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
"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. Get access to private episodes at 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. Get access to private episodes at 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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This is a public episode. Get access to private episodes at virginiasolesmith.substack.com/subscribe
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. Get access to private episodes at 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 your child, you obviously have been. And I know when you’re in that snack mode, you’re like, all I do is give you food. But they somehow feel like it’s their responsibility to make sure they get enough because there’s no schedule and it’s not predictable. 

So, if we work on making it predictable, but you serve the foods that they’re most anxious about having access to, you can ease the scarcity mindset. You can give them that comfort of structure. 

Once it feels like you’re back in a routine around eating, then I would start to bring in other foods, have more variety, maybe start to say things like, “Oh my gosh, I love Oreos so much, too. We’re going to have them for a morning snack, but not for breakfast.” (I’m always using Oreos, as the example, but whatever your child’s comfort food is, of course, insert here.) Work on structure, then you can work on food variety. Don’t try to tackle it all at once. That will be too big of a change. And good luck. 

Q: How can we respond to casual fatphobia and weight stigma?

This is the challenge with holiday gatherings, right? Because this is when people make those side comments like, “Oh, I need my stretchy pants for this meal” or, “diet starts Monday!” Even if it’s not directed at you, it can feel really awkward to tackle it because you look like the buzzkill. You’re the one who’s suddenly taking it really seriously and oh, we were all just joking. But I think we do need to start to build our muscles for how we push back in these moments.

Someone I follow on Instagram, who posts a lot of memes, recently posted a meme that was super fatphobic. [TW: I’m going to describe it.] It was one of those dogs that has very thin legs and very round bellies, and for some reason, this photo of the dog was standing on two legs and wearing jeans. The caption was something like “how men over thirty look in jeans.” I am sure she posted it thinking, “I’m laughing at men and we are allowed to laugh at men.” Which, you know, is sort of true. I think that was her intention on one level. But it’s not okay to make fun of the bodies of fat men or fat women or fat people of any gender. It’s not okay to equate fat people with animals. And the meme did both those things. So I sent her a message and said, “I know your intention was to be humorous, but this meme equates fat people’s bodies to animals. That is very harmful.”

She was immediately defensive. She said, “You know my account is a humor account, try to take it in that spirit. I’m really sensitive about body image issues. That’s not what I was doing here. I’m just making fun of men over thirty!”

Of course, it’s also not okay to be posting ageist memes, so that wasn’t a super helpful argument. But I didn’t get into a long explanation of why the meme was wrong. Instead I said, “I am saying, as someone in a bigger body than you, with a body that looks quite similar to this animal, that I find this harmful. And I’m also saying this to you as someone with a fair amount of privilege as a small fat person. There are people in bigger bodies who will find this meme even more harmful, who won’t feel safe speaking up. And so I hope you’ll reconsider this in the future.”

I stayed really polite, I didn’t get super inflammatory. I felt annoyed, to be honest, that I had to be that thoughtful and careful about it because this is part of the labor of engaging on these issues, right? Someone else has said the offensive thing but somehow it’s our job to keep it light and friendly, as we are calling them out on their offensiveness. I want to hold space for that piece of it. But I also think the reality is, you’re not going to get anywhere with someone if you come in and say, “This is horrible. How dare you post it?” They’re only going to get defensive, and they’re not going to start to think about it. 

She did come back to me after that follow-up and said, “I appreciate you for speaking up on this.” And I haven’t seen a fatphobic meme go up on her account again. So I’m hopeful that there was maybe an opportunity for some learning there. 

Figuring out some ways where you can, in a friendly way—and again, holding space for the fact that it’s annoying that we have to be so friendly about this—say, “Oh, hey, I’m not really here for fat jokes,” or, you know, “Let’s not go after their bodies.” 

I think about this a lot. When people make jokes about Donald Trump, there is so much material about Donald Trump, you can make a million jokes about him, you don’t have to talk about the fact that he’s a fat person. We don’t need to go there. There are many other reasons to hate on him. If someone comes back to you, though, it’s useful to say, “Look, these comments do cause harm. And, you know, I’ve been thinking about this more. I’ve been trying to do my own work.” I think it’s useful to own, “I don’t always get this right myself.” Then it’s not you versus them. You’re saying that this is learning we all need to be doing and this is learning I’m doing right along with you. 

Q: I have a really odd food etiquette question about being a guest of someone who is massively restricting calories and we do not. I felt guilty eating the entire week at her house and was really hungry, and we are back there over Christmas. She has a very good friend from high school and not anorexic, but suddenly super aware of every calorie and kept bugging me if I ate. Any polite way to handle this?

This is another one I think a lot of us may be encountering over the holidays. Some of the people hosting us may be on diets, and that’s going to be a drag. I think it’s important, as a guest in someone’s home, to stay aware of the amount of work they’re doing to host you with these meals. There is a lot of labor being performed by your friend and by women in general around the holidays. Even if that labor comes with an infusion of diet culture, we want to be respectful of the labor and make it clear that we see the labor. 

To that end, I think one easy solution might be to say, “You know, you did so much to host us last time, we are so grateful. This time, when we come to stay, please let us buy the groceries!” And go and buy groceries and take her list and buy whatever she needs for cooking Christmas dinner, but also buy food you want to have in the house. Buy the food that you like to have for breakfast, or some snacks you want to have on hand. 

To be honest, this may still be super stressful to her because people who are restricting are often very anxious about having more food in the house. But I think if you keep framing it as, “we want to take all this work of hosting off your shoulders, you don’t need to feed us every meal,” that makes it easier for her. And at least you’re acknowledging her labor even while you’re also meeting your own needs. 

If buying all the groceries isn’t an option, pitch in to help with the cooking as much as you can. If you’re staying for more than just Christmas Day, say, “Okay, you’re cooking Christmas dinner, but can we please handle breakfast that day? Or can we please make lunch the next day?” So you’re acknowledging her labor, you’re helping to reduce her labor, and then at the same time, you’re making sure there are a few meals in there that are going to have enough food and food that you like to eat, as well. 

If grocery shopping and cooking isn’t an option, I would offer to pick up takeout. Suggest eating out in restaurants for other meals. Go out and get bagels in the morning for breakfast. Look for other ways to bring in more food, not in a way that’s rejecting the food that she is making, but in a way that is supplementing. And then that way, when you are placing restaurant orders, you can order what you want and it’s really not her problem. 

If none of that feels like an option, or it helps but doesn’t help that much, you can also pack some snacks to keep in your room or wherever you’re staying. So if she makes a very sad diet-y dinner, you can at least go have some chips or some granola bars afterwards and not be starving. That’s awkward and it doesn’t feel great, but if you do that, do not feel ashamed about the eating you’re doing that as a way of managing your own self care during the holidays. Holidays are stressful for a million different reasons. You not having enough to eat is not going to make it better. 

As for her comments bugging you about what you eat, I think that’s another thing where setting a really friendly boundary, maybe over email before you get there or the first time the comment comes up, could be helpful. You can say something like, “Our bodies are all different. We just need different amounts of food.” Just make it clear that you’re not going to get into a nickel and dime-ing conversation about she’s eating this way or you’re eating that way. Sometimes people start to have this diet talk war, where they’re comparing health strategies, and that’s not at all helpful. So make it clear, you’re not here for that. However you eat, you’re not going to defend it to her. And you’d really rather talk about other things, it’s more interesting. 

It sounds like she’s deep in her own struggle here. So anything she does say about your eating is a reflection of her own anxiety, it is not actually about you, even though it’s going to feel like it’s about you. Just remember, if you want to take seconds at a meal, if you want to order something different, if you suggest going over to another friend’s house, because that way you’ll get a meal you like, you don’t owe her an explanation for that. You can just say, “Oh, this is so delicious. I’m excited to eat it. So and so’s a great cook,” and leave it at that.

Okay, and now we are going to wrap up with a segment that I think is going to be a regular feature on solo episodes, called, “Can my kid eat that?” And the answer is always going to be yes!

I get a version of this question every single week, so I’m going to keep answering it every time we do these episodes because I get it. I get this anxiety and I think it’s really important that we keep speaking to it. So this week’s can my kid eat that is: 

Q: I have a question that I am truly confused about. How many days a week can my newly two year old toddler have an ice cream cone as a snack or dessert? He is obsessed. He created his own sign language for it. He brings books open to the page with a picture of an ice cream. Not that it matters, but he’s under 5% for height and weight. So I usually give him whatever he wants. I just have all of the voices in my head on this. 

First: It doesn’t matter that he’s under 5% for height or weight. Yes, your child can have ice cream every day for a snack or dessert. If your child is in the zero percentile if your child is in the 99th percentile. The food we serve our children is not dependent on their body size, ever.

How many days a week can your two year old have ice cream? Seven. There are seven days in a week, your child can have ice cream seven days a week. There is no law against this. Yes, you can serve ice cream every day. I say this as someone who did serve my two year old ice cream every day. My younger daughter was two in the summer of 2020 When we were in lockdown, and I was stuck at home with two children and zero childcare and nowhere to go and nothing to do. We had “ice cream o’clock” every afternoon on our front porch. The reason we did this was because as the weather started warming up, my kids were both asking for ice cream pretty often and fixated on when we would have ice cream again. I realized they had a scarcity mindset about it just because when it’s cold, we don’t eat ice cream. So then when it’s warm, and we start eating ice cream again, it’s super exciting, and they want to have it all the time. So we made ice cream o’clock a daily thing and we ate it every single day. After about three weeks, they were completely over it, they would leave it to melt in puddles while they went off to play. It was not a concern. We kind of switched it to popsicles, sometimes ice cream sandwiches, sometimes they didn’t want ice cream and they had a different snack. And the issue completely faded. And that was true for the two year old and for the then-six year old. So them being a younger toddler doesn’t impact this they will be able to adjust and habituate to having access to the food just as well as an older kid. 

I would make it a specific ritual like that though, because you can tell him this is the time we will have ice cream. And you don’t have to have ice cream for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and every snack. You can say “Oh, I know you love ice cream so much” when he makes his little sign (by the way, that’s adorable.) When he makes his ice cream sign or shows you the book with ice cream, say “Yes, I can’t wait! We’re going to have ice cream after your nap.” Tie it to something he can really understand because at two he doesn’t grasp the schedule well and that’s why he’s asking so often, as well. So, hearing we’ll have it tomorrow or we’ll have it this weekend is probably too vague and too far off for him.

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. You get a ton of cool perks and you keep this space ad and sponsor free.

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. I’ll talk to you soon.

This is a public episode. Get access to private episodes at virginiasolesmith.substack.com/subscribe
Dec 09, 2021
"Healthcare for Fat People is Based on the Premise that it's Acceptable to Kill Us to Make Us Thin."
2360
Hello, and welcome to another audio version of Burnt Toast!

Today, I am so so thrilled to be chatting with Ragen Chastain, who is a professional speaker and writer, trained researcher, and co-author of The HAES Health Sheets. Ragen is also a multi-certified health and fitness professional, and a queer fat woman. Ragen, thank you so much for being here!

Ragen

Thanks for having me. I love your work so much. I’m giddy as a school girl!

Virginia

Ragen and I have been in each other’s orbits for a very long time. We were talking about something that we worked on where the website doesn’t even exist anymore.

Ragen

Virginia gave me my very first paid freelance work in this space. She was leaving a platform and recommended me, so she’s been supporting my work, and just be an awesome leader in her own right, for a long time.

Virginia

That’s very lovely of you to say. When I first found your work in the mid-2000s you were extremely patient with my learning curve.

For folks who don’t know, Ragen created the beloved fat activism blog Dances With Fat. She is now writing a Substack called Weight and Healthcare. So let’s start with that, Ragen. You have this amazing blog, you’ve been doing it forever, you have, I don’t even know, 1000 posts there. What inspired you to also say I need a newsletter?

Ragen

I started Dances With Fat in 2009. There are a little over 1800 posts on there now. In the same year, I started doing talks for healthcare professionals around working with higher weight patients: Best practices, weight, stigma, weight science, health care. I wrote about that on Dances With Fat, but recently I’ve started to do more of that work and to do it at a higher level, and when I’m talking with a VP of a major healthcare group, sending them to Dances with Fat is not ideal, even though I’m very proud of that blog. It’s not quite the the thing that they’re looking for.

I knew about Substack and I knew about Burnt Toast, so I reached out to Virginia, who helped give me a sense of how Substack worked. It seemed like a really good platform for this type of work. I got a little logo made from Toni Tails, a little researcher Ragen icon, and then put together some of the posts from Dances With Fat that were classics. Now I’m going to be writing new stuff, as well.

Virginia

I sort of love the idea of healthcare CEOs going to Dances With Fat. It gives me a lot of joy. But it’s a smart activism strategy to have it all in one place.

We’re recording this, I should say, right after your first launch week. So you’ve been putting up a lot of pieces that I will be linking to forever. You are covering these really fundamental questions that can be kind of exasperating, like, “This question is coming up again?” But for people who are new to challenging this huge paradigm, you do have to start with these fundamental questions and grapple with stuff.

One question people often ask is, “Isn’t obesity a disease?” So, walk us through it, Ragen.

Ragen

This is something that has been coming up more and more, this idea that just existing in a fat body is a chronic lifelong health condition for which people should get treatment. This has been pushed for a while now by people who sell dangerous and expensive “treatments” for weight loss.

I first started seeing it happening in the most insidious way, with organizations that claim to be advocacy organizations—like the Obesity Action Coalition—but that are actually well-funded by diet drug manufacturers and weight loss surgery purveyors.

For the diet drugs, for example, their product doesn’t work long term. People gain the weight back as soon as they go off the drugs. So the drug companies say, “Oh, well, it’s a chronic and lifelong condition, then we can just keep them on the drugs forever,” which is exactly what Novo Nordisk is doing, and why they’re pushing this so hard right now.

It also expands their market to every fat person alive. That helps them with what is their golden goose, which is insurance coverage. They can’t get insurance to cover these things because they’re expensive and because they don’t work. So by saying, “Oh, well, it’s because you haven’t let us do it long enough,” they are expanding their market.

But that it doesn’t make any sense, and here’s why: Thin people get all the same health issues that fat people do. So, being thin can neither be a sure preventative nor a sure cure. That’s just not how that works. This idea that if fat people experience a health problem more often than thin people, then obviously their body size is the problem and making them thinner is the solution is not a science-based conclusion.

We have to look at what are the confounding variables that could be causing this? And in this case, weight cycling, weight stigma, and healthcare inequalities are well researched for their negative impacts on fat people’s health. And this idea of fat being a chronic condition increases those three things. I want to be super clear, there is no shame in having a health condition. There is no shame in seeking treatment. The shame here is trying to make simply existing a pathologized condition for which people can sell dangerous treatments that risk people’s lives for an outcome that isn’t shown to be positive. It’s actually shown to be harmful a lot of the time.

So, the AMA studied this. They had their Committee on Science of Public Health study whether or not being fat should be a disease and the committee came back and said no. And the AMA said, “Okay, well, thanks for your time, but we’re gonna go ahead and declare it a disease anyway.”

Virginia

I just want people to really take that in. The American Medical Association’s committee that was asked to study that question, should we medicalize weight higher body weights, said no, the evidence does not support that. And the AMA said, Okay, so we’re gonna do it.

Ragen

Yeah, it’s a “let me just take a minute to bang my head on the desk and then I’ll complete this post that I’m writing” sort of situation.

It’s important because this seems so science-y and medical-y, right? BMI is an equation and that’s math and math is science. We have these words like “obesity” that pathologize body size, and that can sound really legitimate, right? But then you start digging and learn that Body Mass Index is just a complicated ratio of weight and height that is racist in its origins. Sabrina String’s Fearing the Black Body and Da'Shaun Harrison’s Belly of the Beast are books I recommend to everyone to read about this and other racism and body size intersections.

The term obesity comes from a Latin word meaning “to eat until fat.” This is not science. It’s a term that was created to pathologize bodies. It was invented for that purpose. The AMA saying, “Oh, yes, this is this constitutes a chronic health condition or disease,” sounds very science-y until you find out that the actual science had to be ignored to make that happen.

Virginia

Yes and this “chronic lifelong condition” we’re talking about, the treatments that they are pushing actually exacerbate the condition, because the condition is living with weight stigma, living with social inequities around health care, all of these other issues that these treatments further. Fat is not a chronic lifelong health condition.

Ragen

It really isn’t. It’s gotten out that intentional weight loss interventions fail the vast majority of the time. The majority of the time weight loss has the opposite of the intended effect, right? People gain back all of their weight and up to 66% of people gain back more than they lost. But the response wasn’t, “Hey, there’s a mountain of evidence that shows that there are better ways to support the health of fat people than trying to make them lose weight.” The suggestion was, “Well, then let’s do it harder, and more and more dangerously.” And that’s what we’re seeing with the pharmaceuticals. That’s what we’re seeing with the surgery. We’re getting healthcare for fat people based on the premise that it is acceptable to kill fat people in an effort to make them thin.

Virginia

And yet they’re saying we need to get insurance coverage for these things, even though they don’t work. They frame that as an example of the stigma. They’re like, “Look, it’s so misunderstood that the insurance companies won’t even pay for these treatments that these people desperately need.” They don’t see the inherent disconnect there.

Ragen

I’m going to say they aggressively don’t see the disconnect, possibly negligently, purposefully don’t see it. They’re saying, “We don’t want to stigmatize fat people, we just want to eradicate them from the earth and make sure no more ever exist.” That’s not an anti-stigma message. It’s a profitable one. One of the things that frustrates me is the way that they are co-opting the rhetoric of anti-weight stigma, which the fat liberation community has spent so long trying to get out there, and then using that to sell even more dangerous intentional weight loss methods. It is super gross.

They are creating weight stigma and then selling their dangerous product as a “solution.” It’s this idea that if you don’t want to be oppressed, you should change yourself to suit your oppressors.

Virginia

That’s what I want my kids to learn: Make the bully like you better.

Ragen

Give them your lunch money, and maybe they’ll stop beating you up! It’s not a perfect comparison, obviously, but as someone who is both queer and fat and who came out in the mid-90s in Texas, I see parallels between that and this idea of just doing whatever dangerous thing you need to do to make yourself straight, so that you don’t experience homophobia; this idea of changing yourself to move yourself out of the oppressed category, rather than fighting oppression. I spent years fighting my body on behalf of weight stigma. Weight stigma is real and weight stigma does real harm, including to me, but now I fight weight stigma on behalf of my body.

Virginia

That’s a really helpful framing.

You took one for the team by taking on one of the most common and irritating troll comments around fat activism: That all these fat people are a drain on the system because they’re costing us so much money in terms of tax dollars in health care. This is an argument that hits me really personally, not around weight, but I have a daughter with a chronic heart condition. I wrote a piece for Slate about the fact that we had $3 million in medical bills before she turned three years old. That’s why universal health care is essential, to help families avoid destroying themselves financially to save their children. The number one troll response I got was: “She’s a drain on the system. Some kids aren’t meant to live.”

Ragen

In the piece I tackle that from two aspects: The reality and then if it were true that fat people are this drain on the system.

The first thing I always do when somebody comes at me with this “my tax dollars” argument is I say, “Well, I want to see your yes/no tax list.” They say, “What yes/no tax list?” And I say, “Oh, the one that shows all the things your taxes pay for broken down into what you do and don’t want to pay for, and the interventions you’re involved in for everything you don’t want to pay for.”

This isn’t about their tax dollars. This is about trying to find a justification for their fat bigotry. This is what they’ve arrived at that people sort of find acceptable. Like, “Oh, well, I’m paying for their health care.” But that’s what civilized societies do, right? I am paying for the health care of people who jumped out of helicopters wearing skis and people whose attempts to climb mountains are dramatically unsuccessful. I want to do that.

Anytime you say, “Okay, this group of people who we can identify by sight is a drain on society and we should eradicate them to make things cheaper for everyone,” you have gone down a bad bad road. This is a straight up eugenics argument. We have to really recognize that.

I find that people who want to say this about me don’t want other people to be doing it to them. Whether they are a raw foods vegan or a keto or paleo person, they believe that they’re right, and they are not interested in other points of view. This is where it really starts to break down. Who gets to decide for all of us? If somebody finds that, for example, a raw food vegan diet is the most healthy, do we all have to do that?

Virginia

And do we all have to do that in order to access healthcare? What do we owe in order to access healthcare?

Ragen

Exactly. This is a really dangerous argument that’s being made by people flippantly, in many cases, just to justify discriminating against fat people, just to justify their weight bigotry. They don’t follow it to the end of where that goes. So that’s really dangerous. And also, fat people pay taxes, too. My taxes go to fund a government war on “obesity” that makes my life terrible and has negative impacts on my health. In general, this argument, when you scratch the surface even a little bit, just becomes a thin veil for fat bigotry that is unsupportable by any kind of evidence.

Virginia

And ableism! It’s saying that the only people worthy of health care are people who are making virtuous choices that we approve of or who won the genetic lottery and don’t really need health care. What strikes me when it’s levied against fat folks is that it’s often because people are blaming people for their body size and assuming that it’s your lifestyle that led to this, as opposed to the fact that people just come in different body sizes. With something like my daughter, you can’t say, “The baby’s responsible for her heart condition, but we still don’t want to pay for it.” Either way, it becomes this ableist thing to say some lives are more valuable because they have this genetic luck.

Ragen

There are a lot of places where the intersections of ableism and healthism and fatphobia come together, and this is certainly one. One of the things that is also frustrating is that the idea of body size as a choice is obviously really problematic, but even if we believed that that was true, also a choice is playing sports, which cost billions of dollars in sports injuries every year that are completely unnecessary. Research shows that moderate walking gives us the health benefits that can come out of movement, so nobody needs to be playing sports.

Virginia

I love this so much as someone who just hates sports.

Ragen

I’m someone who loves sports and who does ridiculous fitness-y things.

Just to be super clear, health and fitness, by any definition, is not an obligation, not a barometer of worthiness, not entirely within our control. There is this good fatty / bad fatty thing, so I always want to be clear that completing a marathon or having a Netflix marathon are morally equivalent activities. I’ve done both, so I can tell you for sure. So, it’s not about that, but I enjoy fitness.

I’m also aware that when you go to a triathlon or when you watch the CrossFit Games and people have an exoskeleton of physio tape, that’s a lot of injuries that people don’t need to have in their lives, but they’re choosing that lifestyle. Shaq got knee surgery even though he for sure caused his knee problem and was going right back to the lifestyle that caused it.

The NFL was created to risk people’s short and long term mental and physical health in the hopes that one day their team will score enough points to get a shiny piece of jewelry. You’re allowed to do that, but let’s not act like it prioritizes health because it doesn’t. This is a whole group of people purposefully not prioritizing their health and the average player is broke by two years out of the league.

Virginia

Another piece I love is where you break down why diets fail. A line that really jumped out to me, in your piece, is “the entire basis of prescribing weight loss for greater health is built on the decidedly unscientific premise that if we make fat people look like thin people, they will have the same health outcomes.”

Ragen

When I did my original literature review of weight loss, looking for the best diet, I was still in diet culture, but my background is research methods and statistics and I’d never really researched this. I had been yo-yo dieting for years. I decided to read every study and break it down and find the best diet. What I found was that, as you said, there wasn’t a single study were more than a tiny fraction of people were succeeding at long term, significant weight loss. The thing that really blew me away was that there wasn’t a single study that showed that the people who were successful had better out health outcomes or similar health outcomes to thin people. That study doesn’t exist, in large part because there aren’t enough people who are successful to commission such a study.

Virginia

It’s hard to do research on unicorns.

Ragen

The National Weight Control Registry tried it, they’ve got 10,000 successes since 1994. There have been over a billion attempts, but okay. What they found were just some commonalities among outliers. 98% of the people who have lost 30 pounds and kept it off for a year ate breakfast. They don’t know how many of the other billion also ate breakfast.

Virginia

A lot of us eat breakfast without successfully losing weight.

Ragen

Had I turned in the study plan of the National Weight Control Registry research in my freshman year research methods class, the dean would have been telling me, “There are a lot of majors here and I think you should choose another one because you don’t understand this at a pretty basic level.”

We know that cis male pattern baldness is highly correlated with cardiac incidents. So it would be like if they stopped there and said, “We have to get these people to grow hair” And when their initial attempts didn’t work, they were like, “We need more dangerous ways to grow hair! Drugs and surgeries and a war on baldness!” That is exactly what they did when it came to weight and health. They simply stopped and those who didn’t stop are getting ignored. Lucy Aphramor did an incredible paper about the validity of the research within dietetic articles. It’s a great piece and I recommend it for people who are trying to look into this.

Virginia

I’m thinking of a doctor I saw when I was six months postpartum and my baby wasn’t sleeping through the night. The doctor was concerned about my weight. She was like, “Oh, well, I walked an hour a day when I had a newborn.” And I was like, “That’s nice for you, but I have a job and two children and I don’t have an hour to walk. If I had an hour to walk, I would sleep.” It’s just not realistic.

A friend of mine was just telling me that she’s pursuing treatment for various medical conditions and the guy was like, “Intermittent fasting will solve all your problems.” And she’s like, “I am parenting and working full time, during a pandemic. I have two chronic conditions. Starvation is not a great way for me to go.” The way that diet and fatphobia show up in the healthy habits conversation feels really problematic to me. It ends up becoming another form of shame and stigma.

