, “Can I give you a little bit of feedback?” And I’m like, “sure, yeah, I welcome it.” Like, anything I can do to improve. She said, “I need you to hustle a little bit more.” And it completely spun me around. Because I was like, I’m trying. I just don’t know the processes yet. It was my first experience dealing with a sample room, with sample makers, and I wasn’t used to the process. So two weeks in, I’m brand new, and you’re telling me I need to hustle? Like, Okay. Loud and clear. And by the time I was three months, she still wasn’t satisfied with my performance and she handed me off to a different brand, which was fine. I think that there’s just a little bit of a disconnect in leadership if you’re not willing to teach.

Virginia

And also, not willing to, sort of understand that people’s contexts are different and results can be achieved in different ways. This isn’t assembly line work where everyone needs to do the same job in the exact same way.

Kyeshia

Yeah, and in order to get the results that you want, you have to be willing to teach. I think that that’s a huge part of a disconnect in the industry, nobody is willing to teach.

Virginia

Not willing to teach and also not willing to learn! Another way of saying you don’t hustle is to say you are careful and methodical. And isn’t that a useful skill? There’s a way there’s a way of reframing these concepts to understand that someone might be bringing real strength to the table. Not to get away from the fact that probably you were hustling just fine and that was just a coded way of talking about your body.

Well, it sounds like now you’re in a place where it’s not perfect, but you are able to accomplish more of what you set out to do, which is exciting to hear about. 

Kyeshia

Yes. So my career goal this whole time I’ve been in the fashion industry is to be a part of inclusive design. I would not be living my truth if I wasn’t able to produce things that I could actually wear. I work at Forever21 now. I am a senior designer on the plus team. We’re on this path to make an impact in the plus business. As you know, the plus business is a billion dollar industry and there are only a handful of companies who serve plus women. And we make up about 67% of the population, which is bananas. We’re underserving this community that makes up more than half the population.

So, I’m really excited about the future work of what we’re doing at Forever21. I think in order to prove ourselves and gain the trust of the community, we have a lot to work on. We have a lot of work to do for the Plus Forever21 customer. I think we have really disappointed her in the past. I think in the beginning, she was so excited that we were available to her at an affordable price point. But I think over time, we’ve just really disappointed her—and I can understand that because I was her. I still am her! I’m really, really excited about the direction that we’re heading in serving the Forever21 Plus girl. It’s going to take a little bit to get to where we’d like to be, but there are a lot of things happening about maybe mid year that I’m really really excited about. And a new denim launch is one of them.

Virginia

You and I touched on this in our last interview: There are not a lot of folks in bigger bodies working in fashion design. Is there some kind of secret network of fat designers we can all be showing up for? How do we get more of you?

Kyeshia

I want in, if there is. How do I put out a mating call for my fellow plus size designers?

Virginia

A bat signal? 

Kyeshia

Where do I find them?

Yeah, within my career, I’ve only run into probably three other plus size designers working in the plus size industry. I’m sure there are more out there, but I don’t know where they’re hiding.

Virginia

That’s staggering. Because it’s such a loss of talent and a loss of knowledge. It explains so much. If you want to understand why plus customers are so often disappointed, why the clothes haven’t worked for so long, this is why.

Kyeshia

If I were not in the industry, I don’t think that I would be encouraged to be in the industry. Because beauty and fashion standards are so white, so thin. I would be intimidated by that. I would be like, there’s no way that a person like me could get a job in an industry like that.

Virginia

And your early experiences show it was not easy. 

Kyeshia

It’s not easy. It’s so interesting, because when I leave companies or when I talk to different managers and leadership, they’re always very encouraging. They’re always like, “We need people like you!” and I’m like, “Well, why don’t you hire people like me?”

Virginia

Yeah, that says a lot.

Kyeshia

I want to know that there’s more people who look like me who are out there in corporate fashion who are doing the work and making the change within. Because we’re the ones that really get it. I so often sit in rooms where people who don’t look like me say, “Oh, the girl’s not gonna like that.” And then I look and I immediately think, why not?

Virginia

Oh, interesting. Like what? Give us an example of that.

Kyeshia

Oh, right now cutouts are a trend. And sometimes people are very apprehensive about how a plus girl would feel about cutouts. People are like, “Oh she’s not gonna wear that, that’s gonna show too much.” Well, maybe one girl might not wear it. But what about the other girl who is like, “I love this trend. I wish it was my size?”

Virginia

That’s interesting. I often hear from folks saying stop with the cutouts! I just need to finda basic tee shirt. I’m just looking for solid, functional clothes. Like, L.L.Bean doesn’t make plus sizes. So what if you want to go hiking? But you’re absolutely right, there are also lots of us craving design and not getting that. Especially when you’re getting fewer SKU numbers, how do you meet all those needs?

Kyeshia

It’s difficult. Because especially with core things like tee shirts and jeans, you have to project your numbers for how much you can buy in these categories. Then you have a small SKU count for what you actually want, as far as fashion. What makes it even smaller is bringing in the juniors designs and what you’re going to tag on for those. Then you have like, this much of a pool for exclusive designs, designed by women who actually understand a plus body. So it’s hard to decipher what you lean into and when you say, “this isn’t going to be a thing.” The other designer and I sit together, and we look at the assortment that the buyers have chosen for the month and we give our feedback. If we see something in fittings, and we’re like, “I love the direction that you’re going here with this, but I don’t think that it’s going to execute the way that you want it to,” we have to flag it. We have to say, “Hey, I don’t know about this. It’s not gonna work for a plus girl. How can we change it? How can we enhance it to make it fit our girl?”

For example, last week, I had a jumpsuit come in. Really, really cute for a skinny girl. Like, super deep V cut and the V ended at the waistline, and it was tie up halter at the neck. Then there was another piece that tied in the back as a tie panel. And I was like, “Okay, this isn’t going to work. The leg shape is nice, but it’s too open on the sides.” So I reached out to the buyers and I was like, “Hey, listen, I have some reservations about this.” And they were like, “Yeah, it doesn’t look great on the model. How can we fix it?” So I sent over the sketch and I was like, “Here’s something that I think that we could change to, that she would resonate with, but it’s more wearable.” If there’s something that we think is absolutely like unsalvageable, we have to say this is not going to work. We have to make it wearable because the plus girl is going to look at that and be like, “Ain’t no way.”

Virginia

Yeah, where are my boobs going?

Kyeshia

First question: “What bra can you wear with that?”

Virginia

That was my first thought when you described the jumpsuit.

Kyeshia

Because not every girl is gonna be okay with doing boob tape, right? It just doesn’t work. So you have to think about what bra is she gonna wear with this, because I’m gonna tell you right now, she’s not going to go braless in this with no support.

Virginia

Of course, for listeners who go braless, you do you. We’re not shaming anyone for not wearing bras!

Kyeshia

No, no no. I love to free the nip. But there was nothing holding you at all. 

Virginia

So a big part of your job is taking these juniors designs and enhancing them—I love that you’re using the word enhance—for the plus girl. But what would you be doing differently from the get-go to design better clothes for bigger bodies? Or what problems do you see as fixable but no one is really tackling them right now?

Kyeshia

The number one thing is fit. We could be putting more investment into fit, it just takes too long. Way too long to adjust, way too long to put on different bodies. We fit twice a week, and the other designer and I, we dedicate a lot of time to it. Probably like, each day we’re fitting up to four hours, sometimes five. It’s a lot of work. If I were to start from scratch, I know it would be putting a lot of investment into fit because that is the number one thing that people and brands get wrong about plus clothing.

Virginia

Yeah, it feels like a very under-resourced area. For a longer discussion with Kyeshia and other designers on the problems with plus size fit, see Jeans Science Part 2.

Kyeshia

It’s interesting because the industry is changing. Not only for plus, but for straight-size bodies, too, as far as like different measurements and different body shapes that they take into consideration. But there’s still designers out there that don’t take into consideration different body shapes, even for straight size women.

Virginia

The legacy of Karl Lagerfeld is very rich, I think. The “bodies should be clothes hangers for our vision” kind of ethos.

Kyeshia

But what if the hangers are like a little curvier? 

Virginia

What if I don’t want to be a clothes hanger? What if I want to be a person wearing clothes? It’s a really an insulting proposition, frankly.

Kyeshia

I’m not just here to just be perceived. 

So yeah, I think my number one thing would be to focus on fit. Number two is fabric. I think sometimes even if something fits good, if it doesn’t feel right on your body, you’re uncomfortable. So I think comfort and fit and comfort and feel are two heavy hitters for me.

Virginia

That makes so much sense. You just articulated why some clothes I’ve bought that I’ve sort of liked—even when I see them on my body, I like them—but I don’t reach for them. It’s often a comfort issue. Even if it works, it doesn’t work because it doesn’t feel good to wear.

So the last thing I wanted to talk about is: What can consumers be doing? How much does our feedback matter? On Instagram, there are always lots of different campaigns trying to attract the attention of brands to take the plus consumer more seriously. But I don’t know how effective those are. And if they’re not effective, what’s a better way? I’m just curious to hear your thoughts as someone who’s inside the industry.

Kyeshia

I think if you’re straight size, and you don’t know what it’s like to struggle to find clothes as a plus size body, start learning and advocate for that. Tell brands: Do you know how cool it is, for everybody be able to wear your clothes? That is an amazing thing. I think to advocate for that, as a straight size person, you are doing your brothers and sisters justice. Because I don’t know what it is about fashion companies, when they hear feedback from skinny white women, they actually listen. 

Virginia

Hmm, take note, thin and small fat listeners. We have work to do.

I’m glad to know that you think that is feedback brands will listen to you. I mean, obviously, it’s ridiculous that they will hear it best from thin, white women and not from plus customers. But it is good to know that it’s useful to do that because I think sometimes people worry that it’s just hashtag activism or sort of performative.

Kyeshia

At Forever21 we have a newsletter that goes out pretty much every week, that highlights top comments and not-so-great comments. Consistently, across the board, there’s always a comment that’s like, “Why isn’t the plus in more stores? Why is the plus section so small? Why is your Online Plus section not great?”

Virginia

You’re like, “I’m on it, I’m on it!”

Kyeshia

I’m like, literally ask me the questions, and I’ll tell you exactly what people are feeling. Because I live it. I live it every single day, right? Even coming to work, I’m seeing it like, “Damn, I wish I could wear that.”

Virginia

Yes, I just want to have a moment for the rage I feel that you often can’t wear the clothes you design.

Kyeshia

It’s hard. When I was doing private label for Target, it was such a cool feeling walking into a Target store and being like, “That’s what I did. That’s a part of me, I put in the work for that.” That was really, really cool. This goes back to having more plus bodies in the design room—I feel like people would be more supportive if they knew who was actually designing their things.

Virginia

Oh, I agree with that. I would love to be putting my dollars behind brands that were hiring plus designers. Brands who were really doing it and not just doing the Madewell version of inclusivity that’s not particularly inclusive and that is clearly something a marketing focus group told you to do.

Kyeshia

Yeah, and I think a good example of sort of a brand that has really put in the effort is Anthropologie. Of course, they have room to do better and improve, but I think as far as being inclusive and also being, really on-brand with their plus style.

Virginia

Yes, I see what you’re saying. They definitely deliver the same level of fashion to the plus sizes and the straight sizes. There’s still often that thing of like, I wanted it in blue and only the straight size has it. Which is the whole economics piece that you and I talked about. 

Kyeshia

It’s hard. Within the community of plus size people, if we can start supporting the brands who actually run those extended size ranges, you put the data behind actually pushing forth that movement. Because I’ve talked to people. It’s such a nuanced conversation, because yes, it should be happening. We should have up to size 40. But it’s just the lack of dollars that the consumers put into supporting it. It’s hard to keep it alive.

Virginia

It’s such a catch-22. The products are not what people want, so they don’t buy them. But then the companies don’t have the sales, and around and around we go.

Kyeshia

So in supporting the plus size fashion conversation, straight size women can advocate for their favorite brands to extend. But also, plus women can advocate for their dollars being put into really supporting these companies who do actually go up to size 40 or 32, because then they’ll see the momentum that people want this. Of course people out there need clothes and want fashionable clothes to fit their bodies, but if we don’t see the data and the dollars behind it, it’s hard to keep it going.

Virginia

Yeah, absolutely. That’s a great reminder for small fat folks like me that, just because we’re excited we can shop in Anthropologie now, there are other brands that need our support. We have work we can do. 

Butter For Your Burnt Toast

Kyeshia

I’ve been reading Brene Brown’s new book. It’s phenomenal. It’s so good. And it’s helping me with a lot of healing. I just love the way that she writes. And I recommend that you journal and drink your water every day.

Virginia

I love both of those recommendations. Because I am in the northeast and it is four degrees outside and we all are questioning our life choices, my recommendation is to get yourself a winter-blooming house plant. It is snow and ice outside, but my African violets are blooming this week and it’s bringing me so much joy to see some little spark of green and life.

Kyeshia

See, I can’t keep plants alive. That’s the one thing that I can’t do.

Virginia

African violets are pretty easy. You just need a bright windowsill and they do like to stay moist but they don’t really require a lot of special care or anything. They’re also pretty inexpensive. Mine are $3 from the grocery store so you can just enjoy them while they bloom and then let them go with love. It’s all good. 

Well, Kyeshia, thank you so much for joining us. Let folks know how they can follow more of your work!

Kyeshia

I am @KLV on Instagram. I don’t share much of my work on there. It’s kind of like a blog / personal / influencer, but you can find me there.

Virginia

Thank you so much for being here!

The Burnt Toast Podcast is produced and hosted by me, Virginia Sole-Smith. You can follow me on Instagram or Twitter.

Burnt Toast transcripts and essays are edited and formatted by Corinne Fay, who runs @SellTradePlus, an Instagram account where you can buy and sell plus size clothing.

The Burnt Toast logo is by Deanna Lowe.

Our theme music is by Jeff Bailey and Chris Maxwell.

Tommy Harron is our audio engineer.

Thanks for listening and for supporting independent anti-diet journalism.

This is a public episode. If you’d like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit virginiasolesmith.substack.com/subscribe
Feb 17, 2022
Getting The Thin White Momfluencer Out of the Room.
2326
In a perfect world, the specter of that perfect, white, thin, cishet mom wouldn’t be there at all. We wouldn’t be tasked with defining ourselves against that ideal because she wouldn’t be the biggest thing in the room. 

You’re listening to Burnt Toast. This is the podcast where we talk about diet culture, fatphobia, parenting, and health. Today I’m bringing back Sara Louise Petersen for another installment of momfluencer talk.

Sara is a writer based in New Hampshire, and currently working on a book called Momfluenced. She came on a few weeks ago and you folks had a ton to say about that episode! Hearing your thoughts and questions made us realize there is a lot more to discuss here. This might become a new subgenre of the Burnt Toast podcast.

If you enjoy this episode, please subscribe, rate and review us in your podcast player! And subscribe to the Burnt Toast newsletter for episode transcripts, reported essays, and more.

Also!

I’ll write more about this in a newsletter soon, but I’m very thrilled to announce that I’ve started a Burnt Toast Giving Circle with The States Project. We will be raising money to help flip a state legislature Democratic this November because radical right wing state governments are dismantling free and fair elections in swing states, suppressing the right to vote, denying people quality, affordable healthcare and eradicating our right to choose. But we can take those states back! And early money matters. I’d love if you could make a donation of any size; Burnt Toast will match the first $1000 we raise. We’ll talk soon about which state to support and the issues on the table. Stay tuned!

And: The brilliant folks behind the Sunny Side Up Podcast spent this episode talking about Instagram and how we feed kids, inspired by this essay of mine. Great companion listen to today’s Instagram deep dive!

Episode 30 Transcript

Virginia

So today we want to talk about whether it is possible for momfluencer culture to diversify, and to represent different types of moms. And w e’re also asking: Should that even be the goal? 

