I heard about Virginia Sole-Smith’s new book, Fat Talk: Parenting in the Age of Diet Culture, a few months ago and was so excited I immediately insisted on reading it and including something in the newsletter. We recorded this interview then, in large part because I was afraid I would miss having the chance to do it.
I’m a big fan of Virginia’s — she is a journalist, an author, a podcaster, the writer of the excellent Substack newsletter Burnt Toast, and a mom. We do not always agree, but I have tremendous respect for her and I always, always learn something when we talk. The last time we talked, my kids got more Halloween candy, so I’m sure they are enthusiastic about this conversation.
Her new book is about kids and weight and food, and I think it is an absolute must-read for all parents, especially for that moment when your child asks, “Does this shirt make me look fat?” and you know there is a right thing to say, but in the moment you don’t know what it is and instead you melt into a floor puddle, never to be seen again. This book will help you.
This conversation feels personal to me. As a child of the 1980s, I have many of the standard ’80s hang-ups about weight and food. Ironically, perhaps, given the reputation of the sport, my current obsession with running performance has had big positive impacts, since I’ve realized I need to eat more to run fast. Still, a big parenting fear of mine is passing my food stuff on to my kids. So I’m personally grateful for this book and this interview.
This episode is best as a listen, I think, and you can subscribe to my podcast as always and listen there. But we’ve transcribed it below if you prefer to read.
Emily: I am thrilled to welcome Virginia Sole-Smith to the newsletter to talk about her new book, Fat Talk. Virginia, welcome. Thank you for joining me.
Virginia: Thank you for having me.
Emily: So, we’re going to talk today mostly about your new book, Fat Talk. I was really excited to get to read the book and I think that it is an Important Book, with those words capitalized. I also think it’s a great read, but there are a lot of books that I enjoy reading which I don’t think are important. And I think this book is part of a broader conversation, a hard conversation, about how we talk to kids about weight and body image and how we interact with those kid issues socially, and a bunch of things around that.
Before we start the conversation, I actually want to put out in this conversation that I personally find these issues really challenging. And I’ve talked about this before, probably even with you. I have a lot of stuff about weight and food control, which is part of my personal journey as a child of the 1980s and a teenager of the 1990s who went to a boarding school. And so part of why I think this book is so important is because one of my main parenting goals is not to pass this particular aspect of my stuff on to my kids. And I think I am not alone in that. So that’s how I am coming into this.
Virginia: I think it’s how we all show up to it in one way or another. We’re here. We’re doing it.
Emily: All right, so to get started, I want you to introduce yourself, introduce the book, tell us why you wrote it, tell me what you hope people will get out of it.
Virginia: Sure, I’m Virginia Sole-Smith. I am a journalist. I have been doing health journalism for about 20 years. The first decade or so was mostly for women’s magazines, which still existed in the early 2000s. I was doing a lot of articles from the same place that I think you can relate to, of: obviously thinness is the goal, obviously thinness equals health, obviously we’re always pursuing thinness. And started to really chafe against that framework and ask a lot of questions about what the data really said. And over the last decade, I have really shifted — pretty much a total 180 — and really started to recognize the harm I had caused through a lot of that earlier work and do a lot of unlearning.
And what it really comes down to is I started to understand the concept of anti-fat bias and how prevalent that is in our culture, particularly how prevalent that is in a lot of the science getting done on weight and health. And then in the media conversations about that science and then every other conversation that we have about that. So naming that bias, unlearning that bias for myself, constant work in progress.
But the goal of the book is to help parents in particular start to wrestle with this. Because exactly as you said, we don’t want to pass this stuff on to our kids. I think our generation of parents in particular is keenly aware that the 1980s and 1990s and early 2000s diet culture we grew up in got a lot of things wrong, but I don’t think we know yet where to go next. And so I wanted to try to start to answer those questions. And what I encounter all the time is parents saying exactly what you said: I don’t want my kids to worry about their bodies the way I worry about mine. I don’t want them to worry about calorie counting, etcetera etcetera. But I also don’t want them to be fat. That sort of like rock and hard place is a really difficult place to be. And so what Fat Talk does is it helps parents start to understand why we have to stop fearmongering around fat so much, why a lot of what we understand about weight and health is wrong — or at least vastly overstated — and just find a new way through all of these issues.
Emily: It’s really interesting, because it’s both about the combination of acceptance and changing the frame and thinking about the harm from some of the things that we’re doing and also some of the futility of some of these interventions. Recognizing that it isn’t as if there’s a way to achieve this thing that you want, and sure, you’ll mess people up on the way, but at least you’ll get there. It’s even more complicated and fraught and problematic than that.