What can we do, as patients, to advocate for ourselves in these conversations?

Ragen

One way to go is to try to bypass it. My magic question is, “What would you recommend to a thin person in this situation?” Often that bypasses some of the fatphobia and some of the recommending of healthy habits just because they believe if you did them, you would lose weight.

I was at a regular physical with a new doctor and at the end he said, “I just need you to do something for me and it’s going to be so hard. So hard. But if you can do it, it is going to change your life.” And he said, “I just need you to start walking ten minutes a day.” And to his credit, ten minutes a day is reasonable! He didn’t say you have to walk an hour, like your doctor said. But I was training for my first marathon and I had done eighteen miles the night before. So I told him that and said, “I’d be glad to do ten minutes a day because I’m going to claw back a lot of time that way, but I don’t think it’s going to meet my goals at all.” And he said, “Look, you don’t have to lie about it if you’re not going to do it.”

So one thing to always know is that this isn’t your fault. This shouldn’t be happening. You can’t make a doctor practice ethical, evidence-based medicine.

I also teach ego management techniques—because I live in LA, I can fire a doctor a day, and I will, there there are tons of them around—but if someone lives in a rural area and there’s only one doctor, they have different options.

So you can say things like, “oh, I’m actually already doing a weight loss diet, and I’ve lost some weight, but it hasn’t really helped.” This doesn’t have to be true, by the way. Then you say, “What would you do for a thin person? Let’s try that as well.” Like, “Sure, I’m gonna take this diet advice you’re giving me and I can’t wait to put food in baggies of certain caloric amounts. I’m super excited. But in the meantime my cousin had this and she was given this medication.” When a thin person gets an evidence based treatment for their symptoms and a fat person gets a diet, it delays them getting that evidence based treatment for who knows how long. Probably forever, because that diet isn’t gonna work. So, unless the doctor says, “Okay, this isn’t working, I’ll give you the treatment,” it can delay treatment forever. The person maybe doesn’t go back. This is just one of the ways that these healthcare inequalities impact fat people’s health.

Just to be clear, don’t do the diet. And I also want to be clear that lying to your healthcare practitioner is not ideal. Ideally, you wouldn’t need to do that. The fact is that weight stigma in healthcare forces fat people to make some really difficult choices that we shouldn’t have to make. This is one of them.

In the past when I needed care and was not been able to get it, I said, “I already lost 75 pounds. It hasn’t helped at all. What else is there? What else do you have?” That was, in that moment, effective. Suddenly I’m somebody who is compliant and deserves ethical, evidence-based care. But what they recommended was also recommendable ten minutes before, when I was just fat. Our choices are often not ideal.

Virginia

It’s frustrating because you are then stuck needing to play into that “good fatty” stereotype. But if that gets you the treatment you need and it’s a way to preserve your mental health through the shitty ordeal, then it’s worth doing.

Ragen

A lot of privilege goes into this too. Not just good fatty privilege, but like as a white, cisgender, currently able-bodied, currently neurotypical person. For those with multiple marginalizations, for those who are higher weight, these solutions are less effective because of intersectional oppression and because of the greater oppression that higher weight people face. That’s a your-mileage-may-vary-due-to-oppression -situation.

Virginia

The HAES health sheet website that you’ve put together, is a phenomenal resource for folks. Ragen worked with Dr. Louise Metz and Tiana Dodson, who are amazing as well. They’ve put together this whole library of different health conditions and information on the weight inclusive approach to this health condition, as opposed to the weight-loss-centered approach that many doctors take. If you’re preparing for a medical encounter, this is a great place to go and prep yourself for what’s to come.

So we’re gonna wrap up with our recommendation segment. It can be about a product anything and experience you’ve had recently so, Regan, what have you got for us?

Ragen

I have for you Latoya Shauntay Snell’s Running Fat Chef podcast. Latoya Shauntay Snell is this incredible, Black, fat, disabled athlete and activist. She put together this podcast with different athletes talking about the intersections of weight stigma and fitness in the athletic world and how to overcome that. I love all of her work, and her podcast is incredible.

Virginia

That sounds phenomenal. I will definitely be subscribing and downloading immediately. That’s an awesome recommendation.

Mine is a little more out of left field, given the whole context of our conversation, but very much in the field for the context of my life right now. It is a parenting book I’m finding very helpful called Why Is My Child in Charge? by Claire Lerner. If you have a preschooler or a toddler who is often trying to be in charge of your life this book is great. I am not a big fan of parenting writing, which is weird to say since I get labeled as parenting writer, but it’s true. Melinda Wenner Moyer, who’s a friend and parenting writer I love, actually loaned me her copy because I was texting her about various tantrums happening in the house.

Lerner frames parenting as understanding that you cannot control your child’s behavior. So your job is not to persuade them to agree with every rule you make or to get them to change their minds about stuff, but actually to keep providing the framework they need to be loved and nurtured without needing to stay up an hour past bedtime and ruin your life.

It actually applies to a lot, like what we were just talking about with doctors, you can’t change their minds either. It’s a useful message for going through life. I’m not here to change other people’s behavior. I’m just here to set my boundaries and set the framework I need to function. It’s been very helpful for me with a certain four year old at the moment.

(Virginia Note: I finished the book after recording this episode and sadly, cannot recommend the chapter on mealtimes. But the rest is still great!)

Ragen

I feel like I need to read it for my little Maltese. We named him after three drag queens and he acts like it. Don’t name your dog after three drag queens.

Virginia

We also have a dog whose behavior I cannot control, but I can control the framework. Alright Ragen, where can Burnt Toast fans find more of your work?

Ragen

So my newsletter is Weight and Health Care. You had mentioned the HAES Health Sheets and then Dances with Fat. I also do a monthly workshop and the one coming up is on dealing with fatphobia at the holidays. We will be talking a lot about how we can’t control their people’s behavior but we can control our reactions and boundary setting. If you go to Dances with Fat, you’ll also find all of my social media and past writing outside of the healthcare sphere.

Virginia

Awesome. Ragen, thank you so much for doing this.

Thank you all so much for listening to Burnt Toast!

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.

This is a public episode. Get access to private episodes at virginiasolesmith.substack.com/subscribe
Dec 02, 2021
"Ankles Don't Get Fat at the Same Rate as Butts."
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Listen now | On the problems with plus sizing and building a space for fat fashion on Instagram, with Corinne Fay, founder of @SellTradePlus.

This is a public episode. Get access to private episodes at virginiasolesmith.substack.com/subscribe
Nov 18, 2021
"I Spent My Whole Life Wondering if There Was Room for Fat Folks to Fall in Love."
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Hello and welcome to another audio version of Burnt Toast!

Today I’m delighted to be chatting with Crystal Maldonado who is the author of Fat Chance, Charlie Vega, one of my favorite YA books—maybe one of my favorite books, period. Crystal also has a new book coming out in February called No Filter and Other Lies.

Crystal

Thank you so much for having me. I can’t believe you said it’s maybe one of your favorite books. I’m gonna go cry.

Virginia

I cried when I read it. I love it very deeply. So I’m excited to talk about it. I’ve been fangirling you on social media since the book came out.

Crystal

I fangirl you! When you reached out, I was like, “Oh my god, my dreams are coming true!”

Virginia

Well, get ready for a mutual fangirl episode because that’s what we’re doing. Why don’t you start by telling us a little more about yourself?

Crystal

As you mentioned, I am the author of Fat Chance, Charlie Vega, which was my first book ever.

I have a day job where I do social media marketing for higher education. I live in Western Massachusetts. I have a great husband, who was the inspiration behind the love story in Fat Chance, Charlie Vega. Together we have this adorable dog, Toby, and we have a two-year-old named Maya. I love things like glitter. I love Beyoncé. I love having a lot of feelings and I love trying to dismantle things like fatphobia and capitalism.

Virginia

I am so here for dismantling fatphobia and capitalism with glitter.

Crystal

We all bring something, and I bring glitter.

Virginia

Glitter is a controversial topic in my house because my husband hates cleaning it up. He can’t even talk about it without becoming enraged. My daughters and I are like, “But, GLITTER!”

Crystal

It sparkles! What more do you need?

Virginia

I’m always like, “Okay, let’s do the glitter project outside,” because I want to hold space for his mess intolerance. It’s fair. But glitter nail polish isn’t messy, so…

Crystal

Glitter nail polish, that’s a good one! I’m going to keep that in my back pocket because my husband wants me to feel like I can do whatever I want with glitter, but then sometimes he finds a rogue glitter on his head.

Virginia

It is true that once glitter enters your home, it will never not be in your home. I don’t think we’ve purchased glitter for an art project in five years and I still find it places. It is problematic in that way, but it is also very joy-inducing.

Crystal

It’s just sprinkling joy that you find later.

Virginia

Some joy on your bathroom floor!

Okay, let’s talk about Fat Chance, Charlie Vega. When I read it last year, it was such a bright spot in pandemic life. I love so much about Charlie and how you’ve subverted a lot of expectations and stereotypes about her. What is Charlie’s origin story for you?

Crystal

I really went into this book wanting to write a fat romcom. As someone who just loved reading love stories and romances, especially within the young adult genre, I felt like I spent my whole life wondering if there was room for fat folks to fall in love. It seemed like I never saw that. I was lucky if fat people existed at all in young adult books. If they did exist, they had to fit into these weird boxes that didn’t make sense and certainly weren’t anything like me. I was a total dreamer, like Charlie, and I wanted to be kissed and I wanted someone to love me.

I wanted to make Charlie into this person who is soft. She is dreamy, and wants what she wants. She embraces that yearning, in ways that I think fat people don’t always get to do.

I have always felt that if I, as a fat person, yearn for something, it’s considered pathetic. I’m not supposed to want anything, you know? That’s weird! I am a human. I’m allowed to want.

I wanted this fluffy book that had all of these typical romance tropes, but for a fat girl to be the main character. She gets to be desired. She doesn’t lose weight. And she gets to fall in love with herself, too.

I wrote the book during the 2016 election, as well. I was really going through it at that time, feeling like I was living in a society that was telling me I didn’t belong in any realm. This book was my response. Like, “Oh yeah? Well, I’m going to write a book that celebrates all the things you don’t like about me.”

Virginia

Yearning is such a big part of that life stage! But we don’t have representation of kids yearning and getting what they yearn for when they are in marginalized bodies. I love that she has desires. Those are some of the most fun parts to read. It’s really sweet and sexy. I can imagine so many girls in all body types, but particularly bigger girls, appreciating that.

Crystal

We deserve that, too.

Virginia

Let’s talk a little bit about what you were writing against. Obviously there was Trump, but also the way fat kids are portrayed in YA literature. Charlie does talk about her weight. She is aware of her size and how her mom is dealing with it, but it is not a book about her needing to change. She just has to own the fact that she does accept herself.

Can you talk about what you were trying not to do?

Crystal

It’s really important for fat folks to have both stories that talk a lot about being fat and that don’t acknowledge fatness at all. With this book, I was trying to immerse the reader in being fat and how it invades everything you think about because it is what society sees. That’s the world Charlie’s living in. She knows she would probably love herself a whole lot more if the rest of the world didn’t have big opinions about her body and her eating habits and exercise habits.

But I wanted to push back on the idea that all fat people hate themselves inherently. Charlie doesn’t hate herself. Is she down on herself? Yeah, of course. Does she experience insecurities? Yes, she’s a teenager. She’s a human. We all feel that. I wanted to show that it’s way more complicated than that.

So she’s not this fat girl who wants to hide herself. She wants to wear cute clothes and she wants to have all of these great experiences. I wanted her to have all of that without ever dieting or losing weight. I’ve read a lot of books where there’s a fat person and then they lose weight, or they get thin, and then they live happily ever after.

Virginia

I love Jennifer Weiner’s books so much, but I still remember in Good in Bed when Cannie starts riding her bike a lot. She doesn’t lose weight, but it says she “shifts it around.” I just remember thinking, why was that necessary? We love Cannie! We’ve been rooting for Cannie this whole book. Why does weight have to be part of it?

[VA Note: It’s possible I’m thinking of Rose in In Her Shoes here. It’s also possible they both have this plot line!]

Crystal

It feels so demoralizing when you’re the fat girl reading these stories. It’s like, “Well, I guess I inevitably have to lose weight if I want happiness or love.”

There’s also this idea that the fat people in stories are the sidekick-bestie-asexual-funny person. They don’t get to desire or be desired. I didn’t want that for Charlie. I wanted her to come out first thing and say, “I dream about being kissed.” I think that’s way more accurate. She is this person who wants to go buy a cute bra and also be super funny and sarcastic. Why not both?

Virginia

Speaking of sidekicks, you populate her world with such an amazing friend group. They are not one-dimensional sidekicks at all. All of her friends are very fully formed characters, dealing with their own stuff in different ways. You layer in many intersections of race and gender identity along with body diversity. And also, Charlie lives in this mostly white town and struggles with that experience.

How did you think about what other stories you wanted to tell through her friends?

Crystal

In my experience growing up in a mostly white town, anyone with any semblance of a marginalized identity is drawn together and finds community with one another because, for whatever reason, you don’t fit in with the majority. That is how I viewed Charlie and her friends, as this tight group of people who come together because they feel othered in some way. I wanted her friends to have beautifully robust and nuanced lives with their own things going on.

I spent a lot of time on Tumblr when I was growing up. We would complain about how there’s a wonderful black best friend, but they never get to do anything. They clearly exist only to help this white main character achieve something. I wanted to think of every one of Charlie’s friends as characters who I would want to read a book about. That’s what it’s like in real life! People have their own lives, they have their own experiences.

At the same time, I am a fat Puerto Rican girl and I’m cisgender. I didn’t feel, with some of those identities, that I could tackle them in that first person, intimate way that I can with Charlie. Amelia is black, pansexual, and very sporty. I don’t know about any of those identities (I identify as bi, not pan) but I have friends who have had these experiences. I wanted to talk about these experiences but not in a first person way because I didn’t feel like I could do them justice. At the same time, I wanted to shed light on some of these different identities to make you think about things in ways that you might not have. Especially if you’re from a very white town, or a town that doesn’t have these other identities, you can meet these people through Charlie.

Virginia

When Amelia comes out to her parents, it’s so moving. I love how you followed those journeys and wove them in.

What are you hearing from readers? What kind of responses have you gotten, especially from fat kids reading the book?

Crystal

It has been so incredible. People have reached out and shared an appreciation and a sense of validation in reading Charlie’s story. It’s not just people who are her age and it’s not just people who are fat, it’s different age ranges and it’s different body types. Some people who reach out are fat, but they're not brown, or they're brown, but they're not fat. To hear from people who have a similar identity to me, to hear them say they get to look at this book and see a character that looks like them, is meaningful. That’s exactly what I wanted and yearned for when I was fourteen or fifteen. It’s been really humbling to hear from people who are like, “Oh, I consider myself a Charlie” and “I have an Amelia.” That is the best. I’ve even had a couple of people who have recreated the cover. I’m like, “Oh my God, can I just be besties with all of you? Because you’re incredible.”

Virginia

What I often hear from parents of kids in bigger bodies is that they want a book where the fat kid is just the hero or the heroine, where it’s not about their body acceptance journey. As much as Charlie is reckoning with her weight in this book, your book is one of the best examples of that. She has her own journey. So, for parents who are looking for that, this is the book that you’re looking for. There is no weight loss. This is a really good one to have in family libraries for that reason. My older daughter is eight and she’s probably a couple years out from reading it, but not that far. I think it works for a wide variety of age ranges.

Crystal

Especially as you’re getting into those awkward middle school years, Charlie’s your girl because she has not been kissed at the start of the book. She’s sixteen and she feels like her peers have surpassed her. She’s dealing with a complicated mom and grief in her household. There’s a lot that younger folks might relate to. Some YA is more mature, and we need that, too, but when we meet Charlie, she still feels like she is just at the beginning.

Virginia

Another thing that you navigate in the book is the online communities that Charlie is a part of. She finds fat influencers and she’s in that body positive space online. That’s something I really struggle with, with our kids, especially right now with everything we’re hearing about Instagram and how great it is at teaching kids to have eating disorders. I am definitely wrestling with thr desire to never let my children online. Your book is a reminder to me that kids in marginalized bodies need to find community and if they’re not finding community at school, which not everyone is going to in middle school in high school, online can be that portal.

Do you see online communities as a force for good? Or a force that needs to be tempered? How are you thinking about it?

Crystal

I think it can be good and it can have very toxic sides as well. I see this a lot as someone who manages social media for a brand. I use social media as myself, of course, but I also see the flip side where there’s a lot of hate and a lot of anger. I wanted to show that social media has the power to be toxic, but at the same time it can bring you together with people who are like you, that you might otherwise struggle to meet.

When I was growing up, I was very much the girl on Tumblr and—I’m dating myself—I was also on LiveJournal a lot. There was this amazing community there called the Fatshionista community. It was just fat people posting pictures of themselves wearing clothes. It was before the super posed, beautiful Instagram photos. It was truly just fat people being like “Here’s what I’m wearing today. What do you think?” At that time, the internet was very ugly and toxic, and especially for fat folks. Let’s be real, it still is, but this was a little safe haven. It was a nice place where I could go and see bodies that looked like mine for the first time in my life.

So I think social media can be super, super powerful. But when you’re part of a marginalized community, you have to curate your feed. Sometimes that means not following mainstream media, even well-meaning ones. You’re following hashtags or you’re finding people through those hashtags. You can find influencers or people who are thinking about this stuff and talking about it.

For Charlie, the most powerful thing is just being able to see girls like her who are out there rocking cute outfits, and getting style inspiration. That helps her build her confidence because she’s like, “Hey, this person has a body like mine, and they look amazing. So could I look amazing.” I would say unfollow literally anybody who makes you feel even a tiny bit bad about yourself.

Virginia

As parents, we’re figuring out how to teach our kids media literacy skills, which we all need to learn, too. We are 100 percent learning with our kids. If your kid is begging to get on Instagram and you’re on the verge of losing that battle, how can you experience it with them and help them seek out these little pockets of goodness, as opposed to just mindlessly following every influencer?

Crystal

Ignore who Instagram suggests you should follow and you make the list.

Virginia

This is the type of stuff I wish they were teaching in middle school and high school. I think teaching kids how to navigate these spaces would be really powerful.

You are a writer and you have a day job and you’re a mom, so you’re juggling all of the things. I love to ask fellow writers a little bit about their writing process, like where do you write? When do you write? What do you like about your process? What do you hate about it? It sounds like you’re probably fitting it in around a lot of things, so tell us what that’s like.

Crystal

Before I had my kid, my writing routine was more about the vibe and curating this feeling and going to coffee shops. Now I’ve gotten pretty good at writing anywhere. I just need my laptop and my headphones and a good playlist on Spotify and my toddler not to be ripping my laptop out of my hands.

I have a desk set up in my bedroom, in this small alcove, and it feels really cozy. I hung up little twinkle lights and it’s got some natural light. I’m very much a feelings and mood person, so that combo helps me get out of my head and move into a different space so that I can think about characters and dialogue. As long as I can put my headphones in and turn the world off, that’s where I’m at.

The thing I hate the most about my current writing process is that it is so chaotic. I never know when I’m going to have the time to actually sit down and write. Sometimes, at the end of the day, if my kid went to sleep early, and I don’t have any chores to do (knock on wood) and I’m caught up on things, now I can write—but I’m so tired. Vegging out wins a lot of the time, I’m not going to lie.

Virginia

I mean, it needs to happen. You need to rest. There are weeks where I’m like, “There are just no more words. I have nothing. I can’t write today.”

Crystal

I know some people like writing every day, they live and die by that and that’s what works for them. I am envious, but I’m just going to write when I can. I also like to think that daydreaming is part of the writing process, at least for me, and thinking about characters. I count that as writing now.

Virginia

I think that absolutely is the work. It’s the work that we can do while driving and running errands, thinking through an article in my head while walking the dog. You can do that work while you’re doing the rest of your life in a way that you cannot when it’s time to sit down and be at the computer. You need to shut out the world. I think building that daydreaming muscle is actually quite helpful because it makes it easier to focus once you sit down.

I feel like there is a parallel between the write-everyday people and the workout-everyday people, where you have to ask, “Is this perfectionism serving you? Or is it an obsession that you can’t step back from?”

As a journalist, I literally can’t write every day because often I’m researching and reporting and I need to do that in order to write. I tend to have one week of the month when I’m producing a book chapter that I’ve been researching and reporting all month. I’ll have 3,000-word days of getting out a chapter. For a long time, I felt guilty, like I should be doing it more systematically and writing smaller chunks. And then I just realized, this is how I do it.

Crystal

If people write every day and that works for them, I think that’s truly incredible and I’m in awe. Writing is so individual. You can try every method that you hear about from great writers and you could fail at all of them, because it’s just not how your brain works or how you think creatively. You have to find what works for you.

Virginia

And then you have to make peace with that being what works for you, because it often doesn’t feel very satisfying.

Crystal

If you’re not a morning person, being a part of the 5 am writers club is never gong to work, so don’t bother.

Virginia

And if you are a morning person, like me, trying to push yourself to work after your kids go to bed is always going to fail. TV will win every time.

Tell us about the new book that’s coming out in February!

Crystal

This book is called No Filter and Other Lies. It’s another young adult book and it features another fat brown girl.

Virginia

I was hoping it would!

Crsytal

We were just talking about social media and that’s really what this next book deals with, Instagram specifically. It’s about a 17-year-old girl. Her name is Kat Sanchez, and she is a an artist, a photographer. She really wants to gain clout and gain recognition for her work, but it’s not happening. Every time she posts, it falls flat. She’s seeing her classmates get recognition, and her friends followers growing, but not hers. She has this complicated family and weird romance going on. She feels like a fraud in a lot of ways and she doesn’t have everything figured out. Then there’s this particularly bad night that leads her down a rabbit hole of not wanting to be herself anymore. So she decides that she’s going to steal her friends’ pictures and become someone else entirely on Instagram, and be a literal “Kat-fish,” with a “K.”

Virginia

Oh, I see what you did there.

Crystal

The book explores these ideas of what is real versus what is fake on Instagram, and how even people who are the closest to it—like Kat who is a photographer and knows there’s photo editing—still struggle to see that not everything we see is is real. It really dives into how to manage yourself on social media, how to stay sane and come out on the other side and appreciate who you are, and appreciate your existence as it is.

Virginia

Oh, my gosh, I can’t wait to read that. Again, you’re writing a book that will resonate with kids because they’re struggling with this, and will also be so helpful for adults because we also don’t know how to do this.

I always hate to ask, when you’re getting ready to promote one book, if you’re working on another book, but I am curious to know.

Crystal

I am working on a third book. No Filter and Other Lies comes out February 1, 2022. Then this next book I’m working on returns to a fluffy, rom-com-esque world. It’s about all of the delightful things that come with fall in New England. It features this fat girl who realizes she has polycystic ovarian syndrome and wants to hide this from the world, while also trying to figure herself out. That’s all I’ll say for now.

Virginia

I already want to preorder it. I’m so excited, Crystal, that you are writing these books and that there are going to be so many of your books out there for all girls. It is so needed, so thank you.

We will wrap up with my new recommendation segment, where we talk about just anything we’re loving. It doesn’t have to be a product, but it can be a product, or it can be an experience. What do you have for us?

Crystal

So, speaking of being at the end of the day and just needing to like lean into TV, Nailed It! on Netflix just came out with a new season. It’s the baking show that Nicole Byer hosts. I am a huge fan of Nicole Byer. I just think she’s so funny and she’s also fat and she has these fabulous outfits on in each episode. You get to kick back and watch a bunch of bakers be terrible at baking while she makes jokes at their expense, but in the most wholesome and sweet way. I have been watching this new season and just loving every second because I get to turn my little brain off. I look at her amazing outfits and just wonder if Nicole is looking for a bestie.

Virginia

I haven’t watched this at all and I’m now asking myself how I’ve missed it. It’s going in the queue.

I’m going to recommend pencil cactuses. People who follow me on Instagram know that I am a plant lady. People always ask what’s a good house plant to start with, and there’s a bunch that you see all the time. But pencil cactuses are a really good starter house plant that gets overlooked. They’re very hard to kill. You only have to water this one maybe every two weeks. It does need a fair amount of light; it wants your sunniest window. It’s actually not a cactus—it’s a Euphorbia, if you want to get technical—and it has all these little, narrow shoot things. As it gets colder, they start to develop this red color that’s really pretty.

So pencil cactuses are just delightful and I feel like nobody’s talking about them and I want to be the person who makes them trendy.

Crystal

Note to self: Buy a pencil cactus.

Virginia

You won’t always find them in the big box store plant sections, but any smaller plant store should have them. You can definitely find them on Etsy. You can get a little one and it will grow big, so don’t feel like you have to really invest. (Yes, mine is now giant but it started small!) Just get a small one and put it on your window sill and enjoy.

Crystal

I really want one, you’ve totally sold me.

Virginia

Well, my work here is done. Crystal, tell listeners where they can follow you and stay tuned for all your book updates.

Crystal

If you want to follow me and feel my feelings and see Beyoncé pictures and see where glitter is going to end up, I am @CrystalWrote (past tense of write) everywhere. I’m on Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok, and my website is CrystalWrote.com.