Sara

There totally is room to follow moms that do not subscribe to cishet, white, normative, nuclear family ideal. So many moms have disrupted that narrative and have used their platforms in really cool, energizing ways to form really needed communities online. They have a different vibe than the stereotypical beachy waves, white momfluencer, the the type that we were talking about in our last episode. It feels like a totally different world.

Virginia

I want to read this really great email I got from a listener after your episode because she is articulating the problem in a way that I hadn’t quite thought about before. So this is from Tori, and she writes:

 I noticed that at the beginning of this missive you mentioned that you and Sara are both cis, straight moms with varying levels of thin privilege, who gave birth, and at the end, you say that the next “phase” is seeing non-thin, non-white, non-straight, non-cisgender moms shifting the narrative. That struck a nerve with me. I’m a white, cis, lesbian with a non-binary partner (she gave birth to our child.) Our kid is four and does not call either of her parents mom, in my partner’s case, because that word is feminine, and my partner is transmasculine. And in my case, mostly because even as a femme lesbian, I didn’t want to embody the culture of motherhood that has been pretty toxic in my life and it didn’t feel right for me. I read today’s newsletter with some distance, because I have found that even engaging with these momfluencers by critiquing them gives them too much space in my brain. I feel lucky that I do not generally feel mom guilt. I do not buy into most of the cultural pressures that straight, white moms often struggle with. And I think that’s because I had a way out from the beginning.

The queer parents I know just don’t even talk about it and we don’t compare ourselves. We talk about the absurd things our kids do, and arguments with our partners, and we share gossip about queer celebrities, but we do not really participate in this aspirational stuff. I am grateful to queer people for offering that pathway out of straight, white mom culture, and also from the fatphobia of that culture. Many lesbians are fat and I’m grateful to my people for showing me how to love other women’s interesting bodies as I learn to love my own.

I guess I just want to gently suggest that all of this is optional. White moms—because I do think this is a whiteness problem—can stop putting their eyeballs on the momfluencers. I know that as a cultural critic, they’re available for you to talk about since Instagram is a visual medium, etc. And there’s comments and captions to analyze. But even the critique feels like adding fuel to the fire. I just want to offer up that focusing on people who do things differently (the ones you spoke about at the end of your conversation) is an even more powerful way of shifting around the way we talk about bodies. As a journalist, I’m sure you’ve engaged with the concept of de-platforming. And this is sort of a mini version of that. You have influence yourself and lifting up the alternatives rather than continuing to reinforce white dominant culture, even by picking it apart, is especially effective. We’re out here doing it differently and a whole other parent culture is possible.

Tori, thank you. Reading this, I had a moment of feeling like, oh, right, it is optional. It is easy to get just sucked into feeling like this is the paradigm we’re in.

Sara

I also loved that email. It reminded me of a conversation I had with Rebekah Taussig, who wrote a book called Sitting Pretty. We were talking about this “ideal mother” that we’re all defining ourselves against or aligning ourselves with or comparing ourselves to. She said, in a perfect world, the specter of that perfect, white, cishet mom wouldn’t be there at all. We wouldn’t be tasked with defining ourselves against or in opposition to that ideal because she wouldn’t be the biggest thing in the room. There would be freedom to define our own parenting journeys, separate from the fetters of that looming ideal. That whole notion feels so radical to me because the ideal, white, cishet mom does loom so large in our culture.

For me, I think it is still valuable to dissect where this ideal is coming from and to look at who has the power in this narrative. Where is the power coming from? You can’t look at any of this without examining whiteness, first and foremost. I think we have to keep asking ourselves how are we approaching this cultural criticism? Which voices are we centering? 

Virginia

For those of us who are white moms and who do check more of those boxes, this is also our work to do, to hold the other privileged white moms accountable. We can’t completely eradicate whiteness from motherhood—or maybe that is what we should be doing, but that feels very difficult. So as we consider the process of doing that, can we ask more of our fellow white moms? Can we ask each other to reckon with these biases and to name these problems? That’s not work I want to ask parents with marginalization to do. It’s not their job to come in and fix the white moms. And Sara and I are the white moms, so we have to be doing this work. But also, I’m really here for the idea of how do we make space for these other voices? 

Sara

The popular narrative about how we talked about momfluencer culture is “Oh, I’m just sick of comparing myself to the perfect mom in her perfect house.” That is a really small concern in the grand scheme of things. A lot of marginalized moms, like, they don’t give a s**t. Their biggest concern is not having a kitchen that matches up to momfluencer standards. 

So, there is a way that white moms do perpetuate the ideal of whiteness, in holding ourselves to those standards and prioritizing those standards as worthy of our emotional and mental energy.

Virginia

Even in prioritizing our ability to separate from those standards. There’s a strong parallel here with what we see in the fat community versus the “body positive” community. “Body positivity” has become reduced to this project of loving your body. Aubrey Gordon writes about this so well: loving your body doesn’t do s**t for fat rights. It doesn’t do s**t for narrowing the pay gap or making clothing more accessible or stopping discrimination on airplanes. Body positivity doesn’t actually address these larger systemic ways that fatphobia is baked into our culture. This is a perpetual problem of whiteness and of white women, that we take what is really this larger systemic  issue and we make it all about like ourselves and our feelings. How does her clean kitchen make me feel? I feel like a bad mom. That’s not what it’s about at all.

Sara

Totally. That’s a classic tenet of specifically white feminism. When you’re looking at intersectional feminism, you’re looking at the the the community that is suffering the most and the most marginalized and working up to concerns about the clean countertops. Like, that’s not where we start.

Virginia

We’ll do a quick shout out here for Angela Garbes’ new book Essential Labor. She articulates the problems with white motherhood so well, and I think it’s a must read for all white moms. I had a lot of moments reading that of looking in a mirror in an uncomfortable but necessary way.

Sara 

I also love her first book Like A Mother. Best book on pregnancy I’ve ever read. She looks at pregnancy from all different angles and it’s a beautiful, beautiful book.

I’m also going to plug Koa Beck’s White Feminism. It was absolutely earth-shattering for me in terms of dismantling everything I thought I knew about feminism.

Virginia

Okay, so we are going to talk about some case studies like we did last time, and this time, we really are focusing on momfluencers who are not in that traditional skinny-white-mom box at all.

Sara

So should we start with Nabela Noor?

Virginia

She’s not technically a full momfluencer yet because she’s pregnant with her first child. She comes from the world of YouTube beauty influencers. I did not know about her until she wrote a children’s book this year called Beautifully Me, which I love. I actually interviewed Nabela on the @Parents Instagram a few months ago. And my younger daughter is obsessed with Beautifully Me. It’s a great kid’s book. (I also talked about it here.)

And yet, there is also this continual emphasis on the importance of beauty, both in the book and in Nabela’s work. Her aesthetic on Instagram is all neutrals. Everything in her house is white and brass handles and beautiful flower arrangements. There’s a lot of emphasis on her look and her makeup. There’s this tension between the way she is challenging norms—but then there is some upholding.

Sara

I’m looking at her feed, and just the aesthetic tropes—she’s checking all the boxes. The all white everything, interior design-wise. The caressing her pregnant stomach, with a beautiful dress. Hyper-feminine imagery. The ultrasound photos, the very joyful, domestic Goddess Mother-vibe.

But I wonder how fair or even productive it is to critique someone for adhering to those norms when she didn’t create them. It feels like critiquing a fish for swimming in the wrong water or something. Do you know what I mean? It’s tricky. What do you think?

Virginia

I see that. The belly caressing in particular really moved me because she started caressing her belly like that when she was, like, nine weeks pregnant. To see this woman, who has a belly, caressing her belly without apology with so much joy and reverence for it, at a time when there’s often still a lot of negativity about the belly. We’re conditioned not to really celebrate the bump until it’s like the perfect basketball bump on your tiny body. And she’s never gonna have that perfect basketball bump on a tiny body. That’s not how she’s built. There was something very radical and moving to me to see her being so proud of that. That does feel powerful for me in terms of representation of pregnancy that doesn’t look like the way we’re told pregnancy needs to look. And yet, it does unsettle me to then see her grasping at holding up every other possible standard of perfect pregnancy. It’s like she’s only allowed one out or something.

Sara

Yeah, that’s so interesting. Mia O’Malley went viral for sharing her own pregnancy photos and she wrote an essay accompanying them. This was, I think, three-ish years ago, and she still gets comments and emails from other moms saying they never even considered taking pregnancy photos because they had so internalized that this was a thin person thing to do. Like the basketball bump—if you don’t have that, your pregnancy is not worth celebrating or beautiful or whatever. The mere fact of representation is really powerful.

Virginia

And for someone who reaches such a wide audience who haven’t reconsidered their feelings on fatness or beauty, she is asking them to do that.

Sara

Yeah. If a mom disrupts any part of the stereotypical ideal—like in this case she’s disrupting thinness and whiteness—that’s a net positive.

Virginia

Yes, I agree. But I do think of what Tori was talking about in her email. Nabela is not opting out. She’s opting all the way in and saying, “I belong in this room.”

Sara

Well, and I think back to what you were saying before. The responsibility and the onus should be on white moms, with the most privilege, for them to opt out.

Virginia

I agree with you. I think if anyone’s going to be making the big momfluencer bucks off the endorsement deals, I’m glad it’s Nabela.

What else do we want to say about Mia?

Sara

In addition to her main feed, she has a baby wearing feed. She became a babywearing consultant because when she was pregnant and when she had her newborn, every time she was shopping for a baby swing or a baby wrap, it was modeled on a thin model. Did you ever baby wear?

Virginia

I was really uncomfortable babywearing and size was definitely a factor in that. 

Sara

Right. I didn’t babywear until my third baby because I was just generally overwhelmed. Those wraps are like a mile long. They’re hard no matter what kind of body you have. But to have a body that’s never represented or to not have tutorials that speak to your particular shape is a real barrier to entry. It’s like, is this even going to work? Is it even going to be safe?

Virginia

Yeah, and I do have one fat friend who like came over with her Moby Wrap and helped me figure it out. That was very helpful, but I remember envying mothers for whom it felt effortless. It did not feel effortless for me, ever.  We’re making babywearing into something that you’re supposed to innately know and understand at a time when your body is a complete stranger to you.

Sara

And the baby’s a complete stranger!

Virginia

They’re very small and squishy. It’s very disorienting.

Sara

There are a ton of fat moms and plus size moms who are creating networks of healthcare providers who don’t have anti-fat bias. This world of momfluencing is worlds away from the one we talked about last week.

Virginia

That is the real potential and promise of mom influencers, to help break down barriers and create communities that can share information. PlusMommy is another one who’s awesome in this space. She does really great advocacy, helping moms know what questions to ask at prenatal appointments. She also talks a lot about being a fat mom going to Disney World or being a fat mom at the playground. Our physical spaces are not built for larger bodies very often, and particularly our parenting spaces. 

Sara

I want to bring up Andrea Landry, who runs the account Indigenous motherhood. She points out that indigenous mothers have always created their own communities, calling each other and saying, “don’t go to this doctor, you’re gonna face discrimination and racism at this practice.” But since Instagram, that community-building has a way broader-reaching impact.

And in terms of looking at issues that maybe white moms should be focusing our attention on more than clean countertops, Andrea and I were talking about the huge amount of Indigenous children that are placed in foster care. They are removed from Indigenous communities, which is further colonizing these communities and preventing them from learning their traditions and languages. She was saying that even up until the early 2000s, Indigenous women were still experiencing forced sterilization. In Saskatchewan, they would wake up from C-sections having had hysterectomies without their consent. These things are still happening. It’s not helping us to stay in our bubble and it’s certainly not helping the greater motherhood cause.

Virginia

Should we talk about disabled motherhood? 

Sara

I mentioned Rebekah Taussig. She has really educated me on the structural issues impacting disabled moms that non-disabled moms are probably not aware of. In 30 states there are still discriminatory laws that mandate that custody can be removed from a disabled Mom on the basis of their disability. Like, not having the burden of proving that there was neglect or child endangerment or abuse. Just on the basis of the disability.

Virginia

Wow, this is a great country. I’m really proud.

Sara

It’s so f*****g bad! It’s bad for all moms, but it is so much f*****g worse for marginalized moms.

Okay, Daniizzie. So, she has twins. And yeah, a movie is being made, a documentary about her experience. She’s really cool. She posts a lot about access, in terms of specifically parent-related activities. Yeah, like inclusive playgrounds.

Virginia

She uses a wheelchair and she’s parenting twins. And yeah, of course, how would you play on most playgrounds with your kids? The ground is gravel. There are so many instant barriers.

Sara

Real safety issues. You have to follow your toddler up the huge curly slide or whatever.

Virginia

I mean, sidebar: I hate playgrounds. Until my children became old enough to play independently on them, I just viewed them as parent punishment. But I will also fully acknowledge the privilege in that. I didn’t want to get up on the slide, but I could do it.

Sara

Oh, I just discovered KC Davis. She has a book called How to Keep House While Drowning. She has a post about laundry where she has a bunch of photos of beautiful laundry rooms, and all she says is, “This is a hobby.”
Virginia

This is blowing my mind a little bit right now.

Sara

It is an actual task that we must do to keep our family in clean clothes. But we’ve also internalized that it should look good and be pretty.

Virginia

And is that actually going to make the task of laundry more enjoyable? Is it more delightful to stain treat skid marks in a room with shiplap? No, it would still be gross.

And there’s then the added labor of trying to make the room continually look like that photo. Because it will not. The whole point of a laundry room is to be filled with dirty laundry. So it’s never going to look good unless you’re not doing laundry in it.

Sara

I think so much about this. I’m really into pretty houses and s**t, but I am constantly thinking about how it’s only pretty if it’s clean. The biggest battle is the actual domestic labor.

Virginia

Her account is strugglecare. And before people who have beautiful laundry rooms all DM us, she says: There’s nothing wrong with being someone who likes this. Just call it what it is. This is a hobby. It’s a fine hobby to have. 

There’s a great parallel here with diet culture because I often think about fitness in the same terms. Fitness is a great hobby! But somebody loving to train for triathlons and having the “triathlon body” doesn’t make them better than people who don’t like to train for triathlons. It’s the same weird infusion of hobbies with moral value because they relate to thinness and whiteness. This kind of laundry room personifies a certain kind of mom, that’s why we’re making it “better” than other laundry rooms.

Sara

I really want to talk about Cia. They identify as queer and non-binary. They have a lovely, illuminating post about gender dysphoria in regards to breastfeeding. They talk about how breastfeeding in our culture is so wrapped up in the image of a beautiful white mother luxuriating in her femininity. Cia talks about feeling really good about feeding their child and bonding with their child, but also feeling like they don’t fit into this prescribed norm of what breastfeeding should look like.

Virginia

Yeah, this is a really important conversation. I think about, for non-binary folks going through pregnancy, the importance of communities around that. Because the body changes could be so dysmorphia-inducing. But also, you deserve to be just as proud of what your body’s doing as anyone else. It’s ridiculous that they aren’t included in the conversation.

Sara

Well, and the reason it feels disorienting and not great is because, again, of the ideal.

Virginia

Right, right. It’s the thin white mom taking up way too much space in this conversation.

I’m also loving all the normalizing the body changes in this feed, like there’s a lot of photos of their belly, and their postpartum belly. Yeah, this is very cool.

When we were talking earlier about disabled mothers losing custody rights, it also reminded me we were going to talk a little bit about The School for Good Mothers and process our feelings about that book. We’re going to try to do it without plot spoilers, because people may want to read it. Although, it’s very important to know that you don’t have to read it. Sara read it and wrote a piece about it. And I was like, “Oh, I’m reading it right now!” And she texted me to say, are you? Do you want to stop? And then I was texting her at 6am when I finished it, in tears. But! We wanted to bring it into this conversation because it articulates the ways that the standards of white motherhood creates these huge disparities and very real trauma.