Virginia: Right. You also can’t even achieve it no matter how much you screw yourself up along the way.
Emily: We might as well start there, which is this relationship between dieting and eating disorders, because that’s come up a lot in the last few weeks. I just want to name that we’re doing this interview in February and in the wake of these new AAP guidelines about treating childhood obesity, there has been this concern raised that this advice that they’re giving — one piece of which is intensive behavioral therapy for all children of all ages — may in fact produce eating disorders rather than making things better. And so I don’t want to relitigate our feelings, which I think are largely shared on these AAP guidelines, but it would be great to talk a little bit about the data on that relationship.
Virginia: Yeah, we have so much good data. I’m thinking of the Project EAT data out of University of Minnesota, where they’ve been following something like 15,000 teenage girls throughout their teenage years and into adulthood. And they’ve had various cohorts they’ve followed. And what we see over and over is that a top predictor of developing a future eating disorder is childhood dieting and childhood experiences of weight-based bullying or teasing and shame. So those two things have sort of equal weight in a lot of the data, and this makes sense, right?
Because what most diets teach you to do, no matter how much we — I was going to say sugarcoat it, but of course that’s not what the diets are doing…
Emily: Fiber, we’re fiber-coating it.
Virginia: No matter how much they spin it as, This is not a diet, this is an intervention, this is about family support. Or the language of a program like Noom: We’re teaching you how to eat, we’re retraining your brain. No matter what language we use, at the end of the day, these programs are always about teaching people to restrict their intake. And when you teach people to restrict, some portion of those people are going to have dangerous consequences to that.
This is not to say everyone who diets ends up with an eating disorder. Of course it’s not that clear-cut. There are many other contributing factors to eating disorders, like family history, genetic components, other environmental factors that come into play. So it’s always a multifaceted picture, but certainly if you teach someone the literal behaviors of an eating disorder, you are giving them some tools. If they are susceptible to going into a more dangerous place with those behaviors, you’ve given them the roadmap. And the problem is as parents, you don’t know, right? You might have some guesses based on your own history or your family history, but you don’t know for sure whether your kid is going to be able to breeze through a six-month lifestyle intervention and come out no worse for wear, or if that’s going to be something that’s going to set them up for these future issues.
Emily: Do we have follow-up on those? Because when you read these guidelines, there is some randomized data in which they’re reporting out on outcomes like weight. But do any of those studies have longer-term mental health or other behavioral outcomes?
Virginia: They really don’t, and it’s really interesting for a couple reasons. Number one, if you put a 6-year-old on one of these interventions and you follow them for a year or two, you may not see the development of an eating disorder that quickly. Because for a variety of reasons, these conditions are more likely to onset in adolescence, right? And so then we’d have to have every study on a lifestyle intervention following kids for 10, 15, 20 years to see what happened. And it’s expensive. They’re not going to do that.
The other thing, though, that’s really interesting is often when they do include some follow-up around disordered eating, what they look for are things like binge eating, maybe purging, compulsive feelings around food. They look for “overeating” because that’s what they expect kids in larger bodies to do. They don’t track for disordered symptoms like restriction or skipping meals because they don’t think that kids in larger bodies do that. Number one, because there’s this baked-in bias that everyone in a bigger body eats compulsively — not true. And number two, because that’s what their plan taught them to do, right? The plan taught them restriction. So they would like the restriction to continue. It’s a whole framework thing. They wouldn’t even consider that a problem. They’re not like, Oh, by the way, did we restrict you into an eating disorder? They’re not checking for that.
Emily: It does strike me as quite a significant failure of the data, given that some of the arguments behind some of these things are — in a weird other direction of mental health — saying the reason that we need to intervene so extensively is that because kids will be made fun of if they’re in a larger body. Now, I find that statement appalling in all of the ways. But it does suggest that this is on the mind of these discussions. And yet it’s something we almost have to argue about in theory.
Virginia: Yeah, there’s a lot of blaming the victim here, right? There’s a lot of, Oh, we see that kids in larger bodies, they have higher rates of depression and anxiety. They’re bullied in school. We can fix all that if we just make them thin. And that is literally saying, the bullies are right. Give them your lunch money, also your lunch. We’re just going to reinforce everything you’ve been told. Your body is the problem. Which is obviously devastating for a child to hear and internalize. And also, it isn’t going to work.
Anyone who has gone through periods of dieting can tell you thinness doesn’t automatically solve all of these problems.You haven’t given these kids resilience tools. You aren’t addressing the fact that their school is not addressing this larger issue of weight-based bullying, or that it’s coming from teachers or coaches or parents, etcetera. You’re not doing anything to address those real issues. You’re just saying, if we can make you less of a target, maybe it’ll be fine.
