The Toxic Knot of Racism and Weight Stigma

...in your doctor's office

Last September, I got on a plane (remember planes!) and flew down to Chapel Hill, North Carolina to visit Mosaic Comprehensive Care, an internal medicine practice run by Louise Metz, MD. Dr. Metz is white, thin, and was educated at elite schools. But she’s one of the most radical doctors working in America today. The Mosaic Center provides gender-neutral, weight-inclusive care — and is one of only a handful of medical practices in the country that does not routinely weigh patients.

Instead, I watched Dr. Metz and her colleagues treat patients for diabetes, acid reflux, joint issues, and high blood pressure without ever once discussing their body size or suggesting they make it smaller. As a result, she’s able to treat the issues that a weight-focused doctor can miss: The restrictive eating disorder that fueled the weight loss they want to celebrate. The depression, insomnia and chronic stress driving up blood pressure. Doctors need to see beyond the scale, Metz argues, and consider their whole patient.

For my new feature in the July issue of Scientific American, I explore Metz’s approach, as well as the larger question of what might happen if the medical and scientific communities let go of the number on the scale. I hope you’ll read it here. And I also hope you’ll read its companion piece, by Lindo Bacon and Sabrina Strings on the racist roots of fighting obesity. My piece answers all of your “but what about health?” questions. But their work shows that our cultural belief that thin equals health is rooted in fear and hatred of black bodies. Challenging those beliefs—and separating weight from medicine—is critical to anti-racism work. And it’s going to be a lot better for our health too.

PS. If you want to opt out of weigh-ins at your doctor’s office, and start a conversation about weight-inclusive care, Dr. Metz has a great letter you can use. And here’s one for your pediatrician, too.


Black Lives Matter

I’ve been feeling frustrated that we can’t go to any protests against police brutality because my 6-year-old is at high-risk for coronavirus, so we need to stay home right now. But isolation can make explaining racism to white kids way too abstract — she’s in a bubble within her bubble right now. So a friend who is marching very kindly suggested that we could make signs for their next demonstration. I pulled up photos from recent protests online so V and I could read all the slogans and discuss what ours could say. Then she picked what to write on the signs that she and B decorated. We had a good conversation about racism, police, white privilege and how to be allies. I’m glad she’ll get to see her sign at a protest but more grateful this activity gave us a concrete way in to one of the millions of conversations we need to have about dismantling racism and white supremacy.

Hopefully this will be helpful for other parents in isolation who are looking for tangible ways to involve their kids in anti-racist work. You can hang your sign in a window or on your house if you don’t have a protest happening near you—but you probably do!

Something else we’re doing is reading a lot. Some of my favorite books for kids include:

  1. One Word from Sophia by Jim Averbeck, illustrated by Yasmeen Ismail

  2. I Like Myself! by Karen Beaumont, illustrated by David Catrow

  3. Not My Idea: A Book about Whiteness by Anastasia Higginbotham

  4. Julian Is A Mermaid by Jessica Love

  5. Just In Case You Want to Fly by Julie Fogliano, illustrated by Christian Robinson

  6. Another by Christian Robinson

You can find more reading recommendations for kids saved in my Instagram highlights. And the grown-up book that I can’t put down right now is Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi.

P.S. One other novel you need to read right now is WANT by my good friend Lynn Steger Strong. I’ll be discussing it with her virtually at an event hosted by Split Rock Books on July 22. Join us, won’t you?


You're reading Burnt Toast, Virginia Sole-Smith's monthly newsletter. Virginia is a feminist writer, co-host of the Comfort Food Podcast, and author of The Eating InstinctComments? Questions? Email Virginia

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Help Kids Feel Safer Around Food in a Scary World

If you spend any amount of time writing and thinking about kids' relationship with food and their bodies, a tip you'll run into early and often is to serve meals "family style." This means you stop pre-plating your kids' meals and instead let them serve themselves from the salad bowl or the pasta pot. It's a strategy that works really well with cautious eaters who like to be in control of what goes on their plate. I've written about it here and here.

But then came coronavirus. 

Right now, nearly one in five children under the age of 12 aren't getting enough to eat, as I reported for the New York Times last week. This is three times the rate we saw reported during the Great Recession of 2008. Grocery budgets need to stretch further. The meal you put on the table might be smaller or need to make more leftovers. And kids are exquisitely aware of all of this. So if they're starting to develop what psychologists call a "scarcity mindset," you might want to try this "modified family style" approach, as outlined by the great Katja Rowell, MD on Instagram. Instead of putting everything in the middle of the table and making kids worry they need to elbow a sibling out of the way to get their share, pre-portion out any foods that you know will be highly coveted or in short supply, so everybody gets the same amount of taco meat, or guacamole for example. Then family-style serve a few other things if you can (like the shredded cheese or rice and beans).

