'Fat Talk' Author Virginia Sole-Smith on Raising Body Positive Kids in a Deeply Anti-Fat Culture
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Journalist and author Virginia Sole Smith didn’t realize she’d internalized so many diet culture-informed messages about how a parent should feed their kids until her older daughter was born. She wrote her whole first book — The Eating Instinct — on the experience of being in and out of hospitals, dealing with her child being dependent on a feeding tube for two years and needing to re-learn how to feel safe eating food, and realizing that everything she thought she knew about nutrition and the “right” ways to feed your kid were just not going to serve her or her family.
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It was through that work and seeing and interrogating how it was also tied to the overwhelmingly prevalent anti-fat bias in American culture — and her own personal work to accept her body in the early years of motherhood — that her latest book, Fat Talk, which dropped late last month, started to come to life. While on tour she said she kept running into parents who would ask her questions about their lives and their kids that kept coming back to the same thing: “the sort of underlying theme of all of them was ‘I want it to be different for my kids,'” Sole-Smith told SheKnows. “‘I don’t want them to struggle with food and bodies the way I did, but I don’t know what else to do — And I’m also terrified of them being fat.'”
'Fat Talk: Parenting in the Age of Diet Culture' by Virginia Sole-Smith $22.88
She said it was those conversations with parents that really made her realize that anti-fat bias was what was standing between these parents and that goal of making things different: “I started to see ‘oh, as long as we are putting contingencies around who gets to love their body, who gets to have freedom with food, all of that. You can’t achieve it. You can’t do it. Because you’re continually making it contingent on maintaining bodies and bodies change,” Sole-Smith said. “Even what I was dealing with — with my daughter being an underweight child — was still rooted in anti fatness in a lot of ways. It just kind of always comes back to that, in a way that’s super interesting to me and disturbing.”
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Sole-Smith caught up with SheKnows shortly after Fat Talk launched to talk about the harms of anti-fat bias and how parents can re-frame and reimagine the ways they approach food with their kids.
SheKnows: So you talk about a kind of ‘perfectionist’ energy that parents can experience around feeding their kids. When the dominant narratives are just like ‘don’t be fat,’ or prioritizing a certain relationship with food and wellness, how do you think parents can reframe and maybe find a new goal?
Virginia Sole-Smith: It’s tricky because, often, the way we’re interacting with our kids around food and bodies is driven by that goal — but we haven’t really named it for ourselves. So I think the first thing is being really honest with yourself about how much you feel the pressure to be thin, and how much you feel the pressure to have thin kids. And like giving yourself some grace, because it’s not vanity, it’s not like ‘Oh, you’re so insecure.’ We’re talking about a systemic form of oppression. It is easier to move through this world in a thin body, you experience less judgment and stigma as a parent, if your children are in thin bodies. And this has like all these practical implications: Fat people earn less money, they have a harder time accessing health care, clothing, public spaces, like all of that is real. So you have to identify that that is real — but that the solution is not continuing to pursue thinness.
The solution is we have to dismantle anti-fat bias, not control our kids bodies. Because that’s only harmful to them, and harmful to like everybody else. It’s just perpetuating the bias. So I think that’s kind of the first step.
“I say we need to shift our focus to thinking about ‘how am I instilling body autonomy and my kids?’ or ‘How am I helping them know that they can trust their bodies first and foremost?'”
And then, the other shift I talk about is we need to shift our focus from ‘our job as parents is good nutrition.’ Nutrition is like way too big of a piece of the pie. Often at family meals, it feels like it’s your only goal — and that’s doing such a disservice. It’s actually not promoting good nutrition. There’s lots of research in the book that talks about how when we’re really hyper about nutrition, we only make our kids fixate more on the foods we don’t want them to eat. They’re less interested in the broccoli because you’ve made it this power struggle. So it doesn’t even get you where you want to be with your goal. And it’s also not the most important thing. So instead, I say we need to shift our focus to thinking about ‘how am I instilling body autonomy and my kids?’ or ‘How am I helping them know that they can trust their bodies first and foremost?’
And so whatever else comes up whatever criticisms of their body, whatever the world throws at them, they know it’s not them and that they’re not the problem to solve. And when you make that your goal, you automatically ease off so much of that other stuff — because forcing this kid to eat broccoli is not promoting body autonomy, them being able to say no to the broccoli is actually them like having developing that confidence and that sense of themselves. And that’s more important and more beneficial.