Sara

Right now, I can only watch basically like tea and crumpets television. So, if you’re in a space like that, maybe wait a hot second on this book and read it when you’re feeling a little less tea and crumpet-y?

Virginia

I would say when the world is better, but I don’t know when that will be. 

Sara

Maybe when there’s more sun?

It just hits close to home, which is why it’s such a harrowing read. Just the very arbitrary ways we define good mothering—mothering, specifically, because I think it’s important to note that mothers are held to a different standard than fathers.

There is one character who isn’t harrowing—I find her hilarious. So, she has basically a momfluencer character in the book named Susanna. She’s not a momfluencer, but she follows all the like, you know, “essential oil will heal all things.”

Virginia

She is the new girlfriend of the ex-husband of the main character. So the main character’s daughter is now being raised by this new girlfriend and the father. So, she’s watching her child be parented by a momfluencer, basically, and it’s kind of your worst nightmare.

Sara

At one point this wellness-y, culty momfluencer removes carbs from the toddler’s diet.

Virginia

Yes, it’s like, who’s the child abuser? Obviously, it’s not good for a two-year-old to not eat carbs. That’s science. Meanwhile, this woman of color whose parental rights have been terminated over a very minor issue, is watching this happen. Jessamine Chan does such a good job of articulating how the system continually rewards and reinforces Susanna’s style of parenting, even when it is patently bad, like with the decision around the carbs. But there’s a totally different set of standards used to measure mothers of color.

Sara

The standards are funny in that they are so over the top. Like the teachers at the school test them on their hugs. This is the hug you give when your toddler is having a meltdown about sharing and is the hug seven seconds too long? Are you doing the bedtime hug? Are you communicating the right kind of maternal warmth through this embrace?

Virginia

So much in there comes out of parenting influencers and the parenting advice that we see on social media. You might have to come back and we’ll do a whole episode about parenting influencers because the way that positive parenting is pushed on social…

Butter For Your Burnt Toast

Sara

So I have a tortilla recommendation. Do you know the podcast Home Cooking with Samin Nosrat?

Virginia

Yes! It was everyone’s coping strategy during lockdown.

Sara

She recommended these tortillas and I immediately bought them. You put them on a super hot pan for 15 seconds and they balloon up into this crispy, delightful, salty... It’s so good. They’re so good.

Virginia

They have pork fat tortillas, duck fat tortillas, and avocado oil. This sounds amazing. I will be getting them immediately.

Sara

Yeah, I got the duck fat and avocado oil. They were both good.

Virginia

We do a lot of tacos because it’s one of the few meals my family can agree on eating. So I would really like to up our tortilla game. Thank you! 

I am also going to recommend a food. So, as people know, I had COVID. By the time this airs, I’m hopefully over it. But as we are recording this, I am on day seven and I’m still testing positive. For the first few days I couldn’t even move. But as the fog began to lift, I was like okay, now I need comfort food so I have to bake something. We had a bunch of bananas going brown on the kitchen counter, so I made this banana bread recipe.

I did not think I had strong opinions about banana bread. I thought that it was a food that you could just Google any banana bread recipe and it would all turn out the same. Yep, no, no, this is the best banana bread. It is smitten kitchen’s the ultimate banana bread recipe and she is correct. It has this amazing, thick crust and then the inside is still really squishy and gooey. Just make it. Thank me later. It’s very easy to make, too. There’s not a lot of ingredients. I mean, I made it while still having COVID and not being able to stand for more than fifteen minutes at a time. I ate it all week and no one else in my family wanted it and I was so happy.

Well, Sara, thank you so much for doing this again. Remind us where we can follow you. 

Sara

Okay, so I’m on Twitter and Instagram.

Virginia

Thank you for being here.

Sara

Thank you, Virginia!

The Burnt Toast Podcast is produced and hosted by me, Virginia Sole-Smith. You can follow me on Instagram or Twitter.

Burnt Toast transcripts and essays are edited and formatted by Corinne Fay, who runs @SellTradePlus, an Instagram account where you can buy and sell plus size clothing.

The Burnt Toast logo is by Deanna Lowe.

Our theme music is by Jeff Bailey and Chris Maxwell.

Tommy Harron is our audio engineer.

Thanks for listening and for supporting independent anti-diet journalism.

This is a public episode. If you’d like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit virginiasolesmith.substack.com/subscribe
Feb 10, 2022
"Using Weight as Our Main Marker of Health Isn't Working."
1469
Welcome to Burnt Toast! This is the podcast about about diet culture, fatphobia, parenting, and health. I’m Virginia Sole-Smith.

Today’s conversation is with Gregory Dodell, MD, a weight-inclusive endocrinologist in New York City, better known as @everything_endocrine or “that one good diabetes doctor!” on Instagram. I know so many of you have questions about weight and diabetes, and a newsletter essay on these issues is forthcoming! But in the meantime, I’m delighted to bring you this conversation with Dr. Dodell, which challenges so many of our assumptions about carbs, weight and diabetes risk.

If you enjoy this episode, please subscribe, rate and review us in your podcast player! And subscribe to the Burnt Toast newsletter for episode transcripts, reported essays, and more. (Here’s a 20% discount if you’d like to go paid!)

Virginia

I am delighted today to be chatting with Dr. Gregory Dodell, who is an endocrinologist in New York City. Welcome!

Greg

Thanks for having me on.

Virginia

I’m really excited to have you here. I think I get a question about diabetes about once a week. It comes up in a lot of different ways, from parents, from people worried about their own health or a parent’s health. It also comes up a lot from trolls, right? It’s the argument that they think you can’t fight back on. We’ll be having this very nuanced conversation about the relationship between weight and health and why it’s so important to separate weight from health, and someone will throw in, “But what about diabetes?” It feels like this third rail. Like, okay, people can be healthy at any size, but maybe not with diabetes. So, why don’t we start there? Why is diabetes so inextricably linked to weight and our collective understanding of this condition?

Greg

Yeah, it’s tough to tease out. It’s tough to answer, just because of what we hear in the media and what a lot of doctors probably say in the office. The first thing is, it’s really important to realize that correlation and causation are not the same things. There’s 40 some-odd things that impact blood sugar, just like there are many, many, many things that determine body weight. You can’t just say one causes the other when you look at weight and diabetes. There’s people across the size spectrum that have diabetes. I see people in my office across the BMI spectrum—of course, BMI is not a useful indicator of health—but just to put it in context. Not everyone who has a higher BMI has diabetes and there are many people with a “normal” BMI that have diabetes.

A lot of the research doesn’t control for things like weight stigma, access to healthy food, stress levels, sleep—real behaviors that impact these things. So that’s really what I would say: Let’s focus on the behaviors. Let’s really look at the research critically, like a lot of people in the field are thankfully starting to do, to tease out the relationship and see. There may not be anything there and there may be something there. Even if there is, we need to treat people and focus on behaviors and things that we can do to improve health. Focusing on weight as a main marker of health just isn’t working.

Virginia

Right, because we don’t have effective and safe ways for most people to lose weight. So prescribing that and zeroing in on that as the entire treatment plan is underserving people. And I’m glad you highlighted the stigma piece, too, because I think that’s difficult to tease out for folks. It’s not like researchers are acknowledging this bias as they’re doing the studies. Because this has been so baked into our culture for so long, a lot of researchers who are studying these questions are starting from the premise that there’s a causal relationship without the data to support that.

Greg

Right. When you start with a research study and a protocol, you have to look at all the factors that impact all the different variables. I think, if you come into a study with a preconceived notion that weight is what’s gonna cause this, and you’re not controlling for other variables, it’s not a good study. Every research paper, or a lot of them, start outs by acknowledging we’re in this epidemic of people gaining weight. It’s an assumed thing, leading into this conclusion without really looking at all the other variables.

Virginia

It also means that if they are able to document any weight loss in the study, and they see that people’s numbers got better, they’ll say, well, the weight loss caused that improvement, without asking what else changed for people? Did they change behaviors? And what if it’s the behaviors that cause the improvement?

Greg

Totally. And there is that great review paper that just came out that was like 250 reference articles documenting very clearly that independent of weight loss, increases in activity improve health and diabetes and cardiovascular function, all those things. So that has to be taken into account.

Virginia

So, obviously, you are somewhat unusual in your field, because you are taking a weight-inclusive approach to diabetes management and prevention. That is not the typical encounter that people have in an endocrinologist’s office. What does that look like for your patients? What are you doing differently from your colleagues?

Greg

Yeah, I’m not sure that I’m doing anything differently with regard to how I treat diabetes. I’m using blood sugar and other data points to treat overall health. I just take weight out of the equation. People may lose weight with behavior changes and with medications. They also may gain weight. If someone has uncontrolled diabetes and their blood sugar is really high and we work together with behaviors and medication to help control the blood sugar, they may start retaining muscle and gaining muscle and holding on to calories. Because what happens is if the blood sugar is really high, your body starts burning muscle and fat to create energy. So the weight may change in either direction. I think that’s why focusing on weight is not really that helpful. We should focus on the behaviors and we should focus on blood sugar and cholesterol and blood pressure, things like that. 

Virginia

Are patients surprised when you don’t focus on weight?

Greg

Totally. I do get referrals from people that just know that that’s my approach. But I have a lot of patients that come in not knowing that. And when I say, “Well, I’m not going to focus on your weight, I’m going to focus on these other variables, and these behaviors and use the medication accordingly,” I think people are pleasantly surprised. Some of them just don’t say anything. They’re just surprised and maybe speechless. A lot of people come in saying, “I know, I need to lose weight. I’m working on it,” just because that’s what they’re expecting me to say.

Virginia

They’re used to doctors starting there. 

Greg

The patients that are speechless when I say that—I wonder if they walk out shaking their head, like, “Who is this guy? He’s not gonna tell me to lose weight?” Like, in a bad way? Or if they’re like, “Wow, that was kind of interesting.” I don’t know.

Virginia

Yeah, I bet for a lot of them it’s pretty refreshing if they’re used to going to the doctor and having weight be this problem to solve. I mean, speaking from personal experience, whenever I find a doctor who doesn’t do that it’s a real ray of sunshine in my life. Of course, it does run so counter to people’s expectations, it can also be a little unsettling

Greg

Yeah. Because obviously a lot of people want to lose weight. Statistics are out there, like 70% of women and 50% of men. They may be looking to the doctor to help them accomplish that objective. So it may be counter to their expectations and also desires.

Virginia

Was this something you gradually started doing over the course of your years in practice? Talk a little bit about your evolution on this because I’m assuming this wasn’t how you learned it in medical school? 

Greg

No. You know my wife, Alexis Conason at the Anti-Diet Plan. We had very similar trainings, we actually trained in the same hospital right out of our doctoral programs. She was in the bariatric surgery world and then went into private practice and started hearing from her clients all the stigma, avoiding doctors, and all this stuff. And thankfully  she came across this HAES movement and started learning about and slowly  telling me about it. It took me a while just because, I’ll admit, I’m just so entrenched in my training and what I’m reading from the medical community, it was really hard to break free from that. Like she would joke years ago and be like, “I think you’re almost there, but you’re not 100% HAES. I’m not sure I can send people to you.” But then I read her book, one of the first drafts, and I was like, “Whoa.” Like, I got it. I had that epiphany. I read it and the research studies, and I was like, “Okay, I can do this.”

Virginia

That’s awesome. So now we just need you to get all the other doctors to be on the same page with us.

Greg

Yeah, maybe I’m overly optimistic, but across the communities of medical professionals everyone is acknowledging that weight stigma is very problematic. There’s a big conference going on this week and stigma is a huge part of it. You know, people first language, all this kind of stuff. The problem is they are still thinking in terms of needing to help these people with their disease, versus not focusing on that. Let’s focus on behaviors because people are and can be possibly healthy across the size spectrum. So using different language is nice. And yes, trying not to stigmatize people is obviously a good goal, but let’s just take it out of the equation and then you definitely won’t stigmatize any.

Virginia

Right. You need to recognize that you can say you don’t want to stigmatize people, but if you are still saying that their body size is wrong and needs to change, then you are inherently perpetuating stigma. There’s a tension there. I’ve seen that shift as well. Ten years ago, when I was interviewing doctors, they had never even heard of weight stigma. And that’s definitely shifted. But yeah, there’s still there’s still a little a little more pushing we have to do.

The other stuff that comes up for folks around diabetes that I’m sure you hear all the time is the food anxieties, the feeling that diabetes means you can’t ever eat carbohydrates. Or even if you’re at risk for diabetes, that you shouldn’t eat carbohydrates. So can you drill into that relationship a little bit for us between carbs and blood sugar? How do you think about this?

Greg

I think it’s very problematic to tell people you can’t eat a major food group. I have a couple patients out of thousands who can just not eat carbs but it’s unlikely and it’s not sustainable. I think the yo-yo dieting, the weight cycling, all those things are more problematic in the long term. The way I approach it is by saying what a lot of very good dietitians say, which is: Have the carbs but paired with proteins and fats, and that will help the absorption. And also, from an intuitive eating standpoint, check in with yourself after you have those things, a couple hours later, how do you feel? How’s your blood sugar? How do you feel when your sugar is high? And really key in and if you’re not feeling well, or you’re tired, or you’re more thirsty when your blood sugar is high, then that’s something to kind of take notice of and really have that conversation with yourself. So that’s my approach. Certainly people that are on insulin for type one diabetes, or even type two diabetes, can use medications to fit into your nutritional eating pattern and activity. We’re fortunate enough to have medications that we can use, so that you don’t have to change your life in order to manage diabetes, and you don’t have to sacrifice quality of life to do so and to be healthy.

Virginia

That’s an interesting shift. There’s often a mindset of, you have to be doing everything you can to avoid or minimize medication use, even if that means restricting your life in major ways, right? Because somehow it’s a failure, if you just can’t eat quote perfectly enough and avoid the need for medication. So, I like that you’re clearly taking a lot of the shame out of it and prioritizing people’s lifestyles along with their health.

Greg,

It goes hand in hand, right? So if someone’s really stressed because they’re at a party, and everyone else is having cupcakes, or pizza, and they’re like, “Oh, I can’t eat this, because my blood sugar is gonna go high” or, “The doctor said I can’t do that.” That creates stress, which, will probably also increase blood sugar. And then later on most likely this restrictive thing is going to be like, go and have the cupcake or pizza and maybe more. So, I would say, if it’s in front of you, try it, see if you’re enjoying it. And we can adjust the medication. I don’t want you to feel the stress around living your life and feeling that you can’t have or do something.

Virginia

That’s a very important mindset shift for us to make around this. I think one of the really tough things with type two diabetes in particular, is that people feel this sense of failure, that the sense of like, “I did this,” particularly folks in larger bodies. I did this because I couldn’t lose the weight. And there’s that whole cultural narrative of blaming people for this condition. So yeah, I don’t know if you want to speak to that a little bit because I think that’s a lot of what needs to get undone here.

Greg

Totally, yes.  So much of type two diabetes, or a big proportion of it, is genetic. Then there are other variables that cause blood sugar to go up, whether it’s stress, not getting enough sleep, certain medications raise blood sugar, so there’s a lot of different variables. It’s clearly not just what someone’s eating, or how much they’re moving, or how little they’re moving. There are a lot of things in life and with regard to health that we can’t control. And if it does happen, let’s figure out how to work together to control it and make sure that the quality of life is good, and that the health is as good as it possibly can be.

Virginia

We need to take it out of this sense of personal failure, which just speaks to this idea that we have to earn the right to health care. That only good people deserve these things is such a problematic concept, and really goes against what health care is supposed to do.

Greg

Right, and there’s a huge overlap between diabetes and depression and anxiety. I think taking the shame out of it is a good first step. Acknowledge that a lot of this may have nothing to do with what you did or should have done. Okay, we’re in the present moment, let’s treat it the best we can. What happened in the past, whatever it is, It’s not your fault. It’s genetic. Blame whoever, doesn’t really matter. Like, let’s just take care of it.

