Kelsey Miller, 31, an editor at the fashion and lifestyle site Refinery 29, had a tortured relationship to food and to her body her entire life, riding the highs (weight loss) and then the crash (regain) of one diet after another. A few years ago, she made a splash on the website when she started The Anti-Diet Project, her account of how she gave up diets and rebuilt her relationship to food around the idea of intuitive eating, a growing nutrition movement based on the idea of eating when you’re hungry and not eating when you’re not—even though the practice goes much deeper than that quickie description.
And going deeper is exactly what Miller has done in Big Girl: How I Gave Up Dieting and Got a Life. In this moving, sometimes harrowing and often hilarious millennialist memoir, Miller shows how her pained relationship with eating and her body were tied to her deepest feelings about herself—and how she had to confront one to come to terms with the other. Miller talked to us about how the online column evolved into a book, dealing with online trolls, what she now eats in a typical day, and the career switch she’d jump on in a minute.
Yahoo Style: Hi, Kelsey! First of all, in addition to being moving and inspiring, your book is so funny! There are so many lines where I just laughed out loud, like, “It was just a potato chip…not some evil, greased-up bad boy calling to me from the hood of his car.” Or how, once you started writing the no-diet column for the website, “the whole world seemed to stand up and cheer every time I ate a bagel.”
Kelsey Miller: Thanks! I really wanted the book to be funny because that’s part of how I like to write.
But your story about basically throwing off a lot of the psychological and traumatic baggage of childhood and young adulthood and fully coming into yourself is also very moving. Especially how you learn to let go of the high-low rollercoaster way of living that diets embody and to just, well, be and accept life as it ebbs and flows.
Isn’t it a relief when you finally realize you’re not supposed to be striving to feel amazing or perfectly content all the time and you have the ability to just ride out your experiences and emotions?
Yes. It felt to me that even though the book is directly about food and body issues, the broader message is about coming of age, finally getting comfortable in one’s own skin and learning to be still from time to time.
I didn’t even realize how much coming of age would be a part of this process, but it makes sense. Prior, my entire life had been defined by or structured by the cycle of dieting and disordered eating, so it makes sense my growing up would be making that big shift and renouncing all that. I’m still on a journey that will continue, but I do feel like I’m on the other side of something now.
So how did the book emerge? You were already having great success with writing the no-diet column for Refinery 29.
Yes, I got the opportunity to write the book because of the popularity of the column. I saw the column as a bit prescriptive and lesson-learny, so with the book I wanted to share the other side of the story, how I got into this mess in the first place. The column had some darkness, but not as much as the book. As I was struggling to come out of the morass of disordered eating, it got tangled with other elements in my life and I really wanted to share that in the book.
And a lot of that is about your complicated relationship with your parents. What was it like putting all that on the page? You go into some very deep, heavy stuff about your childhood.
It’s the hardest thing about the book coming out, terrifying. When I started this book, my relationship with my mother was very disconnected. I wanted to tell her about the book but I didn’t have all the dirty details down yet. She hasn’t read it yet. My father has. He had a very mixed reaction. I think any parent probably would.
And then while you were writing, something really hard happened to your best friend, Jon, who is a big part of the book.
Yes. His story smashed right into mine. I felt like I couldn’t not write about it, so I asked him if it was okay, and he was incredibly generous. I think he was the first person to read the book, which was terrifying, but he loved it and was totally supportive. If he had any hesitation, he didn’t report it to me, which was incredibly kind of him. He said after reading it that he felt like he knew me even better, if that was possible.
You delve deep in the book into your personal psychological reasons around your disordered eating growing up, such as binge-ing on chocolate chips hiding in the pantry, but I also wondered if you thought it was partly cultural, growing up in a country with huge food portions and a giant culture of fast and processed food and the idea of instant gratification and constant snacking. It’s so different from Europe. Plus in America there’s this idea that we should always feel GREAT and sparkly.
To a degree I have that sparkly thing, which took a long time to hit home for me. I didn’t get straight As in school but I’m still a crazy perfectionist. And yes, cultural elements are at play. I spent some time in France and I’m constantly surprised at the difference in food and in lifestyle. American diet culture is really tied into feeling magic and sparkly all the time and the idea that if you get thin, everything in your life will be so much better. My problem maybe didn’t start from the outside but it was certainly hammered home by every single thing in our culture.
You write really beautifully in the book about learning to let yourself be loved by your boyfriend, Harry. There’s a very moving scene where you finally let him touch your stomach because he loves and wants to touch every part of you. Harry’s a nice reminder that there are great guys out there. Is he really as great as he comes off in the book?