Virginia

Thank you, Crystal! And thank you so much for listening to Burnt Toast. If you liked this episode and you aren’t yet a subscriber, please subscribe!

If you are a subscriber, thank you so much. Please consider sharing Burnt Toast on social media or forwarding this to a friend.

The Burnt Toast logo is by Deanna Lowe.

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

Thanks for listening! Talk to you soon!

This is a public episode. Get access to private episodes at virginiasolesmith.substack.com/subscribe
Nov 04, 2021
"You’re Showing Up in the World, and Nobody is Fooled," with Dacy Gillespie of Mindful Closet
2668
Hello, and welcome to another audio version of Burnt Toast!

Today I am chatting with Dacy Gillespie, a personal stylist and creator of Mindful Closet.

If you follow me on Instagram, you might have noticed I have been posting a little more fashion content. If you think anything I’ve been wearing is cute, it is because of Dacy. She is brilliant at fashion. She is even more brilliant at helping us release the patriarchal rules that we have felt like we had to follow about getting dressed. Dacy does it all from a weight-inclusive, Health at Every Size perspective. She is an amazing unicorn in the fashion universe.

Dacy

Thank you, Virginia, for the really kind words.

Virginia

All extremely true. For folks who don’t know you, let’s start by having you give us a little of your story. You are a classical musician-turned-stylist. You are also very much not what people think of when they think of a stylist! I would love to hear a little more of how you got into this work.

Dacy

I appreciate that you say I’m not what you would think of when you hear “stylist.” For me, that is a good sign that someone connects with what I feel like I’m doing, in a weird way. I truly feel that way myself, so it’s nice to be recognized.

I’ll try and give the short version of the story. I know we’re going to talk later about the messages that people get around clothing and fashion. My story started with a message I got from my parents, which was: If you care or think about clothes or fashion, you’re superficial and silly, and not a serious, caring person. I know a lot of people can relate to that. Fashion was something I always, always loved. If it weren’t for that message, I probably would have gotten into something in the fashion field much earlier on.

Instead, I went into classical music which was an approved field of study. It was an interesting career for a while, but ultimately a really high stress one. When I decided to change careers in my mid-thirties, style and fashion was what I went back to. I did some research on fields within the industry and realized that something I’d been informally doing for people my whole life actually was a job: Personal styling. I was always that person who would come over and help you clean out your closet or help you decide what you were going to wear to an event. It never felt validated as something that I could actually do, partially because of that message from my parents, and partially because I just never felt cool enough to be in fashion. Thanks to a really supportive husband and a lot of privilege, I started this business about nine years ago.

Virginia

I went into fashion magazines, but worked in the health departments. I was like, “I’m not cool enough for the fashion people.” Which was both true and not true. The fashion industry is very insular and puts up barriers, but it’s ridiculous that these barriers exist and that we internalize them.

We’ve been working together in your one-on-one coaching program. It’s been low-key life-changing. And it’s a lot more like therapy than I expected, in a good way. I was like, “Oh, I want to work with Dacy because I need to figure out what styles work on my body,” and like, “maybe she’ll just tell me what to wear and that’ll be so great.” And instead, you were like, “What messages have you absorbed about your body? Let’s unpack this! Where did this come from?” I started realizing I had all these ideas, like that I should only wear flowy tops or I should only wear dark colors. You helped me sort through that and figure out where it comes from. So, I’m curious to hear why you think it’s so important to start with those stories that we tell ourselves about clothes.

Dacy

Well, I think awareness is always the first step towards growth and change. You have to be aware of those stories that you’ve been told before you can let them go. You have to hold them and look at them and say, “Is this true for me? Or is this just someone else’s idea of what I should be doing?”

As women, we’re so used to taking in others’ opinions and changing our actions around those opinions. I see this as an entry point to getting in touch with what your true needs are. Fashion is just a way to practice that. You talk about intuitive eating and Health at Every Size, and there are so many similarities and parallels in this work. It’s about listening to your body and what it needs. I always ask, “Is it external influence or is it an internal motivation?”

The whole first session when I work with someone is called “Style Stories.” It’s about asking, “What has your relationship with clothes been over the course of your life? Who dressed you? Who took you to buy clothes? Who influenced what you thought you should be wearing? Who gave you messages?” It can be anyone, from our mothers to fashion magazines and of course, social media. It’s so important to acknowledge those messages and decide whether you want to accept them or let them go.

Virginia

Yes, yes, absolutely. We talked a lot about middle school for me. It was all about Cool Girls, and because I moved schools around that time, wondering if I had the right thing to wear. I realized that here I am, a 40-year-old adult, still worrying about having the right thing to wear.

One of my big takeaways was how much joy I had gotten out of clothes as a kid, and even as a teenager and young adult. That joy had been really sucked out of fashion for me, and a lot of that was because of my body changing. I grew up as a thin kid. I’m a small fat adult. That was a big transition because clothes just aren’t accessible to me in the same way. There were also feelings of wanting to fit in and play it safe and wear black all the time.

When we started digging deeper into it, you asked me to show you what I love. I showed you people like Emma Straub and Nora Pelizzari who are wearing tons of color and mixed prints and bright patterns. They’re like walking rays of sunshine! It was so interesting to realize that’s actually what I’m really drawn to.

We realized that wanting to play it safe is really a fear of taking up space. It’s really a fear being noticed. Is this is a common fear you encounter? Does this fear of being noticeable come up a lot, especially for people in bigger bodies?

Dacy

Yeah, for sure. This is what I hear especially people who have lived in a larger body for most of their life. They felt excluded, that clothing and fashion were not things that they could participate in—in some cases, literally! Like, “When I went to the store with my mom and my sister, my sister could buy the clothes in this store and I couldn’t.”

People have this experience of feeling excluded and getting messages that if you are not in a socially acceptable body, you should hide yourself. You don’t deserve to be noticed. Something is shameful about your body and it should be hidden. You should just be grateful if you can find anything that fits your body. Of course, we have a long way to go, but steps are being taken, thankfully. There are options if you love and enjoy fashion, so that you don’t have to wear shapeless, black sacks. I, however, am someone who loves a shapeless black sack.

Something I was thinking about talking to you, Virginia, is that—and I think this is common for a lot of mothers—the period of time when you lost your spark of joy about fashion was the period of time when you became a parent. That was a somewhat traumatic experience for you. People get to the point where they just have to get through the day, just have to get by, and fashion is not something that they have the luxury to think about. You are somewhat through that, and finally able to feel more of the things that bring you pleasure. It was really lovely to be able to help you connect to that.

Virginia

When we were going through our more traumatic years with my daughter’s medical condition, I did a lot of stress shopping. I remember sitting attached to the breast pump in the ICU, and buying boots on my phone in this compulsive way. I just needed something good.

I’ll never shame anyone’s coping strategies, but for me, it wasn’t super satisfying. Shopping is hard to do in a spontaneous, joyful way. The whole structure of online shopping, in particular, is difficult to navigate. Recognizing that I needed joy and deserved joy and didn’t have to do it in a furtive, stressful way was helpful.

The other realization I had as we were doing this work, was how much I had lowered my standards. I think of myself as someone with high standards, so that was surprising. As shopping got harder, I ended up keeping stuff I didn’t really like because returns seemed like a hassle. Maybe I really loved it but it didn’t fit quite right. Or I didn’t love it, but it fit okay, so I would convince myself it was fine. There was a lot of accepting stuff that wasn’t great. There was some inertia and some fear that it would be hard to find something better. I want to hold space for the fact that for folks on tight budgets, for folks in larger bodies, it often does feel somewhat impossible to find better options. I think you’ve mentioned that you’ve encountered that belief a lot, too. But why is this important to challenge? And how do we challenge it?

Dacy

People who are in larger bodies or people whose bodies change, as yours did and as mine is right now, have been given this message that we don’t matter, that we’re not worth the effort. If we have something that that fits, we should just shut up and be thankful. It’s a real expression of self-value to say, “No, this is not quite right.” Maybe you need this item right now, because there’s not always a perfect solution, but just knowing that this isn’t what expresses yourself in the most pure way can be helpful. It may not be what makes you the most happy, and you can continue to look for that.

As mothers, we would never say to our kids, “Make do with the rain boots with the hole in them.” or “You grew out of those but I’m not going to buy you new clothes.” But we often let our needs fall to the bottom of the priority list.

Virginia

How do you advise people to start to shift that? Is it finding more time to spend on shopping? Is it thinking differently about what you’re buying? What’s the starting point?

Dacy

The starting point is awareness. Allow yourself to feel what you feel about your clothes. When you get dressed in the morning, if you are putting on two or three things and taking them off because you don’t want to wear them that day, just try and sit with and understand what is going on there. Is it because it doesn’t fit well? Is it because it makes you feel squeezed? Is it because it’s a very bright color that you feel uncomfortable in? Is it because it’s black and you feel drab?

It’s going to be so different for every single person, but start allowing those things to come up. We’re not supposed to complain about these things; we should be grateful we have clothes. Allowing yourself to start to think, “Okay, this is the reason why I don't want to wear this today. I'm gonna put it on because I don't have any other options, but this is going to start a process of thinking about what I want my clothes to be for me.”

A huge part of it is also finding visual inspiration and really not censoring yourself when you’re doing that. People will create Pinterest boards and they’ll put things on where they love that print but have been told that doesn’t work for someone in a larger body. Or they may say, “I love that fitted shape, but God forbid someone see my stomach!” So, if you can reach out for visual inspiration that truly resonates on a gut level without filtering in that way, you’ll just start to see things a little bit differently and see what you’re wearing a little bit differently. It comes down to this awareness of rejecting what you’ve been told. You can decide what it is that you like the look of, and then later on you can figure out a way to translate it into your life.

Virginia

I went in thinking I knew what clothes I liked. If you’d asked me previous to this, “What is your style?” I think I would have said, “Whatever the Anthropologie plus size collection has, that’s probably what I want to wear.” It turns out, it’s actually not at all what I want to wear! We didn’t end up buying anything from them. It’s not a style that really speaks to me. I realized how much I was just accepting, like, aren't we so lucky that Anthropologie makes plus sizes now, I must want to wear that. There are lots of ways this plays out.

Then there was this process of refining and realizing I love when Emma Straub wears a giant, multicolored muumuu. But I don’t actually want to wear a muumuu, I want something with that feel, but with smaller pops of color. That still feels very bold to me, as someone who came from black t-shirt land.

Dacy

You start with that visual inspiration, then at some point you have to put it into practice and see how it feels. There’s a little bit of a swing to the extreme sometimes, too. I think maybe you did this a little bit. This thing of, I need to wear all the prints and all the colors, because now it’s available and it has never been available before. And yet, you still have to do what feels good for you. I think you experienced some of that. Some of those more colorful things made you uncomfortable and didn’t get worn and therefore weren’t really useful for you.

Virginia

Yeah, absolutely. We also did a much bigger closet purge than I was expecting. That was cathartic. It was exciting to realize how much stuff I had hanging in there that I wasn’t wearing.

What are some other common beliefs that come up with clients, especially folks in bigger bodies, that you help them break through?

Dacy

These ideas that that style is not for you, that you can’t take up space, that you can’t just be the physical person that you are, and that you should strive for an optical illusion that makes you appear smaller, which we then call '“flattering.” And that “flattering” should be the priority above all else.

I like to start by reversing that and saying, “What do you like, without considering what is socially appropriate or conventionally appropriate for your body?” Let’s start with what you actually like the look of and let’s prioritize that. That way you get some say in it, you get some control. Otherwise, you’re just saying, “Well Tim Gunn or Elle Magazine or whoever says, ‘you have to wear fitted waist and full skirts,’ all for the sake of appearing as small as possible.” What if you just don’t like how that looks? People in larger bodies have been pressured to do this as much as they possibly can. God forbid you show up in your full size, that would be so offensive. Let’s use all the tricks in the book that we can come up with to try and make you appear smaller than you actually are.

Virginia

It’s so exhausting and the tricks don’t work either. People will still see your body.

Dacy

You’re a three dimensional object. You’re showing up in the world, and nobody is fooled. It just makes you feel uncomfortable and you’re trying so hard to achieve something that is impossible.

Virginia

It also triggers so much comparing and that’s not helpful, as opposed to focusing on what makes you happy and what makes you feel good in clothes. I remember reading an interview with Lindy West where—thinking of your comment about black shapeless sacks—she said something like, “I would love if someone put me in that for a photoshoot, but they always put me in the like 1950’s hourglass silhouette with a bold red lip.” That’s the way that fat girls are allowed to feel pretty, to really lean into the retro vibes. What if you don’t— and I don’t—particularly love a retro vibe? What if you don’t want to be Marilyn Monroe? What if you don’t love a puff sleeve, at the moment? Or certain silky flower prints that we get over and over? It probably sounds very hard to start with what you love, but I think you’re right that it’s a very pivotal step to take.

Dacy

You and I, and probably a lot of people listening, have been challenging this concept of flattering. Some people get very worried, like “Why would I wear something if it’s not flattering, because flattering makes me feel good.” It comes down to the meaning of the word and what you consider the word flattering to mean. In my in my opinion, it has always meant to appear as small as possible. If to you “flattering” means something that makes you happy because you put it on and you light up, that’s great.

Virginia

The clothes I ended up buying after working with you are, in many cases, silhouettes that I would not have thought would be “flattering” on my body. I would now say they actually are flattering, if we redefine the word. I look better in these clothes because I’m comfortable and happy in them. I’m not trying to hide my body.

Dacy

It’s because we started with what you liked the look of, right? If we had stuck to the rules, we wouldn’t have gotten to those clothes.

Virginia

I want to talk about detaching from your clothing size. I truly do not care what the label says anymore. When I look at what we bought, which I was doing because I was posting on Instagram and wanted to give people sizes, we bought like 47 different sizes. I think that’s often a stumbling block for people. They’re really caught up in their head about wanting to stay a certain size and buying the next size up feels like this big, scary step to take. Can you explain, as someone who understands retail so well, why are clothing sizes such b******t and what do we do with that?

Dacy

I don’t know if I have perfect answers for either of those questions. I mentioned this in passing before, that my body is changing. I do feel that little bit of sadness when I realized that the sizes I bought for years don’t fit anymore and I’m in a different size now. We want to acknowledge that, it is definitely a thing. And also, sizing is so meaningless. It’s absolutely meaningless. One size in one store equals a size four sizes up in another store. So how can you say you’re one or the other? I always say to my clients that 100 or 150 years ago there was no size. There were no clothing sizes. Clothes were made for your body. If you were wealthy, someone made them for you. If you were poor, you made them for yourself. This concept of needing our bodies to fit into certain clothes or certain styles is a new concept. It’s new since industrialization; it’s new since globalization. Sizing is a construct that ultimately makes a lot of people feel bad. But it’s imaginary.

Virginia

Yeah, you have to start viewing it as white noise, in a way. The relief of finding a clothing item that fits well is so powerful. It feels so good that I can stop caring about the number. That was a helpful turning point for me. There is a mourning process, you’re right. You have to grieve. It’s frustrating, too, because clothes are expensive, to realize that the entire closet that I had before each of my children is gone. That is infuriating. But you have to detach from those numbers and just see them as this strange system that the store is using to chart out its clothes, that doesn’t have any reflection on us.

You also explained to me about taking your measurements and studying the size charts. It is a little more labor intensive and can also be triggering because anything with numbers and bodies can be triggering. But, if you can do measurements in a way that feels safe to you, it’s a much more reliable as a way to buy clothes. Look at the size charts and match up your measurements. That was really helpful.

Dacy

The alternative is that you order something in a size you hope will fit and it comes and it doesn’t fit and you feel bad about yourself. You feel frustrated and you give up and end up with no clothes that make you feel good about your body.

If you’re not feeling comfortable in your body and your clothes on a daily basis, you’re just a little more restricted in your thoughts and your movements. It’s such a valuable thing to have clothes that fit. While it’s hard, I don’t see an alternative because I don’t think wearing clothes that don’t fit is a good option for most people.

Virginia

It’s a lot like living on a diet. Even if you’re living on one of those less punitive diets and it’s a “lifestyle plan,” it’s sapping your energy in this small way every day because all this mental energy is going towards what you’re eating or not eating. And wasting mental energy on jeans that feel uncomfortably too tight is such a life suck. Why do that?

The system you encourage is ordering multiple sizes, trying things on, and returning. This is something that I started doing years ago because it felt like the only practical way to shop. We should also talk about the returns piece of things, because this is a topic that is complicated. I would love your thoughts on how we navigate that part of it.

Dacy

It’s funny, you’re a huge outlier. Almost everyone I work with is shocked by the idea of ordering multiple things to try!

Virginia

So people are just buying one thing at a time? And then returning it?

Dacy

Or not returning it because it feels frustrating and they don’t want to order the next size and so they just get stuck. A lot of people just need permission to know that there is absolutely no way to know if something is going to fit based on the size chart on a company’s website. Even if they have a well laid out size chart, and you take your measurements, and you match up to a certain size. There’s just no way to know. You are setting yourself up to get stuck in the process by only ordering one thing and then feeling like you failed. You haven’t failed, it’s the system, which doesn’t work for anyone.

Virginia

I bet it’s people being really hesitant to order the larger size and being attached to that clothing number. Maybe they’ve already gone up one size but don’t want to go up two sizes. I think we need to reckon with why that is so scary. This is a meaningless number.

Dacy

I have a lot of people who always ordered one size, no matter what store. How on earth do you know if that’s going to fit? If we were in a dressing room in a store and you tried on something and it didn’t fit, of course you’d get the next size. By not doing that you’re stilting the whole process.

In terms of returns, I do not have all the answers. It’s an environmental concern. It’s something that a lot of us take personal responsibility for and feel guilty for. But in reality, it’s another big system that needs to be managed by corporations and the people making money off of us. It is not our personal responsibility to save the planet by never returning anything and keeping clothes that we don’t like or that don’t fit.

Virginia

Which you would just end up throwing out anyway, at some point.

Dacy

Exactly. Good point. It’s even more wasteful to keep them, in some ways. A lot of people are really concerned about shipping and carbon emissions and—if anyone has any data about this, I’d love to hear it—in my neighborhood, there’s a delivery guy going from house to house to house, which is probably more efficient than everyone in my neighborhood driving separately to buy something.

The thing that I value the most is women feeling good in their clothes because I feel like it allows them to have that freedom of thought and freedom to be an activist for the things that are important.

At the moment, the system only allows us to get clothes that fit by trying a bunch of things and returning some of them. Unfortunately, that’s our option. The only other option is getting clothes that don’t fit or sticking with clothes that you ordered and feel guilty about returning and are a waste of money because they’re not quite what you need.

Virginia

Amanda Mull had a great piece in The Atlantic about returns, for anyone who wants to read up. The big concern is that a lot of retailers destroy inventory instead of putting it back into inventory, which is pretty disgusting and neither of us are saying it’s not bad. It’s bad.

Dacy

Yes. But there’s a lot of nuance to it. I believe the article said that 25 percent of returns are not going back into inventory. I’m going to guess that a majority of those are fast fashion retailers. Very cheaply made things are just not worth the cost of being put back into the inventory system to resell. So, here’s a little plug for trying to buy more sustainably made clothing. I can tell you for sure that a lot of the brands that I work with and follow are not putting garments in the trash. If a piece is worth a certain amount of money and it’s well-made, like out of organically grown cotton, it’s not going in the trash.

Virginia

Yeah, they are going to put it back in inventory. It’s also true that, for plus size folks, fast fashion is often the only way to get your sizes. It is a broken system and you still deserve to be able to put clothes on your body, even if you’re on a tight budget, even if you don’t have a lot of size options. Our individual choices only go so far here.

I often hear from from other folks in the fat community that the returns process is a burden unique to us. So, it was really interesting to read that Atlantic piece and realize this is happening across all retail, not even just clothing. It is true that folks who can’t shop in brick and mortar stores, because they don’t carry our sizes, are stuck with this model. But, it’s also true that everyone is doing this. It’s not our unique burden or unique failing. It’s helpful to understand the scope of the problem even though it’s also depressing.

Dacy

Yeah, I think what you just said is really important. People feel like they’re failing if they can’t immediately buy an image on a computer screen and have it work out. That is so unrealistic. Just know, shopping is hard for everyone. I buy and return many, many things before I find what I want, personally. And I’m someone who knows the landscape out there and knows about lots of options and and I still cannot determine until I put it on my body.

Virginia

One other option I will shout out is that my new newsletter assistant, Corinne Fay, runs a really awesome Instagram @SellTradePlus. It is a great option to know about for buying secondhand clothes. And, if you did buy something that you can’t return because you’re worried they’re gonna destroy it or you’re past the return window, you can sell it on SellTradePlus. It’s an awesome community.

I wanted to end by giving a recommendation of something we are loving or something that is making our lives easier. Dacy, do you have a recommendation for us?

Dacy

I really had to think hard about this and I have I have three answers.

Over the last couple of years, I have started to get into a better relationship with movement and movement that makes me feel good. It’s more for my mental health than anything. It’s faux-hiking. It’s walking, but it’s hiking. It’s a paved path, but it’s very steep. I’m sure real hikers would be like, “That’s not hiking.” But it’s not walking around my neighborhood, okay?

And I went to REI the other day and actually bought a pair of good shoes for that. I’ve just been wearing just running shoes and I’m terrified of slipping and falling, especially now as we’re getting into fall and winter. So, that’s one thing.

Along with that, something that I will need to do this year is buy myself a new winter coat because I’ve outgrown mine. Cold weather gear is so important. I’m from the South and I currently live in St. Louis. I do not enjoy the cold, but for so long I just wore an extra sweater or two pairs of gloves. Buying winter gear was kind of a revelation. So, I’m looking forward to having a great new winter coat.

And then the last thing that’s making my life really a lot better, since pandemic parenting—I also have two young children—is that I have taken a couple trips. Obviously this is not something that’s available to everyone and I’m extremely lucky. Last week I went to Tucson and in a month or so I’m going to to New York with a friend. Just having those on my calendar is bringing me a lot of joy.

Virginia

Oh my gosh, yes. I love recommending faux-hiking, winter clothes, and abandoning your children.

Dacy

One hundred percent.

Virginia

My recommendation this week is going to be this song that I’m obsessed with called White Woman’s Instagram by Bo Burnham. I’m probably the last person to discover it because it does have 10 million views on YouTube. During the pandemic, Dan, my husband, got really obsessed with Bo Burnham, who is apparently a YouTube-sensation-slash-stand-up-comedian person. This making me sound really out of touch with the kids, but I am, so that’s accurate.

Dacy

If it makes you feel any better, I have not seen the video, so I’m even behind you.

Virginia

Oh, well, then there is delight awaiting you, Dacy.

Bo Burnham did this comedy special that he produced during lockdown. He shot it all in his house in Los Angeles. It’s definitely a privileged person’s experience of the pandemic, but he shot this whole special at home. Dan watched it and was obsessed with it, and kept trying to make me watch it. And I kept refusing. Sometimes when he’s really excited about things, I don’t get excited.

Finally, I watched it last week, because we do a monthly Movie Club and it was Dan’s turn to pick the movie. He was able to make everyone watch Bo Burnham: Inside. I have somewhat complicated feelings about the movie, which I will not go into (but if anyone wants to discuss in the comments, feel free!).

But! White Woman’s Instagram is satirizing white women on Instagram very accurately. My favorite line is when he talks about seeing some random quote from “Lord of the Rings” incorrectly attributed to Martin Luther King, Jr. The video is really fun to watch because he recreates very well-known tropes of Instagram, as a man, and it’s just very funny. If you are someone who, like Dacy and me, has to navigate Instagram for your job and you feel exasperated by it often, then you will enjoy this.

Alright, thanks so much for listening to Burnt Toast! If you like this episode and you aren’t yet a subscriber please subscribe!

If you are a subscriber, Thank you so much. Please consider sharing Burnt Toast on social media or forwarding it to a friend.

Burnt Toast transcripts and essays are edited and formatted by Corinne Fay, who runs @SellTradePlus. Our logo is by Deanna Lowe.

And I’m Virginia Sole-Smith. You can find more of my work at virginiasolesmith.com or come say hi on Instagram or Twitter. I’m @v_solesmith.

This is a public episode. Get access to private episodes at virginiasolesmith.substack.com/subscribe
Oct 28, 2021
"Can I Make My Kid's Candy Disappear?" with Amy Palanjian of Yummy Toddler Food
2429
Hello and welcome to another audio version of Burnt Toast!

Today is a very exciting crossover episode with my best friend Amy Palanjian, who is the creator of Yummy Toddler Food; parts of this conversation will also run next week on Amy’s newsletter. Longtime listeners will remember Amy from our podcast Comfort Food (RIP) and from her previous Burnt Toast.

And! Just a reminder that guest episodes of the audio newsletter are now free for all listeners! That means you can go back and listen to Rachel Millner, Gwen Kostal, Alyson Gerber, the founders of the National Plus Guide, Tyler Feder, Christy Harrison, Anna Sweeney, Marquisele Mercedes, and Aubrey Gordon, all for free.

I’m able to make this content accessible with the help of paid subscribers. If you’d like to support what I’m doing, click here to take 20 percent off your subscription and get cool perks.

Virginia

I’m so happy we’re together again! I mean, we’re sort of always spiritually together.

