It's Nice to Be Soft, With Tyler Feder

How to teach kids that bodies are cool.

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Hello and welcome to another audio version of Burnt Toast!

This is a newsletter where we explore questions and sometimes answers around fatphobia, diet culture, parenting and health. I’m Virginia Sole-Smith. I’m a journalist who covers weight stigma and diet culture. I’m the author of The Eating Instinct and the forthcoming Fat Kid Phobia.

My voice is a little raspy because I was at my sister’s wedding all weekend screaming at the top of my lungs. Not like in an angry way, in a joyful way. You know. Dancing Queen came on. Anyway! Today I am, raspily, but very excited-ly, chatting with Tyler Feder, an artist whose work explores big feelings, feminism, and pop culture, all of which are things I’m obsessed with.

Tyler is the author of the young adult graphic memoir Dancing at the Pity Party. She also illustrated Together We March and Unladylike: A Field Guide to Smashing the Patriarchy and Claiming Your Space. She runs the very awesome Etsy shop Roaring Softly. And her newest project, which we’re going to talk about today is a body positive picture book for preschoolers called Bodies Are Cool.

Tyler, welcome.

Tyler

Thank you so much for having me.

Virginia

I’m so excited to chat with you. I really fangirl about your work. Your illustrations are amazing. And you know, this new book is the book that I feel like my readers, everyone in my life really, has been asking for, for so long. And I’ve been looking for as the mother of a former preschooler and a current preschooler. It’s just so needed. So thank you.

Before we talk about the new book, I’d love to hear a little bit of your story, how you became an artist. And specifically, an artist who focuses on feminism and big feelings, because I mean, those really are my favorite things.

Tyler

I grew up always very into art. I was always doodling more than I was supposed to be in my notebooks in school. I would like take every art class that I could. But I always thought it was just like, my special thing, that is just like, a cool talent or whatever, but not a career. And I went to college and studied screenwriting.

Virginia

Also a solid career path.

Tyler

That one felt more legit, a lot of classes on how to market yourself. And somehow I ended up combining the two things that I love art and writing, and doing comics. I did comics for a school newspaper growing up, and they’re really embarrassing. Like, I can’t believe that I was showing that to a lot of people.

Virginia

I feel like all of us who work in creative professions have some—I wrote a lot of one act plays in high school, and I had a lot of big teenage feelings that went into those plays. And I really can’t quite think about them now.

Tyler

I have a lot of compassion for the person that I was.

So, my mom got cancer between my freshman and sophomore years of college, and then she died during spring break of my sophomore year. So that is what my first book Dancing at the Pity Party is about. I had always liked just drawing pictures, but I never put them into a project of that length before. Definitely not anything that deep. I mean, when my mom first died, I was taking a lot of writing classes in college and I did a lot of poetry and screenplays, and play scripts, and everything was about dead moms. And it was very on the nose because that’s all that I had in my brain.

Virginia

I mean, you had to write through it. That makes sense.

Tyler

So I made this book 10 years after my mom died, so there was a little time to work on actually making it more thoughtful and working on the tone and having it not be just like 100% a death march, just this, horrible, horrible sad like—I mean, it’s still pretty sad, but I tried to make it a little light, too.

Virginia

It’s such a tricky thing. I’ve written quite a lot about my older daughter’s heart condition and honestly probably needed more distance than I had when I was writing some of those pieces. I was writing about it while we were still going through intense open heart surgeries and long ICU stays. And that’s completely not the same thing as a personal loss like yours. But it was very traumatic in its own way. There’s a weird experience of needing to write to sort of survive your trauma, but trying to figure out, is that the part that goes out in the world? Or is that writing as therapy? Sometimes the line there is very blurry.

Tyler

Just because something is in your journal, does that mean it’s a book that people who aren’t you should read?

Virginia

That is a strange space to navigate. So tell me about the new book. What inspired Bodies Are Cool? I mean, like I said, I feel like this is such a needed book when I saw it I was like, finally it exists, but I’d love to know what led you to doing it?

Tyler

After I finished Pity Party, I was like, I need to do something fun and colorful and playful and positive and less intense. And this was a perfect fit for me. I’ve been really into the body positivity and fat liberation movement for many years. My family has a history of a lot of mental health issues and eating disorders and my immediate family was extremely diet-y growing. My mom had grown up a chubby kid and got made fun of a lot. And I think she just really didn’t want her kids to feel that way. I think it came from a really wholesome and loving place, but the way it presented itself was a lot of calorie counting. My sisters and I went on Weight Watchers when we were kids and it was just not a good thing.