Another idea that I love, but didn’t have space for in the final draft of the new column, came from Tianna Gaines-Turner, whose story is featured in the article. She’s doing “taste tests” with her kids, where she puts different kinds of chips, or cookies, or really whatever is left in the cupboard, on paper plates and everyone is blindfolded and takes tastes and has to guess what they’re eating. It’s such a smart way to still make food fun—because for kids, fun equals comfort!— even if you don’t have time/space/resources for elaborate cooking or baking projects right now.

These are the kind of very practical suggestions I don't see often enough in discussions of food insecurity, which seem to usually revolve around getting wealthier people to donate to food banks. Food banks are a critical part of our emergency food supply, don't get me wrong. But they are only one piece of the solution. They cannot address the root causes of food insecurity. And they cannot protect kids from the psychological fallout of living in a house without enough to eat. (In fact, the stigma around needing emergency food is so strong that memories of going to a food pantry are often among the most painful for folks who grew up hungry.)

We need to deal with the root causes of hunger, by increasing SNAP allotments (food stamps) to the poorest families, improving the systems we're using to get emergency food to families, and shoring up our country's safety net in many other ways. And we also need to deal with the emotional impact of what's happening right now, before scarcity mindset and restriction start to permanently rewrite how kids relate to food and their bodies. I hope you'll read and share this piece; it's very, very close to my heart. 

P.S. If Tianna's story resonates with you and you'd like to read more, she's also featured in Chapter 5 of my book.


ALSO

In these times: The Comfort Food podcast is on hiatus, but our last new episode covered how we're working, parenting and feeding our families, and ourselves, while in the isolation trenches. We talked about ways to make the same old kid meals a little more fun right now, my Meal Prep for Lazy People strategy, and the rising problem of food insecurity and what we can all do to help. Listen here.

In related news: Hundreds of New York City public housing residents are without cooking gas during a pandemic, my assistant Jessica McKenzie reports for Gothamist. I can’t imagine how difficult this would be for young families. How are you going to heat up a bottle for a baby and prepare dinner for the rest of the family at the same time? It also underscores how problematic it is that SNAP can't be used at McDonald's, or even on, say, the rotisserie chicken at the grocery store. In most states you can only buy raw chicken with food stamps—no prepared foods. If you only have a hot plate, how the hell do you roast a chicken?! There’s so much privilege in cooking when there should not be. Read her story here.

Finally:


You're reading Burnt Toast, Virginia Sole-Smith's monthly newsletter. Virginia is a feminist writer, co-host of the Comfort Food Podcast, and author of The Eating InstinctComments? Questions? Email Virginia.

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The New Working From Home

Coronavirus is exposing all the cracks in our work/life systems.

For years, whenever anyone asked me for advice on starting a freelance writing career, I said "invest every dime you can in childcare so you can protect your work time." When I wrote the acknowledgements to The Eating Instinct, I made sure to thank all of the babysitters and daycare teachers who had helped raise my daughters during the years I worked on the book. I also noted that this is the kind of thing female writers often do—because we are always asked who's watching the kids—while male writers almost never need to explain how they can have a job and children simultaneously. 

Well. Here we are on day whatever of the coronavirus pandemic. My six-year-old hasn't been in school since March 12. We lost our other childcare on March 20 when New York ordered all non-essential workers to stay home. (Some states are defining all childcare as "essential," but we felt strongly that since neither my husband or I are essential workers, we should not subject our nanny or our kids to the added risk. She's home with full pay for as long we can swing it, because domestic workers are some of the hardest hit by the crisis.) It has taken me two hours to write this far into this essay because I keep stopping to help my first grader tearfully try to navigate a math app on her new laptop, which she's so excited to use except for how she doesn't know how to type. The two-year-old is watching her 5th millionth hour of Peppa Pig. Dan and I ostensibly have a schedule that enables us each to work 4-6 hours a day (about half our usual time) and trade off on kids, but we're losing frequent chunks of that time to be our homeschooler's IT department, to change diapers, to refill snack cups. 

I want to be very clear that we are insanely grateful that so far, coronavirus is only impacting us with inconvenience and logistical challenges (and you know, the chronic sense of impending doom that we all walk around with now). Our family is healthy, safe, and we live in a woodsy neighborhood with a lot of hidden trails where we can safely social distance and still be outside. And we've both experienced truly wonderful moments of bonding with our kids that we probably wouldn't have had in the rush of normal life.

The Instagram version of our homeschool life; all of the tantrums not pictured. (Yes that’s just masking tape.)