Emily: When we look at some of the data on bullying, and you ask, what makes kids resilient to bullying? It’s a supportive home environment — that’s a thing that shows up so strongly in the data. And that’s just to say, there are things that can make kids able to better deal with this. And then, of course, there are interventions that we have at schools that might reduce bullying. No one in that space is like, A good solution to bullying is to change into someone who’s not going to be bullied. If your kid came and they said, “My clothes aren’t cool enough and people are making fun of me,” mostly as a parent, our instinct is not to be like, “Well, let’s go shopping.” Because, you know, in sixth grade, if you have the awesome Lululemon sweatshirt, that’s not going to fix the problem.
Virginia: Right, and it’s not teaching anybody any other useful life skills. This whole approach is taking the She’s All That approach to parenting and public health. Like, can we just take off her glasses?
Emily: She’s All That! Thank you for bringing that back to my mind. It’s the Clark Kent approach to bullying.
Virginia: And it’s not going to work.
Emily: So, I want to now pivot and actually push you a little bit on some of the pushback I think you’re likely to get. One of the messages of the book as I see it is to pitch foods as being neutral. So rather than thinking of there being good foods and bad foods that: food is food, it’s nutrients, it’s something you need, and foods are neutral. But something people ask a lot is, to be honest, apples are in fact better than cake, right? And so I should prefer that my kid eat apples than cake, even if I’m going to be comfortable with cake some of the time. And so what do you say to that?
Virginia: Well, for starters, I say apples are not better than cake. If you are really hungry and your options for lunch are apples or cake, what is going to keep you fuller longer? A big, delicious piece of cake — maybe with a glass of milk, maybe not — or one apple? I don’t know, that’s not going to cut it for me or for my kids.
So I think we have this ethos around food that fruits and vegetables, especially vegetables, are the holiest possible grail of what you want your kids to eat. And therefore every other food choice they make is a failure to attain that gold standard. And that is such a problematic way of approaching this, because it sets up that restriction we were just talking about. If every time they pick cake over apples, some little part of you dies — and I get why it dies; it died for me for a long time too, I get it — but if that is happening, your kids know you don’t think that’s the right choice. And now you’ve made cake that much more powerful to them because it’s forbidden in some way. And the apples are much less interesting because that’s what you want them to have and they have to eat them in order to achieve the cake.
There’s great studies on this. The “Finish your soup” study by Leann Birch is the classic, where half the kids were told if you finish your soup, you can get dessert and the other half were not given that. And they saw that the kids who were told to finish their soup liked the soup less, ate less of it, and were much more fixated on How do I get to the dessert? So that fundamental aren’t-apples-better thing is just continuing to hold on to that idea. Even if you’re trying so hard to embrace cake.
I think a better approach is to serve apples and cake together and not make a fuss over which one your kid picks. When I say “better,” I want to be clear: I don’t think this is perfect. I think it’s really hard for people, and a lot of the advice we get around this doesn’t make enough space for the fact that it is not that simple to just neutralize food. A lot of us have a lot of work we have to do to get to that place. But I think if you can just fundamentally keep coming back to I don’t want my kid to have a fraught relationship with cake, then that can be a really helpful motivator.
And what you will likely see with many kids is that over time, not immediately, but over time, the fewer restrictions and anxiety you’re placing around the “treat foods,” the more they can take or leave those foods. And I want to be really clear — that is actually not the victory to me. I was helping my 5-year-old pack her lunch, and she was like, “Oh, I don’t want a treat today.” And I wasn’t like, “Yes! We aren’t having a treat!” I was like, “Huh, all right. You’re not in the mood for the treat.” Obviously Oreos have gotten old. We’ve had this box of Oreos sitting in the pantry for three months, and we’re all over them. No one’s eating the Oreos. And that’s interesting to see, because I think that feels so foreign to so many people. How could you have a box of Oreos in your house and forget about it? And it’s not the victory that we aren’t eating the Oreos, it’s the victory that nobody is stressing about the Oreos. Once we don’t have Oreos for a while, we eat them, we’re very excited. But then we move on and we can eat other foods. And so over time, this approach actually lets kids eat the apples, eat lots of other foods, and enjoy their treats without the stress.
Emily: I mean, it’s interesting because if you look at the literature on picky eating, which is a question I address frequently, one of the things that comes up in various forms repeatedly, over and over, is the fact that “If you do this, then you get that” approaches are not good for addressing picky eating. Even if all of the foods are of the same type. If you say, “If you eat your french fries, then you get some blueberries.” Just that whole thing of “If you do this, then you get that” is not a way to make people like the first food. It makes them associate the first food with, this is a negative food, this is a food that I shouldn’t want.