Virginia

As you’re talking about behavior changes, which can be a really important tool for managing diabetes and health in general, I think we should talk about the fact that there’s a risk there of that becoming shame-based as well. Doctors prescribing very unrealistic goals for people in terms of the behavior changes they want made. Like, if you’re depressed, it’s hard to exercise regularly. Even if it would be helpful, there’s just these different barriers in people’s lives to achieving the kind of behaviors that doctors might be looking for. So I’m curious how you approach that with your patients to get over the shame.

Greg

So much about exercise has been linked with negative feelings, doing it just to lose weight—like “no pain, no gain.” With regard to movement, just saying, “What do you like to do?” Do you like to dance? Do you think you could try a yoga class or a spin class? Or, hey, could you just walk for five minutes? Let’s come up with something a little bit above and beyond what you’re doing now, something that you’re gonna enjoy and that’s gonna feel good. So that’s one thing I try to talk about.

And then, being realistic and talking about what the access to food is. If someone’s working two jobs, you know they work all day, and they don’t have time for lunch. Just trying to figure out their life is as an individual. Because making population based recommendations, when we all live very different lives, it’s just not realistic. Saying, Oh, you need to diet and exercise, that just means nothing.

Virginia

Right. And it can just make people feel very defeated. I remember when I was pretty newly postpartum, maybe six months after my second daughter was born, the doctor I was seeing at the time was pretty weight-focused. She was like, “Well, when my kids were that little, I would walk for an hour a day with them strapped in the stroller.” And I just remember this sense of failure because I knew I couldn’t achieve that. I was like, “Well, my older child has school, and I’m working, and my baby’s not sleeping through the night, and I’m really too tired to walk.” There was such a different way that we could have approached that conversation. If she had started with, “Well, what do you like? What is your time like?” As opposed to, “Why aren’t you doing this thing that worked for me?” Which was frustrating.

Greg

Yeah, and I don’t know if that’s training—like if we should be better at motivational interviewing—or if it’s just the structure of the system, that we’re so short on time, It’s easy to be like, “Oh you should diet and exercise.” We’re just clicking away on our little box of the electronic medical record. There’s so many assumptions that are made about people’s lives and not taking the time or having the time to dissect what’s going on in someone’s day-to-day life that’s impacting their health, or could be impacting their health.

Virginia

Absolutely. So the last thing I wanted to talk about is kids. I know you treat adults, but diabetes concerns come up so much for parents. If they have a family history of diabetes or if they have a kid in a bigger body, it’s often one of the first things the pediatrician starts talking to them about. It’s very tied to all this rhetoric about the “childhood obesity epidemic.” What’s your advice for parents? How should they be thinking about this issue if it’s a concern in their family?

Greg

Focusing on making sure the child is getting good sources of nutrition, whatever that may mean, fruits and vegetables, things like that. Coming from a standpoint of not a restrictive eating pattern, but trying to add in certain foods that we know are healthy. Not having things that are off limits or limiting things because in the long run that can be detrimental. Just trying to find ways, the same way with adults, to move, sleep, stress management, all those kinds of things. Focusing on weight specifically with kids is very, very problematic. I’ve had people message me on on Instagram who have diabetes, and they tell me stories of when they went to the pediatrician that they held up like a regular soda on a diet soda and said, “Regular soda? You’re never gonna drink this again.” And threw it in the trash. Seven years old and then goes on to like a 20 year eating disorder. So I think it’s very, very important to not focus on body weight with kids. Just getting kids to find behaviors that we know will serve them long term is important. Body shaming them is probably the worst thing that you could do for a kid.

Virginia

I mean, it’s striking me that the advice you’re giving is what I would hope that any parents would be doing: Encouraging exposure to vegetables and finding movement you love. The problem really comes when we only talk about these things because we’re worried about your body size or because we’re worried about your disease risk. That’s underserving all kids. And it’s likely to make the child who is getting that message feel really stigmatized and shamed, as opposed to this just being a part of life for them.

Greg

Whatever their body size is, everyone could benefit from these healthy behaviors. And that should be the same approach with kids.

Butter For Your Burnt Toast

Virginia

Alright, so we wrap up the episode by giving some recommendations of things we are loving. This can be a book, product you’re loving, an experience you’ve had recently,  any recommendation you’ve got for us.

Greg

I’ll shamelessly just say I love Alexis Conason’s book, Diet Free Revolution. I can’t say without blushing because I feel ridiculous, but whatever.

Virginia

That’s a great recommendation! And of course, you’re always allowed to promote your wife’s book.

My recommendation is a podcast my four year old is obsessed with called Julie’s Library, which is Julie Andrews reading kids books. It’s quite magical, if you grew up as a Mary Poppins fan, as I did. They apparently made 20 episodes in 2020, but I completely missed it then. But we’ve just found it and my four year old is in love with it. Julie brings on really wonderful children’s authors like Jacqueline Woodsonq to read their books and chat. It’s a very Mr. Rogers vibe. It’s very low key, very soothing. And I’m finding it’s helping us a lot when she gets home from school because, I don’t know about you, but my kids come home from school in horrible moods, and everybody’s grouchy and screaming. It’s my least favorite part of the day, to be honest. That transition out of schoolwork mode into family mode is very fraught. We put on this podcast and she eats her snack and listens. She’s like, “I need Julie, don’t I?” It just kind of chills her out and I want to recommend it. 

Anywhere you get your podcasts, there’s 21 episodes. I hope they make more. When you look at the reviews, there’s all these parents being like, “Please, Julie make more episodes.” It’s kind of like preschool or hypnosis. It’s really great.

Greg

So awesome. Perfect. We all need it.

Virginia

Well, Dr. Dodell, tell listeners where they can find more of your work. I will link to your Instagram because people need to see you dancing on Fridays.

Greg

Oh my goodness, yeah. So I’m @everything_endocrine on Instagram. Twitter, I don’t use that much, but I am on there at @DodellMD. And my practice website is Central Park Endocrinology.

Virginia

Awesome. Well, thank you so much for being here. This was a great conversation.

The Burnt Toast Podcast is produced and hosted by me, Virginia Sole-Smith. You can follow me on Instagram or Twitter.

Burnt Toast transcripts and essays are edited and formatted by Corinne Fay, who runs @SellTradePlus, an Instagram account where you can buy and sell plus size clothing.

The Burnt Toast logo is by Deanna Lowe.

Our theme music is by Jeff Bailey and Chris Maxwell.

Tommy Harron is our audio engineer.

Thanks for listening and for supporting independent anti diet journalism!

This is a public episode. If you’d like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit virginiasolesmith.substack.com/subscribe
Jan 20, 2022
The Value and Visibility of Momfluencer Bodies
2469
There’s a slew of “Look at this mama, she’s so beautiful inside and out.” And it’s always on the photos of women who are thin. We see this equating of “you are slaying motherhood,” with “you don’t have any physical reminders that you’ve created a human and birthed a human.”

Welcome to Burnt Toast! This is the podcast about about diet culture, fatphobia, parenting, and health. I’m Virginia Sole-Smith.

Today’s conversation is with Sara Petersen, a writer based in New Hampshire. Her first book Momfluenced, which examines the performance of motherhood through momfluencer culture, what this reveals about the texture of modern motherhood, and what we might learn from it, is coming next year from Beacon Press.

If you enjoy this episode, please subscribe, rate and review us in your podcast player! Andsubscribe to the Burnt Toast newsletter for episode transcripts, reported essays, and more. (Here’s a 20% discount if you’d like to go paid!)

Quick disclaimer: Sara and I are both white, straight, cisgender women who had our children biologically. We both have varying degrees of thin privilege. This conversation is inevitably focused on the experience of motherhood as this white, straight, cisgender phenomenon because that’s the reality of momfluencing. It’s not an inclusive world.

If a conversation about pregnancy, childbirth and body changes does not sound safe for you, feel free to skip this one.

Episode 27 Transcript

Virginia

Hi, Sara, thank you for being here!

Sara

Hi, I’m so psyched.

Virginia

Why don’t we start by defining some terms.  What is a momfluencer? I loved the way you put it in your Harper’s Bazaar piece, that “they enrage us and yet we cannot look away.”

Sara

The standard definition is an influencer who is also a mother who has monetized her social media platforms. I’m broadening it for my research and book to look at how we all perform motherhood on social media, whether or not we have a monetized following.

Virginia

Interesting. That makes sense because it is true you get micro-influenced by mothers in your space, even if they’re not “capital M” momfluencers.

Sara

Totally, and it impacts how you think about posting your own motherhood content on your own page. It’s this self-conscious narratization of your own story. You start calling yourself a mama versus a mother or a mom. And there’s a romanticization of the basic facts of motherhood.

Virginia

As professional momfluencers have become a legitimate industry, we are seeing much more analysis and discourse around them, which I really cannot get enough of. And I’m so excited for your book. What made you want to dive so deep into this topic?

Sara

Taza, Naomi Davis, was one of my first obsessions. She made motherhood look so joyful. That was confounding for me because I’m someone—obviously I love my kids and I’m super grateful for them—but nine times out of ten, I don’t love the work of motherhood. It’s tedious, it’s monotonous, it’s boring a lot of the time, like playing store or whatever. So seeing someone constantly posting this beautiful, joyful picture of motherhood got in my psyche. Why wasn’t I so readily able to access that same joy? And then I went down the rabbit hole from there.

Virginia

There’s also the aesthetics of momfluencing. I’m recording in my four year old’s bedroom right now because my office is under construction. I’m sitting next to a giant sloth named Stella who is an important part of our family and she’s pretty hideous.

Sara

I really should have brought Kevin. I have a dolphin in my house. Oh, it’s narwhal named Kevin.

Virginia

I find motherhood is a real drag on my aesthetic vibe. This room is filled with stuffed animals that I would never have chosen to surround myself with because they bring my children great joy. But in the momfluencer vision, your children perfectly fit into this beautifully curated life. Their children do not have giant sloths and narwhals. Or they have the cute Etsy versions.

Sara

The detritus of children in a home is ugly, nine out of ten times. I just spoke to Bethanie Garcia about this—The Garcia Diaries. She’ll do the staged photoshoots with her kids in cute little shaker fishermen cardigans, but she’s transparent about the fact that she bribes her kids to wear those because  as soon as the photoshoot is done, they want to wear their SpiderMan onesies.

Virginia

We should mention for folks who are as fascinated by momfluencers as we are, if you want more on these topics, we recommend Kathryn Jezer-Morton’s newsletter Mothers Under the Influence and the podcast Under the Influence with Jo Piazza. And Meg Conley wrote about the mommies of Instagram.

But we are going to talk about momfluencer’s bodies and how the momfluencing sphere intersects with diet culture. It’s important to articulate that these women are both products of and creators of diet culture. They are both living under these rigid standards about what their bodies should look like and reinforcing those standards through all this content creation. There’s also a very specific vernacular to how much influencers do diet culture.

Sara

Pregnancy and postpartum are the two biggest phases where you’re going to see it. Documenting of pregnancies and the barrage of comments. Like, “how do you look so good, pregnant with your fifth kid? I’m pregnant with my first.” Then there are the postpartum photos. It’s “How did you get your body back so quickly? How did you bounce back?”

Virginia

You have made humans and yet you look like you’ve never made humans, which means you’ve achieved what diet culture tells us is a woman’s primary goal in life: To be a mother and to look like that never happened to you.

There’s often a lot of body positive talk woven in with the “bouncing back.” Which can get murky, because there’s a lot of “I’m doing this for me. This is #selfcare,” without acknowledging that you’re reinforcing fatphobia in that process. There’s also the reality that there are very few major name fat momfluencers. There’s often this rhetoric of like, “Oh, you’re so brave, because you’re showing us stretch marks.” But the only people who get to be brave are thin white women. 

Sara

Another one of the tropes is the conflating of moral goodness with how one’s body is presenting. There’s a slew of “Look at this mama, she’s so beautiful inside and out.” And it’s always, again, on the photos of women who are thin. We see this equating of “you are slaying motherhood” with “you don’t have any physical reminders that you’ve created human and birthed a human.” Which adds to the erasure of the labor of motherhood. It erases the need for things like postpartum leave and universal preschool, things that actually help mothers in systemic, meaningful ways, versus the hashtag #noexcuses.

Virginia

You’re right. If you manage to look like you never had a kid at six weeks postpartum, then why do you need maternity leaves? Because you got your body back. You’re done. Oh, that’s infuriating. 

So you have some case studies for us to analyze.

Sara

Alright, so the first one we’re going to look at is Hannah Neeleman. She’s @ballerinafarm. She’s a rancher in Utah. She’s Mormon. She’s married to one of the heirs to JetBlue. But that’s not a big part of her platform because that would go against the homesteading rancherwoman vibe.

This is the birth announcement for her seventh child. The comments are praising her superwoman powers. Like, “How does she look like this pregnant with her seventh kid?” Then there’s another comment that says, “I think she’s just got amazing abs and was able to hide it this long!” So there’s this really pointed dissection of mothers’ bodies where commenters are saying, “I knew it!!!!!!! I thought I saw a little pooch last week!!! ❤️❤️❤️ congrats!!!”

Virginia

There’s a sense of ownership over this woman’s body. That’s a very uncomfortable dynamic.

Sara

Yep. She posts a lot of cleaning videos where she’ll clean up the mess of six children and make it look like a lark, with lots of thumbs up. She does it all with a smile. There’s a comment under this pregnancy announcement post that says, “This is what true feminism looks like! Doing it all! So cool.”

Virginia

Sara, help me, how is this feminism?

Sara 

Feminism here is being a mother, assuming motherhood as a gender essentialist, natural role that a mother should do easily and well and with a smile on her face. She’s adhering to all the patriarchal standards that there are. She is conventionally attractive. She’s retaining her heterosexual desirability, in spite of and despite motherhood. She’s in the home and she’s happy about it all. She’s not complaining.

Virginia

I think about young women, especially coming from rural America, from a conservative background, aspiring to this. It feels like such an unfair bar. There’s so many things about this that are resting on all the different kinds of privilege she has. She’s only doing it all because she’s married to a gazillionaire. I mean, and she’s certainly not doing it all.

Sara

She also homeschools her kids. And there’s never any acknowledgement of outside childcare help or housecleaning help. Another part of her “doing it all” narrative is the idealization of her marriage. When she went to the pageant, she made a big point of posting stories like “Daniel’s staying at home with the kids and he’s the best.”

Virginia

That’s interesting. It’s almost like a cosplay of equality and co-parenting, with that need to overly praise your husband for doing his part.

Who do we have next?

Sara

Amber Fillerup Clark. She used to be known as Barefoot Blonde. I don’t know if I would call her ex-Mormon, but she’s written some really insightful posts disagreeing with the church, which is refreshing. But she, again, is a thin woman. This is how she announced her fourth pregnancy.

I guess we could say she feels “empowered” to lean into her sexuality in a way that not all momfluencers do. There’s a comment that says "No wonder he keeps putting babies in you. LOOK AT YOU! 😍" So she gets a lot of the hypersexualized comments that make me feel feelings.

Virginia

Well, again, it’s the sense of ownership over her body that her followers have. Because yes, she’s putting a semi-naked photo of herself out there for the world to discuss, but I still feel violated on her behalf. Does she not deserve some privacy?

Sara

Totally. This is the whole, “but they’re putting themselves out there so they deserve whatever intrusive behavior or commentary they get.” Which is obviously absurd logic. There’s a comment here that says, “She already looks hungry and then to think that she’s meant to be nurturing a baby as well in there 🥺”

Virginia

I think a lot about the responsibility of influencers putting these images out for young girls. They do have a responsibility to not perpetuate these  dangerous beauty ideals. And yet, we do not know this woman’s health. We cannot make assumptions based on her body that she has an eating disorder or she’s not eating enough to nourish her pregnancy. Healthy pregnancies look different on every person. There’s no evidence here that she’s doing anything dangerous for her pregnancy. I’m troubled by the standard this reinforces and I feel like it’s important to just emphasize that we don’t actually know what we’re seeing. We also don’t know how much of this is even real, right? Because the photos are heavily edited and styled.