Amy

It’s funny, someone the other day someone was like, “When is the podcast coming back?” and I was like, “What are you talking about? Virginia and I talk all the time.”

Virginia

We do miss doing the podcast. It stopped making sense for a variety of reasons related to childcare. Also, it’s very expensive to run a podcast that doesn’t make money. It wasn’t our best business decision, but we both loved doing it. Now Amy can join us on Burnt Toast and we can still have some of that magic.

So this crossover episode was Amy’s idea because we are both getting questions about Halloween candy—something that causes stress for parents every year. We do have an old Comfort Food podcast episode I will link, for people who want even more on this.

Amy

I would like everyone to know that I actually found a bag of our Halloween candy from last year as I was looking for some candy to photograph. Apparently, lollipops are not super popular in my house!

Virginia

Meanwhile, the other day, Violet said, “We haven’t had lollipops in a very long time,” as if I had greatly wronged her. I said, “Okay, tell Daddy to put them on the grocery list.” But I was thinking the same thing, that the last time I bought lollipops, we had a box sitting in the pantry for months. They pick out the three red ones and then they don’t want the rest of the bag. Do people like other colors of lollipop? There’s a very strong red bias when it comes to lollipops. And popsicles, too.

Amy

True. It’s logical. They taste better.

Virginia

Who likes a yellow lollipop? Anyway, we’re not here to shame your lollipop preferences. Everyone knows Amy and I strongly believe that there are no bad foods—though possibly there are some bad lollipops.

The question that comes up over and over is parents wanting to know how to limit or regulate candy consumption for sugar obsessed kids on Halloween. We got several versions of this question: What are the best low sugar options for toddlers? How do I prevent the sugar tantrums?

Guys, sugar is not heroin. It's okay. Take a deep breath.

Amy

There’s also the question, “What’s the best time to eat candy?” As if eating candy at 2pm might be somehow better. We put all this pressure on the food. We forget that Halloween is super exciting! It only happens once a year and you’re wearing a costume and you get to run down the street ringing doorbells! It’s novel for kids. If you took the candy out of the equation, they still might have a tantrum just because it’s new and their routine is upset. We want to control what we can, so we immediately go to the candy. It’s sort of an easy scapegoat, but it makes us forget the bigger picture.

Virginia

It’s the birthday phenomenon! People think the cupcakes at the birthday party make kids crazy. But no, it’s the fact that the birthday party was at a trampoline place for two hours! They are overstimulated from being around screaming children bouncing on things. Lots of research has debunked the sugar high phenomenon. I will link to things that I have written for anyone still saying, “But wait, really? I think it makes me kid super hyper.” It doesn’t. It’s circumstantial.

Step one is recognizing that candy is going to be a big part of Halloween. Candy is, along with the costumes, the entire point of the day. The more you can relax and lean into the joy of that, instead of trying to limit, the less stressed you’re going to be. Trying to control sugar is going to end up with you in a power struggle with your kid about what this day can be for them. That’s not a fun way to experience a holiday!

Amy

Yeah, it would be like trying to limit the amount of presents that your kids get on Christmas. I guess you could ignore the candy part of Halloween if you just didn’t leave your house. But this is a temporary situation.

Whatever happens on this day is not an indicator of the health or well-being or emotional state of your child for the rest of their life. It can sometimes feel like we’re bad parents for giving our kids these foods that are culturally shamed, especially with the emphasis on no added sugars for kids under two. There is a lot of pressure.

Virginia

Yes, especially for parents who have a lot of fears around processed foods! Candy is the ultimate processed food. This is one day of the year when a lot of foods that you may not normally buy are suddenly on your child’s radar. It’s important to keep in mind that kids may seem especially fixated or obsessed with these foods because this is the first time they’re experiencing a Mars Bar or a Butterfinger. One way to think about lessening the obsession on Halloween is to be a little more relaxed throughout the year. If it’s more normal for your child to encounter a Snickers, then they might not need to eat 100 in one sitting. If you have candy around, kids will become more discerning. They will be quicker to say, “I don’t need to take a bite out of every single piece because I already know which ones I like and don’t like. I can I can focus and enjoy my favorites.”

It’s so sad and confusing that this should be a joyful day and instead kids are having to navigate these complicated feelings about wanting things that a parent doesn’t want them to have. We’re layering this whole emotional experience about food being something you have to feel really complicated about.

Amy

“We went out as a family! We had so much fun! I got this bag of stuff with my parents and now they’re taking it away from me. And I don’t quite understand why.”

Virginia

So, I think we’ve established why being really controlling around Halloween candy is not the way to go.

Let’s talk a little bit about what we each do and what our approaches are to managing this. We can also touch on the ever-controversial Switch Witch.

Amy

Up until 2020, we had always gone trick or treating in the dorms at the college where my husband works. We would go through the dorm, which was full of kids giving out candy. They dress up and decorate the hallways and it was really fun.

Then, we bring all of our candy home and we sort through anything that is too crunchy, like a round hard candy, or anything that’s too chewy for the younger kids, and put it off to the side. We talk about safety. I’m not trying to do it on the sly. I’m very open about it. I’ll say, “We're just gonna put this over here and maybe one of us parents will eat it.” Then we talk about the candies my kids haven’t seen. I tell them the names, we talk about what they taste like, we do a taste test. The kids try a bunch of stuff! They spit a lot of stuff out that they don’t want. In that process, if there’s a thing that they don’t like, they'll just push all those off to the side. If they know they don’t like the thing, they don’t want it in their bowl. We usually have water or milk and we sit at the table and we do it together. It’s a later night than usual. They eat a lot of candy. I try to eat all of this Snickers. It’s fun!

I didn’t do this when my oldest was little, because I was intensely fearful of sugar. As I learned more, I understood that my fear was not helping. So, I embrace it. Each kid then has a bowl with whatever candy is left. After that first night and we put it in the pantry. We don’t hide it or take it away. And then we let them pick out a few pieces every day and they can decide if they want it with breakfast or with dinner, but I do try to have the kids all have it at the same time so that there’s not fighting.

Virginia

Oh, that’s smart.

Amy

Yeah, like they might say, “She’s having her thing and it’s not fair!” So we try to line them up so that they’re happening at the same time. Then if we do go trick or treating on actual Halloween we do the whole thing again.

Virginia

We take a very similar approach, maybe with a little less reverence than your tasting process. On Halloween night we dump all the candy out of the coffee table and say, “Go nuts! Have as much as you want!”Candy is not an off limits food in our house, so the kids already know things they really love. They throw out the ones they don’t like. Then it goes into a bowl in our pantry.

The kids do try some new candies, too. Keep in mind, for picky eaters, trying a new candy is still trying a new food. Candies have weird textures and flavors, so it can be a great thing if your cautious eater is willing to try some strange looking candy.

The advice that gets circulated a lot is to do a free-for-all on Halloween. We do a free-for-all on the second day, as well. Amy doesn’t need to do that because she’s got the double trick-or-treating thing, so there is going to be another opportunity. But I do think for a lot of kids just the one night is not enough.

Once we’re getting back into our routine, I’ll say, “When do you want to have your candy?” Other traditional advice is to limit candy thereafter to one piece a day which feels like not enough to me. I feel sad with only one mini Snickers! So we do two or three pieces. I don’t get hung up on the number because you’re very quickly going to find yourself doing a lot of weird negotiations. Why make yourself crazy?

I’ve also found, as my oldest daughter gets older—she’s eight now—she manages the candy very effortlessly. We are transitioning to her having more authority over her food experience. She manages the candy easily on her own because we’ve always done it this way. I notice there are a few days where she wants some candy with breakfast, lunch and dinner. Then she’s lost interest by the end of the week.

With a younger kid, where you’re opening wrappers and you’re the delivery vehicle, I think it makes sense to pick a time for candy.

Don't get too hung up on your role for managing the candy. Instead, ask yourself, did I give them enough access, and enough time to really enjoy this experience? If you’ve done that, they will gradually lose interest in the candy stash over the next couple of weeks. They won’t be fixated on it because they don’t have a scarcity mindset about it.

Amy

If you’re noticing that your your kid is throwing tantrums when you say, “Just one piece,” the counterintuitive answer is to relax the rules. Your kid is responding to those rules in a way that is showing you that they don’t feel like they have access to that food. That can be a hard thing for parents to do, especially with little kids, because it often feels like we’re giving in or that it’s a slippery slope and now they're only going to eat candy. My two-year-old will have the candy with dinner, and he’ll eat some of the dinner and he’ll eat some of his candy. He’ll go back and forth. Candy is a food that we sometimes have more of at this particular time of the year.

Virginia

Some kids are going to be the kids who are want to savor every little piece and they’re going to make it last till March and that’s totally fine.

Amy

The goal of this is not to have kids who lose interest! The goal is to have kids who do not lose their minds over candy.

Virginia

Right, kids who can enjoy and revel in Halloween and enjoy candy. It’s part of their life, not an obsession or something to feel anxious about.

Are there any treats you wouldn’t let your kid eat?

Amy

Anything they’re allergic to. Anything that would be too hard for a younger kiddo to chew. That’s it.

Virginia

This isn’t something you get trick-or-treating, but maybe something like fancy chocolates with coffee in them. I might be concerned about the caffeine. Even then, it's one tiny chocolate. I’d probably say, “Let’s have a bite and see what happens tonight.” There’s definitely no good that can come from saying, “We let you have this kind of candy, but not that kind of candy” or “Nothing with artificial dyes!”

Amy

Yeah, someone asked, “Where can I buy honey sticks?” I was like, “Please don’t give out honey sticks.”

Virginia

Don’t be that house giving out honey sticks. I mean, if your kid loves them, great.

Amy

There was a question about what to do when little kids want what the older kids have? I have a two-year-old and a nine-year-old. Having them eat the things at the same time, even if the things are different, can be helpful. Then the younger kid is not feeling left out. Make sure that whatever the younger kid has feels very fun to them. This issue of who has what and is it fair and is it the same is currently the biggest source of me wanting to run for the hills. “Hers is bigger,” or “She has more milk” or “She has a blue cup.” There may not be a magic solution to this, depending on your children. If this is my house, I am sure that this is going to be an issue. Even if it’s just like, “She has the red lollipop, but I got stuck with the green one.”

Virginia

Yeah, the lengths I go to ensure parity in lunch components! The other day, I cut a sandwich perfectly in half. And one child immediately said, “She has the better half!” And I was like, I give up. It’s literally the same.

I'm wondering with this question if there’s an element of trying to limit the toddlers’ candy exposure. Unless it’s a choking hazard—which of course with ages three and under you do have to be careful about certain candies—let them have what the older kids are having. There is no reason they can’t enjoy the same stuff.

“What age is appropriate to offer candy for the first time?”

I forgot how fraught that feeling is when you have a one-year-old and you’re like, “Do we do it?” Especially if it’s your first child. This is definitely a question that goes out the window when you have multiple kids. If it’s your first child, and Halloween will be happening around them, like at daycare, do you bring them into the fold on the candy? Or do you wait and why?

Amy

If you’re going to encounter it in the course of whatever you’re doing, then yes. If you’re not, like if your kid doesn’t go to daycare and you’re not going to go trick-or-treating and trick-or-treaters come to your house after the baby goes to bed, I wouldn’t stress about it. I don’t think you need to make a big deal about introducing chocolate. You will encounter it in the normal course of life. If the urge is to keep them away from this thing because it makes me wildly uncomfortable or because I’m scared that they won’t eat any other food, I just would maybe sit with that a little bit and think about whether it’s true.

I think we waited until my oldest was two. She had a really early bedtime when she was one so we just skipped it. We didn’t go to any Halloween parties. But I think it’s a personal choice.

Virginia

My older daughter was not an oral eater when she was one, so I probably would have done backflips if she had wanted to eat candy. That was not where we were in her feeding disorder. So I didn’t have to navigate this in quite the same way as most parents.

If you have a favorite Halloween candy and it would give you joy to share that with your child, do not feel bad about introducing your young toddler to that candy. Let’s be honest, Halloween for one- and two-year-olds is for the parents anyway. Kids don’t really care. You’re dressing them up in a cute costume for your own amusement or because Grandma wants to see them in the costume. It could be fun for you to say, let’s try this favorite candy and have that as part of enjoying Halloween.

If you’re like me and actually don’t enjoy Halloween, it’s fine to just not deal with it. However, I agree with Amy that if it’s about insulating kids from sugar, let’s sit with that.

“If my two-and-a-half-year-old doesn’t really get it, can I just disappear some of his candy? It seems simpler.”

Amy

Seems simpler to you! But what happens when a kid asks where his candy is?

Virignia

It is true that they have short memories at that age. They might not remember at two?

Amy

My two-and-a-half-year-old would for sure remember. I would be worried that the child would just wind up so much more confused and maybe have their feelings hurt because you took something. Virginia

It sounds like this person is saying, “Can we just enjoy it on Halloween and then it’s gone the next morning?” I would be careful with that. And this is probably where we should talk about the Switch Witch. This is the idea that you let the kids have candy on Halloween night. The next day, you have them turn in all the candy in exchange for a toy. It’s a thing that dentists started. I personally hate it. Some people say the kids get to savor the candy and just give away the stuff they don’t like. But I also don’t like it because now I have to come up with a toy. Halloween is already so freakin’ hard! Why are you giving me more to do? So, I’m pretty anti-Switch Witch, but you’ve been a little more open to it.

Amy

Yeah, we’ve done it the kids have a bunch of stuff that they don’t want.

Virginia

But isn’t that just what a garbage can is for?

Amy

I know! You can bring your unwanted candy to the dentist and they’ll send it to soldiers. Like, that's not nice! Send them the good stuff!

I have written about the switch witch. I do think that it is a convenient way to get candy out of your house if you don’t want candy in your house. But, the reason that people primarily do it is because they don’t want their kids eating sugar. There is a way to do it that is helping the kids identify what they like and don't like, but then again, you’re having to go buy a thing when the kids already got all of this stuff. It is an extra thing to do and it’s not necessary. The real Switch Witch involves buying a doll, and there’s a book. It’s like Elf on the Shelf! I’m not spending $40 on that.

Virginia

People can send me all the hate mail they want, Elf on the Shelf does not come to our house and never will. Absolutely not. I do not have time in my life for that. If one of these becomes a fun Halloween tradition for your family, if you love doing Switch Witch and you’re not doing it to ban sugar, then great. But it is not necessary to have a good Halloween.

“Is organic candy any better?”

Amy

No. It’s still made of the same stuff.

Virginia

And it’s fine.

Amy

But it’s more expensive.

Virginia

If you like to spend more money on things because of a word on their wrapper, then it is better for you. Yes.

Amy

An organic lollipop has the same base ingredients as a regular lollipop, but it will cost you more.

Virginia

And I refuse to believe that sustainable agriculture hinges on lollipop manufacturing. I don’t know that you will be making enough of a difference for the planet to justify the added cost or the sort of limitations you’re putting on your kid by telling them they can only have organic candy.

Amy

Because then they would not be able to eat anything that you get out in the world.

Virginia

That does not seem like a great plan.

“How do I limit my consumption as a parent?”

This is what is underpinning all the other questions. Parents are afraid of sugar and they’re afraid of their relationship with sugar.

Amy

Can I tell you a story that makes me so happy? This was a huge deal. A couple of weeks ago, I was in the grocery store walking by the giant bags of candy. And I was like, “You know what, I really want some peanut M&M’s.” But I had never bought peanut M&M’s in that big of bag before! And I was like, “I’m gonna do it!” I was very excited. I put them in the fridge because I only like them cold. Every day, I would have some whenever I wanted them. I was headed toward the end of the bag and then there were a couple days where I didn’t eat them. It was fascinating because I love peanut M&M’s, yet I didn’t want them! I have gotten to that point with a lot of foods. We have chocolate and all sorts of stuff in our house and I don’t really care about any of it. I just had never bought a big bag of M&M’s for no reason. It was a good exercise. If you are feeling nervous about a certain type of thing, just buy some. Let yourself have some if you’re at a place where that feels safe. I know that for some people, it might just be too much anxiety. But it was really helpful. And to that end, I started buying potato chips every week. And sometimes we eat them and sometimes we don’t.

It can really remind you that all of these things that we say about feeding kids—that there are no good or bad foods, that we can eat a variety—it applies to us, too. We can really put that into practice and then also be modeling that we can eat all of these foods and that it’s actually not a big deal.

And also, if you’re going to eat peanut M&M’s, they must be cold.

Virginia

That’s the real takeaway for this episode.

Amy

All I want my kids to know is, “Don’t eat peanut M&M’s unless they’re cold because it’s a waste.”

Virginia

They don’t taste as good, it’s true! We have a bag of mixed candy in our pantry and I got a packet of peanut M&M’s and they taste almost stale if they’re not cold. It’s a completely different experience. Now I’m going to go put them in the fridge so I can enjoy them more.

I think the answer to this question is that you don’t need to limit your consumption of candy as a parent. This is another sneaky way diet culture shows up at Halloween. There’s a lot of TikTok videos of moms sneaking in to steal their kids candy and eating it furtively. I’m sorry, but no. Just enjoy eating candy and eat it in front of your children. And on your own later, because children are a lot and you want to be away from them, of course. But be a part of celebrating candy with your kids. Buy the candy you really like and have it! I will be buying a large bag of mini Snickers because sometimes trick-or-treaters don’t get enough mini Snickers. Some houses are not giving out the good candy. Make sure you’re going to have your favorite Halloween candy on hand to enjoy so that you’re not dueling your kids for the candy they want to eat.

Amy

I remember seeing one of those videos last year and I was just like, “Why are you in the closet?”

Virginia

She’s in the closet because she doesn’t feel like she can publicly eat candy without apologizing for it.

Amy

I mean, I understand why she’s in the closet, but like, just get out of the closet.

Virginia

Stop feeling like you have to eat candy in secret. Don’t apologize for eating candy. Eat candy in public.

Also, with those videos, you’re secretly eating candy, and then putting it on TikTok, so.

Amy

I want the world to know that I secretly eat candy.

Virginia

I want the world to know that I only candy in this sneaky way. That is not the relationship with candy you want to model for your kids! It’s not good for you. It’s not good for them.

The moral of today's episode is put your peanut M&M’s in the fridge and buy the extra large bag of mini Snickers so you don't have a sad Halloween where there’s not enough mini Snickers.

Any other final Halloween candy thoughts that we haven’t covered?

Amy

One thing I realized when we were asking for questions on Instagram is that apparently there are a lot of Halloween parties at schools, which I just have never experienced. There were a lot of angst about what to bring to the Halloween party.

Virginia

We used to have food, but with COVID we’re not doing food at kids’ Halloween parties. Our school does do wear your costumes to school. They have a little parade around the school, but we don’t have to send food. I shouldn’t say I like anything about COVID, but I like not having to send food to school.

Amy

One year you made pumpkin clementines!

Virginia

I did because I was on maternity leave and I was really bored. And that was for a preschool Halloween party where we had to send in food. Because of having a new baby and being in a fog, I had missed signing up for cups and plates, which is all I ever sign up for for class parties. This is something anyone who knows me should understand: I will fight you to get the cups and plates spot on the signup sheet. And I didn’t get it that time and I had to bring fruit. It was sad.

Amy

Our daycare doesn’t celebrate holidays. It’s kind of a blessing.

Virginia

I mean, it really is. That’s something to be very grateful for.

All right, well that is some advice about candy from people who love candy and are less excited about the work related to children’s holidays. You’re welcome. As always, if you have questions, you can post them in the comments or email us or find us on Instagram with your questions for future episodes. I’m @v_solesmith and Amy is @yummytoddlerfood.

Thank you so much for listening to this episode of Burnt Toast! If you liked this and you aren’t yet a subscriber, please subscribe! It is the best way to support Burnt Toast.

If you are a subscriber, thank you so much! Please consider sharing this on social media or forwarding it to a friend.

The Burnt Toast logo is by Deanna Lowe.

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

Thanks for listening! Talk to you soon!

This is a public episode. Get access to private episodes at virginiasolesmith.substack.com/subscribe
Oct 21, 2021
Fatness Is Not The Trauma, with Rachel Millner
1776
Hello and welcome to another audio version of Burnt Toast!

This is a newsletter where we explore questions (and some answers) around fatphobia, diet culture, parenting, and health. I am Virginia Sole-Smith. I’m a journalist who covers weight stigma and diet culture, and I’m the author of The Eating Instinct and the forthcoming Fat Kid Phobia.

Today, I’m pleased to be chatting with Dr. Rachel Millner, a psychologist based in Newtown, Pennsylvania who specializes in eating disorders. Welcome, Rachel! I’m so excited to talk to you. Before we dive into our big topic, why don’t you tell our listeners a little more about yourself and your work?

Rachel

As you already said, I’m a psychologist, outside of Philadelphia, I’m in private practice here. I work primarily with folks who are dealing with eating disorders, disordered eating, those wanting to heal their relationship with food and body. I do a lot of work around anti fat bias and weight stigma. And I frequently talk about “atypical anorexia” and weight stigma and how those issues play out within the eating disorder field.

Virginia

And you have an awesome Instagram that I will link to in the transcript. I also interviewed you for a New York Times piece last year. (And this Good Housekeeping story!) What I wanted to chat with you about today, what kind of inspired this conversation, is an Instagram post you did back in June, and I’ll just read the text here. You wrote:

And I sort of had a real like, yes moment reading this. I think this probably resonated with a lot of folks, and for other folks, this might be sort of confusing. There are a lot of misconceptions about the relationship between trauma and weight. There’s just a lot we can unpack here.

So first, I would love to hear a little bit of the background of what inspired this post for you.

Rachel

I think, you know, there is so much nuance here. And it’s one of those topics that I think does bring up a lot for people, because of all the weight stigma. You know that when we start a conversation around trauma and fatness, given the weight stigma in the culture, of course, we all kind of go into high alert and brace ourselves for like, okay, what’s coming next? What prompted this Instagram post was just sitting with clients and hearing their stories and feeling like their stories aren’t being told. And wanting to name that for some people, there might be a connection between fatness and trauma.

The other side of that narrative that’s so harmful, is this idea that if we heal trauma, then somehow we’re magically not going to be fat anymore. This is something that’s projected onto my clients all the time. So I was just thinking about these conversations that I have in my office all the time, that are never told.

Virginia

I’ve heard this from readers before, where they almost feel like they’re being a “bad fatty” if they say, “I think my body size is related to this experience I had.” That really denies their truth. And it makes it difficult for them to tell their story.

I mean, it gets really messy, it gets really messy. So, I guess, you know, for folks who are newer to this conversation, it might be useful to start by talking about some of those relationships you’re seeing among your clients? How does trauma sometimes relate to body size? What scenarios are you kind of referencing here?

Rachel

The story that I hear from my clients is that when they were going through trauma, particularly childhood trauma, although I think it’s also true for people who have experienced trauma as an adult, that oftentimes food is what’s available to cope. If somebody is in a home where they’re being traumatized, or a child who doesn’t have access to therapy or other ways of getting support, food is often available. And it’s a really effective coping mechanism. It can be really helpful to eat in response to sadness or pain or suffering. And for some people, that eating may lead to weight gain, not for everybody, but there’s, you know, people who, that eating in response to emotions over time might lead to them gaining weight.

Then too, I think for a lot of people who have trauma around weight stigma, and are put on diets at a very young age, we know that dieting often leads to weight gain. A lot of my clients talk about what it was like to have trauma around weight stigma, being told that their body was wrong at a young age, and being forced to restrict their food intake, which then, of course, leads to bingeing and leads to weight gain.

Virginia

Another narrative I often hear about is what Roxane Gay wrote about in Hunger. She framed it as almost more of a deliberate decision to eat as a form of protection. What are your thoughts are on that, if that’s something you also see coming up for folks?

Rachel

I appreciated Roxane Gay’s book so much, because I think this is a narrative that doesn’t get told. And I’m really of the belief that we need to believe people. And you know, when people share their story, we can trust that what they’re saying is true and real. When I have clients who talk about intentionally gaining weight, or thinking about fatness as a way to be protected from the male gaze, that makes a lot of sense. And we still know that that’s rooted in weight stigma. Because this idea that if we’re in bigger bodies, then men are not going to be attracted to us is rooted in weight stigma. And it’s real, right? This is the water that we swim in. It doesn’t mean, you know—there are many people in fat bodies who are in wonderful relationships and have lots of people that are attracted to them. But I think this idea, especially, I hear a lot with my clients who have had sexual trauma, is that there’s a feeling of protection when their body is bigger.

Virginia

Right, that somehow they can hide more that way. Which, yes, again, there’s the layers of fatphobia built right into that, but it’s also an understandable path to seek when you’re struggling in that way.

Rachel

And we know that when people either lose weight, or their body is smaller that, especially for those socialized female, oftentimes their body is sexualized, is put on display, people feel free to comment and you know, “compliment.” And that can be really vulnerable for people, for anybody, but especially people who have trauma history, especially around sexual trauma.

Virginia

I think that’s really important to articulate. The more you’re talking about this, the more I’m realizing how weight stigma plays into it right from the beginning, for so many folks navigating trauma and weight. Even, as you were saying earlier, that the sort of idea of emotional eating, getting demonized, that’s something we talk about a lot here—I’ve certainly experienced it myself. We tend to praise the idea of people losing their appetites while undergoing trauma, like that gets celebrated as if that was a good coping strategy, when actually, that’s quite alarming. That weight loss that can result, again, doesn’t always result but sometimes results, isn’t a good thing.