Virginia: “This is a hurdle I have to overcome.”
Emily: This is a hurdle I have to get over, exactly. And replacing that with some combination of supportive prompts like, “Oh, you might enjoy pizza. It’s sauce and cheese.” I don’t know, somebody did write me this morning and say their kid didn’t like pizza.
Virginia: My kids don’t like pizza. It’s a great sadness in my life.
Emily: That’s odd.
Virginia: Yes. And hard to plan meals around. What else do we do on a Friday night? But it certainly hasn’t been restricted to them, so they got to make up their own minds about pizza.
Emily: Yeah, and it’s interesting to think about the value of choice in those settings and what it opens up for kids in terms of being able to have their own sets of preferences.
Virginia: I mean, that’s what we ultimately want, right? Kids who can make their own decisions about this, who aren’t overly driven by this morality of good and bad and measuring their worth by a plate of food. That’s the mindset that I think a lot of us are trying to escape. And so if you don’t want to pass that on to your kids, this is a useful way to think about going about it. Because when they make whatever choice they make — they choose to have three servings of pasta and ignore the broccoli, they choose to not eat the Oreos that you bought in bulk at Costco because they said they loved Oreos, and now who’s gonna eat these Oreos in my house? Whatever choice they’re making — it’s maddening. I’m not going to say it’s not maddening as someone who has to feed children all the time, but it’s also them learning autonomy. It’s them learning that they can trust their bodies, that they can listen to themselves first.
And if you think broadly across parenting, we want that for so many things, right? We want kids, when they get into the teenager years and deal with pressure to party or have sex or whatever, we want them to start from listening, What feels good and safe in my body? That’s so fundamental. And if you think of your dinner table as a place to start practicing those skills, it matters so much less whether they eat the apple. It’s not about the apple. You’re teaching something much bigger.
Emily: I love that. What about the approach of coursing the food? Like, first we’re going to have these things. We’re not going to put the dessert on the table while we have steak on the table.
Virginia: I am mixed on that. I think it’s so family-specific. If you are doing that because you really want them to eat the vegetables first, I think your kids know that. I think they’re smart and no one is fooled. They’re not like, “How unusual that we are always served bell peppers! It just happens that way!” So I would say if you want to do coursing, challenge yourself to mix up the coursing sometimes.
There’s also some really interesting stuff that happens when you do put dessert on the table right alongside the rest of dinner. Especially for kids who are very fixated on treats, that can be a really good way to start taking that pressure off. If they can see that the plate of brownies is there, along with the salad, along with the pasta, along with whatever else, I’m going to get it. I don’t have to earn it. I don’t have to jump through hoops, I have access to it. That can take so much pressure off. Yes, it will mean they will only eat brownies for dinner for a while. No one has ever died of only eating brownies for dinner for a while.
Ellyn Satter, who’s a feeding therapist and dietician who really did a lot of pioneering work here with division of responsibility, this is an approach she encourages. And she says you would put out one portion of dessert along with the other foods so it doesn’t outcompete, but it’s there and the kids have that. And at the same time, if you do that, you also work in several other points during the week where they get more unlimited access to treats. Otherwise you’re going to find yourself battling over, “I want another cookie.” And you decided it’s only one cookie at dinner, and now it’s all falling apart. But if it’s like, “We only have two or three cookies with dinner,” when we bake cookies on the weekends and the tray comes out of the oven, everyone eats as much as they want because they’re fresh out of the oven and they’re delicious. And why would I ever count that? That’s just a joyous food experience, and we get to have what we want and there’s no guardrails around that. You let kids start to figure it out.
And you get comfortable with the fact that kids can eat a lot of a sweet and not die. Their stomach can hurt, they can learn from that experience. They can start to decide for themselves without you narrating, without you being like, “Your stomach hurts, huh? Guess I know what happened there.” You don’t need to get involved. It’s between them and their bodies. They can start to figure that out. But I know that can sound so scary to do.
Emily: I will say, you and I had an interaction about Halloween, which I want to relate because it was very formative for me. Maybe two or three years ago, I answered some question on Instagram about my kids’ interaction with Halloween, and I said that I only allowed them to have eight pieces of candy. And you were just like, WTF. You were very nice about it, actually. But I think you wrote me an Instagram message like, “EMILY WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU?” And so I listened to you and I told them that they could have unlimited candy on Halloween. And actually in general, I’ve lightened up a lot, but that time that was a very big step to have unlimited candy. And the first year we did that, they felt pretty sick. They ate a lot of candy.