Alright, who’s next?

Sara

I just wanted to briefly touch on Rachel Hollis. I included her infamous tiger stripes bikini shots. Do you want to describe the image Virginia?

Virginia

Yes. She is standing on a beautiful beach and she is wearing a monogrammed bikini top. Her hair is very messy. She’s giving us a lot of beachy waves and big sunglasses. This does look like something that maybe her husband just snapped on his iPhone. It has a much more loose, casual, lower quality vibe to the photo. Her stomach, which is very flat because she is a thin person, has some bumpy skin. I wouldn’t even say it’s loose skin exactly. It’s like her skin is just not perfectly taught. There’s a little bit of texture to her stomach.

Sara

This one exemplifies something that is characteristic of Rachel Hollis’ whole thing, which is, “Everything I have is a result of my individual hard work and not because of my various layers of privilege.” And she writes, “Those marks prove that I was blessed enough to carry my babies. And that flabby tummy means I worked hard to lose what weight I could.” So again, it’s this imperative. I have to work out. I have to change the way my body looks after birthing humans because that makes me morally superior to people who choose not to exercise or choose not to prioritize weight loss after pregnancy. She goes on to uphold her sexual desirability when she says, “I wear a bikini because the only man whose opinion matters knows what I went through to look this way. That same man says he’s never seen anything sexier than my body, marks and all.” 

Virginia

I feel frustrated that none of these women are even questioning the premise. There is never a sense of maybe I don’t have to lose the baby weight. Maybe my body is allowed to look like it changed.

Sara

Katie Crenshaw—she’s a great follow—writes a lot about body image stuff as it pertains to motherhood. She talks about the b******t of calling images like these brave. She says, let’s stop qualifying perceived flaws. Imperfections aren’t more beautiful or acceptable because someone produced a child. There’s no moral hierarchy. That’s so important to underscore in this whole conversation, this assumption that if our bodies changed because we had children we are somehow given more grace than people who haven’t birthed children when their bodies change.

Virginia

Yes, lots of people’s stomachs who look like Rachel Hollis’ stomach, or significantly fatter, are actually just fat stomachs and they haven’t had kids. They don’t owe us an explanation or justification for that either. You don’t have to earn the right to have a flawed body.

Sara

It goes back to the tiger stripes, like Rachel Hollis saying that somehow her body looks the way it does, because she’s gone through some sort of whatever. The warrior goddess mentality of motherhood.

Virginia

Which is also another way of fetishizing motherhood, instead of seeing motherhood. If  you’re equating the experience of giving birth to running a triathlon—now you’re stronger than ever, and it’s made you a better person—then we don’t have to do anything for moms because they’re walking through this fire so willingly and bravely. If they can withstand that, then they don’t need paid leave or childcare. So this justification for her body is both harming moms and harming all the people who are not moms.

Sara

Which goes back to @ballerinafarm and how she does it all with six kids and one on the way. That’s not good. We shouldn’t be worshiping this cult of burnout.

Virginia

I will just quickly shout out of course Maintenance Phase did an excellent two part episode on Rachel Hollis. So, if you want way more Rachel Hollis analysis, Aubrey and Michael have you covered there.

Sara

Do you want to go into Hilaria?

Virginia

Okay. She is another extremely thin woman. She’s in a profile, so you can really see the definition of her ab muscles, which I feel is important to the story. She’s wearing a black lacy bra and underwear. She is holding a cute little baby in a red onesie. They are near a bathtub, although they are both wearing clothes. Her hair is also in a nice half up style. So I feel like this is not post-bath. She is sniffing her baby in her underwear.

Sara

So again, a lot of the same patterns that we’ve seen in our other case studies. The “Oh my goodness you look absolutely incredible!! 👏👏🙌🙌❤️❤️ After baby number 2 my body decided to give in to gravity. 🤦🏻‍♀️” That demonization of a body doing what a body does. 

Virginia

That other comment you pulled is “Dam girl!!!!!!!🔥 I wish I'd looked like that. If I had, I too would have had more! But I didn't, so I stopped at 2.”

Sara

Yeah, that one really stuck out for me. We’re in a place where we’re considering how many children to have, how many human beings to add to our family based on how our body responds to pregnancy?

Virginia

I think she’s saying the silent part out loud. The postpartum experience can be so brutal and put you through the wringer in so many ways. For me, personally, it was more about like, I want my body back. I don’t want my body to belong to this other creature anymore. But I can understand what they’re saying, even though it makes me also die inside.

Sara

What I hate about that is the emphasis on the visuals of the body. I had a heinous time, especially postpartum with my first kid. It had nothing to do with how my body felt or looked, but it had everything to do with postpartum depression and the huge mental and emotional shifts that I went through. We’re putting so much emphasis on the appearance of the body versus what the person in the body is experiencing.

Virginia

Yes, like if this person had only managed to look a certain way—even if two was the right number to stop at, or the postpartum experience was brutal due to mental health—it would be like, well, I can have more because my body bounces back. 

Sara

This perceived notion of success runs rampant in all things motherhood. I successfully breastfed, I successfully potty trained. 

Virginia

Wasn’t there some controversy about her and surrogacy or secret surrogacy?

Sara

Yeah, her next kid was born via surrogacy. There was some discourse about, “Oh, she just didn’t want to be pregnant and put her body through that again. So she had someone else do it.” The assumption that we all should be and can be judging mothers and their behaviors.

Virginia

We’re assuming it’s a choice. I mean, it may have been a choice for her. I have no idea. But obviously, using a surrogate is often not a choice. We’re also then feeding into this hierarchy of the best mothers are the ones who can have them biologically and look like it never happened. Second to that would be you—I apologize, I may be using the wrong terms—gestated them yourself, even if you look like that happened. You can be a brave thin mom who gestated your own children. Moving down the hierarchy is people who need IVF or need assistance or go the adoption route. We’re playing into this terrible hierarchy of who’s the the “real” or “true” mom. We’re also belittling the experience that every mom has with their body. Only if you went through some hideous natural birth experience is your story worth telling, is that a true motherhood war story. Other ways that motherhood intersects with our bodies isn’t worth talking about isn’t worth holding space for. I know moms who adopted their kids whose bodies also changed dramatically. It’s still a very physical experience of being a mom.

Also, if your body was your job in the way this woman’s body is, maybe it is a reasonable business decision to say I can’t be pregnant because I have to maintain my body looking like this. 

Sara

There are lots of burgeoning conversations happening in the momfluencer space about how we need to be focusing less, obviously, on mother’s bodies and more on the experience of motherhood, which is work and which is often rendered invisible.

Virginia

I’m so here for that shift in conversation. And I hope some of these influencers feel like they can participate. There’s definitely some opportunity to change some narratives here.

Sara

Yeah, it’s almost always met with overwhelming fan support. 

Virginia

I think the next phase of this is we need to see non-thin moms able to do the same thing, and non-white moms, and non-straight moms, and non-cisgender moms. We need to blow apart this definition of motherhood in so many ways, right? And I am grateful you are doing it.

Butter For Your Burnt Toast

Sara

Okay, so my favorite thing to do these days is to knit while listening to a podcast. 

It’s so heavenly. Because you feel like you’re doing something. Not that you need to be productive at all times, but there’s this virtuous sense of here I am using my hands while also feeding my brain that just feels very good to me. It’s just basically relaxing.

Some of the podcasts I’ve been really into are: Once Upon a Time at Bennington College, and The Plot Thickens.

Virginia

And what are you knitting while you’re listening to all these things?

Sara

The patterns I mostly use are from a knitting momfluencer. Her knitting patterns are beautiful. It’s a cosmos-pink, funnel neck, chunky sweater that I made for my daughter.

Virginia

My recommendation is ignoring your children to read books. Because unlike when you stare at your phone while you’re with your kids—I do that as well, to be clear, but you have to feel guilty because you’re not “present”—when you’re reading, you’re modeling “good behavior.” I’ll pick up my book, become invisible in plain sight, and just read. I do recommend starting out with some light fiction, something you can dip in and out of, because you will get interrupted. 

The thing I’m reading right now, which I’ll admit is so beautifully written it’s not ideal for this, is Matrix by Lauren Groff. I can tell I’m already going to be mad when it’s over. I’m actually going more slowly with it because I don’t want this to end and I want this to be a 500 page book and it’s not.

Sara

That’s the highest praise.

Virginia

So Sara, tell listeners where they can follow your work.

Sara

So, I’m on Twitter and Instagram at @SLouisePetersen. Louise is my middle name. And then I have a website Sara-Petersen.com.

The Burnt Toast Podcast is produced and hosted by me, Virginia Sole-Smith. You can follow me on Instagram or Twitter.

Burnt Toast transcripts and essays are edited and formatted by Corinne Fay, who runs @SellTradePlus, an Instagram account where you can buy and sell plus size clothing.

The Burnt Toast logo is by Deanna Lowe.

Our theme music is by Jeff Bailey and Chris Maxwell.

Tommy Harron is our audio engineer.

Thanks for listening and for supporting independent anti diet journalism!

This is a public episode. If you’d like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit virginiasolesmith.substack.com/subscribe
Jan 13, 2022
"We All Know Too Much About Nutrition."
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“I think in general, we all know too much about nutrition. I say that as a dietitian. Even the most intuitive eating of kids will be a picky eater. And that’s fine. We don’t need to nutrition them out of that. There isn’t of a nutrient in broccoli or kale that they can’t get from something else, I promise.”

Welcome to Burnt Toast! This is the podcast about about diet culture, fatphobia, parenting, and health. I’m Virginia Sole-Smith. I’m the author of The Eating Instinct and the forthcoming Fat Kid Phobia.

Today’s guest is Amee Severson. Amee is co-author of How to Raise an Intuitive Eater with Sumner Brooks, RD. Amee is also a registered dietitian who specializes in eating disorder recovery, healing and preserving food/body relationships, and provides gender-inclusive and LGBTQ-affirming care.

Amee joins us today to discuss their new book. We will be talking about feeding kids but also about doing your own work and why we need to forget everything we know about nutrition.

If you enjoy this episode, please subscribe, rate and review us in your podcast player! And make sure you’re subscribed to the Burnt Toast newsletter for episode transcripts, reported essays, and so much more. (Here’s a 20% discount if you’d like to go paid!)

Have a question or a topic you want us to tackle in a future episode? Post it as a comment on this episode of the newsletter or send it to virginiasolesmith@substack.com. 

Episode 26 Transcript

Virginia

I am so excited. I’ve interviewed you a few other times for articles and things, but it is always such a pleasure to chat with you.

Today we are talking about your new book, How to Raise an Intuitive Eater. This is the book I’ve been dying to be able to hand to people. This is a resource we desperately need. I think a lot of people are expecting that they’re going to pick up this book and be told, “Step one to feed your child. Step two to feed your child.” Instead you spend the first 150 pages or so—really half the book—talking about parents. Why we as parents need to do our own work and how we can do that work. So, why start there? Especially because it is so hard, Amee. You’re making us do really hard work.

Amee

I know. I wish I could make it easy and just have it be a complete step-by-step guide, but we would have been missing a lot.

It’s not an uncommon question: Why make so much extra work in there?

I remember when I was a kid, every woman in my family had super short hair. Over the age of like 35 or 40, everyone just cut their hair short. I had this assumption that you got old (because that was old to me when I was seven) and you cut your hair short. You didn’t have long hair when you were old. That’s ridiculous, you know? There’s just this assumption that this is what you do.

And it was the same for dieting for my family. You reach teenage-hood and you joined Weight Watchers. You hated your body and you tried to lose weight. I just assumed that’s what you did as an adult. I know that I’m not alone because we see it everywhere. The way parents or caregivers talk about not just their body, but food in general. You don’t ever have to say anything explicitly to your child. You never have to say, “I think your body is wrong,” or “I think you’re eating wrong,” or “This is your fault.” If you are saying it to yourself, if you are living your life like that, your kids are tiny sponges who soak up all that and reflect it back in the world.

Virginia

Something I hear a lot from parents is, “My child is three or my child is thirteen and I’m now realizing I need to do this. And is it too late?” They’re wishing this was something they fixed about themselves before they became parents. Of course, we cannot go back to our pre-child selves and work on this.

Amee

Just like with intuitive eating, it’s never too late to start working on it. I think at a certain point, it is probably more beneficial for your older teenage child to do their own work, as opposed to you having different rules or attitudes around food. It can feel so overwhelming to start, like, oh, I have to fix myself and master the first half of the book before I’m allowed to start trying to introduce these concepts to my kid. Especially when your kid is older, it can feel more urgent, too, like I need to do this now. I already screwed up so much. As a parent, I get that. You, as a parent or as a caregiver, are repairing your own relationship with food while continuing to foster your kids having a good relationship with food—those two things can happen concurrently. It can be very important, especially if your relationship with food isn’t what you want your kid to grow up with or if you get that sinking feeling that this is not what I want to see my kid doing in 20 years. Then doing it concurrently is important.

Virginia

I think that’s reassuring, too, because it lets us know that we don’t have to fix it completely to do better for them. I hope people find that liberating. I know I do! I just think, okay, I don’t have to be getting an A+ on this, you know? I was trying to get dieting perfect for so long and now I have to get this perfect?

Amee

Yeah, there’s a lot of pressure to be the perfect parent all the time. Especially in this way I am so tired of, like “My kid eats kale, so they’re perfect.” My kid knows that kale goes to work with my husband. He puts it in a seafood case at work because it’s pretty, but we don’t eat it. And that’s totally fine! Because perfect parenting is a myth, I think. Sumner Brooks and I really emphasize throughout the book how faking it till you make it is totally okay. Having a lot of compassion for yourself for not having it all figured out and not being perfect is fine.

Virginia

Let’s talk about your Three Keys concept. This is what you see as the building blocks of the feeding relationship. The first key is providing unconditional love and support for your child’s body. Am I right that this is often one of the hardest parts for folks?

Amee

Yeah, it definitely is. Partly because I think that it can be hard to recognize that we aren’t providing unconditional love and support for our kids. If someone is picking up this book, if someone’s listening to this podcast, if someone is looking up any sort of parenting advice online, they’re probably trying their damnedest to help their kid as much as possible. It’s not malicious, it’s none of that. They’re trying their best and hearing that we can be harming, for lack of a better word, our kids through setting expectations on their bodies or even praising bodies—any of that can be hard to hear. Like, oh crap I’m doing something wrong. We live in a society that has put conditional love and support on bodies and we want to change that, because one of the least important things about a person is what their body looks like or even what their body can do.

Virginia

What is an example of when someone may think they’re providing that support, but they really aren’t? 

Amee

I think praise is a big one. Like, “You’re so pretty,” or “You’re so strong,” or “You’re so handsome.” It also can be subtle things. Something like, “are you sure you really want to wear that? You look really pretty. But are you sure you want to wear that?” It’s a lot of the buts, the “You’re doing really well at this thing, but your body is taking away from it.” And those are those unintentional jabs that build up over time.

Virginia

I was just interviewing someone for my book and we were talking about athletics. Kids get told way, way, way too young that they don’t have “the body” for a particular sport, even if they love a sport. You might love running, but you don’t have a “runner’s body” or “You’re not tall enough to play basketball.” Even if you’re still putting your kid on the team or encouraging them to love that sport, you’re letting them know that they won’t be the best at it, and so that it’s somehow not worthwhile because of their body.