SK: I love that. It’s like telling your kids they don’t need to hug that uncle to be polite if it’s not what they want. It’s their choice and their body.
VSM: It’s the same idea. Broccoli can totally be that Uncle sometimes!
SK: What are kind of the earliest instances that kids start absorbing anti-fat talk? And what are some of the harms you found in your reporting that these attitudes as children absorb this?
VSM: This is the super depressing part. We know that kids start equating fat with bad between the ages of three and five. When they do studies on elementary school aged children, like fourth and fifth graders, and they show them images of three kids with different body types, they consistently rate the fat kid as the one they like the least and don’t want anything to do with. And by middle school in high school, this is like really calcified as a bias for a lot of kids. So it starts super early and it’s harmful in a lot of different ways.
It’s obviously harmful to fat kids, because the number one reason girls are bullied and the number two reason boys are bullied is weight-based teasing. And then often, you know, hurt people hurt people. So they may be likely to bully back. It just becomes a whole cycle of badness. They’re often put on diets. We know that the number one predictor of future eating disorder risk is childhood dieting and experiences of weight based teasing. So the stakes are really high for fat kids, in terms of the long term harm of this. And if you’re concerned about your child’s future metabolic health, preventing an eating disorder, which absolutely will derail metabolic health, is actually like, your number one starting point. Like more kids get eating disorders than get type two diabetes — like by a factor of many times — and these eating disorders become super entrenched.
And also, body size is not a guarantee. Bodies change. And so thin kids are not always thin teenagers or thin adults. And when you’ve told a child that their body size is their value, they’re going to experience that change as a failure. They’re going to feel like they have to fight to hold on to it, which increases their risk for disordered eating and body dissatisfaction. And this is again, before we even get to the more systemic things like access to healthcare which is also very real.
When you’ve told a child that their body size is their value, they’re going to experience that change as a failure.
SK:That actually brings us to my next question. It’s hard enough trying to keep raise your kids with a certain energy around their bodies, but how can parents navigate a healthcare system full of anti-fat bias and unsolicited comments about weight and advocate for their children in those spaces?
VSM: It’s gotten harder, because the American Academy of Pediatrics just issued a set of clinical guidelines, telling doctors to focus on weight in these ways. So we know this has gotten more complicated. I think there’s two approaches we need to talk about.
Number one: As the parent you can advocate for your child in health are settings, informed consent is required before a doctor can put your child on any kind of diet, before they can prescribe a weight loss drug, before they can refer you for bariatric surgery, before they can even put your child on a scale. Like let’s not even get to the more intense stuff, you have to consent for your child to be put on that scale. And you have to consent to discuss weight in the appointment. Most people don’t know that. It is useful for kids to get weighed, because of like carseat sizing and medication dosing. So once a year, you’re gonna want them to get on a scale. But if you’re coming in for the flu or something, maybe you don’t need to get on the scale. In a lot of those sorts of instances, just to like turn down the volume, you can make the scale less of a like de facto part of every visit. I would also think about either sending a note ahead of time, or having a conversation with your doctor, where you say, ‘I’m happy to discuss any concerns you have about weight outside of the exam room. But I do not want discussions of BMI or weight in front of my child.’ That is completely your right. You can set that boundary.
And as much as I’m concerned about those guidelines, I’ve also heard from lots of pediatricians who are also concerned about them. So I think there are more, hopefully more than we realize, but definitely some pediatricians out there who will be glad you brought this up and set that boundary. It’s not like you’re automatically in this adversarial relationship.
Then the other thing is, of course, some doctors are not going to respect that boundary or weight is going to come up anyway or the nurse is going to make that comment. What you need to remember is while that will have an impact on your child — what you do in the moment has the bigger impact. They see this doctor once or twice a year, they see you every day of their lives. Your voice is louder. You coming back and saying something like ‘yeah, we’re really not worried about their weight, we think they’re growing perfectly’ or ‘I trust their body’ or ‘that’s just not something that’s going to be a good fit for us’ — that’s what your kid will take out of the appointment.
“What you need to remember is while that will have an impact on your child — what you do in the moment has the bigger impact. They see this doctor once or twice a year, they see you every day of their lives. Your voice is louder.”
SK: So with the larger trends of Ozempic as a “quick fix” for weight loss and the accessibility of these drugs to be prescribed to teens, how can parents fortify their own resolve and help keep those conversations open with teens about the harms of pursuing thinness?