I remember when my daughter went through a lot of intensive medical experiences, and we lived in a hospital for weeks and months at a time at various points. And people would always sort of encourage me to get out and go for a walk, like that’s what you should do as a “healthy coping strategy.” And I was like, hey, I can’t leave her hospital room. We live here. And I’m terrified if I leave, she’ll stop breathing. So no, I’m not going for a walk. And actually, eating Au Bon Pain chocolate croissants while I sat in this hospital room for hours a day like felt good, and was comforting and it alleviated boredom and stress. I just remember wondering, through that trauma, why is my chosen coping method feeling wrong to everybody around me? And that’s weight stigma. It’s because they didn’t see it as “healthy” because it might result in weight gain, or did result in weight gain.

Rachel

Instead of being able to see the wisdom in that, that having access to food while sitting in a hospital room is so wise and comforting. If we were neutral about food and body size, then it would be like, okay, bring all the croissants, and have as many as you want, and comfort yourself and try to get through this really horrific time. Instead, we hold up some coping mechanisms and vilify others, which is ridiculous.

Virginia

I will say, for the people in my life listening to this, that I did have people who supported me on the croissants and understood when I said, “No, I really can’t. Yes, my husband can leave and go for a run, and that’s really helping him through this time, but me leaving is not something that will feel—like, that feels terrifying.” And people did respect that, but it was tricky to articulate. And it’s tricky that when you’re in the active experience of trauma, to have to articulate your need and defend a need. You shouldn’t have to assert to other people that your need is valuable at that point.

Rachel

Right, you shouldn’t have to defend it. Even just thinking over the past year and a half with COVID, there is some subset of people who have coped by eating, and there is some subset of people who have coped by restricting. And we don’t name the restriction as harmful. We praise it when really, restriction weakens your immune system and makes you more vulnerable to stress and the impact of stress. But instead, what we say is, oh, if somebody is restricting and losing weight, that that’s a positive thing. We don’t name the harm of it, where, you know, eating to cope actually makes a lot of sense. And is way more beneficial than restricting.

Virginia

Because that’s at least meeting a physical need. It’s getting you through. Absolutely.

So, we see the weight stigma showing up in the active trauma space, and as people are kind of navigating coping strategies. And then we also see it, you know, I don’t want to say after, because of course, trauma can be a long unfolding process, but in terms of how these fat bodies are then pathologized by the world, right? So talk a little bit about what is often the approach to when, you know, whether it’s in eating disorder treatment, or in trauma therapy, in general, when you know, providers encounter someone in a bigger body, and the focus goes to weight loss, and why that is not actually going to help with the healing from the trauma.

Rachel

What I often hear and see from clients is, there’s two paths that come up the most: I see clients who went to therapy, are in a fat body, and the provider made an assumption that because they’re fat, they must have had trauma, without even assessing or asking questions. And then there’s clients who do connect their fatness to trauma, and so they have gone to therapy, wanting to talk about their trauma history, and sometimes also starting out in therapy saying, and I would like to lose weight, or just not even focusing at all on body size, but just wanting to talk about their trauma. And what happens is that therapists then say, “Well, yes, we can work on your trauma. And if we work on your trauma, then you’ll lose weight.” Because if we’ve decided that eating in response to trauma lead to weight gain, then the belief is, if we heal your trauma, then your eating is gonna change, and you’ll release the weight. That’s the word that comes up.

Virginia

That phrase is really yucky.

Rachel

It seems to be the one that my clients hear quite frequently. People are in fat bodies for endless reasons. There are so many different reasons, and we don’t need to know them in order to know that promoting weight loss is harmful. It doesn’t matter if somebody is fat because of trauma, or for any of the other reasons that influence body size. It’s not like diets differentiate, that one diet says, okay, this person had trauma, so, this diet is effective.

Virginia

I can totally see the trauma diet becoming some new creepy trend on Instagram: Intermittent fasting to heal your inner child or something.

It’s just so missing the point because it’s not helping people work on, you know, processing what’s really happened to them or figuring out what they really need. It’s like solving this problem that’s, as you say, possibly related, possibly even completely unrelated, and not actually a problem at all. And giving them this other thing to focus on and then measure their “success” based on whether they can control it or not.

Rachel

I think it’s so important to name really clearly that fatness is not the trauma. Weight stigma is a trauma, and clients have all kinds of other traumas that they’re coming in with. But fatness is not the trauma, and trying to you know “fix fatness” is actually re-traumatizing. So if somebody is coming in, and a therapist is saying, '“Okay, I’m going to help you with your trauma, and I’m going to help you lose weight,” they’re actually re-traumatizing somebody who’s already been through significant trauma.

Virginia

So where do you think that sort of line of thinking in the provider community is coming from? I mean, why? Why is that an accepted practice when it’s so clearly causing harm?

Rachel

It’s an important question. I think some of it is that providers are still being trained in really stigmatizing programs. I don’t think people are learning about the impact of anti-fat bias and weight stigma. I think, unfortunately, a lot of providers haven’t done their own work around it, so they may still be trying to suppress their own weight or still trying to diet in their own life. As providers, we’re always going to be in process. It’s not that, you know, as a therapist, you suddenly get to this place where you’ve worked through everything.

But I think if we haven’t done our own work around weight stigma and our relationship with our body, then we are likely to harm clients that are coming in wanting to address those issues. I think the trauma field still supports this, I think some of it comes from the eating disorder field. But I think a lot of it comes from the trauma field. If you read some of the main books about trauma, this narrative is written about, and they are not HAES-informed books. So if you don’t already have some footing in Health at Every Size, and you’re looking for a trauma book to read, or to learn about, that narrative is going to be reinforced.

Virginia

It also makes me think about how much our internalized vision of healthy or recovered or happy is intrinsically linked to thinness, so if someone achieves weight loss—however temporary that’s likely to be, and no matter what they have to do in order to achieve it—we’re going to view that as “success,” because that narrative is so embedded in our culture. And we’re not going to look deeper than that, we’re not going to see that that isn’t actually dealing with the underlying issues.

Do you think there’s a degree to which the underlying stuff feels harder, you know, that it’s that work that might be scarier to people? And going on a diet feels like, well, this is what I can control. So let me do that.

Rachel

Absolutely. I mean, I think that all of us have been socialized to believe that weight is under our control. And that if we can just find the right diet and lose weight, then it’s going to solve other problems. And there’s so many providers who reinforce that.

Virginia

And the science that’s getting done is reinforcing this, too. I mean, I was looking at a couple of studies that were done recently on adverse childhood experiences, and they are all trying to document this phenomenon. One is called “Adverse childhood experiences are associated with an increased risk of obesity and early adolescence.” (I apologize for using the O-word, I’m quoting the fatphobic research.) And there are several others I’ll link to in the transcript. It seems like the goal of this research is to say, we should worry about childhood trauma because people might get fat from it, as if that is the outcome we’re worried about, not the trauma.

I’m curious for your thoughts on that research, I think we see the similar thing happening in research on childhood poverty and childhood hunger. Like if fat is the outcome, then it’s really bad.

Rachel

I think that we want to believe that research is objective and neutral. And the truth is that it’s not. The questions that are being asked in these research studies are inherently biased. And so they are asking a question that they think they know the answer to. I would love to sit down with somebody like Deb Burgard or somebody who’s really great at pulling through statistics, because just glancing at this research, I’m not sure that there’s actually a difference between the percentage of kids who are in higher weight bodies in this study where they’re connecting it to adverse childhood experiences, and just the percentage of kids who are in higher weight bodies in general.

Virginia

Oh, that's interesting. Yeah.

Rachel

So I’d be really curious for somebody who’s really great at statistics to kind of pull all of that apart.

Virginia

Yeah, because if it’s like we’re trying, what it feels like, in a way is that they’re looking at the “childhood obesity epidemic.” They’re saying kids are in bigger bodies now, let’s find this explanation for it. And then that’s a way of pathologizing the fact that kids come in different sizes. Then you’ve decided, all those kids are traumatized or broken in some way. Now, you’ve explained it to yourself. Just yeah, that’s a pretty fatphobic way of going about the problem.

Rachel

Right. And it’s like you said, I mean: You’re identifying fatness as the problem, like, how about if we identify the problem is that so many kids have childhood trauma? This idea that, a kid’s coming in and identifying that they’ve had a history of physical abuse, sexual abuse, and the thing that these studies are worried about is fatness?!

It’s just so harmful. And it’s scary that this is how we’re responding to kids’ body size and to trauma, that the thing that these studies are focused on and asking questions about is how do we make kids not be in bigger bodies? And ignoring like, how do we protect kids from being physically and sexually abused?

Virginia

Right, right. It’s a really similar thing that played out in childhood hunger research, which was like, in order to get funding and attention on childhood hunger and childhood poverty, there was a huge effort to document the connections to higher weight. And it’s like, do I really need to explain to you, that you should care about kids being hungry? You needed some other outcome—you needed to make it about fatness? In order to care about this problem? We couldn’t just care about feeding hungry kids? It’s mind blowing. And it feels very similar.

This also feels very tied to the older conversation about whether “obesity” should be classified as a disease. And, a lot of folks who were in favor of that argued that it would reduce stigma, if we could understand high body weight as a “chronic condition” because you would understand that it was beyond people’s control, and they needed intervention and support. That has definitely not been the result of classifying obesity as a disease. We know that it has only furthered weight stigma, and it feels like a similar parallel here that if we’re trying to understand weight as always trauma related. You could argue that that’s a way of increasing empathy. But it doesn’t seem like that’s how that conversation plays out.

Rachel

Yeah, I am fascinated by this kind of line of thinking. I really am curious about who thought it was a good idea to classify body size as a disease. And like, how they convinced themselves that that was actually going to decrease stigma or not pathologize people. I understand the narrative they’re telling themselves but I would love to dig deeper and really pick apart like, what actually is going through their mind when they thought that that was a good idea.

Of course labeling body size as a disease was not going decrease stigma. I think, first of all, it contributes to the idea, like when we think disease states, we think of something that requires treatment. And so then you’re reinforcing that body size needs some sort of intervention. So naming it as a disease is not going to reduce the stigma in the culture, like we actually have to address the stigma and not try to find creative ways to describe body size, and pretend that that’s actually going to be the thing that’s beneficial. We have to find ways to reduce stigma. I’m just sick in general of our need to pathologize these expected and typical responses to being in a body, and being in a culture that harms bodies.

I think this happens with lots of different diagnoses. I don’t think this is unique to labeling body sizes as disease, but I think we’ve just got to get away from pathologizing people and name the problem in the culture and you know, in the environment, instead of saying that body size is the problem.

Virginia

Completely agree. And on the other side of this conversation, what we sort of started touching on in the beginning that I just want to hit on quickly, before we wrap up, is that it makes it harder for people to talk about what’s happened to them, because they’re worried if they own their full story, that they’re going to be pathologized for their weight. And I do sometimes feel within the Health at Every Size community, we don’t do a great job of making space for this story, right? Because we’re so quick to fight against the pathologizing. Then I hear from folks in fat bodies that feel like, I’m not allowed to be a fat person with health problems here. So I don’t know if you have any thoughts about that, because I’m sure you sort of see that tension, often.

Rachel

Totally. And it makes sense to me, I understand why that’s the reaction from the Health at Every Size community. When you’ve been oppressed for so long, and there’s such a difficult time holding nuance within the larger environment, that anytime there’s a narrative, that there’s a fear it’s going to increase oppression or marginalization, of course, people want to defend and protect against it. So it makes a lot of sense to me. But what it does create is this reinforcing of stigma and it silences people. And we want to do the opposite within the Health at Every Size community, we want everybody’s story to be able to be told. So I think we have to be able to hold space for these conversations. Because, one, they’re true, right? Like this is real. These narratives are true and real. There’s a ton of nuance within the research around, you know, fatness and health conditions that we need to be able to talk about. And when we don’t talk about them, we prevent people from getting help with the things that there actually are interventions for, and weight loss is not one of them. If somebody in a fat body can’t talk about whatever health conditions they might be dealing with, then how are they going to get appropriate interventions for whatever those health conditions are? So we’ve got to be able to talk about it.

Virginia

That makes total sense. And I am so grateful for how you articulate this nuance. Thank you so much for your work and for being here.

Rachel

Thanks for having me on for these hard conversations.

Virginia

They are hard but they’re really important and I hope it helps people feel more seen in their own experiences and more like they can own their stories.

Thank you all so much for listening to Burnt Toast! If you like this episode and you aren’t yet subscribed, please do so.

If you are a subscriber, thank you so much for being here. And please consider sharing Burnt Toast on social media or forwarding it to a friend.

Burnt Toast transcripts and essays are edited and formatted by Jessica McKenzie, who writes the fantastic Substack, Pinch of Dirt. Our logo is by Deanna Lowe.

And I’m Virginia Sole-Smith. You can find more of my work at virginiasolesmith.com or come say hi on Instagram and Twitter. I’m @v_solesmith. I’m barely on Facebook anymore, so don’t worry about that. Thanks for listening and talk to you soon!

This is a public episode. Get access to private episodes at virginiasolesmith.substack.com/subscribe
Sep 30, 2021
Unlearning Diet Culture at School, with Gwen Kostal
1603
Hello and welcome to another audio version of Burnt Toast!

This is a newsletter where we explore questions and some answers around fatphobia, diet culture, parenting, and health. I am Virginia Sole-Smith. I’m a journalist who covers weight stigma and diet culture, and I’m the author of The Eating Instinct and the forthcoming Fat Kid Phobia.

On Tuesday we talked about why parents need to question our own biases around school food. Today we are getting into all of your concerns about the diet culture your kids encounter at school. I am very excited to be chatting with Gwen Kostal, a Canadian registered dietitian and the co-founder of Dietitians4Teachers. Welcome, Gwen!

Gwen

Thank you. It’s so great to be here. I’ve followed your work.

Virginia

Well, likewise. You are who I always send everybody to when I get school questions, because your Instagram is amazing. These topics come up in such complicated ways and I always want to make sure I’m sending them to someone who is a dietitian and really understands this issue from multiple sides. So why don’t you tell us a little more about yourself and your work? How did you end up launching Dietitians4Teachers?

Gwen

That’s a great question and a little bit of a funny story because we sort of stumbled into it. So I started this work with a colleague of mine, who’s moved into consulting for this, but we were honestly going for a walk in September of last year and sort of grumbling around, like, Oh, shoot, it’s started already. The comments are back. And then we had a really great chat about, Well, how come this isn’t working? So many dietitians, so many people are talking about this. How come it’s not landing?

I’m trained in change management and quality improvement, which is really a fancy way of saying solving problems that people think, well, it’s just the way we’ve always done it. And so we started to look at the problem a little differently. And we said, Oh my gosh, what if we showed up for teachers, instead of just chastising people and making people feel like they’re always wrong? What if we showed up and started to help people unlearn this?

And so we started testing the water, seeing if there was interest with an Instagram account, and talking to some teachers we knew, and it’s just gotten so exciting. And so it’s me, and then I consult with different dietitians, depending on the expertise needed, but I’ve worked with so many great teachers, and many, many of them are ready and they want to do this differently. They know it feels icky. They just don’t have the time, the resources, and the knowledge. And when we keep wagging our fingers and not showing up to help, nothing’s going to change. So that’s a big part of where it’s come from, and it’s just been so exciting. Teachers are incredible to work with.

Virginia

I love this because, you know, I’m mostly hearing from the parents, as I’m sure you do, too. And often, the moment a parent notices this is an issue is when something has happened to their child. So they’re very emotional, understandably. They’re feeling extremely concerned about harm being caused to their child. But then immediately, we’re in this parents-versus-teachers place, which is really uncomfortable, really unfair to the teachers, really hard to navigate out of. And so I love the idea of, let’s not start there. Let’s start by engaging with these incredibly hardworking professionals, and in a respectful way. That’s fantastic.

So let’s talk big picture. I’m sure I have some listeners who aren’t parents or teachers and are kind of new to this conversation, or parents of preschoolers who haven’t totally experienced it yet. How is diet culture showing up in schools? What are you noticing the most? And why is it there?

Gwen

This is such a complicated question because it’s there for so many reasons. It’s in the curriculum to teach healthy eating, in every curriculum you come across. It’s there somehow, and 99 percent of the time, it’s written in super vague language, which is then on the teacher to interpret. Dieting has been the lay of the land for the last 50 years, so most of our teachers grew up in pro-diet culture space. So when our curriculum writers have left things really vague, they’ve left that interpretation into a space where the diet culture machine has programmed us to think healthy eating means X, Y, Z. A healthy snack is X, Y, Z. So the curriculum is part of why we’re here.

Even national food policies, like food guides, they’re new. It’s just over 100 years since the first micronutrient was identified. This is not something that’s been around a really long time. And our first food guides came out of scarcity, right? They came out of war measures and all of that, and then they got adopted more widely. And anytime there’s a national policy on something—when curriculums are national, or here, provincial, and I think in the U.S., state—they get adopted because it’s endorsed material. They don’t have to source out new things.

So that’s how we got here. And diet culture is showing up because there are companies that profit by make programs for schools, and schools are resource-tight. They don’t have a ton of time to research and read all the up-to-date evidence on what would be good. If someone’s offering them a canned, ready-to-go way to teach a certain set of subjects, that’s great news for teachers and schools and educators.

The other thing is sort of innocent. Teachers inherit resources from whoever taught the classroom before, or they’re googling online on their own time, looking for things and up comes Teachers Pay Teachers or different types of resources and free things that they’re like, “That looks good.” And because they’re not dietitians, they don’t really have a way to vet it. And it’s super important to remember that teachers were taught, at least in the Canada and Ontario context, teachers were taught how to teach. They weren’t taught all the minutiae of every topic they’re going to teach. Some of them cover aerospace!

Virginia

Yes, yes, absolutely. Yes. That makes sense. The standard teaching certification doesn’t include a quick six months through nutritional science to get you ready for this.

Gwen

And, you know, food and nutrition and health is often not the testable material. And so in Canada, we have standardized testing. It’s on math and reading and all these sort of things. So when it comes to pressures on, what do we need to standardize and make sure is taught the same way? Those are the subjects that are getting the attention.

So we see it coming out of curriculums and health class and gym class and different assignments that are trying to reach these teaching points. We also, though, see it in something I think your followers have commented quite a bit on: in just comments, or a funny policy-not-a-policy.

Virginia

Right, right.

Gwen

You know, rules that are in school, like, you have to eat your vegetables before you eat your cookies. Those kind of things. So we see it there, too.

Virginia

Yeah, absolutely. It seems like there’s the official curriculum-version of this, and then there are the unofficial comments on lunchbox contents and general off-the-cuff remarks that people make in these settings. And they can both be really tricky. So yeah, this is definitely an issue where parents feel a lot of anxiety over how, or even whether, to engage.

I’ve gotten a couple questions recently, like, Should I try to lobby for change in my public schools before my kid is attending them? If so, what? To which I would say, No. Maybe wait until you’re there and see what’s happening. Get to know the community.

But on the flip side, is there any way to even start making this kind of change without it becoming a full-time job? I can also relate to that overwhelming feeling of, how do I even begin to push this boulder up the mountain?

So how do you suggest we begin to think about these conversations? From the parents’ perspective, what can be helpful? How do you start to engage on this?

Gwen

I think the instinct or the gut-reaction that we’re going to need to do it 100 percent and for every child and for the whole school board, district, state is there and it’s real—and some reassurance to parents that there are really fabulous people working on that. There are ways you can get involved. I know there are people, especially in the States, working on that, and there are groups up here working on that, as well.

What I would say is, should you try and lobby—lobby is a really tough word. So, lobby is a fighting word. Maybe I’ll start with when your kid is already in school and you’re noticing something, and work back to whether you should approach it before your kid’s even there. My general approach is, remember that this teacher, especially in September, you’ve got eight months, and there’s a whole lot more relationship with this teacher than just around the food part.

Virginia

Yes, great point.

Gwen

The food part is really important, but so is learning safety and good communication, and building a relationship of respect and honesty and transparency is going to ripple effect through your whole year. So when you when you have a hunch that something’s going on at school, whether you’ve read something that came home and you explicitly know something’s going on at school, or you’ve heard little comments here and there, you see the cookie come back every day, the very first thing I’d say is, take a minute. And that’s not intending to sound disrespectful. I take lots of minutes. When you’re in this space, we’re so aware, right? Once you start learning about diet culture, you see it everywhere.

Virginia

Yes.

Gwen

So we do need to remind ourselves to approach with calm. The next thing I would do is, depending on the age of your kid, but if they’re school age, it’s probably appropriate, is ask some curious questions, like, what happened at lunch? Tell me about lunch? Who’s in the classroom? Is there a movie playing? And what’s going on? Does it feel rushed? Do you feel like you have to hurry? Try and understand what’s actually going on before jumping to conclusions because we assume that this is ill-intentioned. And we know that impact and intent are different and separate. But a reminder that no teacher is intentionally doing harm. They’re stuck with some unlearning to do of their own or some policies that they don’t like and they have to find ways to work around.

If you determine that you want to go forward and talk about it, I would get out of email space. We’re so comfortable with email, and teachers are so great at it after last year, but email is the land of misinterpreted tone and miscommunication. I would see if I could get a call, or even in person, if your school is doing that, and just listen to understand first. So there’s a few different models from the change-management side of things that help you approach this. And you really just want to say, Here’s what I’m seeing, or, here’s what I heard. I’m curious, or—depending on how bad or severe it is—I’m curious about it because I’m concerned about it, because I’m worried about it. All these feeling words are appropriate. You can attach them. And stay focused on your kid because you are in a parent-teacher partnership for the next year.

Virginia

Yes, yes. That’s great. And what happened to your kid is kind of the only piece you really can be knowledgeable about, right? You don’t know what’s happening in other kids’ lunchboxes, so that’s really helpful language.

Gwen

The other thing I would say is a lot of things that do happen at school are counter to evidence. So when I’ve heard from people who have reached out to parents, and they say, oh, I got an email back, but it says we do this because we know that sugar makes hyperactivity in the afternoon and worse behavior. We know the evidence doesn’t support that. That is based on one study from the 70s with one child. Feingold is the pediatrician that did that work. Thank you.

Virginia

Thanks, Feingold. Big help.

(Note to readers: For more on why sugar doesn’t cause hyperactivity, check out this piece.)

Gwen

And, you know, it’s really tricky territory when you feel the need to start sharing resources, and journal articles, specifically. So once you have this conversation of, I’m worried, I saw. What can we do together? What can we do about it? If you built that with trust and empathy and understanding that teachers have a ton on their plate, you may get to the point where you say, Do you want me to send you some stuff to read about this? I’ve been doing some learning. I’ve been changing the way I see this. Would you be interested? That’s the moment to share resources. It’s very much like your New York Times article around teachers and virtual learning. Teachers were highly watched last year, right?

Virginia

Yes.

Gwen

So we have to give them a bit of grace and a bit of space to breathe, but remember that, if they’re getting like, Hey, so-and-so parent is on line three for you, they’re probably feeling a bit of a sense of, Oh, gosh. So they might be entering that conversation with tension.

Virginia

Defensive, sure.

Gwen

Yeah, and it’s normal, right?

Virginia

Yeah, absolutely. That’s great. And I like the asking if you can send—I mean, I’m definitely the parent who has to hold myself back from being like, Here’s some stuff I’ve written. Here’s some stuff other people have written. Here are all the things that have been written. And it’s not what they need, it’s not helpful. So I like the idea of asking first, before you start peppering them with links. I mean, we’ve seen that in every Twitter thread ever. Out-linking somebody never results in that other person being like, Okay, I got it now. They just feel bad because you gave them six things to read and they have a lot of other things to do.

Let’s talk about some more specific concerns that have come up.

You know this policy that a lot of schools have of encouraging kids to eat their sandwich before their cookies or their vegetables before—the order in which children eat food comes up a lot. There’s that great lunchbox note that Katja Rowell wrote. Do you recommend something like that? Or is there another tactic you’d suggest?

Gwen

Yeah, I do, but as a third defense. I really, really encourage parents to strive for partnership and understanding and compassion. Even if that means you try an opt-out without a template note—maybe borrowing the language without saying, Look, I found a PDF online and I’ve filled it out. That can feel really off-putting, I think.

Virginia

That’s a great point, to take the time to write it yourself.

Gwen

But there will be situations that you may need to use that. So if you get a really sort of traditional teacher, or someone who’s really rooted in their own body image struggle, their own diet culture stuff, and they absolutely cannot meet you where you’re at, then opt-out is a really good option. And in a situation where the school is not providing the food, you’re the one providing the food, in a packed lunch environment, that is outside of their domain. And so you have to say, I respect that you have a way that you’re running your classroom. It won’t work for my child. I’m giving permission for my child to not participate in that. Please let me know if we need to do anything to make that happen.

And you don’t need to have a lot of explaining with that. There’s that line that goes around that says, You don’t need to explain your no. Well, a little. But you can just sort of say, I respect that we see this differently. This isn’t going to work for my kid. Please opt them out.