Key number two is to implement a flexible and reliable feeding routine. This is something that you all articulated so well in the book that was really helpful for me. Often, we can either be very structured about meals or have zero structure and both can be really problematic. You said that what kids really need is to know they’re going to get enough food. The point of structure is to let them know that this is a need that will be met. I was like, oh, it’s not about trying to get the kid to eat on a certain schedule. It’s about reassuring that they are going to be fed. How did you come to that realization and why that is so important for parents to realize?

Amee

One of the reasons why it felt so important to talk about enough-ness is because of the central importance of enough-ness in all of nutrition. It’s not about what you’re eating or the timing of it, or anything. It’s just enough-ness, overall. It can feel really uncomfortable to say no, because that’s often how we’re told to do it as an adult for ourselves is if you want something, you eat it, regardless of when you want it, regardless of how you want it. That’s totally fine. Absolutely encourage that. Kids have very one track brains. They’re not quite as prefrontal cortex-developed as we are as adults. It can be harder for them to recognize, like truly recognize, that if I’m hungry and I don’t eat now, I will get enough food later. Especially if there has been a time where they were maybe presented with food, like a dinner for example, that they didn’t want to eat. It’s a lot of food, maybe on a plate, that they don’t enjoy. They’re going to probably leave the table hungry. And the same with snacks, the same with lunches, breakfast, all of it. If they’re not given enough and given the option to have enough, they develop the sense of okay, I need to get it when I can. And we want to make sure that they know that if you don’t eat all your lunch, that’s fine. And you can have more when you get home.

I have an elementary school kid. And elementary school lunches are a whole thing where they only get like 10 minutes to eat food. My kid is a very slow eater. So I know she never finishes her whole meal. So she comes home hungry. We’ve fallen into the routine that she gets  another lunch when she comes home from school. Because otherwise she’s hungry. We want her to know that like, okay, you don’t have to feel sad or upset that you didn’t finish your lunch. You don’t need to feel chaotic when you come home and just go for whatever food is available. You can make yourself some mac and cheese, or we can. She’s figured out the microwave and it’s beautiful. So she can do more.

Virginia

We love that. Yeah, my eight year old has the toaster and the microwave down now.

Amee

Same! It’s beautiful. It’s a lovely day as a parent when that happens.

One other thing that comes up in that space is if we’re about to have dinner and she’s hungry, I will say “No, we’re not gonna have a snack right now because I want you to eat dinner. It will come and it’s food that you like. There will always be one part of it that you will eat. So I want you to be hungry for that.” It’s normal to be hungry leading up to a meal and there will be enough food for you to eat. My seven year old does not understand that whole sentence, but her brain will conceptualize and understand if we do it again and again. And that’s the goal.

Virginia

Yes, that’s helpful. I think you’ve just articulated this thing that parents struggle with. There are times when kids want to eat a lot of food and it’s not, in our brains, a time to eat. We think you had lunch at school but now you’re coming home starving. But you’re compensating for a lack, where she’s not getting enough time to eat her lunch at school. Versus, it’s 20 minutes to dinner and I’m not creating a lack by saying no at this point. Your enough-ness will be achieved very shortly, I’m just helping you understand 20 minutes. When you’re saying no, are you saying no in a way that’s restrictive or supportive?

Amee

That phrase right there—restrictive or supportive—is a conversation Sumner and I had a lot as we wrote this book. How can we phrase this in a way that is supportive and not restrictive?

Virginia

Yes. That’s a helpful phrase for us all to keep in our hearts and come back to in those moments when there’s a request for food that’s catching you off guard.

And then the third key is to develop and use your intuitive eating voice. What is my Intuitive Eating voice, Amee?

Amee

It’s the voice that tells us we are hungry, we want food, that we don’t really want to eat this food tonight, but we want to eat that one. It’s I want to move my body today because I feel like I’ve got energy. It’s I don’t have energy and I think I need to take a nap. We are all born with that voice, all of us are, and sometimes we shut it down. Sometimes we’re just raised and in this culture that is not allowing us to foster that, not allowing us to hold on to that and to trust it. So, by developing and using that intuitive eating voice, we get the chance to pull it out of hiding and keep it from being lost. By doing that as a caregiver, as a parent, we show how safe it is, how okay it is to do that. We get to be the home base forever, for these kids. Like, this is what my my family did and it was fine. This is what I learned is safe and okay. We can really allow that space to be held for ourselves. For our kids, it looks like not letting this thing that is really cool and really important fade away and be locked in a deep dark corner of our brain. Because it’s a really cool space where we get to trust our bodies.

Virginia

I’m almost tearing up as you talk about that because it’s really such an honor to be able to do that for our kids. It’s a privilege that we can be that space for our kids.

So, you take us through these three keys and then we start to talk about nutrition. I love how late in the book nutrition comes because all too often this is where the conversation starts and stops, right? Why do you think it’s so important to shift the focus off nutrition? When is there a place for nutrition in the conversation?

Amee

I think in general, we all know too much about nutrition. I say that as a dietician. 90% of the work that I do is un-teaching nutrition to people because there’s so much that’s contradicting itself or so overblown. How the heck are you supposed to navigate all of that? The last thing Sumner and I want to do is throw on even more rules. The rules are not the point. We didn’t want to make it the main focus of the book because it’s not the main focus of intuitive eating. It’s not the main focus of raising kids.

If you are shoving vegetables on your kid, they’re not gonna eat it. My kid ate a bite of a carrot last night. That was it. Her vegetable for the day was a single bite of a carrot. And that was fine. I was glad she ate a bite of the carrot because they were good. Because when we obsess about nutrition—did you eat enough vegetables, did you eat enough fruit, protein, fat—we take away from that intuitive eating voice. We take away from that instinct that it’s okay to eat food. It’s okay to to not like things. It’s normal to have a picky kid. It’s not a screw up on parents part. it’s not a broken thing within your kid. Even the most intuitive eating of kids will be a picky eater, and that’s fine. We don’t need to nutrition them out of that. There isn’t of a nutrient in broccoli or kale that they can’t get from something else, I promise. We can expose our kids to these things, expose them to us as parents, normally eating food andtaking the pressure off of ourselves and off of them to find the most important thing that we could possibly eat on our plate is the brussel sprout. It’s just a piece of food, same as this chicken, same as this french fry. I don’t need to fight with you about this one. I’m allowed to not like this and I’m allowed to try it. That comes up, too, how many exposures it takes for a kid to be willing to try a food, to be willing to accept a food. It’s a lot, like 18 to 20 exposures, which is just looking at the food existing.

Virginia

Right, without pressure to eat it. I think so often people hear that exposure number and think that means they have to push it on their kid 18 to 20 times. They just need to be in a room with it.

Amee

Yeah, It’s like sparkling water, like if the essence of it exists in a room with you.

Virginia

It’s the Lacroix of vegetables. Just a waft. Check, we got another exposure down.

The hyper focus on nutrition and the anxiety parents have about nutrition so often gets in the way of the meal being relaxed, fun, maybe you have a conversation you enjoy with your child. All of that gets lost, right? We’re not getting that opportunity for food as connection and food as comfort. 

Amee

Yeah, when it turns into a food fight at the table, like just eat this food, it takes takes the focus away from a time where we can hang out or just be together. 

My daughter, she’s almost eight and she goes in and out of more picky periods, but she’s also a kid and her tastes do not line up with that of mine and my husband’s. I like really spicy curry. She does not, to my great disappointment, like really spicy curry. So if I’m going to make curry, I don’t expect her to eat it. I don’t even really expect to present it to her because she knows what it is. She isn’t gonna touch it. But I know she’ll eat some of the dino nuggets I keep in the freezer. So she can have that and some white rice and she’ll eat one of those things.

The other night we had fish tacos, again spicy and fish, two big no-no’s. So, we made her a quesadilla because we figured she would eat a quesadilla. It did not land that night. I don’t know why, could not figure it out. But it was not the ticket. And she was visibly really sad. She ate a couple bites and was like, “I’m full.” And we were like, “No, you’re not, like, we know you’re not full. What’s wrong?” Just very quietly, she was like, “I just don’t like this tonight.” And we’re like, “Oh, just go get something else then. You can make yourself a sandwich or have some mac and cheese.” Like, “Eat food, please.” She got up and made herself an easy mac. It was beautiful.

Virginia

Yes, that’s awesome. It does get easier when they can use the microwave themselves so you’re not the one having to get up and make the whole second meal. That’s the tension, right? Is all the labor that goes into that.

Amee

The food she can make herself, she can switch out a dinner for. That’s the rule.

Virginia

That’s a great rule. That’s a great way to put it.

Amee

And we always, always have some foods that–well, there’s a really weird Uncrustables shortage right now. It’s very sad, actually, because it makes lunches a lot harder to pack. But, even before she could use a microwave, we would have Uncrustables in the freezer, and she would just pull those out and eat those. Or a bowl of cereal, which is totally fine, too.

Virginia

I think folks are gonna find this deeply reassuring.

I want to talk a little more about the nutrition piece. I liked how you said that you do a lot of un-teaching in your work because I think a big problem is we’ve absorbed so much of this nutrition knowledge and accumulated it so intensively over the years. Is there a way to incorporate nutrition in a more useful way into your life? Or is it a matter of just letting a lot of that information go? 

Amee

Yeah. I think there is a little bit of case-by-case for that because there is some nutrition information out there that is really valuable for some people, given their circumstances in life or what’s happening for them. And some of that same information is really not useful for anyone else. For example, my partner is diabetic. He needs to count carbs because he needs to dose insulin. If he doesn’t, It could be bad. I however, don’t need to count carbs. Neither does my kid. The only reason my kid is learning any carb ratios at all is for “Daddy has low blood sugar. Can you please go get him a soda?” She did absolutely bring him a Diet Coke one time.

Virginia

Love the effort but…

Amee

So, we’re learning this one has carbs so we need you to bring this one to Daddy. But so many of those little specific nutrition like tidbits can be really important for one person but really unimportant for another. We are in such like a black and white society that if this thing is important for one, we assume it’s important for all. If this thing is unhealthy for one person, we assume it’s unhealthy for all, but that’s not true. We can pick and choose what is important and for the most part, we also get to pick and choose that forever. For example, I like to use my husband’s example. He doesn’t drink sugar sodas, for example, because he didn’t drink them growing up and he doesn’t think it’s worth his insulin. But Fritos and queso, like Fritos scoops and the crappy Fritos queso, is his jam. He will eat an entire bag in 30 minutes. That’s one of his Christmas presents every year. That’s worth his insulin.

There are a few exceptions to that, like allergies is one. But for the most part, we get to pick and choose when it’s important and when it’s not. We don’t have to cut anything out ever. If it will kill you, then maybe. But for the most part, we don’t have to. If we are interested in or willing to do the work to unpack our own internal diet culture beliefs, internal fatphobia, and the way we externalize that as well, then we really get to pick it apart, which is a lot of work and sometimes not the most fun work. But that’s what leads to having a better relationship with all of this. I find most of the work we do around nutrition is unpacking what’s not important.

Virginia

That’s a really empowering way to frame it. I think people think they don’t get to choose. Nutrition is given to them as the set of cardinal rules they have to follow instead of something you can filter through your own life and your own context.

I really love that you call the last chapter of the book “what to do when this feels harder than you thought.” I do not want to give away the ending of the book. There’s so much more in this book than Amee and I have talked about—you need to read the whole thing. But I do think when people are working on divesting from diet culture and fatphobia it just feels so hard some days. You hit these brick walls and you don’t know where to go. Then you end up worrying that what you did caused more harm because you’re trying to reduce harm. So what do we do when we hit those brick walls? 

Amee

I think accepting, believing, expecting that we will hit a wall at some point. There’s always a wall, whether it’s exhaustion or just confusion or frustration because we all have limits. We don’t have to be ready for every circumstance that’s gonna come our way. And we can have a lot of compassion for ourself in that space. I expect it to be hard. I haven’t met a single person that’s like, “Oh, my God, that was the easiest thing I’ve ever done.”

Most people come to me, as a clinician, and are like, this is so much harder than I thought it would be. It is challenging. And it is for our kids, too. The longer we’ve been stuck in our own diet culture mindset, the harder it can be to encourage our kids to re-trust this space. It can feel really frustrating and hard and that’s okay. I think self compassion is probably the most important thing we can hold.

In our house we have a lot of conversations about how we’re not going to have any more candy right now. We’re gonna save this candy for later and you can have more tomorrow. Or no, you don’t get to eat more Halloween candy before bed because you just brushed your teeth and I’m tired. You’re going to bed and you can have more tomorrow.

Virginia

I had a cool moment with my four year old recently. We had popcorn and we hadn’t had popcorn in the house for a while because my kids are really messy with popcorn so I stopped buying it for a few months. Then I was like, Oh, they love popcorn, I should get popcorn again. And the first day we had it, my four year old wanted only popcorn. At dinner she was having a plate of popcorn. And then she wanted another plate of popcorn and another plate of popcorn and I could see Dan, my husband, getting a little tense. Like, are we gonna watch her eat a whole bag of popcorn? Is that okay? I knew that it was just because it was new and we hadn’t had popcorn for a while and she loves it and she was really happy to have it. I said to her, “Just so you know, I want you to have as much as you want with dinner. We can also, if you’re getting full, save your plate and have this popcorn with breakfast tomorrow.” Immediately her posture changed and she was like, “Oh, oh yeah, I’m full.” and gave me the plate and we put it aside for breakfast and she ate it for breakfast the next morning. And it was clearly that she was just like, “I better eat all the popcorn right now because I don’t know when I’ll have it again.” As soon as I explained that it’s here in the house now and we’ll have it again, she was like, “Oh, Okay, got it.” That was very cool to watch happen  in real time with her.

Amee

Yeah, once you see your kids start to do it, it’s really cool. We had a similar experience with a chocolate orange, those ones you whack on the table and they break apart. That fun, interactive food is really exciting for my kid right now. We found one at Trader Joe’s and she was so excited about it, and we bought it. She ate that first one within a few days. Then we went back to Trader Joe’s a couple days later and there was another one. So we got it. It’s been like a week and a half and it’s still sitting in the cupboard and she keeps forgetting it exists because it’s just not exciting anymore.

Butter For Your Burnt Toast

Amee

We are currently watching—we’re late to the game—Succession. That is what we spend our nights doing. I’m very invested in all these people that I really hate so if you want to hate watch something…

Virginia

If you have not read it yet, the New Yorker profile of Jeremy Strong is a fascinating and hilarious read. Definitely check it out.

It turns out he is just as horrible as Kendall Roy is. He’s not actually acting at all. At times I even found it a little triggering because I find all the men on Succession a little triggering. I was like, “Oh, God, he’s like so many like, boys I had crushes on in high school who turned out to be these theater jerks.”

Amee

That’s the whole reason we stopped watching House of Cards after one season. We’re like, this is too close to home. We have to stop.

Virginia

Exactly. Okay, my recommendation is also something to watch. It is a movie I watched recently. As folks know, I do a monthly movie club with my siblings. My siblings are significantly younger and cooler than me, so we each take turns picking movies and my movie is always a terrible pick and then they all pick these amazing things. This was my brother-in-law’s pick, actually, it’s called The Sound of Metal. It is a really moving film about a musician. He’s a drummer in a heavy metal band and he loses his hearing overnight. He goes completely deaf and you never really find out why he loses it. But you watch him coming to terms with being deaf. It’s also a powerful story about addiction. He’s in recovery and you see his quest to get his hearing back almost as like a form of relapsing. It’s just a beautiful movie, it takes you into the deaf community. It’s very thought-provoking about addiction, mental health, and disability and it’s beautifully shot and acted.

So Amy, thank you so much for joining us. This was such a great conversation. The book is How to Raise an Intuitive Eater. Tell folks where they can find more of your work.

Amee

My website for my professional work is Prosper Nutrition Wellness. I’m based in Washington State. You can find me on Instagram or Twitter at Amee Severson.

