In Fat Talk (Holt, Apr.), journalist and Burnt Toast podcaster Virginia Sole-Smith encourages parents to name and navigate anti-fat bias. “I’m using fat in a positive way,” she says. “I’m a proponent of reclaiming fat.” Sole-Smith spoke with PW about the book’s central tensions, her own biases, and how Gen Z is changing the conversation.
How did this book come to be?
After my first book [2018’s The Eating Instinct], I kept getting questions from parents wanting to know how to encourage healthy eating without creating a stigma about body size. And by “healthy,” they meant “not fat.” Parents are anxious about eating disorders and the messages kids, especially their daughters, get about bodies from social media. But they’re also terrified to raise fat kids in a culture that hates fat people. You can’t say, “We can accept bodies, but there’s a weight cutoff.” You’re leaving people out and you’re making love conditional. We need to unpack that.
Did your writing lead to new directions of inquiry?
Writing this book helped me work on my own biases. I thought that I had done a lot of the work, that I was in a fat-positive place. Anti-fat bias is in the air we breathe. We all have to keep on learning and unlearning. We’ve taught ourselves to think it’s okay to be fat as long as you’re healthy and you exercise. But what does that say about the dignity and the value of someone who’s fat and isn’t healthy or isn’t exercising? Writing forced me to confront some of these deeper biases. That was really powerful work for me, and hopefully it will be for readers, too.
What other points would you like to get across?
I want parents to realize they’re not parenting a body size, they’re parenting a person. The first chunk of the book gives the historical, social, and cultural context of how all these biases became so entrenched. The second two parts look at aspects of family life where these biases show up: the family dinner table, the pediatrician’s office, at school, in sports, on social media. So, what do you do when bias shows up? How do you navigate it? How do you support your kid through it? It’s not about keeping our kids in a diet culture–free bubble; it’s about giving them the tools to navigate this stuff. I help parents figure out what to say so that their child hears them advocating for them and starts to be able to put Grandma’s or the soccer coach’s comment into context.
Do you think the culture is ready for this conversation now?
This bias isn’t getting better; it’s getting worse. When we measure different kinds of biases, we actually are a little less racist, homophobic, and sexist than we used to be, but we’re more fatphobic. Still, there are pockets of change. We now see mainstream media outlets talk about these issues. On TikTok, Gen Z gets that BMI is bullshit. Much of my optimism comes from the kids I interviewed, like one sixth grader: she’s fat and she gave a presentation to her class about body image and Barbie. She wants to start an anti-diet podcast. This is where we’re going. This is what it can be.