Virginia

I love that. That’s really helpful language. Would you do something similar—obviously, it’s going be a little different when we’re talking about the class assignments, like the health class that’s having the kids keep food logs and exercise logs and calorie-tracking, school BMI stuff, which I’m going to be doing a newsletter about soon, but certainly it is a very common practice here in the United States still, despite being pretty under-supported by evidence. Those are things where parents officially can opt out, but again, would that be sort of a last resort? How do you approach that?

Gwen

Yeah, I think anytime you opt out or kind of throw the flag on the play—I cannot believe I just used a sports analogy; my husband will be so proud—anytime you’re going to do that, you’re going to raise awareness that there’s conflict or tension, right? And sometimes your kid doesn’t want you to do that—

Virginia

Yes, I’ve heard that a lot.

Gwen

And sometimes that damages the parent-teacher trust, right? However, that being said: Tracking, analyzing, weighing kids at school is dangerous. It’s dangerous. I would be a lot more apt to let it slide with the lunchbox policing and do some home-coaching with my kids and be like, I can appreciate that people see things differently and everybody has a different relationship, but we can be empathetic that different people think different things and you’re going to see diet culture. Here’s what it looks like, etc.

When it comes to a dangerous practice, like weighing kids at school, I would probably recommend saying: I’m concerned. I’m worried about it because this is damaging and dangerous and promotes eating-disordered bodies, fatness dissatisfaction, and these are 13-year-olds. I really would like to see an alternative assignment for this. Can you tell me what else is available for my child? Or, can you explain to me why this is still an assignment, given what’s known about the danger of these assignments?

So I think you can be a bit more clear and to the point in these situations. And this is probably one that I would move up the chain a little bit more aggressively on than, say, carrots before cookies. That’s probably not an involve-the-principal conversation. I bet you can deal with it in the class. But weighing kids at school is.

Virginia

Yeah, absolutely, because the school administration has signed off on that as a policy. And that’s a helpful line to think about in general. When it’s a teacher’s off-the-cuff comment that is displaying their own struggle or just where they are with this issue, that feels like a really different thing to me, than, this is baked in. This is the curriculum. The whole school has decided we’re weighing kids, that there’s been this decision that the seventh grade keeps calorie logs. That feels like a bigger fight. And I think that’s maybe helpful for us all to think about because the off-the-cuff comment can feel like the big fight when it happens to your kid. And that’s understandable because it can be really upsetting to the child. But I like that distinction you’re making.

You also touched on what was going to be my last question, which is, How do we talk to our kids about this? We’re obviously not going to get all of diet culture out of the classroom, so there are going to be times where—and a reader wrote in and said, our school has a no-candy, no-soda rule. How do I explain this to my kids on a kid-level without engaging in diet-culture reasoning? That is a tricky conversation.

Gwen

It is. And my first question is, How old is the kid? And every time I ask that, I think about healthcare and how there really is no age. You can start these conversations pretty young. You just might have to change how you talk about it, but avoiding diet-culture reasoning is probably not the goal. I think what we want to be showing our kids is that this is out there: school, workplaces, co-ops, on the bus. It’s around. And we want to be building up kids’ critical thinking to see it, spot it, reject it, and still be respectful, participating people in their classrooms, etc. But know that, Oh, that’s a bit funny. And come home and ask their parents about it, if that’s the safer place.

I think how I would explain that one is the same way I would explain, you know, grandma’s on a diet and talks about it all the time. I would be having a conversation with grandma and saying, you know, I really would prefer if you don’t talk about that. We can talk about that on the side, or separately, but not in front of the kids. And then I would talk to the kids and say, you know, This is happening, or, This conversation comes up and different people believe different things, and different people have been taught things, and we have to respect that everybody’s learning things at their own pace, but in our house, in our family, in our classroom—for teachers that are further along with this—in our classroom, we believe this. Because I do have teachers that are really doing awesome stuff, but that may not be the case when they go to their friend’s classroom, or they do reading in the library.

Virginia

Sure, that’s a great point. I think that’s really helpful framing, again, to help with that parental panic of feeling like you have to—we often have this feeling like we have to insulate our kids from these messages, and we just can’t. So thinking, instead, how to help them identify them and question them is just going to be a more useful set of skills.

This is so, so helpful, Gwen. Thank you so much for talking it through with us. Tell us anything else about what you’re working on, where we can follow your work, anything else I should be throwing in the transcript links?

Gwen

I would say the Instagram is where we’re the most exciting. We are on Facebook also, but I’m a bit of one of those old millennials that is still figuring out all the different social media platforms.

Virginia

With you right there.

Gwen

I think they call us geriatric millennials.

Virginia

Yes, yes.

Gwen

But we do have a Facebook page, as well. We are launching more and more education for teachers that are either ready to come individually or as a group. So I do professional development, and it actually doesn’t matter what state, country, province you’re in. As long as we speak the same language, then we can we can do it because there are no boundaries for this, and most of the curriculums are public space. And we do have a website, dietitians4teachers.ca, which gets updated when it gets updated, and all of those things.

Virginia

I hear you.

Gwen

And there are a few resources to try and compete with the ocean of bad nutrition resources. We’re starting to put some up on Teachers Pay Teachers.

Virginia

Oh, that’s fantastic.

Gwen

Hoping that teachers have new options.

Virginia

Yeah, absolutely. And I’m sure there are some teachers listening to this, so I hope they will check out your work and this will be helpful to them and the work they’re trying to do. And for parents, if you do get to the stage of sharing resources with a teacher, obviously Gwen’s stuff is your first stop. So thank you so much, Gwen. This was great.

Gwen

Thanks for having me. This was so fun.

Virginia

Thank you all so much for listening to Burnt Toast. If you like this episode and you aren’t yet subscribed, please do so. If you are a subscriber, thank you so much for being here. And please consider sharing Burnt Toast on social media or forwarding it to a friend.

Burnt Toast transcripts and essays are edited and formatted by Jessica McKenzie, who writes the fantastic Substack, Pinch of Dirt. This week we also had help from the also fantastic Rebecca Nathanson. Our logo is by Deanna Lowe. And I’m Virginia Sole-Smith. You can find more of my work at virginiasolesmith.com or come say hi on Instagram and Twitter. I’m @v_solesmith. I’m barely on Facebook anymore, so don’t worry about that. Thanks for listening and talk to you soon!

This is a public episode. Get access to private episodes at virginiasolesmith.substack.com/subscribe
Sep 23, 2021
Writing Disordered Eating, with Alyson Gerber
1906
Hello and welcome to another audio version of Burnt Toast!

This is a newsletter where we explore questions and some answers around fatphobia, diet culture, parenting, and health. I am Virginia Sole-Smith. I'm a journalist who covers weight stigma and diet culture, and I'm the author of The Eating Instinct and the forthcoming Fat Kid Phobia.

Today, I am delighted to be chatting with Alyson Gerber, author of the critically acclaimed novels Focused, Braced, and, most recently, Taking Up Space. Alyson, welcome!

Alyson

Thank you so much for having me.

Virginia

I'm so excited to talk to you. I have followed your work for a long time, so this is a real treat. So why don't we start with you just telling us a little bit about yourself?

Alyson

Sure. As you said, I'm an author. I write middle grade books for readers 8 and up, and the adults who care about them, so teachers and parents, doctors, anybody who's interacting with kids of this age. I really started to write for this age group because I experienced a lot of trauma right around sixth, seventh, and eighth grade. I wore a back brace to treat my scoliosis, which was the beginning of my journey to body image struggles. And at the same time, I had undiagnosed attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and I cover those topics in my first two middle grade novels, Braced, about scoliosis, and Focused, about a girl, a chess player, with undiagnosed ADHD.

And Taking Up Space was really the novel that I pushed off writing because I knew how difficult and challenging it would be for me to dig into it. I started writing it when I was pregnant with my daughter and I had a pretty significant disordered eating relapse. I really wanted to talk openly about what it feels like to struggle under the diagnosis. To really be facing food struggles and body image and not have a way to talk about it, I think it can become very complicated. Because there isn't a medical diagnosis for disordered eating, it becomes something that people don't talk about. So I'm always curious and interested in—and most of my books really cover—the topics that we'd rather brush under the rug because we're ashamed of them, for whatever reason.

Virginia

Right. That's such an important point. What Sarah struggles with in the novel isn't necessarily what would meet criteria for an eating disorder, but it is really serious and really difficult and way too common. You're giving voice to that struggle, which I think we are all inclined to normalize or push away or have reinforced by people in our lives, by diet culture, all that kind of stuff. I was curious because I knew the first two novels were very personally inspired: It sounds like with Taking Up Space, the topic is something you've really dealt with, as well. Are any of the characters drawn from your own life? Or was it more taking the issue and putting it into a fictional world?

Alyson

That's a great question. For all three of my books, actually, I really wrote the story of the main character from the heart of what I experienced. So from the ups and downs and the pain of feeling misunderstood and feeling alone and unsupported and confused about whether or not what I was going through was worthy of attention and deserving of comfort—even conversation—and deserving of support. And so especially with Taking Up Space, I really drew on that experience of being confused about what are the rules of eating. Are there rules of eating? And how do you learn how to eat and feed yourself?

Sarah's journey to understand that she has all the tools she needs within herself by listening to her body, that really has been a lifelong journey for me. And so the emotional arc of the character is from my real life, and the plot of what happens to her as this incredible basketball player whose family identity is about basketball—she wants to be part of it and she wants to continue to play at an advanced level because it's so important to her identity—that is fiction. I never played basketball. I was not a basketball star.

Virginia

Wow. I am a complete non-athlete, so I can't say how authentic it was, but it felt very authentic to me—the team culture, the coach relationship. I thought you did such a nice job. I think something that a lot of parents with kids in sports struggle with is how body stuff gets handled in sports. We think about it a lot with gymnastics or cheerleading, which are very aesthetic-based sports, but even in sports like basketball, there's so much emphasis on your body being a certain way to be good at the sport. And the way Sarah was struggling with, “Is my body changing? And do I have to fix that in order to be good at my sport?” I thought that was so, so important to articulate that struggle.

Alyson

Thank you. I actually purposely picked a sport that wasn't endurance or aesthetic because it is such a problem in all sports and I wanted to really showcase that this is an issue that's impacting a big part of the population. It's not just the stereotypes. I wanted her to be outside of that. And I played sports. It was sort of forced upon me. This is one of those things where I went to a school where it was a required, three seasons of sports.

Virginia

Oh god.

Alyson

I was also not an athlete. I was very much a benchwarmer. But one of the things I took away—and I brought that to Braced because Sarah is a soccer player and chess, in a lot of ways, is a team sport—was there was something about being on a team that I loved. I loved the orange slices and I loved the cheering and I loved being there for your friends and wanting to win together. That is the one takeaway of being forced to play sports. It was really not great, but—

Virginia

You had that experience.

Alyson

Exactly, and I'm able to use it in a way that really benefits me now. That's one of the things I love about writing: You get to imagine you're good at something you really can't do at all.

Virginia

I love that. I think I played field hockey for two days, and then I was like, “we have to run a lot at practice and I'm not going to do that.”

Alyson

Also, there are a lot of rules in field hockey. I was always in the wrong place.

Virginia

It was very stressful. I literally lasted less than a week on the team. I was like, Nope, not for me. But I was a theater kid, and so I can relate to that sense of the group experience of building something and creating something as a team. You have that in the theater world too. It is a really special experience and it's definitely the real strength of athletics and activities like that.

Another thing I love about the book is the mother-daughter relationship. This must have been pretty tough to write. I obviously don't want to give away spoilers about the book because I want everyone to go read it, but the mom is struggling quite a bit and you really show how her struggles impact Sarah in really major ways. But they also have this beautiful relationship. They have these things they can really bond over. They love the same kind of murder mysteries and there is a closeness to their relationship, as well as this distance that's happened around food and body. And I thought that was so beautifully done because I think so often, in the way we talk about eating disorders culturally, there's a lot of mom-blaming. And in the way they're often portrayed in fiction and movies or books or whatever, the not-really-examined evil mother figure comes up a lot. So I loved that you steered so deliberately away from that.

I wanted to hear a little bit about your thinking there. Was that a conscious choice? Did you have to resist the urge to make Sarah’s mom the bad guy? How did you think about developing their relationship?

Alyson

I'm so glad that this is not a video, I should say, because you just made me cry in everything you said. I'm just totally tearing up because I think you said that so perfectly.

I think there's so much mom-blaming and I think there's so much black-and-white thinking around mother-daughter relationships: that we have a good relationship, or we have a bad relationship. And I think mother-daughter relationships are really complicated, and especially for characters like Sarah and her mother, I really intentionally wanted her not to be the bad guy. And I wanted the reader to understand that she might be making bad choices as a parent, but those bad choices are because she's also a victim of diet culture. She's a victim of her own experience, and a victim of the time, of growing up in a time where it wasn't as easy to go to therapy. It was not as socially acceptable to talk about your feelings, and so those feelings got buried. Even now, when both mothers and daughters can have access, I think there are places, there are families, there are communities, where it's less accepted. And I hope that's not always going to be the case, but I think for a long time, it probably will be the case.

And so when you have a parent who has complicated feelings that aren't being addressed, those feelings are going to come out in their relationship, and that's where the relationship gets complicated and messy. But it doesn't mean that it's not an amazingly close relationship, like you just said. You can be an incredible parent and also be somebody who has struggled with something in your life that makes that piece of your relationship really hard. And I think we have to get rid of the black-and-white thinking around parenting because it's just not.

I'm a parent now, so I can say, "I'm such a bad mom today!" But then I have to consciously say, "No, I was challenged today and this is how I managed it, and it wasn't my favorite day that I ever had parenting, and I'm going to try to do better tomorrow." And even cutting that black-and white-thinking in the way that we talk to ourselves as parents and as kids, just rethinking it and reframing it for ourselves so that we can really see it for what it is, which is that you can be an incredible parent and have a real deficit in one area, a real blind spot.

And there's also room to always change and grow, and that's one of the things—and I don't want to give anything away—but one of the open pieces of the book that I wanted to keep in place is that some things are resolved and some things aren't, and the door, I think, is left open. And that's one of the special things about middle grade is you can give hope without resolving everything and putting a bow on it. And you can always work on it, you know?

Virginia

Yeah, and the closeness that they have is in these other ways. Because this question comes up all the time with my listeners or my readers of, “How do I talk to my own mom about this? Or, Am I a bad parent because I'm struggling?” And it's this other closeness that you have—bonding over murder mysteries, or whatever it is—that can be the foundation of a lot of healing in this area, if the person is in a position to do the work—and not everybody is. That's the other thing. Not everyone, as you're saying, has the resources, is in a culture that's going to be encouraging of that.

So it can be both a really complicated thing because it's like, how can you love this parent so much when they are also doing things that are harmful to themselves and to you? But it can also be a really cathartic, beautiful opportunity for growth. I think you pack so much nuance into their interactions. It was very powerful to read, and I have a feeling for a lot of parents reading it, it will be, at times, painful, but also there's something powerful about seeing that struggle play out that way.

Alyson

Thank you. I hope it's a conversation-starter for parents and kids, and even teachers and kids. I think there's real space in the classroom to talk about this and say, How can we listen to each other better? How can we respond more thoughtfully to each other?

What you just said about a parent might not be willing to work on it and do the work, but are they willing to listen to your feedback? And can they do some of the work? Maybe it's not only for themselves, but can they do that for you? And so I think it's more complicated than just, yes, they can heal themselves, because not everybody is in a place to be able to do that. But if they can give you the space you need and the safety you need, then that can often really help.

Virginia

Absolutely. Another thing I thought about a lot while I was reading the book, because it's something I struggle with a lot in my own reporting when I read about eating disorders and disordered eating, is the level of detail to include or not include. It felt like you had probably made some very thoughtful choices about, you know, you have to tell a good story and you have to bring the reader into the experience.

But my first job out of college was at Seventeen Magazine, and whenever we reported on eating disorders, I was like, “are we just teaching these kids how to have eating disorders?” Because we were including way too much detail about the vomit and all those sort of things. But as I've continued to work in this area, number one, I'm more thoughtful than I was, I think, at that point in my career. But I also think there's a reality in which kids who are struggling with this need to feel seen, and that can mean seeing descriptions of behaviors or thought patterns that may be quote-unquote triggering, but also may be like, Okay, I'm not the only one with that thought. Or, I'm not the only one who was doing that behavior. So how do you think about that issue? Because I'm sure you also struggle with this question.

Alyson

I think this was the hardest part of writing this book and the thing I wrestled with the most. As a middle grade author, one of the things I always think about is, How am I keeping all my readers safe? That means the reader who has never interacted with this, the reader who is struggling with an eating disorder, the reader who is struggling with constantly being bullied because of fatphobia. I'm trying to think about everybody in the room, and also let that go at some point to write the story. But then when I go back and revise, they're often on my mind in the language that I choose, especially in this book, in the detail that was given.

I wrote this book many times. In the first version, there were more details. Sarah's size was more clear. And as I revised, I really started to get rid of that because I realized it was only hurting the story. We know from some indicators that Sarah is a straight-size person. You know the fashion term. We know that because she doesn't consider things like her chair and her uniform. There's no question about the sizing for her uniform. There are other things that would come up if that weren't the case, but other than that, I really tried to eliminate all those pieces because I didn't want readers walking in comparing themselves to Sarah.

Virginia

That was really smart.

Alyson

That's something that I really struggled with, and have always struggled with: Am I as sick as this person? That sort of comparison, really, at the lowest points, was really hard for me. I know that that can be a struggle for a lot of people, so I wanted to keep those readers safe. And there's no scale in the book, which is also another choice, and I could have made a different choice. I tried to make a different choice at some point. Every choice that felt like the thing you think of as a stereotype when you think of an eating-disorder book or movie, I ended up getting rid of because it didn't serve the story. Truly, it's not the story I wanted to tell.

This is a story about somebody who doesn't value themselves and who has learned to value herself based on outward things, based on her success at basketball, based on the way that she looks. And I wanted her to be able to recognize that and say, I really need to value myself based on myself, on who I really am. That, for me, has actually been the biggest struggle in overcoming all of my many issues. But in particular, self-worth has been the thing. And I think at the root of a lot of eating disorders is this: Does society value me? Does my job value me? Do my friends value me? How do I fit into the world? And the truth is, it's really how do you value you that matters the most. And it took me a long time to really understand that.

Virginia

And you're completely right. If you had included the more cliché descriptions of her getting on a scale and tracking numbers and that kind of thing, that wouldn't have helped tell that story. That would have just been the more Lifetime-movie version—or Seventeen-Magazine-article version—of this story that isn't particularly helpful because it doesn't encourage readers to take these questions deeper. It doesn't help kids think beyond the behaviors about the underlying struggle, which I think Taking Up Space does so well. Because you do have other people in her life—the coach and various other people—who are able to reframe things for her and help her understand these larger questions. And that's really effectively done and, I think, contributes to that sense of safety that you're talking about, as well, for readers.

Alyson

The other thing I thought of when you were sharing that is that I really wanted the reader who had no experience with this—the person who maybe thinks, Well, why don't they just eat? Why can't you just sit down and eat a piece of pizza? What's the big deal? I don't understand—to really be able to understand and to really be able to empathize. I taught over the course of the pandemic virtually, and I met with a lot of middle school kids who felt that whatever their pain, their mourning, their loss that they were experiencing, because it wasn't as big as other people's, that it didn't count.

So they really talked down their pain and dismissed their own pain and made themselves feel bad for feeling bad when, really, everybody's pain counts. There's a spectrum of pain and you deserve support wherever you are. And I think that's something that took me a really long time to understand: that somebody can have it worse, and I can also still need help.

Virginia

Yes, yes. That is a tricky spot, for sure.

Alyson

And I can also be grateful for everything I have. You can be so thankful for the things that are going well, and also feel a lot of pain and be struggling in big ways. And I think as an adult, there's this tendency for adults to be like, "It'll get better. It's going to be fine. This isn't that big of a deal." But if a kid is telling you this is a big deal, that they feel something, it's a big deal, and it doesn't feel like it's going to get better. And they do need help.

Virginia

Absolutely.

Alyson

Even if we don't think that they need help, they sometimes do, and they need to know that. So that's one of the things I hope readers get out of Taking Up Space is a sense of empathy for other people and kindness for themselves.

Virginia

And another thing, I'm realizing, that I think is so effective about the book is because you didn't focus in the traditional way on her weight, you were able to show that the struggle really isn't about, Are you losing a lot of weight? Or, Is your body changing? It really is this internal struggle. And I think that's so important because, going back to what you were saying earlier about, often, we feel like we're not as sick as someone else, one of the main ways that plays out is when an eating disorder doesn't result in this extreme weight loss that we expect. And, of course, the majority of eating disorders don't do that. And so all these people's struggles get swept under because you don't look like the cliché super-emaciated person.

So I loved that you showed that, and you showed, too, that the tinkering with disordered eating can have pretty immediate effects on someone's ability to function and how they're feeling moving through their day, and all of that. That felt really powerful for kids to read, both either if they're going to see themselves in it, or if this is a newer concept to them, to understand that the stakes are quite high, even when you're just in the "early stages" of something.

Alyson

Definitely.

Virginia

I know you said your daughter is almost 4. I don't know exactly when you wrote this because books always take forever to come out, but did becoming a mom change how—and as a fellow mom who's a writer, I hate when we get reduced to being mom writers; I'm not trying to do that—but because you write for kids, and you write about these issues, I'm just curious if your relationship to the work or to this book has changed now that you are a mom of a daughter who may someday be dealing with some aspects of this.

Alyson

So interesting. I started writing this book when I was pregnant with my daughter, and I think I was really thinking a lot about home and what it means to be a parent and what it means to create a sense of home, and I do so much home-creation in my storytelling. Because for 8 to 14 year olds, home is really the center, even though friends are slowly becoming the center. But it's where you come back to for safety. I thought a lot about what does it mean to have a home that's safe, emotionally and physically, and a place where you could really be yourself.

And so I've given that a lot of thought in my parenting, and also I think it's really impacted my writing, and changed it. It's made me see some of the things that were safe for me in my own home growing up that maybe I wouldn't have considered before as being safe. It made me rethink things a little bit. And it made me realize some things that maybe I hadn't seen as being problematic.

And I'm working on a mystery—it's very mysterious!—right now. The character's sense of home and sense of self is a major part of the story. And so I've been thinking about it a lot. It's interesting. The way that my daughter interacts with me has changed the way that—because now I'm seeing it from the other perspective. I'm not writing from the adult perspective interacting with kids, but now I am living the adult perspective interacting with kids. And even though Juliet is younger, I'm still imagining and thinking a lot about how this will play out. The three-nager years really showed me a lot about what I'm in for.

Virginia

Yes, that is a real phase, for sure, having done it twice. Definitely is a phase. I do think there's something to, like, the dynamics you're dealing with now will be the dynamics. Of course, kids change so much, but there are certain throughlines, for sure.

Alyson

And there are certain things that I find that will be a pain point for me. I'll feel the pain point as a parent and be like, Oh, I need help. I can't do this on my own. And seeing that from the other side is really interesting.

Virginia

I was just thinking, with the mom character we talked about, she has such a richness to her, and I think your experience being on the other side maybe helped inform that too. Because it's sometimes left out—and it's understandable because kids don't see us as fully formed people, nor should they have to. But I think it's great for them to read books where the parents are flawed and struggling and fully formed people because that's useful for them to start to experience.

Alyson

Definitely. A big part of my writing process is really thinking about each character as having their own arc and writing a little bit from each—sort of journaling from their perspective so that they feel like fully formed people. So I understand where they start at the beginning of the book and where they end up and how they get there. It's not just the main character. And the adults are always the hardest, which makes sense.

Virginia

Yeah, it does. Okay, so a question I always love to ask fellow writers is, Where do you do your writing? Tell me a little: Do you have a workspace? What do you love about it? What do you hate about it, if you don't love it? I love hearing about where people write.

Alyson

So I live in Brooklyn and I have an office in my home here. I love it because it's my own space and I can close the door and shut everybody out, and it's quiet. And I really need that. I really need quiet, although I do like to draft at a coffee shop. So I have missed that a lot during the pandemic, hearing other people typing. There's a YouTube channel where you can hear other people typing. So I've done a little bit of that, which has been helpful. And the thing I dislike about my workspace is that it's—well, I like that I can see out into the front of the house, but also other people can see in. So I get scared often because I'm in another world when I'm writing and then the person delivering the UPS package will knock on the window and wave to me, and I go flying.

Virginia

That's so funny. Yes. My office is on a side where I can't see our door, which means I miss every UPS package, which is its own hassle. But it is nice from that perspective of being startled out of your work mode because it's so hard to get back to it, too, once you've broken the flow.

Well, you mentioned you're working on a new mystery. Anything else you're excited about right now? Whether it's a new writing project, something else new in your life. My kids started school today. That's what I'm excited about.

Alyson

That is exciting.

Virginia

Oh god, it's so exciting.

Alyson

My daughter's about to start school next week, which is very exciting. I'm really excited about this book that I'm working on. It's taken over my brain, which is great. And it means that it's going to work and it's singing. At first, I always feel like I'm putting pieces together and I'm trying to layer the onion back together. It works or it doesn't work, and it's working. And it's working in a way that I really wanted it to work.

Virginia

That's so satisfying.

Alyson

And just like the characters in Taking Up Space, I'm a huge mystery fan. I'm sort of obsessed, actually. I've watched, like, every British mystery. That's the one thing about the pandemic is I've actually gotten to watch—there were a couple of old ones that were on my list that I got to.