I didn’t sugarcoat him at all! If anything, he’s said plenty of other incredible things I couldn’t fit in the book. He’s just a good one, the real deal. He was one of the main catalysts that made me realize, okay, I’ve kind of got to get my shit together because it’s hard to be with a guy who loves me this much when I hate myself. I wasn’t going to get rid of this fantastic guy and go back to self-loathing because it was more comfortable for me. And I still have moments like the belly moment, but he doesn’t let me get away with them.
Without giving spoilers, you disclose a lot of painful personal information in the book. What was that like?
I don’t think I knew how to write the book any other way. I got so much support through the column that I think I learned that, with a deep, dark ugly truth, the only thing that fixes it is telling. So there’s a selfish element in writing that way, because it sucks the poison out of the terrible story.
And it also invites readers to let go of their own deep, dark secrets that are holding them back.
That’s a great solace to me, yes. If people get anything out of the book, I hope it’s that all you have to do is open your mouth and you’ll realize how not alone you are. There’s never been a time when I’ve said, “I’m going to reveal how ashamed I am,” and someone’s said, “You should be ashamed of that, you’re a monster!” But I definitely had to be thinking about that imaginary reader in my mind, and not, say, my grandfather, who was the first person to preorder the book!
In the book, you write about the sort of tortured, funny mental relationship you develop with a certain nasty male Internet troll who is always telling you you’re fat and pathetic in the comments section. It’s almost like he becomes your own evil, self-hating id.
When someone’s calling you names, there’s still something inside me that’s like, “You’re right. Thank you for validating my self-hatred. You’re absolutely right.” I would always picture what that person looked like on the other side of the computer.
Did you ever find out who he really was?
No. Doing that is every Internet writer’s greatest dream and worst nightmare all at once. Even if I had magical Internet abilities, I think the healthy thing would be for me not to track him down.
So you basically finished writing the book late last year. Where are you now with your whole relationship with food and your body?
I’m trying to get back to exercising, because writing a book is not good cardio and cuts into fitness time. Writing the book plus holding down a full-time job at Refinery brought back a lot of my old food habits and instincts. It was hard for me to have an undistracted meal [a key element of intuitive or mindful eating] or even cook for myself, so I was doing takeout a lot. So when I finished the book, I went back to a lot of the basics, like giving myself full permission to eat, keeping a food journal. But I gained a bunch of weight while writing the book, which I had to approach in a new way. I thought, “Well, I can dislike this, but I have to accept and love myself no matter what.” That made things a lot easier to fall back into my natural rhythm.
You have a funny and sort of painful section where a really chic, self-possessed older editor at Refinery 29 is very mentoring to you but also scolds you when she catches you eating potato bread. And you also talk about the seeming taboo in the office of being seen eating real food, not just juices. Do you feel like food and body attitudes at Refinery 29 and other women’s fashion and lifestyle publications are evolving?
Yeah, I think I’ve seen more eaters in the office recently. Maybe I’m being optimistic, but it seems like the idea that, if you’re in fashion, you’re supposed to only eat this and this is breaking down. On Instagram, we fetishize food in an unhealthy way, showing either the super bright-green filtered juice or the indulgent hot-fudge sundae. It’s food porn. It’s an industry-wide problem. We need modeling agencies to be getting more professional models of different sizes. At Refinery, we made a decision at a certain point that we were not going to advocate weight loss. We wrote a lot about cleanses when I started four years ago, but we don’t do that now. There’s a growing awareness of the problematic way we’ve talked about food, and the way publications have talked to us about food.
So I’m deliberately not going to ask you about your weight right now, but what’s a typical day’s food like?
On a normal day, I have some kind of eggs in the morning. I’m completely obsessed with Pret-A-Manger’s roasted tomato and egg sandwich. If they ever discontinue that, I’ll die. I have a cup of coffee at the office. For lunch, typically, a soup and half-sandwich or a soup and salad. I like a big salad with tons of stuff in it. I definitely need that chocolate hit in the afternoon. I usually keep chocolate in my desk, or I’ll have Pret’s chocolate chip cookie. I really love citrus so I’ll also have clementines. Then for dinner I’ll cook something with my boyfriend, not too heavy or I get a stomache-ache. Tonight friends are coming over and we’re gonna make turkey meatballs with some pasta and probably a salad and Prosecco.
One of the really sweet and funny things of the book is that you are were a total musical theater geek growing up and wanted to be a child star. Still?
I put that away for a while so I could grow out of it, but once you’re a musical theater geek, you are for life. I’m seeing Spring Awakening this week and I’m also going to Hamilton in March. I can’t believe it! I hope the original cast is still in it. Growing up, I wanted to be Daisy Egan in The Secret Garden. I still talk about the Secret Garden once or twice a month at work.
You still have it in you, don’t you?
If a van pulled up and said, “Quit your job right now, you’re going to be an understudy on the national tour of Annie,” I would get in that van.