But I'm seeing so many families struggle with these logistical challenges right now. The guy who owns the landscaping company I hire most years to mulch my flower beds came by to give an estimate (from six feet away!) with his four month old son in the truck. His wife is a nurse and working long shifts, so he has to bring his baby along to job sites, as long as he's able to work. Our friends who own our beloved local independent bookstore had to send their staff home and close their storefront, but they're trading off caring for their baby while working frantically to fill the online orders that will hopefully keep their business alive during this crisis. Another friend whose husband is still working as an attorney in one corner of their NYC apartment, is stuck on the other side of the apartment with two boys under the age of five who now need to learn to keep quiet during video conferences. Or maybe they don't—I love this essay by Chloe Schama about how parents of all genders should be making our kids more visible to our colleagues right now, so at least coronavirus can once and for all make the case that we need federal paid family leave and workplaces that support families. (And, I would add, that we need to pay and value teachers and childcare workers like the essential and all-powerful sorcerers they are.) 

So this struggle is very real and it's going to be one of the most important non-health consequences of the pandemic. Right now I'm too deep in it to have any big ideas or solutions, but I think we've long known what it would take to support working families. The question is will we now, actually, be angry enough to demand these changes of our government and employers? Or are we all so exhausted from waking up at 5am to work before the kids get up (not to mention terrified of financial ruin) that when this is all over, we'll just gratefully slide back into our old imbalanced lives?


ALSO

Feeding your family now: On the Comfort Food Podcast, we tackled the particular food problems you might be facing in your house right now: What do you do when your kid’s safe foods are out of stock? How can you make sure your groceries are safe? How do we ration food without scaring the kids? We’ve got answers to those questions and more in our latest episode. Find it here.

Still have questions? I’ve got you covered: For The New York Times Parenting section, I responded to common and pressing questions about feeding kids during a pandemic: What should I do if we run out of my picky eater’s safe foods? How can we help food-insecure families? Is it OK for my kids to eat nothing but mac and cheese right now? (Hint: Yes!!) Read more here.

Falling through the cracks: For too many families, the line between doing just fine and not fine at all is very, very fine, and a global crisis like the coronavirus pandemic shatters it. My friend Lynn Steger Strong wrote about this reality for The Guardian. “Two in five of us live in constant fear of when one single catastrophe destroys us, debilitates us, gets us behind on rent or forces us to have to cancel some service or essential thing that only feels expendable now that we have no choice,” she writes. “We already felt, almost always, like we were one stroke shy of drowning, and now the emergency is here, it’s both invisible and unrelenting – there is no end in sight. It’s hit all of us at once.” Read the whole thing here.

Snapshots from our new reality:


You're reading Burnt Toast, Virginia Sole-Smith's monthly newsletter. Virginia is a feminist writer, co-host of the Comfort Food Podcast, and author of The Eating InstinctComments? Questions? Email Virginia.

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Feeding Your Family

The Comfort Food Way!

If you’ve ever struggled with family meal times and wished it could be easier, have I got the ebook for you. Amy—my co-host over at the Comfort Food Podcast—and I have taken the wisdom that experts have shared with us over 50+ episodes and distilled it down into a jam-packed, 50-page digital book called Feeding Your Family, The Comfort Food Way.

We take you through 8 concepts that will form the foundation of your understanding of how to feed kids and give you a firm starting point for improving mealtimes in your house. We’re here to reassure and inspire. We’re here to remind you that you’re doing a good job. We’re here to let you know that you’re not alone in the daily challenge of feeding your family. We’re here to help.

You can learn more about the book and pick up a digital copy here.


ALSO

I wrote about Mary Cain, diet culture, and being a “good girl” for Health magazine:

Every woman recognizes the Good Girl thing when we see it, because we live it. The Good Girl was who we were trying to be when we got those grades and did all our homework; when we learned to share and sit quietly at our desks and raise our hands while the boys shoved each other and spoke out of turn. And the Good Girl is who we’re still trying to be when we white-knuckle through the deprivation of yet another diet, when we apologize for taking the second brownie, when we laugh off the creepy comment of a male colleague, when we smile and clear the plates at a dinner party while the men continue to make their loud and important points, when we get up with the baby again because our husband “just doesn’t hear him,” when we drag ourselves back to the gym even though we’d rather sleep because we haven’t lost the baby weight yet. I haven’t done all of these things, but I’ve done most and many others and I know you have more to add to that list. A Good Girl makes herself smaller in a thousand different ways, a thousand different times a day, because she knows that’s what the world expects of her.

You can read the whole essay here. (And it’s part of a great series of stories on diet culture in the age of body positivity, which you can find here.)


You're reading Burnt Toast, Virginia Sole-Smith's monthly newsletter. Virginia is a feminist writer, co-host of the Comfort Food Podcast, and author of The Eating InstinctComments? Questions? Email Virginia.