Virginia

Which ones?

Alyson

“Vera.” I had really wanted to get through that.

Virginia

I've never seen that. My mom loved it, I think.

Alyson

They're a little bit older, like “Foyle's War,” which is very long. It's nine seasons long. I was able to get through that.

Virginia

Well, that's nice because you've got a lot. I hate when something's only two or three seasons.

Alyson

So it's both exciting because I'm loving the book, but also exciting because this is a genre that has always interested me, and those were the books that I read most growing up and the books that kept my attention. So this is keeping my attention.

Virginia

That's awesome. And will this be middle grade, as well, or are you doing an adult mystery?

Alyson

No, it's middle grade. And I'm hopeful that it will be a series. I'm trying to work to figure out how to do that.

Virginia

This is very exciting. All right. Well, when you're ready to talk more about that, you'll have to come back and tell us all about it because that sounds awesome.

Alyson

Perfect. I would love to.

Virginia

And tell listeners where we can find more of your work and follow everything you're doing.

Alyson

So my website is my name, alysongerber.com, and I am basically everywhere @AlysonGerber. So on Instagram @AlysonGerber. On Twitter @AlysonGerber. And you can find all my books also through the Scholastic website. Scholastic is my publisher.

Virginia

Awesome, and I will link to all of that in the transcript. Thank you so much for coming on. This has been such a great conversation. I'm just so thrilled there are writers like you in the middle grade space doing these books because we really need more. This is a question I'm asked a lot: What can my kid be reading? And it's so great there's finally more than just Blubber to tell them about, so thank you so much.

Alyson

Totally. Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.

Virginia

And thanks to all of you for listening to Burnt Toast. If you like this episode and you aren't yet subscribed, please do that. If you are a subscriber, thank you so much. Please consider sharing Burnt Toast on social media or forwarding this to a friend.

Our transcripts and essays are edited and formatted by Jessica McKenzie, who writes the fantastic Substack Pinch of Dirt. Our logo is by Deanna Lowe, and I'm Virginia Sole-Smith. You can find more of my work at virginiasolesmith.com or come say hi on Instagram or Twitter. I am @v_solesmith. Thanks so much and talk to you soon!

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Jul 22, 2021
Don't Make Your Kid Finish The Soup.
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Welcome to another audio version of Burnt Toast! This is a newsletter where we explore questions and some answers around fatphobia, diet culture, parenting and health. I’m Virginia Sole-Smith. I’m a journalist who covers weight stigma and diet culture, and the author of The Eating Instinct and the forthcoming Fat Kid Phobia.

Today I am chatting with my good friend and neighbor, Melinda Wenner Moyer. Melinda, welcome.

Melinda

Thank you so much. I’m so excited to be here.

Virginia

For folks who don’t know Melinda, she is a science journalist and author of a brand new book coming out a couple days after you listen to this, called How To Raise Kids Who Aren’t A******s. And she writes a really fantastic Substack called “Is My Kid the A*****e?”—much like the subreddit, Am I the A*****e?—where she helps us navigate these really tricky parenting questions.

I wanted to bring her on today because a) her book is wonderful, and you should all go preorder it. But also because Melinda does a really great job breaking down the science on parenting to help us understand why our kids do the things they do and how the choices we make influence their behavior. And I found as I was reading the book that I kept thinking, oh, this is also about food. Oh, this is also about food.

Melinda is actually the first person I’ve had on the newsletter who’s not fully in the diet culture space—not that she’s a pro-diet culture person!—but it’s cool to see someone else’s work in a different genre overlapping so much with the conversations we have here.

So the book is really doing two things. I’m sure you’re getting all kinds of reactions to the title—it was a great opportunity to teach my own seven-year-old the word ‘a*****e,’ so thank you for that. But really, what you’re saying is: Parents need to understand that sometimes kids have to be a******s. It’s a part of growing up. They don’t have the skills that we think that they have. And they’re just going to be a******s sometimes. But at the same time you’re helping parents raise kids who don’t grow up to be permanent a******s in the sense of Donald Trump or Brett Kavanaugh. So can you explain that distinction a little bit?

Melinda

There has been understandable confusion about the title and what I actually mean by ‘how to raise kids who aren’t a******s.’ What I’m really saying is ‘how to raise kids who don’t grow up to be a******s.’ Because as parents, it’s important for us to manage our expectations, and to realize that there is no such thing as a perfectly behaved kid.

There are so many reasons for this. Kids’ brains and bodies are so very different from ours. The part of the brain that is responsible for planning and self regulation, and rational thinking, in general, is just not developed yet. And it doesn’t fully develop until kids are in their mid-20s, actually. So kids just don’t have the skills, like you said, to do adult-like things, like follow directions, or stay calm when they’re sad or angry. They also don’t have the muscle tone to do things like sit still at the dinner table for 30 minutes, which I learned when I was reporting my newsletter a few weeks ago. So they’re going to be doing things all the time that are out of line with what we would expect of adults and what we consider “good behavior.” And that’s because they really just don’t have the capacity for those things yet. So yes, kids are going to be a******s.

Another part of that, too, is that a lot of what we consider good behavior is learned. It’s not innate, and it’s based on customs and traditions. These are cultural expectations that we have to teach. And it takes a long time. So, for instance, what could be more unnatural than using a fork? Our kids are not born knowing how to use a fork or napkins, that’s kind of a weird concept. Why not use your hands?

These are customs we have to remember that are not natural and the way that kids learn about these kinds of customs is in a way by breaking them. They have to break the rules in order for us to know that we need to teach these things to them. They’re opportunities for us as parents to learn about what we need to work on with our kids.

My parents live in this very posh community. And my son, I think he was going to like a tennis clinic or something, and the tennis pro came over and held out his hand to shake my son’s hand. And I had not taught my kid, he was like six, at that point, what handshakes were. And so he looked at this tennis pro’s hand and made a face and ran away. And of course, to the tennis pro, my kid is a total a*****e, right? Like, what could be more a*****e-ish than that? But I mean, I hadn’t taught this to him. How would he know what to do in that situation? They need practice. And of course, in situations like that temperament matters and other traits and differences that kids have, circumstances matter. Kids not being polite to adults in social situations, not looking them in the eye, not answering their questions—so much of that can stem from fear and anxiety, even if they know what to do, even if we’ve talked to them about what we expect. They just don’t have the capacity to function in the way we want them to. Shy kids are going to struggle more with those kinds of skills. We also have to remember, there’s so much variation among kids that make them excel in certain areas and be deficient in others. And they all have different starting points.

So when we see two different seven-year-olds behaving very differently in a situation, we shouldn’t necessarily jump to the conclusion that ‘oh, s**t, my kid was more of an a*****e than that other kid. And therefore I’m failing as a parent.’ We just have to remember where our kids are coming from.

There was a very salient example of this, actually, yesterday, my daughter’s turning seven on Saturday, and we had a really small gathering with just four of her friends yesterday in the backyard. And some of the friends were from one school and some of the friends were from another school. They didn’t all know each other really well. And there was a moment where one of the kids was feeling left out. And I was really hoping my daughter would step up and go out of her way to be extra kind to this girl who was feeling left out. And what happened was another girl stepped up and did this wonderful thing and helped this girl feel included. And it was not my daughter. And I was like, Oh my God. I felt like I failed as a parent. Why isn’t my daughter the one doing this? But then I realized, okay, this is her birthday party. She’s been so anxious about it for like two weeks. She hates being in the spotlight. She’s got so much on her emotional plate that day. I shouldn’t feel bad that she couldn’t step up and do this.

Virginia

She’s probably not even noticing the other kid’s struggle, she’s dealing with her own thing.

Melinda

All these circumstances matters. What I’m getting at is there’s so much that shapes the day-to-day choices that our kids make that we have to keep in mind when we’re thinking about our kids and how they’re behaving. But with the book, what I’m really trying to do is thinking bigger and broader than these little bloopers. How can we instill values, and virtues in our kids that will shape their choices and behaviors for the rest of their lives? They can make plenty of mistakes now, but how do we help them learn from them? How do we instill the kinds of priorities that we want them to have?

It’s not so much, how do I make sure that my five year old doesn’t have tantrums? It’s how do I make sure that my five-year-old doesn’t grow up to be a 75-year-old man who throws tantrums like Donald Trump? How do I give them the skills to develop the emotional regulation and all of these other things so that over time, they become adults who are kind, good people who are fighting injustice instead of contributing to it. So that’s the bigger picture thing that I’m working on with the book.

Virginia

It’s reassuring, because I think anyone who is parenting young children has moments or days or weeks where you think, I am raising a legitimate sociopath. They have no compassion or awareness of other people. And you get into this in your chapters on racism and sexism, but: Kids say really awful things. This comes up a lot when we talk about bodies: kids call other kids fat, or use that word as an insult. Sometimes they don’t even understand they’re using it as an insult. So I think it’s helpful to understand that this is part of learning, and this is where the work is.

Your book does a great job of giving parents tools to navigate those conversations. One area I found especially fascinating that intersects with questions my readers often have is the part about rewards. You explain that rewards can often be short-term fixes for behavior problems, but can hinder some of our bigger goals as parents. I get this question often because food is so commonly used as a reward. You know, we’re giving M&Ms for potty training, or teachers give out Starburst or other candy in class for good behavior. And from where I’m sitting as someone who’s concerned about kids overly fixating on different foods or giving too much value to foods, there’s a reason to be worried about rewards. Why don’t you tell us how you initially used rewards with your own kids? And how your thinking evolved on that question?

Melinda

It’s such a big issue. And it’s gnarly. When my now 10-year-old was maybe six or something, we were struggling with some of his behavior. We went to see a psychologist who was firmly in the behavioral psychology camp, which is essentially to say, he really liked to use rewards. He suggested that we set up this point system with our son, and anytime our son did something that we thought was good or pro social, like he said, ‘Please,’ or ‘Thank you,’ or he helped his sister or cleaned his room, really anything. In that moment that he did it, right afterwards, we would say, two points for picking up that piece of trash and putting it in the trash can. And every point that he would get, we would keep track of it on a spreadsheet, and every point equalled one cent or one minute of screen time. And every week, if you’d gotten 100 points, you’d have 100 minutes of screen time, I can’t remember exactly how many points you would get over a week. But it helped us control his allowance, his screen time, and was supposed to be a behavior management system.

At first, it was great. It did seem to solve these problems that we had: We didn’t know how to deal with allowance, we didn’t know how to deal with screen time. And it was this really nice system for organizing all this stuff. And his behavior started to improve immediately. We saw him doing stuff that he hadn’t been doing that was, you know, pro social and great and kind.

I can’t remember how long we used it for, at least a year, maybe longer. But we started to see some ickiness surrounding it. You could see the wheels turning in his head. He would think about doing something good or kind or something, and then he would stop and say, “Will I get points for doing this?” And it became like this contingency thing where he’s only going to do it if he would get points. So I started digging into the research more.

Originally, when I read some of the research on rewards, and I wrote a Slate column about it, and I was really under the impression that it’s not generally a good idea to reward kids for doing things they already like, but that it was really fine to use rewards to motivate them to do things they didn’t like. But I started reading all of the studies done on rewards back from the 1970s, even. And that’s when I was like, hmm, I think we need to stop this point system.

There are a ton of studies that suggest that when kids are given rewards for doing things, it makes them feel controlled and manipulated. I mean, that’s essentially what we’re doing. They know they’re being controlled, and they don’t like it. Just like we don’t like being controlled or manipulated, they don’t like it. It removes the intrinsic value of the thing that we have rewarded them for doing so that it is inextricably tied to the feeling of being controlled so that they don’t really like it anymore, for itself. If they got joy out of being generous to someone and making them feel better, they couldn’t get that kind of intrinsic satisfaction out of doing good things anymore, because it’s tied up with the reward they were getting.

In one study, researchers put drawing paper and markers in a preschool classroom and watched all the kids in the preschool classroom to see whether they drew with the markers. Then they took the kids who seemed to really liked drawing, and the next week they pulled those particular students out one by one and brought them into another room. For some of them, they offered the kids a reward for drawing. For the other kids, they just said, here’s some drawing materials, if you want to draw, you can, if you don’t want to, you don’t have to. And so half of them were given rewards, half of them weren’t. And then in the third week of the study, they repeated the first part, they just had all the kids in a room with drawing paper and markers out. And they saw that the kids who had been offered rewards for drawing in the second part of the study were much less likely to want to draw in that third week compared to the kids who hadn’t been offered any rewards. So, once they had been rewarded for it, they were much less interested in doing it when they were given the opportunity. And there’s been research in adults that has shown this same pattern. So for whatever reason, it sucks out whatever sort of value that behavior had to the child inside, like deep inside of them, whatever value they got out of doing that thing, and just took it away, which is, of course, the exact opposite of the outcome we want.

Virginia

There’s a great food study I feel like I reference in practically every article I write, but I’ll recap here. It’s the “Finish Your Soup” study by Leann Birch, where they told some kids, if you finish your soup, you get dessert, and then they had other kids who were told they can have as much soup as you want, and you can have as much dessert as you want. The kids who had to finish the soup liked the soup less, they ate less of the soup, they really just cared about getting the dessert, whereas the kids who were freely choosing between the soup and the dessert actually liked the soup better and ate more of it.

So it’s cutting off kids ability to find intrinsic motivation, or intrinsic pleasure in activities or in foods. And you know, parents might say like, well, they’ll never like Brussels sprouts, or whatever. But the truth is, you aren’t even giving them the option to like them, when you’re setting them up as just currency, or just this thing you do to get to the better thing.

Melinda

Right. In a different Leann Birch study, or it might have been the same one, if there was a second part, they just had adults pressure the kids to eat soup. And again, that’s a controlling impulse. And the kids feel controlled, and the kids who were pressured to eat a particular soup ate less of it than the ones who were just left alone. And that was really interesting, too.

Virginia

Positive pressure, is still, pressure and rewards are positive, but as you said, it’s still a form of trying to control kids. And especially around food, we know, they do so much better when they can listen to themselves versus following these external rules.

I also liked that you highlight in the book that even these sort of chores can be intrinsically satisfying, like, it can feel good to set the table or it can feel good to clean your room, and realize, oh, I like my room better when it’s not covered in all of my clothes or whatever. But we’re not giving kids that opportunity to experience that if we’re saying clean your room in order to earn your points or whatever.

You also talked about this concern about making the rewards too valuable. And again, we see this happen so much with food, where kids are much more interested in the treat food and don’t want the other food. I’m curious if you saw that happening with screen time, as well, since that was sort of the primary thing you were using. I often feel like there’s a lot of parallel conversation happening around sugar and screen time.

Melinda

I mean, it’s tricky. I do feel like my kids have never not been obsessed with screens. Can I say there’s been a vast improvement since we stopped using the point system, especially because you have the pandemic in the mix? There’s so much conflation, right? We relied on screens so much this past year.

But, when we used screen time as reward, it certainly led to a focus on screens. Every time my son did anything good, and we gave him a point, that that made him think of screens, so it just highlighted screens so much more at times when it was unnecessary to be highlighting screens. I feel like that probably does fuel the obsession with screens, if you’re constantly making this connection in your head.

There’s also a lot of research showing that kids look to the world around them, to adults in power, to figure out how to behave, what to care about, what’s important, what matters in the world. I talk about this a lot in my chapters on sexism and racism, but they’re constantly making these observations. We are making choices for them that communicate that there are certain things that everybody likes, whether that’s screens or dessert, if we’re choosing that as the reward. That’s a really powerful way of telling our kids what matters and what they they should care about, too. And so it’s confirmation, again, to our kids, that sweets and desserts are the things that they should be obsessed with, because that’s what everybody cares about.

Virginia

And if you’re then pairing this thing everybody cares about with lots of restrictions on how and when you access it, and what you have to do to access it, that is a perfect storm to set up a scarcity mindset. Which is going to make a kid more fixated on the sugar, more fixated on the screen, because they think of it as this thing that they have to be manipulated to acquire or they have to manipulate circumstances to acquire.

I do feel like the pandemic threw a wrench in this, because a lot of us had pretty much like no limitations on screen time this year, and our kids still have lots of screen time. So there are obviously some nuances here. But I will say, when my older daughter spent several months in the hospital and had a Peppa Pig free for all—like we were watching Peppa Pig at three in the morning for weeks on end because she couldn’t sleep in the hospital. And it was like, what else do you do with a two-year-old in the hospital at three in the morning? We were convinced we had completely broken her and she would be screen addicted forever. But when she got back to her normal routine at home when she was healthier, she could play again. She could do other things, and the screen thing really worked itself out without us having to detox her or anything. She was just like, Oh, we don’t watch Peppa Pig breakfast, lunch and dinner anymore? This is fine.

I’m hoping we’ll see a similar thing as people come out of lockdown and kids get back to school and camp and normal routines and we can replace screen time with the other things that they love.

Melinda

I agree. We went on vacation last week and and we just created a whole new normal surrounding screens, totally different from what the kids had had. And they were completely fine with it. They’re so adaptable. We put them in a new situation. And they recognize not everything is going to be the same. We’re not going to be able to use screens all the time, we’re going to be swimming more. And they were perfectly fine with it. It was really interesting.

Virginia

I think if you had been like, this is going to be a completely screen free vacation, you might have gotten some pushback, because that would have fueled more of the scarcity mindset. But if it’s like, we are adjusting our relationship with this thing, they can handle that.

The other thing I think about a lot is physical activity. I think we tend to use more pressure around wanting kids to play certain sports, wanting kids to be physically active. I’m reporting my chapter on doctors at the moment for the next book, and this comes up a lot in the way doctors push physical activity, this sort of very prescriptive, is your kid getting an hour of exercise a day? And it’s like, you just made exercise sound like the least fun thing in the world, when you’re like, is it 30 to 60 minutes.

On the other hand, we want our kids to challenge themselves, we want them to learn new skills. One of my children loves rock climbing, and when she’s trying something, she’ll say, it hurts. And I’ll be quick to say, Oh, you don’t have to do it, don’t hurt yourself, don’t hurt your body. And she’ll be like, No, no, I want to push through and learn, and now I can do this cool trick.

And I’m like, oh, right, there’s also something satisfying in pushing yourself physically, and I want you to enjoy that as well. So, how do you think about physical activity? How can we encourage kids to push themselves but not block the intrinsic motivation that feels really key to them finding movement joyful?

Melinda

That’s a really good question. I feel like I have a lot of weird childhood memories that make it hard for me to be totally unbiased answering this too, I mean, don't we all. My parents made me play soccer when I was a kid, and I hated it. Like, I hated it so much. I felt so I was terrible at it. And I just remember being so ashamed that I kept not being good at it and letting down my team and my coach.

Five years ago, I got my eyes checked by a developmental optometrist—my eyes were crossed when I was a kid—and he said, you know, you don’t have any depth perception. Then he asked, ‘Did you find that you weren’t very good at ball sports when you were a kid?’ I was like, Oh, my God, that’s why I was so bad. And that’s why I hated it so much. I literally could not see the ball the way other kids did. And it was so validating.

Forcing kids to do activities that they just don’t like, or they know that they don’t have the aptitude for, is not necessarily constructive. But I will say, it depends on why they don’t like the activity. I think a lot of kids sometimes don’t want to do an activity because they’re scared, they’ve never done it before. It’s new, it’s scary. And sometimes, when kids have phobias or fears, you do want to expose them to the thing they’re afraid of, slowly, carefully, to help them get over that fear. Figuring out what their dislike is rooted in—fear of novelty, or just fear in general—sometimes it is good to push them out of their comfort zone and to help them learn that they don’t need to be afraid of it. If an activity isn’t rooted in fear, but lack of interest, or they just don’t enjoy it, then, I think that’s not necessarily constructive.

I’m thinking about Angela Duckworth’s advice, she wrote a book called Grit. It’s a really interesting book, I talk a lot about it in one of my chapters, and she talks about the importance of pushing—not pushing—of encouraging your kids to try something that’s fun and hard, but they get to choose what it is. So they have some autonomy of choice there. And having them stick with something for like a semester or a year before they can quit, so that they have to get over any hurdles, but but the key thing is letting them choose it. There are so many kinds of physical activities, and our kids only need to find one or two that’s going to give them joy and provide the physical movement that their bodies need.

I think as parents, sometimes we have expectations of what we want our kids to do, we want our kids to play a particular sport, because we did or, or because we think that they’re good at running, and therefore they should do cross country or something. And I think we have to realize that our kids might be different from what we were expecting and what we’re hoping and that we should let them have the choice.

I remember really wanting my son to play music forever. Like I was really into music, and he started playing cello. And he was good at it. But he hated it. And it was so hard for me to let him quit when he did want to quit. We kept him in it for a year or so, but then when he wanted to quit, we let him quit. Because I didn’t want to force him and I think it was the right decision. It’s so hard for us sometimes because we have these ideas about what we want our kids to be doing. But it’s important to let them have that autonomy.

Virginia

It is a fine line but I like the idea of having them choose the activity and not privileging certain types of activity. Especially with physical activity, not privileging team sports. I mean, I say that as someone who never played team sports and hates team sports, and is possibly denying her children the experience of team sports, because they haven’t seemed interested and we haven’t volunteered it, it’s just not happening in our house.

It might not be soccer for every kid. And that’s really okay. It might be just playing out in the backyard a lot, that might be the thing that they love, and maybe that turns into hiking or that turns into birdwatching, or who knows what. I’ve talked before about how we often privilege outdoorsiness over being an indoor kid. And there are lots of ways that these other sort of cultural beliefs around what’s a “healthy” way to live impact this conversation. I like the idea that it’s very child led, but if they do choose it, understanding that there’s value to them working through not liking it every week, and sticking out the semester, or sticking out the six weeks.

Melinda

We have so many hang ups that shape what we think our kids are going to be good at and what we expect of them. My son wanted to play soccer, and he also doesn’t have depth perception. And I was like, Oh no, I don’t want him to play soccer, because he’ll be bad at it and he’ll feel ashamed, and it’ll be tough. But we let him do it and he loves it like, and he’s not as bad, he’s certainly not as bad as I was.

I was totally wrong. This is now his joy. He loves soccer. I’m not going to tell him that he shouldn’t be good at it. But it’s so interesting, right? All the ways that our own experiences bias our choices and our thoughts about our kids and what they should do.

Virginia

Yes, definitely.

So, steering away a little bit from food and movement, but definitely still about bodies, I wanted to talk about your gender chapter, which is excellent. You talk a lot about the importance of de-emphasizing how we talk about gender with kids. There are some really mind blowing statistics about how often teachers reference gender in the course of a school day, how often parents reference gender. I remember when I was reading an earlier draft of the chapter, we had this conversation, because I thought, I’m a really good feminist mom, and I’m raising two girls, and I’m raising them to be feminists. So I talk about gender, but in a very empowering way. You know, I’ll say, you’re a strong girl, when my kids do something physical. I certainly reference their gender, but never in a pretty little girl way, but what I thought was an empowering way.

Reading your work, and then talking to you about it, I recognized that is a bit of a trap, that first, I’m assuming that I know what their gender is, which is not necessarily the case, and also, that I’m still over emphasizing gender.

So let’s talk a little bit about why gender neutral language is so important with kids of all genders in terms of fighting this discrimination. And how that plays into how they develop a healthy relationship with their body.

Melinda

I’ll start off by saying, I definitely think it’s important to talk to kids about sexism and gender stereotypes. We should be talking to our girls about how unfair it is that girls are treated differently from boys. [Virginia Note: Melinda also writes extensively about the importance of having these conversations with boys!]

We want to do this because they are seeing this already. To give you an example that still makes me angry. A couple years ago at the end of the school year, my son’s teacher gave out awards for each child, individualized awards at the end of the year. And I looked at the list, and it was awful how sexist they were. Almost all of the girls got awards for things like looking nice, being kind, or being a good listener. Four of the boys got rewards for being smart. It was just so disturbing.

Kids are noticing things like that. The reality is these sexist stereotypes exist in their world too. And they’re being communicated to our kids through teachers, the media, sometimes us, inadvertently. So we need to talk about those things so kids recognize what they are and challenge them. We want the girls in that class to realize that when the teacher chose to give out those awards the way she did, that was reflecting her bias and not reflecting any kind of actual innate difference, because that’s really important for them to be able to ascertain. If we don’t make that clear to our kids, the easiest conclusion is, oh, gosh, I guess I’m just not as smart or girls aren’t as smart. And girls should look nice.

Virginia

And it matters that I’m a good listener, because I’m a girl. The relationship implications of that are horrifying. Anyway.

Melinda

There’s research, too, that shows that when kids are taught that the reason there are fewer female scientists in the world is because of sexism and discrimination, not because girls are less good at science, that those girls who were taught that become much more interested in science than girls who are not taught the reasons for this discrepancy. It gives them the confidence, they realize, oh, these differences are because our culture is screwed up not because of me or whatever innate ability I have. So screw that. I can do this, and screw our culture. It gives them more of a fighting instinct.

So it is good to talk about discrimination, to talk about sexism, and gender stereotypes, to make our kids aware of it, but: When you look into the roots of these gender stereotypes, a lot of it has to do with this innocuous language that we use all the time surrounding gender.