Virginia: It was a big deal. They were getting to nine pieces!
Emily: It was a big deal. They ate a lot. I want to be clear, they didn’t eat 50 pieces of candy, they ate like 11 pieces of candy or something. And then in all of the subsequent years, they have had a much more adult attitude. I was really converted. It both really improved Halloween because we weren’t, like, discussing whether things counted as a piece of candy, which was actually a very complicated discussion. Like, is a bag of Skittles one piece of candy?
Virginia: Please tell me it was one, you weren’t counting out individual Skittles.
Emily: No, I wasn’t counting out Skittles, obviously! But anyway, it really relaxed Halloween. But it did show me and I think it showed them something. That was very important, I really appreciate that.
Virginia: Oh, I’m so thrilled. I hope I am named in your children’s memoirs. The random stranger who liberated their Halloween bags.
I think Halloween is such a great example. Parents get so stressed about the sugar. But if you let kids enjoy, they get very discerning and they realize which kinds they like, which kinds they don’t like. And especially if you have picky eaters, which I do, I consider Halloween a victory night, because my kids will try flavors and textures that they wouldn’t normally try because they’re caught up in the excitement of Halloween, and that’s a pretty big win. If you have kids who don’t usually like mixed textures and now they’re eating a Snickers bar — good lord, it’s all mixed — it’s amazing.
And this is where easing off the “My goal as a parent is to get my kid to eat as many kinds of produce as possible” and thinking much more flexibly and broadly about what you want your family’s relationship with food to be and what eating can give your kids, it just creates so many more opportunities like this.
Emily: Yeah and there are a lot of opportunities in this space, particularly when we’re talking about family meals, to think more deliberately about how you want to shape the experience as opposed to the specific things about what people are eating. It’s much more pleasant to come into a meal with an expectation of, we’re going to sit together, we’re going to talk, we’re going to whatever. As opposed to coming in with the expectation of, what needs to happen at this meal is six pieces of broccoli need to be eaten and that’s going to be my focus.
And we all have to shape those things the way that works for our family. But pulling back on meals as a place to achieve something food-wise, assuming that there isn’t a medical reason that that’s part of your meal, my guess is will liberate a lot of people.
Virginia: And I think it’s useful to name what’s driving the six pieces of broccoli, right? And to name that on some level — and this may or may not be a very conscious thing — you are doing this because you’re trying to control your kids’ bodies. You’re trying to prevent fatness. And so understanding that bias is coming up in that way, and sitting with that and understanding that controlling your kids’ bodies is not going to prevent fatness — body size is determined by so many other factors besides whether they eat six pieces of broccoli. It’s not going to move the needle. And that that’s setting up such an adversarial relationship with your child’s body and you. And thinking, again, a little more broadly about what are the bigger implications of that and do I really want our relationship going to that place? And is that what I want to model to my kid? I think can be really helpful.
Emily: Yeah, so I think everyone should read your book, obviously. They should read it, and then more than that, they should discuss it with other people, with their partner. If you had to give people like one general and then one very concrete takeaway, what would they be?
Virginia: Ooh, that’s a good question. I think the general takeaway is to consider how pursuing weight loss — both on a personal level and as a culture, as we have been doing for the last 40 years in the “war on childhood obesity” — we know has failed. We know that on average, kids and adults are bigger today than we were a generation ago. And it is time to really rethink that entire strategy and to deal with the harm that that has caused. And that maybe being at war with body size is not a particularly health-promoting, certainly not a mental-health-promoting, strategy. And maybe, big-picture, it is time to really start untangling ourselves from that.
And then concretely — this one might be tricky for some folks — but if there is a scale in your house, throw it out. I would say that is one concrete step a lot of people could take that would go a long way towards improving your family’s overall relationship with food and bodies.
Emily: Because you feel like people get wedded to some number as a measure of whether they are good or not.
Virginia: Yes. And your kids see you getting on the scale. Your kids see how you respond to that. And if there’s not a scale in your house, does this come up at doctor’s appointments? Think about, what is your equivalent of the scale? What is something in your house that is still orienting your family view around food and bodies towards thinness as the ultimate goal? And can you get rid of that?
Emily: I am going to think about that one. We do have a scale in my house.
Virginia: I’m here for you, Emily. We can get rid of it.
Emily: And now that I’ve listened to your Halloween advice, I feel like I’ve got to lean in.
Virginia: This is the next step.
Emily: This is the next step. Okay, I’m going to think about it. This is wonderful. Thank you so much for doing this, and thank you for writing this book, which is really important.
Virginia: Thank you. I really appreciate it. I really appreciate you being open to the conversation and helping bring people to these ideas.