VSM: I don’t judge any individual person who decides to try one of those drugs — like, the stakes are so high, the pressure is so real. I get it. But at the same time, there’s two things that really bother me about that conversation. Number one: The way people talk about ‘it’s so amazing, I didn’t know I wouldn’t care about food, or I could stop thinking about food so much. And this is what thin people must feel like’ —And like that’s wrong for so many reasons. But also, lots of people are very fixated on food. That’s how they’re maintaining their thinness. And it’s not healthy. We have eating disorder recovery for this, like we have a strategy that can help you get to a place in your life where you are not obsessed with food, and thinking about eating all day long. Not because you’re eating less, but because you’re fed and nourished and have permission to eat. And so you don’t obsess about it. A lot of that narrative is so heartbreaking, because this is such a scary way to achieve that goal. And then the other piece of it is, and I’ve seen this come up a lot in coverage, ‘if we have this drug that works’ — which by the way we don’t — it’s not going to be as great as everyone says. But in theory, ‘if we have the silver bullet tool that can achieve thinness, now we don’t have to care about anti fat bias because we’ll just make everybody thin.’ And that is some like really dark eugenics stuff
I do think that’s a conversation worth having with your teenager, if they’re seeing friends get put on this. I don’t think pursuing intentional weight loss automatically makes you anti-fat. I think there are times where it feels like the only option available to people to have the life they want to have. But let’s recognize that this is because of a broken system. Like let’s name very clearly that it is terrible that a 12-year-old would feel like the only option they have for happiness is to change their body, while their body is still growing and changing on its own or using a medication that we do not know how safe this is for kids. We do not have long term data on this. It is so heartbreaking to me that this would feel like the best course of action for kids or for any of us.
SK: That brings me back to the typical anti-fat thin person’s (or aspiring thin person’s) obsession with food. I saw on your instagram recently that you’ve encountered people shaming you for the crackers you kept in your house. And it feels like there’s a certain kind of person that starts speaking in nutritional wikipedia tongues the minute a fat person exists near food they’re restricting. First of all, what is their deal? And how can we navigate the people in our life who are just so obsessed?
VSM: So The Cut did a profile on me and we looked in my pantry and I showed her the three kinds of orange snack crackers that we stock in my house. She quoted that in the piece, which is totally fine with me, because I am a proud multi-orange snack cracker household. And people have really lost their minds about the number of processed snack foods that are in my house. And the reason for this is: When you are dieting, or restricting in any way, you cannot imagine a world where you could have a box of cheeses or puffy cheese, or goldfish, or you know all the things in my house, and not compulsively eat the entire thing. And that is because you are hungry. And so that makes sense.
But if you’re not a house with restriction, people eat those crackers. They’re delicious. We enjoy them. And then we move on with our day. A box doesn’t get eaten every day. It’s just that my kids are not frenetic about these foods, they eat them when they’re hungry. They often are the foods they would like to be the mainstays of their meals. If I’m cooking a dinner that I know has a lot of less familiar foods to them, I will put a bowl of goldfish on the table as well — so I know they still get something to eat. And that meal, even if they’re not going to like try the unusual salad or if we’ve made the chicken in a different way. And so it’s a completely different situation. These foods are comforting and filling to them and I’m really glad they have them — but they are not foods they obsess over, they don’t sneak them. They don’t eat them compulsively. Because they haven’t ever been banned. They haven’t ever been restricted.
“When you are dieting, or restricting in any way, you cannot imagine a world where you could have a box of cheeses or puffy cheese, or goldfish, or you know all the things in my house, and not compulsively eat the entire thing. And that is because you are hungry. And so that makes sense.”
What those commentaries are really about is, people are responding with their own restriction to the way you are eating. I do enjoy making Instagram videos of myself eating the foods that make people uncomfortable. That is one strategy I have chosen. But in the personal things, I usually just try to set a simple boundary of like, ‘Oh, we don’t feel shame here,’ if it’s like around my kids, or it’s a relative or something. It really depends on the relationship. You could ask some questions about why they’re responding that way, if you think you’ll have an open dialogue about it, but it’s totally fine to just set the boundary of like, ‘Oh, we don’t really do that kind of food talk here.’ And ask that people respect it.
Fat Talk is available to order on Amazon, Bookshop or at your favorite indie bookstore.
Before you go, check out the quotes we love to inspire positive attitudes about food and bodies:
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