As I was saying earlier, kids are always paying attention to what matters in the world. And that includes what kinds of social categories matter, they’re like little detectives walking around making observations. And so if you think about it: What is something that we communicate about a person almost every time we refer to them? We don’t refer to their hair color, or their height or their skin color, but we almost always highlight their gender, because it’s built into our pronouns. Every time we refer to a person, we’re saying, he or she, or the lady or the man, and when we do this day in and day out, our kids notice it. Their inference is, well, gosh, gender must be a really important distinction, if my parents are referring to it 800 times a day, it must be that boys and girls are different in important ways. Why else would you do this?

Add into that the fact that there are different bathrooms for different genders, different sports teams, different aisles in the toy store, different clothes, different toys in a happy meal, all of these things are emphasizing to kids that the two genders are different, and they’re very different.

Where the problems begin is this idea that we are communicating day in and day out, that boys and girls are different in important ways. Then they take that inference, and, again, being these little detectives, look around the world. And they see that there’s a gender hierarchy, that’s very obvious. They see that there’s never been a woman president, that there are fewer women who are CEOs and senators and all the ways in which there is gender hierarchy in our society. And they see that and combine that with this idea that boys and girls are different. And they make this inference that well, maybe men are just better, and smarter. Maybe boys, and men, are just better and smarter. Both boys and girls make these come to these conclusions.

There’s one study that breaks my heart whenever I describe it, involving five to seven year old girls and boys, illustrating that girls start internalizing that girls aren’t as good as boys when they’re about six or seven, which I noticed with my daughter. Researchers read a story to these boys and girls, about a very, very smart protagonist, like the story had a very, very smart protagonist. And it was described that way. Very, very smart. And then the researchers, after reading the story, said, okay, well, do you think that that really, really smart protagonist was a boy, or was it a girl? And when they asked the five year olds, all the girls said, Oh, it’s a girl. And all the boys said, Oh, it’s a boy. And that’s exactly what you would expect with in-group, out-group psychology, the group that you belong to, you think they’re better. That’s what you would expect. But around the age of six to seven, the girls started switching over and they would say, oh, the really, really smart protagonist is a boy. The boys just always said boys, of course, but the girls switched over. And that’s so heartbreaking, age six.

Virginia

That’s what makes me want to say things like you’re a strong girl, right? Because I think I’m subverting that stereotype that my daughter may have already internalized. But it sounds like I’m also reinforcing it, because it could be interpreted as, you’re strong for a girl or you are a girl who happens to be strong, unlike other girls.

Melinda

The way I think about this distinction is that I try to not call attention to gender when gender is not part of the conversation I’m having with my child. If we’re talking about people doing something and it happens to be a girl, I try to de-emphasize gender and not refer to it when it’s not relevant.

But I have plenty of conversations, especially with my daughter, about sexism and when I’m doing that, I certainly am talking about gender and I’m certainly saying you can do anything you want even though the world might tell you otherwise. And things like that.

Virginia

You can say you’re a strong kid. You’re a tough kid. The more I think about it, there’s no reason to use girl there. If your kid falls down on the playground, and is getting over a scraped knee or something, I can just say you’re a tough kid instead of, you’re a tough girl. It’s so weird that I do that now that we’ve had this conversation.

Melinda

But if you’re in the middle of a conversation about sexism, then it’s different. You might be referring to the fact that she’s a girl, because sexism is gonna affect her. And she’s got to, you know, recognize it and see what see it for what it is.

Virginia

It’s also just reinforcing the binary. When I do that, it’s assuming that my three year old is a girl. As it happens, she has identified to us as a girl, but. It’s not creating a lot of air in the room for other genders who are not represented at all in these binaries. So, there’s that piece of it, too, as a reason to sort of like ease off the girl power rhetoric. It was a really helpful chapter and made me rethink this language.

Well, this was a great conversation. Where can listeners find your work? Of course, everybody needs to go preorder the book right now, I am linking to it in the transcript. And it is out on Tuesday. So you don’t have a lot of time. But you should get your pre-order in!

Melinda

Pre-orders are awesome, they really make a difference. What might be easiest if I just give my website because if you want to subscribe to my newsletter, which is on Substack, there is a signup link on my website, MelindaWennerMoyer.com. It also has links to information about the book and pre-order links and all of those things.

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Jul 15, 2021
Reclaiming Pasta with Anna Sweeney
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Listen now | You’re Nicer With Carbs.

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Jul 08, 2021
Talking to Marquisele Mercedes: "That's unethical as hell."
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On Wegovy and the media, corporate influence on science, and our short-term memory about weight loss drugs | Listen now

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Jul 01, 2021
Why We Seek Thin Privilege, with Aubrey Gordon
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And how to explain it to kids | Listen now

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Jun 24, 2021
Interpreting Growth Charts with Anna Lutz
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Our kids can't all be in the 50th percentile.

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Jun 17, 2021
Why Is Getting Dressed So Hard. (Part 2)
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And burning your clothes more complicated than it sounds, with fat positive style blogger and therapist Shira Rose.

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May 19, 2021
On Trusting Little Kids To Eat
1545
Welcome to Burnt Toast, a newsletter from Virginia Sole-Smith, which you can read about here. If you like what you read today, please subscribe and/or share it with someone else who would too.

This week, I’m trying out my first audio newsletter! If that’s a confusing concept for you, I get it. Technology is so extra. Think of this as a podcast in your email. You can listen to the episode right here and now, or you can add it to the podcast player of your choice and listen whenever. And just in case you don’t like listening, or that’s not accessible to you, I’m including a full transcript (edited lightly for clarity) below.

I’d love to know what you think of this conversation, and of the whole audio newsletter idea — should we do more? (Leave a comment or hit reply to let me know.) I really miss my old podcast (more on that below), and I’d love to bring you more of my conversations with favorite researchers, activists, weight-inclusive healthcare providers and other writers I love.

For now, here’s my conversation with Amy Palanjian, the creator of Yummy Toddler Food. She answers your questions about picky 1-year-olds, ice cream-shaming 3-year-olds, raising intuitive eaters with food allergies, and more.

Virginia

Hello, and welcome to the first audio version of Burnt Toast! I’m Virginia Sole-Smith. I’m a feminist writer and author of The Eating Instinct. And joining me today is Amy Palanjian, the creator of Yummy Toddler Food. Amy, welcome!

Amy

Hello!

Virginia

Thank you for being here with me. For those of you who don’t know, Amy and I are also best friends. And we are co-hosts of the currently-on-hiatus podcast Comfort Food. But Amy is also many other things. So Amy, why don’t you tell people about yourself and your work?

Amy

Sure. So my primary work right now is on YummyToddlerFood.com. I do recipes, feeding advice, sanity — sanity for parents with little kids...

Virginia

I thought you were gonna say “sanity” full stop. And I was like, that’s amazing.

Amy

I wish! I am also the author of a kids cookbook called Busy Little Hands: Food Play. And what else? I have three little kids. I live outside of Des Moines, in Iowa. And I’m, you know, so tired of cooking like everybody else.

Virginia

And she’s not getting a dog because we were just talking about that and about how I have a dog that maybe I shouldn’t have. But she’s smarter than me. So I mean, we used to do this podcast Comfort Food, and we hope to someday do it again, when there’s not a pandemic, and we have more reliable childcare than we have in our lives these days. But if you guys like this conversation, and you want more of me and Amy, you can find, I don’t know, like 80 episodes or so, that we did over at ComfortFoodPodcast.com, or wherever you get your podcasts. So I’ll do that plug. And of course, all of Amy’s work is YummyToddlerFood.com.

So the reason I wanted to have Amy on is because lots of folks have been sending in questions that are very small-child-specific. And while I have parented small children, I don’t consider myself an expert at feeding them. But Amy, not only parents them, but also, you know, has helped thousands and thousands of parents figure this stuff out.

So the first question we’re going to answer is one that I think every parent has, at some point, which is: My baby used to eat everything. And now at 13 months, 15 months, 19 months, it seems like she’s dropping foods every week. Am I really supposed to just let her decide how much to eat?

Amy

Well, you don’t have to... but you maybe should.

Okay, so this is an incredibly common question. I think the thing that most parents don’t realize is that 1-year-olds grow less slowly than they did as babies. And so they are naturally less hungry, even though they are more mobile and all over the place. And so your baby, as a baby might have eaten all sorts of things, because their hunger and just what else was going on in their life was very different. And now as a toddler, they may be less hungry, and more interested in all the other things that they now realize they can do. And so parents often see this as picky eating, when, if they’re just less hungry, they’re not going to eat as much or as many foods.

And it can sort of snowball, if you then put yourself in the position of trying to figure out what they’ll eat. Because even if they’re not actually hungry, they may still eat some favorite snacky foods because those are easy to eat. And they’re comforting, they taste really good. But they may not eat other foods that you want them to eat. And so then you’re like narrowing the list of foods that they may eat. So what I recommend instead is just continuing with the Division Of Responsibility, which, if anyone follows Virginia, you probably know what this is. But it’s where it’s clearly delineated what your job is, at meals, your job is to decide what’s served, your job is to decide when the meal is and where it happens. And then we leave the kids to decide which foods and how much of them to eat, if at all. And by doing that, you really free yourself up from worrying about how many bites they took. Because as you know, as an adult, if anyone tells you how much to eat, or ask you to eat more or less, you’re going to have an immediate emotional reaction that is very disconnected from actual hunger. And so the less we can make that happen with this age, in particular, when all they really want is control, the better. And I think the saner everyone will feel during mealtimes. That may mean that your kids eat a lot less than you expect. But it also means that you’re not going to be fighting with them to get them to take a certain amount of bites at every meal.

Virginia

Which is exhausting and crazy-making.

Amy

And I think too, if you can consider what they’re eating over the course of a week or even two weeks, it’s probably going to look a lot better than what they didn’t eat for lunch today. Because they may eat a ton of breakfast and then not eat a lot of dinner. Or every other Tuesday, they may eat seven meals. There’s no one right way for kids to eat. And I think a lot of times, we’re trying to force them into this mode of eating certain amounts of food groups at every meal. And that’s just not the way that kids naturally eat.

Virginia

Yeah. And this phase can go on for many years, we should say, too. I mean, I have a 7-year-old, you have an 8-year-old, and we still see, you know, not this exactly. But versions of this from time to time. So don’t feel bad, if you’re listening and have an older kiddo still in this phase.

Amy

Well, and at least as they get older, they can verbalize more. And you can suss out what the true issue is. With 1-year-olds, it’s really hard because even if they can talk, they cannot always use the right words, or explain things exactly. And so it’s the combination of all of those challenges that make 1-year-olds tricky. And also, it can just be really jarring for parents to give their kid dinner, and then they just don’t want any of it.

Virginia

Yes. It is super maddening. For sure. Okay, that is really helpful. And for anyone who’s like Division Of Responsibility?! I will link to some stuff in the transcript. So those words that I just said, probably have a link on them if you’re reading this, and you can learn more.

So okay, next question. And this, I think, is going to kind of build on what we were just talking about: How do you get kids to eat the stuff their body needs without them thinking all the "other stuff" is bad? One of mine won’t eat veggies unless I sing each body part saying thank you, like her eyes sing thank you when she eats a carrot.

I don’t mean to be laughing at the mom who sent in this question. But I do feel like you’re making your meals harder than they need to be? Or perhaps just more musical. Yeah. Amy over to you!

Amy

So my initial response is: How do you know exactly how much their body needs? Does anyone know exactly how much anyone’s body needs?

Virginia

It’s not X number of carrots achieve eyesight.

Amy

Right. I think when we see portion size recommendations, and we see charts, and we see plates with servings on them, we assume that that is the perfect amount that our child needs. But it may or may not be. And so a lot of times we’re chasing these very arbitrary amounts that may or may or may not be what our kids actually need. So I think it’s very difficult in the culture that we live in, to not feel this pressure. Because we’re getting it from all sides. Like all day long, I feel like my inbox is filled with pitches for kids products that are like going to do all of you know, all of the things.

Virginia

Get them into Harvard and make a ton of money.

Amy

You know, I see products developed by neuroscientists. But food doesn’t really work that way. And so I think, honestly, if you just don’t worry about that, and you serve a range of foods, with a range of flavors, and a range of textures, and colors, you’re going to get all of that stuff in what you’re offering your kids without having to do math, without having to count grams, or percentages of vitamin A.

And it’s much more pleasant to, to come at it from the side of, “food is delicious, in all of these many ways.” How can I prepare this in a way that that’s easy for my kids to eat? That has a flavor that they like, and that I want to eat, too? You don’t need a master’s degree in nutrition science. I think we’ve like lost the plot a little bit on what matters, sort of big picture when we’re feeding our kids. Because this anxiety is not helpful to anyone. It’s not helpful to that mom, I bet she’s not enjoying her meals, and it’s certainly not helpful for that kiddo. And those nutrition messages for little kids are incredibly confusing. And I just think are beyond comprehension for the age group.

Virginia

Agreed, agreed. That said, if the carrot song was really good, I kind of want to hear it? But yeah, I feel like, unless you’re, I don’t know, very musically inclined, this is maybe more work than you need to be doing. But I think what this question kind of also gets at, and that you’ve touched on a little bit, is that we have this idea of how our kids should eat, which is not based in the reality of how kids really eat or how most families can really manage to eat. And it really mostly comes from diet culture, right? It comes from, as you said, these people sending press releases for crazy products, or the influencers we see on social media claiming that this is the perfect way to eat. So can you connect the dots on some of the subtle ways you see diet culture showing up but family mealtimes?

Amy

Sure. A big part of it is the control. It’s the question of, can I really just let my child eat fill in the blank, and really trust them to eat according to their own hunger. It's the doubt. We just don’t believe that our kids are capable of this. We’ve been told that we’re not capable of it. And so why on earth would we trust tiny little kids to do something that we can’t do? And so that’s one thing. Another is the pressure to have, quote, unquote, balanced meals. I remember seeing a post that was like, “an apple is not a balanced snack,” and you have to add all these other things. And that’s great. But that doesn’t mean your kid’s going to want to eat all those other things…

Virginia

Or sometimes you just want an apple, right?

Amy

And that’s not a bad thing. Just because you don’t eat a protein at every meal or snack, does it mean that you’ve done something wrong? I think about all of those subtle messages about the way in which we’re serving foods, that some things are not right, or that some things are not good enough. I mean marketing, yes, is one thing. But I sort of think that the way that we talk to each other about food is even worse. It’s the way that someone in your family, their relationship with food, might influence you, in ways that are less overt than a message on a package about it not being junk food or something. It’s much harder. That’s sort of a depressing road to go down, because it’s harder to deal with. But I think the subtlety of those messages that we’re hearing, just in our day-to-day life, are really hard to block out. And they really make feeding kids confusing when it doesn’t have to be.

Virginia

Yes. I think, as parents, we often need to sit with: Am I really worried about my kids intake here? Or am I worried about how I’m being perceived as their parent because we tie so much of our self-worth as a parent to their eating performance in a way that’s problematic. And if it’s more that you’re like, “Grandma’s gonna make a comment” or “my friends’ kids all eat XYZ and my kids don’t.” I think that’s a good way of being able to tell that this is more of a cultural noise thing.

Amy

I mean, even just think about — well, this isn’t gonna apply to you, because I know you don’t care about this the way a lot of people do. But let’s say, you have a meal, like a dinner, and there’s no vegetable —

Virginia

It is Wednesday at my house. Continue.

Amy

For many, many people, the immediate feeling is that you’ve somehow failed, you somehow didn’t do it right. And that meal is incomplete. But that’s not true. I think, if we’re trying to check off boxes of “I got my protein in today, I got all of these like macronutrients,” I just think we're going to make ourselves crazy.

Virginia

Especially with kids who, as you said, their intake varies over a day over a week, like this might not be a day when they’re eating vegetables, right?

Amy

I have sometimes have to almost force myself to just give them mac and cheese. And to just prove to myself that everyone is fine. Sometimes you just need to see it to believe that it’s fine. And then the next day, your kids might eat all the broccoli. You know, there’s other messaging around like feeding babies, where if they eat certain foods as babies, that will [supposedly] prevent picky eating, or if you feed them a certain way with solids, you’ll skip the picky eating phase all together. And it’s not true. And it’s incredibly damaging to parents who have more challenging kids, because it just sets you up to feel like you did something wrong.

Virginia

Yeah, totally. I think that’s so true. It’s really sad.

Okay, this question is maybe a little bit diet culture and a little bit manners, and I just didn’t even really know what to say, so I’m making you answer it. Okay. She writes:

Before COVID, I met my boyfriend’s cousins and their children for the first time. It was a birthday party celebration with lots of food. I had a piece of cake and was also offered a packaged ice cream sandwich, which I accepted. [Virginia: That sounds like a great combination.] The 3-year-old daughter of one of the cousins took it from me to put back in the freezer, because I already had a piece of cake and two desserts wasn’t healthy for me. I was pretty shocked but didn’t insist on eating the ice cream sandwich. I haven’t seen them since. But I expect we’ll get together late this summer when we’re all vaccinated. If a situation like this happens again, how would you suggest I handle it?

Amy

Maybe you invite them over and have a dessert bar, and everyone gets to eat as much as they want? Just, take it to the other extreme? I don’t know. I mean, I totally understand like, in the moment, that would be difficult to react to if you had no inkling that it was coming.

Virginia

Yeah, if a 3-year-old just stole your ice cream sandwich and also shamed you for it. Yeah.

Amy

I think, if it were to happen again, you can say something like, “These both sound really delicious to me, I’m going to eat them!” The End. Or “This is what I’m having for dessert!” The End.

Virginia

I like that you’re making it about your own choice versus like, needing to sort of chastise the child who, let’s be honest, is being pretty rude in that moment.

Amy

Mind your own business?

Virginia

Yeah. But you don’t want to make it into a parenting thing. You don’t have to parent that child around this issue.

Amy

Right. I think that that’s where you would probably get into a very murky territory. But if you can just claim it as, “This is mine. It is not yours, and you don’t need to worry about it.” I mean, then that goes with anything that’s on your plate, or your life, or whatever.

Virginia

So many of us are thinking about family gatherings that haven’t happened in a long time now. And I hear a lot of folks worried about, “my mother always makes this comment about what I eat,” or other relatives weighing in on things. So it’s helpful to just be able to set that boundary of what’s on my plate is my business.

Amy

Yeah, I always like to do a very short sentence, and then change the subject. So, “This is what I’m having. What color are your shoes?”

Virginia

That works for mothers and 3-year-olds.

Amy

Because 3-year-olds are really great at redirection. You can totally change the direction of their attention.

Virginia

It’s so true. Just ask a completely random other question.

Amy

“Where is your baseball bat?”

Virginia

“What are you being for Halloween?” Never mind that it’s summertime. Yes, absolutely. That’s really great. For parents — it’s hard to give advice for parents in that situation. But I mean, as a general rule, like, do you feel like it’s important to communicate to your kids that we don’t comment on other people’s eating habits? And is that something you are aware of teaching them? Or has it not really come up?

Amy

So we don’t really have comments at our table about the amounts that other people are eating. But we do have a lot of the “that looks yucky” type of comment. So we do regularly talk about how, you know, everyone gets to decide what they think is delicious. “This tastes really delicious to me.” And my 4-year-old will now use that language of “This tastes...” Usually “this tastes yucky to me,” which, at least she’s owning that as a specific thing. She’s not casting the blame more broadly. Because you want your kids to be able to go to school and not be judging other people’s food. So I think definitely working on that a little bit at the table in your own house when it comes up can be helpful.

I mean, we’ve had like, only Christmas meals with extended families. We have not eaten anything with anyone else in a long time.

Virginia

Period. This is reminding me, I’m trying to teach my kids to say “This is not my favorite,” rather than “I hate it” and putting their heads down and sobbing as sometimes happens. And I realized the other day, my 3-year-old is mishearing me because she sat down and said, “This is my favorite! I’m not eating it.” And it’s about my pasta sauce. So it really hurts. Because my sauce is amazing. But yeah, “This is my favorite! I’m not eating it today.”

Amy

I do often have to remind the kids that not every meal will be their favorite and that it is okay for sometimes it to be mommy’s favorite, or other people’s favorite. And that doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with the meal or that it’s bad, but we can eat the fruit on the side or whatever.

Virginia

Yes. There will always be something you can eat, but it might not be your favorite tonight. Yeah, I’ve recently announced that Tuesday is the night when I cook whatever I want because I felt like, we were getting into a slippery slope of all the meals being just their favorites. Which — you should serve your children’s favorite foods. That’s not a bad thing. But you know, Monday night is pesto pasta, that’s their absolute favorite. And Mondays are tiring, and I don’t want any fights at dinner on Mondays. And Wednesdays is taco night, which is their other favorite. And so I was like, you know what, Tuesdays are going to be whatever I pick. And it’s going to change week to week and they don’t love it. But they’re coping.

Amy

If I’m making one of my favorites, I almost always serve flat bread on the side. Because then I know that they have nothing to complain about because they like bread. Yeah, and usually the things that I want to make myself have Indian sauces or things, and so a flatbread kind of makes sense.

Virginia

I keep a lot of packages of dinner rolls in the freezer for this purpose. Other than occasionally, they get sick of the favorite. That really screws you. But anyway, that’s a whole other thing. My kids are quick to fall out of love with their favorites and have new favorites. It’s hard to keep up.

Okay, the last question is:

How do I do Division Of Responsibility when my child has food allergies?

This question has come in a bunch of different ways. I’m not going to read them all, because they’re all very specific. But I think what people are generally struggling with is, you’ve got this one big, scary food your kid can’t have. And somehow that feels like it’s blurring the lines of this responsibility question.

Amy

I mean, I guess there could be an issue, if like your kid was allergic to dairy, but you still kept dairy in the house? How do you not make them feel excluded? Is that the question?

Virginia

I don’t exactly know what the intent of it is. But I think it’s probably something like that, like, “Can we serve ice cream, with dinner or whatever, if one kid can’t eat it?”

Amy

I mean, I think you need to have a replacement for it, you need to somehow make the playing field fair. So you need to lean on other types of things that the kid can eat, like, make a list of all the delicious things that that everybody in the family can eat, put it on the fridge, where you can look at it. And then maybe like, when your kid is at school or at daycare, that’s when you can eat some of the other foods that they can’t eat. But I think make them feel like they are part of the family. And they’re a part of your food experience as much as possible, rather than making it their issue. And I think a lot of families are really good at this. I mean, there are so many products now that make this so much easier than even just a few years ago. So I think you just do Division Of Responsibility in the same way. But you have to just rethink what the foods are a little bit.

Virginia

That makes sense. Often the tone coming across in these emails, and certainly this is something I remember dealing with when my older daughter had more medical food issues, is: Often there’s a lot of anxiety about growth with a kid who’s got a lot of allergies and whether they’re eating enough, And so maybe this is also about, “Can I trust their fullness?” And I feel like, for the most part, the answer is absolutely yes. You can still trust your child to know their hunger and fullness even if they can’t eat certain foods. Right?

Amy

Yes. If there is a medically indicated reason that the kid can’t feel their hunger or their appetite levels are skewed because of medication or some other issue, you want to talk to your doctor and find a feeding therapist who is trained in those specific things. Because navigating that alone is going to be incredibly challenging. But otherwise, there’s no reason that you shouldn’t be able to trust your child with whatever the food is, whether or not it has nuts or doesn’t have nuts.

And you know, I think on the growth issue, this is a whole other topic. But if your child is growing, even if it’s not like leaps and bounds, if they are growing, if they’re meeting their milestones, if they seem happy, if they seem like themselves, you probably should just leave them alone. If they’re dropping off of their growth curve, and your doctor is really concerned, that’s a different issue. But just because you’re at the lower end of the growth scale, or the higher end, doesn’t mean that there’s a problem.

Virginia

Yes, absolutely. And I’ll put some links to folks that Amy and I both really trust if anyone is looking for feeding therapy help along those lines. [Check out: Helping Your Child With Extreme Picky Eating, Thrive By Spectrum Pediatrics, and Responsive Feeding Therapy.]

But yeah, I think the fundamental message of even if this is a kid who’s got certain foods they can’t eat, and maybe that means you’re worried about their overall nutritional makeup (because you’re having to skip out on certain food groups) — still, working on how to trust their hunger and fullness cues is going to be super, super important. You know, maybe even more important for a kid who’s got to navigate food in a slightly more fraught way.

Amy

Yes. And if anyone’s looking for like specific substitutions that you can’t find it just email me and I’ll poll my Instagram community because someone recommended a dairy-free parmesan today that I didn’t know about.

Virginia

That’s awesome. And check out Amy’s website, because all her recipes always have notes about substitutions you can make if you need to take out a common food allergen. She’s amazing at figuring this out.

Amy

Well not 100%. But I try!

Virginia

Well, okay, you aren’t 100% amazing. Maybe not 100% of the recipes have this, but I have noticed this as a recurring theme. Amy, thank you so much. This has been fantastic. Again, I’ll put links in the transcript to YummyToddlerFood, and to our old podcast archives for anyone who wants to go down that rabbit hole with us.

Amy

Thanks for having me!

You’re reading Burnt Toast, a newsletter by Virginia Sole-Smith. Virginia is a feminist writer, and author of The Eating Instinct and the forthcoming Fat Kid Phobia. Comments? Questions? Email Virginia

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Apr 28, 2021