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On Becoming The Thing You Fear

But PS. Your kids don't have to inherit your body issues

The summer I was 16, I went to a creative writing camp at a former women's college with a lot of early 90s feminists and theater kids. (Everybody wore Doc Martens and flannel, even in 90 degree heat, and/or really loved RENT. You now have the full picture.) One afternoon we all lay on the floor in a dark room while our counselor, an angry college sophomore, lead us through a visualization exercise. It was supposed to inspire us to write more honestly about our bodies. The counselor had been recently discharged from an eating disorder treatment program and was eager to bring her newfound body positivity to... well, other upper middle class teenage white girls, since that's who goes to creative writing camps on East Coast college campuses. 

The exercise went like this: Lie on your back, close your eyes and raise your arms straight in the air. Breathe deeply. Then float your arms gradually back down so they touch the sides of your body, or rather, where you expect the sides of your body to be. Then open your eyes. 

The goal was to help us recognize our distorted body images. The counselor paced around the room in her babydoll dress and thick black eyeliner. She stopped over one very thin girl, whose arms were spread wide on either side of her. "That's how my arms were the first time I did this exercise," she told her. "It's powerful, right? To really see yourself?" 

The girl on the floor blinked up at her. "I didn't really understand what you wanted us to do," she said.

At the time, I wondered about that. Did she really not understand? Or did she, on some primal level, think she was so much larger than she appeared to the rest of us? My own arms had landed within about an inch of my hips. I lay there, unsure whether to feel proud that I had a pretty realistic view of my then-medium-to-small-sized body, or embarrassed that I wasn't somehow struggling more deeply with this concept. 

I hadn't thought about this exercise in over 20 years until last week, lying on my yoga mat, I happened to let my arms fall in a similar manner. But this time, I realized: That exercise wasn't empowering. It was bullshit. Yes, it helped thin girls realize they weren't as fat as they feared. But it reinforced the idea that fat is something to fear. That counselor worried about the thin girl with arms spread too wide, because she saw in her, her own struggle. But what about the girl who spread her arms as wide as she could and still landed them on her hips? What about the girl in the body that everyone else is so relieved to realize they don't have? 

An eating disorder therapist friend confirms that this kind of "body tracing" work is still used in some treatment programs. I'd love to think it's been reframed; that the focus is much more on simply understanding your body without judgment or comparison. But I suspect it's more frequently still used to reassure thin women that they aren't as fat as they think, that they haven't yet become the thing they fear. How much more useful it would be if we could teach them that they don't need to carry that fear. That they're allowed to take up all of the space they need.


Also

In my latest New York Times Parenting column: I wrote about how to avoid passing along your issues around food and self-image to your kids. Kendrin Sonneville, Sc.D., R.D., an assistant professor of nutritional sciences at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, said what you say matters more than what you do. “Don’t talk about losing weight, don’t label foods as good or bad and do communicate to your children that their body weight is not their worth,” Dr. Sonneville advised. “The words you use really matter.” Read the whole thing here.

Speaking of things you pass on to your kids: I’ve hidden my childhood copy of The Little Princess in our new family book nook and am waiting for one of my daughters to discover and want to read it. (If you’re mad that I rainbow-organized our books, calm down: I sort by genre and topic first and yes the series all stay together!)

Check out my Instagram post for more on the only type of before and after I can get behind.

Also: In honor of Feeding Tube Awareness Week, I re-shared my New York Times Magazine story about teaching my daughter to eat.

I talked to a mom of a 9 month old on a feeding tube today. And as those conversations always do, it brought me right back to the 3am feeding pump malfunctions, the endless obsessing over which spoon or which cup might help, and all of the grief, anger and fear I carried during the two years we spent wondering if our child would ever eat.
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In so many ways this now feels like -and is- our past. And in so many ways it will always be part of our story. A feeding tube helped save our daughter’s life. It forced me to release so much judgment and ableist, perfect mommy expectations of myself and my child. It taught me that there are so many ways to feed a family and they are, all of them, equally valid.
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In honor of #feedingtubeawarenessweek, I’m re-sharing the @nytmag piece I wrote in 2016 about teaching Violet to eat. Read it here or swipe up in my Stories: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/07/magazine/when-your-baby-wont-eat.html#click=https://t.co/f4EBtJ2Rp5
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#feedingtube #feedingtubeawareness #gtube #gtubebaby #ngtube #tubefed #tubie #tubielife #fedisbest -
PS. If you’re struggling with a feeding tube, I’ve tagged some favorite resources in this photo. Feel free to share more below!
February 13, 2020

You're reading Burnt Toast, Virginia Sole-Smith's monthly newsletter. Virginia is a feminist writer, co-host of the Comfort Food Podcast, and author of The Eating InstinctComments? Questions? Email Virginia.

If a friend forwarded this to you and you want to subscribe, sign up here.

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