Thanks so much for listening to Burnt Toast! If you’d like to support the show, please subscribe for free in your podcast player and tell a friend about this episode. Or consider a paid subscription to the Burnt Toast Newsletter. It’s on sale this month for just $4 per month or $40 for the year. You get a ton of cool perks and you keep this an ad- and sponsor-free space.

The Burnt Toast Podcast is produced and hosted by me, Virginia Sole-Smith. You can follow me on Instagram or Twitter.

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Jan 06, 2022
"The Goal Is Not A Kid Who Eats Everything."
2168
“This is exactly what diet culture, and everyone who gives advice on Instagram  doesn’t want you to know, because it’s not straightforward. And there’s no clear solution.”

Welcome to Burnt Toast! This is the podcast about why your kids should be eating more waffles and frozen burritos for dinner. We also talk about diet culture, fatphobia, parenting, and a bunch of other stuff. I’m Virginia Sole-Smith. I’m the author of The Eating Instinct and the forthcoming Fat Kid Phobia.

Today’s guest is Burnt Toast fan favorite and friend of the show, Amy Palanjian. Amy is the creator of the kid food blog Yummy Toddler Food. She’s also a mom of three, my lifelong work wife, and my former co-host on the Comfort Food Podcast.

Amy joins us today to dissect the concept of the “back-up meal.” If your kids hate what’s for dinner, should you let them swap it out for something else? And more to the point: Since many of you have told us you are doing this, how do we let go of the guilt they can inspire?

If you enjoy this episode, please subscribe, rate and review us in your podcast player! And make sure you’re subscribed to the Burnt Toast newsletter, for episode transcripts, reported essays and so much more.

Have a question or a topic you want us to tackle in a future episode? Post it as a comment on this episode of the newsletter or send it to virginiasolesmith@substack.com. 

PS. Amy’s and my last conversation was about Halloween candy. If you are stressing about holiday food right now, this might be a good one to go back and listen to because all the strategies we talked about for Halloween candy definitely still apply.

Episode 25 Transcript

Virginia

Today we are talking about backup meals. This first came up when I wrote an essay on Burnt Toast about how my grandmothers fed their families. My British grandmother did not cook a weeknight dinner, ever. In England, they have tea as an evening meal. In my grandmother’s house, tea meant literally a cup of tea and two pieces of toast, maybe some sponge cake. That is all you serve and it is possibly genius. I do love that this newsletter is called Burnt Toast. I didn’t know this story about her when I named it that, but it feels very appropriate.

A lot of readers, after that essay, said, "We don’t do exactly that, but if our kids don’t like what we’re eating for dinner, we let them pick a backup meal like peanut butter and jelly or a bowl of cereal." And then you, Amy, messaged me and said, "Oh yeah, our backup meal is a frozen burrito." And my head exploded because you and I have been talking about how we feed our kids for the last eight-and-a-half years and I had no idea you did this!

Amy

We did it with our first kid. She could have toast if she didn’t like the main meal. Then we had more children and I stopped doing it regularly because it seemed like too much work. Instead, I leaned in hard to making sure that there were easy sides on the table. But I’ve got a kid who’s nine, and she likes what she likes. Sometimes she’s willing to try new things and sometimes she’s not. I have discovered that I don’t actually need to make her eat food she doesn’t want to eat. So we have easy options that I don’t actually have to get up and cook. The only problem with our current backup meal is that it requires me to buy a lot of frozen burritos, which I should maybe just embrace. But there’s a particular one from Amy’s that all three of my kids really like. It’s just bean and cheese. I should just buy it by the case.

So, maybe twice a month she really dislikes the meal. She will get up and make herself a frozen burrito. Right now I’m testing recipes for a cookbook, so my kids are seeing recipes that they’ve never seen before, or they’re seeing things in slightly different ways, because we tend to eat the same thing and I can’t make a cookbook with five recipes.

Virginia

No. You need, like, 75 recipes and that is a lot of new food to throw at your kids all the time. That’s like the cobbler’s kids have no shoes. Or in your case, many, many pairs of shoes that they don’t want to wear.

So, an interesting thing to me about the whole backup meal conversation is that when people started telling me they were doing it, it was a little apologetic or ashamed. Like, “Yeah, we know we’re not supposed to, but this happens at our house.” And I just thought, where have we gone wrong here? Because to me, this does not sound like a failure. You have a nine-year-old who’s capable of making her own burrito for dinner! This feels like a triumph! So, let’s unpack this a little bit. Where do you think this sense of backup meals as a parenting failure comes from?

Amy

I think a lot of it is this pressure on family meals, that we’re all eating the same thing. The point of family meals is to expose kids to a range of foods over time so that they eat them. Which, as you and I know, is not really the way that humans work. 

Backup meals feel like a departure from what we’ve been taught. So I think it’s both the pressure on family meals to look a certain way and also the way that we talk about the Division of Responsibility. The way that we talk about how we feed our kids doesn’t really allow for the option of the kids just choosing something else. 

Virginia

Division of Responsibility can reduce a lot of pressure. But what happens if the kid refuses every piece of food you put on the table? The backup meal is definitely not strict DOR because it’s what they’re trying to get you away from. But there’s also this reality.

Amy

Yeah, I think there’s also something about if we let our kids eat the food that they want, we’re somehow not doing our job. It feels like we’re not succeeding in our parenting goals of raising kids who want to eat a bunch of different foods. 

Virginia

Often the foods they want to eat are not foods that we have been told we can feel good about them wanting to eat

Amy

Especially not for dinner.

Virginia

Right. This is where the diet culture piece of it comes in. You’ve made a delicious kale salad with a runny egg on top and some goat cheese and your kid is turning all of that down and would rather have Eggo waffles (not like that’s a story that’s happened in my own house or anything.) You’re not supposed to live on Eggo waffles. But kids are not programmed to want confusing textures like kale and runny eggs all the time.

Amy

I mean, honestly, I don’t ever even want to eat kale. I also think, we serve more vegetables probably at dinner than most other meals, because it’s the meal that we cook more. So, I think if we know that our kids are just going to eat some crackers that we’ve doubly failed.

Virginia

Right, you’ve missed this opportunity to get vegetables into them. We’ve equated dinner with vegetable consumption in a way that’s counterproductive, both to teaching kids to like vegetables and to enjoying dinner. 

Amy

Right. Also, kids are the most tired at that time of the day. So giving them the more challenging foods in that context is just silly.

Virginia

If you’re approaching this from that Division of Responsibility mindset, there’s this equating of backup meals with short order cooking. I think we need to sort out the gray area between these things. A backup meal is not helpful if I sit down at the table and my kid immediately demands something different and I have to get up and go prepare another meal. That’s short order cooking. That does legitimately both make me cranky and create a not-great power dynamic between me and my kids and food. So a backup meal is not that. But what is it? What’s your line?

Amy

Well, I’m not getting up.

Virginia

That is the line. Amy’s not getting up.

Amy

I’m not getting up. The kids need to be able to get it on their own. So, we have done the frozen burrito, which my two girls can make on their own, and we have done cereal, which they can bring to the table. The five-year-old needs help because she can’t pour. And we’ve done toast.

In my mind, this is a fairly rare occurrence. It is a way to make sure that the meal is still pleasurable for everyone and that we can have a good experience regardless of what the food is, so I want the food to be super straightforward.

Virginia

I’ll also say, as someone for whom the backup meal is becoming a less rare occurrence—more like a twice a week occurrence—don’t feel bad, if it’s more frequent. For kids with more complicated histories around food, this might be where you are. If settling on a backup meal that they feel good eating an doesn’t create extra work for you enables you to share the meal, and have a fun conversation with your kid, that’s great. That’s going to do so much more for their confidence and comfort level around food than dying on the “But I put rolls on the table and that’s your safe food and why won’t you eat the rolls” mountain. They’re like, “Because these rolls have seeds on them and I hate rolls with seeds.” Now you’re in a whole hellscape. 

Amy

My kids can spot a seed from like seven miles away.

Virginia

Seeds are such a problem, and yet my children love everything bagels which are covered in many kinds of seeds.

Speaking of bagels, I want to list some of the options people said they use as backup foods because I think these all fall into that criteria you’re sketching out of very minimal prep, kids can access themselves, and you can quickly move on with the rest of the meal. So: yogurt, cereal, simple sandwiches, PB&J type things, bagel and cream cheese, sliced turkey, peanuts, cheese and crackers.

I also appreciate the mom who said, “Whatever they can safely get out of the fridge by themselves” because that seems like a fair bar. Any other options that you would recommend or that I haven’t listed there?

Amy

Frozen foods, like burritos. You mentioned waffles.

Virginia

Waffles are huge in my house.

Amy

We don’t do mac and cheese as this option, but you could get those individual microwavable servings.

Virginia

Another piece we need to talk about is the timing. I have been experimenting with, rather than having it happen in that moment of everyone sitting down at the table, I have been talking to my kid ahead of time and saying, “Here’s what I’m making for dinner. Do you want that? Or would you like a bagel or a waffle?” And the reason I like that is because then we don’t have the super stressful panic attack moment at the table where she feels overwhelmed by stuff she doesn’t want to eat. It gives her more confidence going into the meal that she knows there’s going to be something there she likes. But I don’t know if that would work for everybody.

Amy

I would much rather bring everything to the table, including whatever easy sides I’ve decided to include, and see how that goes first. Because if I offered a frozen burrito every night, they would probably always take it. Usually the reactions that my kids have about food are worse when they don’t see it. Like if I was saying, “I’m making pasta,” they’d be like, “What shape? What color? Is there cheese?” I don’t have the bandwidth to have the pre-negotiation. So I would rather just wait, even though, it could create a hiccup.

Virginia

I think you have to know your kid’s temperament. We were stuck in a bad pattern of kids sitting down to the table and screaming. That was super triggering for me, because I literally just finished putting effort into this meal. I want to sit down and enjoy my food and instead I’m having to sort out whether or not you’re going to eat it. So deciding ahead of time, even if it means she’s defaulting to the backup meal more often, is reducing our dinnertime conflict so much that it feels worth it. But I completely agree. I’m saying, “Do you want ramen noodles and kimchi or do you want a bagel?” It’s not shocking that she’s like, “Bagel, please.” She may be saying that more because I’m asking.

So another work-around is to think about how you can still make the meal feel inclusive for them. I still serve the rest of the dishes family style, and every now and then if she sees something she does want a bite of, or there’s a new food, and I’ll say, “Do you want some of this on your plate?” I’m not ruling out the idea that she would eat the rest of the meal. I’m just like, “Okay, you want a bagel on your plate and then there’s this other stuff you can choose from.” This is why we have to get away from these hard and fast rules about how family dinner has to go, because this is what’s working in my house. But it needs to play out differently in your house.

Amy

I think we need to give ourselves plenty of room for this to change and adjust to whatever phase that you’re going through. This is exactly what  diet culture and  everyone who gives advice on Instagram doesn’t want you to know, because it’s not straightforward: there’s no clear solution. The key here is being responsive to your family in the context.

I think as my kiddo is getting older, I’m trying to see where I can give her more independence and let her be more in charge. And that’s not every night, but we want them to be able to respectfully speak up when they want to add something else to their plate. Even if it’s a condiment, or if they want a different drink. These are subtle ways that they can advocate for themselves in those situations. So, practicing that a little bit more, especially as kids get into middle school, and they might start hearing stuff. I just want some of those tools to be practiced. 

Virginia

That’s a useful way of reframing this. I think the reason people were embarrassed to admit they did the backup meal is because it felt like overly catering to their kid, and because the food that the backup meal is isn’t “good” food for family dinner. But when we think about our big picture goal, it’s not to have a kid who eats everything that we serve. It’s to have a kid who can navigate the strange waters of, “What am I hungry for? What do I need at this meal? Is that different from the messages I’m getting?” The family dinner is a place to practice that before they’re out in the world, and the messages they’re getting are diet culture messages. Having them be firm and able to stand their ground in knowing, “this is how my needs will be met at this meal.” That’s the whole goal. That’s what we’re doing.

Amy

I’ve been thinking about this more this past year, because it’s been very hard for me to feel excited about food through COVID and all the stress. I’m hungry physically, but not much is appealing. So I am very aware of what it feels like when someone else offers me food that I don’t want. It’s a horrible feeling when someone wants you to eat something and you don’t want it. It’s that pressure that comes with knowing someone wants you to do something that you just, in your body, don’t want to do. I’m not saying this is always going to happen at the dinner table. But It’s liberating to look at this as part of raising a competent eater.

Virginia

A kid who can advocate for themselves and who knows that what feels safe in their body matters more than making other people happy. That’s important.

Amy

On Instagram recently, I had posted this reel that gave ways to help kids engage with their food and to help them feel more in control of their food. There were a lot of comments from people saying things like “This generation of parents gives their kids too many choices.” It’s not like previous generations of adults had great relationships with food.  Why would we not do something different?

Virginia

We’re actually trying to unlearn some stuff here.

Okay, so back to nuts and bolts. Do you think it should always be the same option, no matter what? Or would you rotate? One idea I got from a follower was that the backup meal is always cereal, but the kids can pick which kind of cereal, which seems like a nice framework if you’re a family that stocks multiple kinds of cereal, which we are. 

Amy

It rotates based on what we have in the house. Some weeks, we might have frozen burritos. And then some weeks, we might just have a lot of bread. Or we might have muffins that I made.

Virginia

You could get caught in a really frustrating power struggle if your backup meal is a burrito and she’s like, actually, I don’t like burritos anymore. And then it’s like well, now what am I doing?

Amy

Yeah. I keep it fairly loose.

Virginia

What about if you’re dealing with multiple kids? Do siblings get the same backup meal option? Or would you kind of customize it for each kid? 

Amy

So, the last time that we had a burrito with the oldest, I thought that the younger two were going to ask for one, but they wound up not. We did have one meal where nobody was happy so they brought cereal to the table, and then all the kids had a bowl of cereal. Sometimes, one of them asks for cheese and crackers and they’ll just bring it to the table and then anyone who wants it can have it. It just gets very chaotic when you’ve got multiple kids. And I don’t want the whole kitchen on the dining table.

Virginia

Because that’s overwhelming for kids, too. And messy and frustrating for you. But this is not hard and fast. There are going to be scenarios where it would make sense to customize, certainly if you have kids with an age difference that impacts their chewing ability, like a young toddler and a preschooler, you might have to do different backups. But I agree, if our big picture is less work for us, then whatever reduces the chaos makes sense.

The other piece of it we should talk about more is, should kids be in charge of getting it themselves? I know that’s what your nine-year-old is doing. I was all for this at first, because it does sound like the best way to reduce the work, especially if you’re waiting to make the backup meal call at the table.

But when I talked about this on Instagram, Diana Rice of @anti.diet.kids raised some great points. She works with kids with ARFID and other traumatic feeding histories, and her concern was that if you have a kid who is regularly needing a backup option, leaving them to fend for themselves could make them feel really isolated and could add to the stress of managing that condition. I think that’s a piece that’s worth considering.

Amy

I think it's all about what your reaction is in the moment when you're having that conversation with your kid. It would be very easy to take their disinterest in the meal personally, and to say something like, “Well, fine, go get your own food.” It's hard to not have emotional reactions when the kids don't want the food that we make. But I think the more you can remember that dinner is a time to be together, everyone may or may not eat the same thing, that's not really the end all be all goal here. There could be a way that your kid can go get their food, and then you ask them to tell you a joke, or you get the conversation off of the food.

Or if their backup meal is always the same thing—like if it is always bagels in your house—maybe you put those bagels someplace that your kid can reach near the toaster with the stuff that she would need. Just like we have a snack bin, so after school the kids can get their own snacks.

Virginia

I think this comes down to intention. You don't want the child to feel like they have failed because they're opting for the backup meal option. Just like you shouldn't perceive this as a failure of your own parenting or food prep skills. The goal is to have a kid find this empowering. My eight-year-old has a traumatic feeding history and this has always been our way through: Giving her as much control as makes sense to give her. So for her, it's confidence-building that she can make her own waffles or she can go get something she wants from the fridge. But for another kid who is in a different place with that struggle, it could feel like they aren't being cared for.  

