Virginia Sole-Smith wants parents to have the 'fat talk' with their kids
The "Fat Talk" author on parenting and "how anti-fat bias shows up in your family life."
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Virginia Sole-Smith wants every parent to talk about fat with their kids — and no, this does not mean she wants them to count calories and read labels. The writer actually encourages parents to do the opposite in her new book, Fat Talk: Parenting in the Age of Diet Culture, out April 25.
“We're really dealing with systemic culture-wide oppression of fat people and all the ways that ripples out and shows up in our daily lives," the mom of two tells Yahoo Life. "And so we have to name that bias.”
Sole-Smith says that means having frank and honest conversations with kids about what it means to be fat and why it’s become a dirty word in America. “We have to work on learning that bias,” she says. “We have to look at how that bias has caused harm for ourselves in our relationships and all the different public spaces. And so I really wanted this book to be a way to reckon with how anti-fat bias shows up in your family life.”
Ahead, she shares some of the biggest takeaways from her work exploring the overlap between anti-fat bias and parenting.
It's OK to enjoy food
One of the biggest things Sole-Smith fears parents have lost sight of is that it’s OK to enjoy food and teach kids to enjoy it, too. It’s fine for people to have a list of foods that fuel their body well and make them feel good, she says. What’s not fine is when needing to control their family’s food intake causes anxiety that interferes with life. That’s a surefire way to pass on food issues to kids.
“It’s great to have identified a way of eating that feels really good to me," she says. "But of course, it's great to go to the fair and eat all the concession foods and have fun. OK, so you poop afterward for two days. You made memories with your kids.”
The issue at the heart of this decision is how parents have begun to judge themselves and others on food choices. “It's the way we've intertwined morality with those food choices that makes it really problematic," Sole-Smith, who writes the Burnt Toast newsletter on Substack, explains.
Food can be a comfort too, she says. The label of “emotional eating” has become fraught and negative, but there is nothing wrong with providing comfort to kids through food. Her own child recently was seeking some connection and comfort before bed, so they microwaved some hot chocolate and snuggled up.
“That's when she'll sit and talk to me," she shares. "And from a nutrition perspective, having a nice big mug of hot chocolate is a great way to lock up some carbs and protein in her before bed. If I was overly worried about sugar — good foods and bad foods — I would feel like it couldn't just be a hot chocolate.” Removing that stress and stigma allows Sole-Smith to connect with her kid without berating herself over the bedtime snack.
Kids are watching
Sole-Smith says that the best way to for parents make sure kids don’t fall victim to diet culture is for them to heal their own relationships with food and body image. It’s no easy task, though. Her book walks parents through claims about the childhood obesity epidemic, the false narrative about food today’s parents were taught as kids and the messages currently being taught at the dinner table.
"Getting family dinner ‘right’ often feels like one of our most important parenting priorities," Sole-Smith writes. "Our discourse around family dinner, especially on social media, worships its potential without acknowledging how difficult, if not impossible, it can be to execute for families.”
Withholding dessert until kids eat a certain amount of dinner, having a power struggle over a bite of vegetables or forcing kids to clear their plates might seem like common parenting tactics, but they can be really damaging for kids who are already struggling with body and food issues. Sole-Smith says to praise kids for any adventurous food choice they make, even if it’s a new ice cream flavor. Forcing anyone to eat is rarely successful in building healthy relationships with food. Parents can also model positive self-talk out loud, too. When a parent is chiding themself over an extra bite of dessert, the kids are listening and internalizing that. Why not just enjoy the cake?
Parents deserve grace, too
Parents who were raised in diet culture, and are raising kids in today’s diet culture, are not going to get it perfect. Even Sole-Smith has moments where she realizes she is subscribing to outdated and harmful ways of thinking that have been ingrained in her. In addition, American parents are emerging from a collective trauma caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s OK if a parent finds that routines and patterns have become different than what they imagined for their family. If drive-through milkshakes were a saving grace during the pandemic, that’s wonderful. Finding small joys through celebratory food is a wonderful parenting choice, no matter what the voices in one's head — or in the broader culture — may say.
“It's not that parents are like, ‘We don't have to try to raise healthy kids anymore, thank goodness,’” says Sole-Smith. Families are finding their rhythms again. Kids have also spent a lot more time inside being sedentary and might need to find joy in movement once more.
“Brainstorm with kids about how they like to move their bodies, what would feel good, what sounds fun to them. … You can do all of that without talking about weight. You should be doing that for your thin kids, too. They need to move their bodies as well,” she adds. “When we make it about weight, we always miss the bigger picture.”
Virginia Sole-Smith’s book, Fat Talk: Parenting in the Age of Diet Culture, is available at all major retailers on April 25.
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