Amy

Especially if they're younger, too. 

Virginia

Yes, obviously we're not saying expect your three year old to hop up and go peel a banana. Another piece of advice from Diana is to consider making the backup meal into a bedtime snack. So if your kid doesn't eat a lot of dinner, you don't have to worry about them going to bed hungry because you can give them the cereal, or whatever, as the bedtime snack. Make that something sort of predictable and something they can rely on and that is minimal prep work, which is similar to how you do bedtime snacks at your house.

Amy

Yeah, ours is a banana or no banana. That's the option that we have, just because it's very straightforward. And I don't want to be negotiating with small children at that time of the day. For my two-year-old, if he didn't eat dinner and he ate a banana, that would be enough food for him. Because he, at this time in his life, has a very small appetite at that time of the day. I just don't know that that would be enough for some kids. You have to read the room.

Virginia

My four-year-old basically never has a bedtime snack because her bedtime comes really soon after dinner. But my eight-year-old does. She's our night owl kid. And she, regardless of whether she eats dinner or not, will often make two or three more waffles, because who doesn't love a bedtime waffle?

I think we, as parents, are always looking for food rules. That's what diet culture teaches us to do. And also, parenting kids is hard and it's more helpful to do it with a roadmap. You want to make these rules, like we don't do a backup meal, or if we do a backup meal, it's only this. But the way the math plays out at your house might be different.

Amy

I think it's okay to trust yourself a little bit more, even if what you decide to do is not the conventional wisdom. Or if what we're saying makes no sense to you, I think that's fine, too.

Virginia

Yes. If you've gotten this far into the episode and think, Well, they are crazy and unreliable, that’s fine. We're comfortable with that.

I'll wrap up by talking a little bit about how this has worked at our house. I was blown away by this whole concept when people introduced it to me. I was thinking and talking about it all week on Instagram.

That weekend, Dan was cooking—he cooks on Sundays a lot. He was doing a roast chicken and some vegetables, which is a meal three out of four of us like. As he was getting started, he said to our eight year old, "I'm doing chicken and vegetables for dinner. Do you want a bagel?" And she said yes. And then she just happily went off to play and that was it. And I said to him, “Oh, that reminds me, were you following my Instagram this week? We need to decide if we're going to do backup meals.” And he goes, "Oh, I hate that idea." And I was like, "Wait, but you just did it. That's the backup meal."

It turned out that he thought I meant short order cooking. Like, we sit down to dinner they don't like and we'll get up and cook you a backup meal at that point. And I was like, “No, no, no, no, no. It's the thing that you just did of giving her another option.” And he was like, "Well, that's what I always do. Why wouldn't we do that?" It was not something I was doing, but it's how he has been approaching it whenever he cooks family meals. I hadn't noticed, somehow. So, we've apparently been doing it all along with great success.

Butter For Your Burnt Toast

Amy

I have a relatively new recipe for gingerbread muffins. They're straight up holiday-spiced goodness. They store incredibly well. And they have molasses in them, so they're crazy moist. I usually make a double batch and put half in the freezer. I've been putting very pretty gold sugar on top (from Wilton) so they're kind of festive.

Virginia

They're really cute. I appreciated them on your Instagram.

Amy

I guess it's a unique enough flavor that it feels special. Even though it's just a muffin. It makes me feel like I've tried harder even though it's just stirring stuff together in a bowl.

Virginia

My recommendation is a little bit random and has nothing to do with food. But I am a broken human being and I do not like to tie shoelaces because it's just time in my day that I don't want to invest in that task. This is how I feel about you know, teeth brushing and showering, too. But I do do those things every day.

Amy

I was just going to say that I don't actually ever untie my shoes. Is that unusual?

Virginia

How do you get them on your feet?

Amy

I guess they're loose enough that I just slide my feet in? I don't know. 

Virginia

I didn't know that was an option, so I spent $12.95 on these special shoe laces that I'm about to tell you about. Maybe there's something to my foot shape? Don't shame my foot shape. I need these! Okay, so the laces are called Xpand Laces. They are basically just elastic that comes in colors. So, I got white to match my sneakers. You lace them just like you would lace a normal sneaker and then there's a little clip thing at the end that holds the lace inside your shoe so you don't have to tie your laces. And then you can just shove your foot in. I have these cute Veja sneakers that I got for fall / winter. I just pretend the V stands for Virginia. I'm so happy because now I'm wearing them a ton.

You can cut the laces to any length, so they would be a great option for kids. I'm secretly hoping that laced-up shoes for kids are just gonna go the way of cursive handwriting because it is a mountain we have yet to climb in my house. We're still buying velcro shoes. Fortunately, my children have smallish feet so I can still find velcro shoes in their size, but that ship is gonna sail. And we're going to have to either learn how to lace their shoes or get these shoe laces.

Amy

Also, the amount of energy that I spend telling my oldest child to tie her shoelaces instead of just walking on them? That would be nice not to have to do.

Virginia

Let's just remove shoelaces from our mental load.

Amy

You're solving everyone's problems. 

Virginia

You're welcome. Alright, Amy, thank you, as always for being here! Remind listeners where they can find more of your work. 

Amy

You can find me at Yummy Toddler Food Or @Yummytoddlerfood on social.

Thanks so much for listening to Burnt Toast. Once again. If you'd like to support the show, please subscribe for free in your podcast player and tell a friend about this episode and consider a paid subscription to the Burnt Toast newsletter. It's just $5 per month or $50 for the year.

The Burnt Toast Podcast is produced and hosted by me, Virginia Sole-Smith. You can follow me on Instagram or Twitter.

Burnt Toast transcripts and essays are edited and formatted by Corinne Fay, who runs @SellTradePlus, an Instagram account where you can buy and sell plus size clothing.

The Burnt Toast logo is by Deanna Lowe.

Our theme music is by Jeff Bailey and Chris Maxwell.

Tommy Harron is our audio engineer.

Thanks for listening and for supporting independent anti diet journalism.

This is a public episode. If you’d like to discuss this with other subscribers or get access to bonus episodes, visit virginiasolesmith.substack.com/subscribe
Dec 16, 2021
The New Burnt Toast Podcast!
1702
We need our own place to critique diet culture and combat fatphobia, without the continual compromise required by corporate media. And, we need this podcast. Because you will never need to worry that the host is going to pause mid-episode and tell you how much I love Noom.

Welcome to Burnt Toast! This is the podcast where we explore questions (and some answers) about fatphobia, diet culture, parenting, and health. I’m Virginia Sole-Smith. I’m a journalist who covers weight stigma and diet culture. I’m the author of The Eating Instinct, the forthcoming Fat Kid Phobia and the newsletter Burnt Toast

This is technically Episode 24 of the Burnt Toast podcast, but also for a lot of you it’s going to be Episode 1. So we’ll start with some backstory on how I went from a writer of women’s magazine diet stories to a diet culture dismantler and why having a space to do independent, anti-diet journalism is so important, right now.

I’ll also be answering your questions: How to help a 3-year-old who won’t stop grazing? How can we respond thoughtfully to casual fatphobia? What should I do if I’m a houseguest and my host is on a diet? And can my kid really eat ice cream every day?

If you enjoy this episode please subscribe and rate and review Burnt Toast in your podcast player. And sign up for the Burnt Toast newsletter, to get episode transcripts, reported essays and more.

[Editor’s Note: Regular newsletter readers will recognize the first half of this episode from this essay. Feel free to scroll down to the next line break to get to your questions!]

So, I thought today we would start with some backstory.

Eighteen years ago I graduated from college and started my first job the very next day as an editorial assistant at Seventeen Magazine. I was living in a shoebox studio apartment next to the Queens Midtown Tunnel. I walked to work in my Reef flip flops because I couldn’t actually stand up for more than ten minutes in the shoes we wore around the office. I made $27,000 a year. 

But for those first few months, I was in heaven at Seventeen. My bosses were these smart, feminist editors who thought that the intelligence of teenage girls was undervalued. We did features on things like hookup culture and youth marketing. And yes, I realized that last one now sounds a little ironic. One of my tasks as an assistant at the magazine was to track down statistics or expert quotes when the editors were working on a feature and realized that it needed some things like that, that the writers had failed to deliver. Seventeen is where I started to learn how to report.

I was learning to report in a way that would pass muster with our research chief who was this completely terrifying person who would throw your reporting file out of her office if you tried to use a non-primary source or a newspaper, or couldn’t backup a controversial fact to her liking. 

Yes, this is the same Seventeen that published “I got my period in front of my crush,” the horror stories you remember from Trauma-Rama. And yes, this is the same Seventeen that first published Sylvia Plath. 

I learned really quickly that being a feminist in women’s media, but also all mainstream media, meant that you had to hold these strands together as lightly as you could. It meant successfully pitching a story on birth control, only to have your editor write in the margins, “But wait, isn’t Plan B the same thing as having an abortion?” No, it is not.

And it meant every day reading letters from girls who hated their thighs, girls who tried to cut the fat off their stomachs, girls who skipped breakfast and made themselves throw up after lunch, girls who were trying to shrink their bodies in every conceivable way. And then going into a meeting where we would brainstorm five new ways to put the phrase “bikini body” on the cover.

I didn’t last long at Seventeen. A few months after I was hired, a new editor came in with a new team and a new vision. Suddenly there was a lot less meticulous reporting about teenage health and a lot more of that “Bikini Body” stuff, glossed over, of course, with the kind of “Girl Power” talk that wooed so many of us into thinking weight loss could be a valuable self improvement project. So, I moved on. First to another junior editor job at another women’s magazine, and then, when that publication folded, to being a full-time freelance writer. That move freed me up to move out of the city, to wear shoes I could walk in, and to write stories I really cared about. 

But: I ran into the same tension everywhere I went, especially when I wrote about weight and health. So I spent most of the next decade still deep inside the diet culture beat, at first rationalizing it with the usual, “Well, this one’s not a diet, this one’s a lifestyle plan.” That same song and dance we talk about all the time. And then slowly, but determinedly trying to crack it apart. And that was uphill work. I found myself translating the principles of Health at Every Size into language that a women’s magazine could handle. 

And yet I was continuing to use terms like “ob#se” without any awareness of their toxic history. I made compromises. I added health warnings to stories so the editors would run them because I figured it was better to get a few seeds planted where I could, rather than see the story killed. And also, I had to get paid. 

For a while, I even backed away from critiquing the diet industry directly. Wellness culture was shifting things so fast, I wasn’t even always sure who I was mad at. Instead, I started to focus on the beauty industry. In a weird way, it was easier to report on how I learned to do Brazilian waxing so I could interrogate our obsession with it, or to expose the exploitation of nail salon workers than it was to reckon with my desire to diet and detox. But in other ways, it was harder. I couldn’t run either of those stories in women’s magazines where hair removal is gospel and nail polish brands pay the bills. It was and is a tough sell to persuade “real” media outlets (emphasis on the quotes around “real,”) to care about stories in which no men would appear. 

Then, a little over eight years ago, I had my first daughter Violet. And as many of you know, she stopped eating when she was just one month old. She needed me to make food feel safe again. That’s the experience that started to connect the dots for me that led to my first book, The Eating Instinct, and that pushed me all the way out of diet culture. I started to explore how we relate to food, and then realized how much fatphobia underpins everything we think we know about food. And health: I wrote about how weight stigma shows up in fertility treatment, in eating disorder treatment, and in science, full stop. Fatphobia is pervasive in parenting culture too, whether it’s as overt as a diet app for kids or more implicit in our anxiety about kids and sugar.      

In the past five years, telling these stories has gotten so much easier. We are now in a cultural moment where terms like “body positivity” and “intuitive eating” are embraced by popular culture; where magazines like Good Housekeeping and InStyle ask me to write about pushing back against the pressure to lose your pandemic weight gain, and nobody tries to water down the rhetoric at all. Could these brands be doing a better job owning their own historical complicity in diet culture? Yes, absolutely. But they recognize the importance of the conversation now. I cannot underscore to you enough how much that was not the case, even as recently as when I sold The Eating Instinct.

Still, any time I write for a major media outlet--and again, that has been the primary way I’ve made a living for almost two decades--I am aware that my story, my project is like this little boat tacking its way through a great, churning ocean of other priorities. It gets stuck in a holding pattern if the hook isn’t newsy enough, it gets chopped in half because the word count is too tight, it gets cut altogether because a new editor comes in with a different vision. Or it runs, but I’m asked to add caveats and softeners that make everyone more comfortable while making the story less accurate. Or it runs, and then the next week, the same outlet runs a pro-weight-loss story. And I hear from confused readers who feel betrayed by the switch in tone. 

I still see the value in publishing traditional journalism. I adore working with smart editors who tear my words apart and find something so much better buried beneath them. I love writing for outlets with copy editors and fact checkers and art departments, who are all so brilliant at their essential jobs. And I adore seeing how a story resonates across a broader platform, even when that means the comment section goes bananas or all of the angry men in America send me emails. We can’t only preach to the choir. 

I started Burnt Toast because I realized that after almost twenty years of doing it their way, we need our own place to critique diet culture and combat fatphobia. Without the continual compromise required by corporate media. Where I don’t have to worry that a sidebar for flat tummy tea will run alongside my explanation of why the “obesity epidemic” was overhyped. We need a place where we can publish stories that I can’t tell in other outlets because they are too niche or aren’t newsy enough but still matter deeply to people’s lives. 

We need this podcast because you will never need to worry that the host is going to pause mid-episode and tell you how much I love Noom. I absolutely do not love Noom. So, most weeks Burnt Toast will be a conversation between me and a guest. So far we’ve had really amazing fat activists like Aubrey Gordon and Marquisele Mercedes on. We’ve had authors like Crystal Maldonado, Alyson Gerber, and Tyler Feder, and a bunch of other folks who I would call thought leaders on fashion, culture, health, and parenting. Once a month, I’ll also release a solo episode, like this one, for paid subscribers, where I’ll answer your questions directly. So now, let’s get into those!

Q: My three year old is recovering from a minor illness which came on the heels of a long vacation. So we’ve been out of our usual routine for a few weeks and eating, which had been mostly non-stressful, has become a hot mess. Through traveling and then trying to nourish a feverish child, we were in survival mode, and our snack game was strong. Now, my kid demands only snack foods, is obsessing over sweets, and wants to graze all day. I want to get back on our meal/snack routine for both our sakes. I cannot dispense food all day long and my high energy kid needs the structure of sitting down to eat in order to focus and notice hunger and fullness. But it seems like there must be a feeling of restriction around snacks and sweets and I’m worried about exacerbating that. 

So, normally when we talk about this issue, you guys hear me say over and over again that if your child is fixating on a particular food, it’s probably because they think they don’t have enough access to it and the answer is to lean in and give them more freedom. But I do think there’s a slight exception for that in the situation that this mom is outlining, where you’ve been traveling or you’ve been sick, so you haven’t been on your normal schedule. When we go through seasons like that, it’s very normal for everything that kids understand about food to go out the window. I don’t think that your child is feeling restricted about snacks and sweets, I think they’re just feeling generally uncertain because of the lack of structure. When we feel uncertain, we can fixate more on our comfort foods, right? Because food is feeling a little unpredictable. In a way, your child asking for that favorite food all the time is their way of saying, “I need more routine, I need more predictability, please.”

So, what I would do is not mess with the particular foods your kid wants. I would work on getting back on the schedule first, even if it means your child is eating Oreos at every meal and snack for a few more days. Serve the favorite snack foods, but just work on breaking the grazing pattern and getting to eating at a more regular schedule. Sometimes what is happening with grazing is kids are feeling like they need to be in charge of making food happen. Which is not to say you haven’t been feeding y