And I had this moment when I was little, before any of that really had come up yet. I was still so young. And I was in the basement with my dad, and he was doing sit-ups on the floor. I think I was just watching him, I was probably six or something, talking about how he wanted his stomach to be hard, to have abs. And I remember being like, why? It’s so nice that it’s soft. I had seen soft as a positive thing. Like, why would you want your pillow to be hard?

Virginia

Yes. It’s so illogical. It’s so understandable that a child would find that illogical, and then we internalize this illogical thing.

Tyler

Why should my dad be different than how he already is? Like, I love how he is.

Virginia

Oh my gosh, I love that.

Tyler

When I was much older and had gotten into learning about diet culture and everything, I thought back on that time, and I was like, oh my god. There was an age where when I thought about different bodies, it was just with a sense of wonder and awe. Just in a very neutral to positive kind of way. Like, my grandma’s arms were saggy, because she’s old and they were so soft, and we just liked to play with them, completely positive. And it was just cool. It was part of my grandma.

So with this book, I wanted to catch kids when they’re still having those positive responses to people’s bodies and really try to instill that that’s correct for them to feel that way before they start being really aware of their own bodies and differences and in a way that is free of judgment.

Virginia

Preschool is such an important age because we know that’s the age when they start absorbing this, which is heartbreaking to think about, that it starts that early, but it does. So we have to get out in front of that.

I love that the book is very diverse in terms of body size, but also so many different aspects of bodies you cover. And I was curious, what was your process for figuring out what those different aspects would be that you wanted to highlight?

Tyler

It was a big challenge. I knew tackling this type of project, the goal was people to feel accepted, and seen. That means showing as many different combinations of traits as I can. I wanted each page to be diverse, but I also wanted the whole book to be diverse. I didn’t want it to be like, every person in a wheelchair is the same race on every page, the whole book had to be shaken up, and sprinkled with the different traits everywhere. So at one point, I made this huge spreadsheet.

Virginia

I wondered, because it is so meticulous. The book reads like this beautiful kaleidoscope but when you look, there’s so much detail. And there’s so much thought into every little piece of the drawings. I was like, how did she keep track of all that? How did she possibly not repeat things? So yes, tell me about the spreadsheet, I love a spreadsheet.

Tyler

It just had like 100 columns and 100 rows: skin color, body shape, body size, age, hair, hair length, or texture, disabilities, every possible thing I could think of. And I also did like a lot of passes after I had finished most of the illustrations, I would go back and add beauty marks, or scars. It was a lot to think about and a lot of research. I was very lucky to work with some really great sensitivity readers, one for race, one for disability and one for trans representation. And that was super, super helpful.

When the book came out, I was bracing myself for people to like, be like, oh, I didn’t see my specific combination of traits in there, I feel left out. I just really hoped that I could avoid that at all costs.

Virginia

I feel like even if that happens, surely it is clear that you worked very hard to like, cover a lot of bases.

There are two kids books that I enjoy, and I have and I read with my kids, but they talk about body positivity through metaphors There’s one that’s like, “we’re all works of art.” And it shows different paintings and different bodies in paintings. But it’s still sort of narrow in that sense, and very abstract because, you know, a child knows they’re not a painting. There’s that sort of distance. And there’s another one where the characters are all different, like literal shapes, like a triangle and a square. And that’s cool. But it’s like, why are we using a metaphor instead of the real thing.

I don’t want to sound like I’m being critical those books because they’re very useful in their own way. But, you really are showing bodies, like human bodies, and it’s so great for kids, and for parents, to see these actual bodies. Were any of them based on real people or were they all fictional?

Tyler

That’s a really good question. I think because I was so careful about the spreadsheet and everything there wasn’t as much room for sneaking people that I know in illustrations, which is something that normally I really enjoy doing.

Virginia

I could see that’s tricky with the bigger goal of this book.

Tyler

There is on the body hair page, there’s this girl with two braids with dark hair and glasses sitting under a tree and that was like, vaguely inspired by me when I was a little kid. Like, hairy legs, mustache. Everyone’s playing and having a campfire she’s kind of off to the side.

Virginia

I love that little girl. I think I was also a little bit that girl.

I think I told you over email, I really appreciated the scars page. Because again, my older daughter has a zipper scar, she’s got numerous scars from her various procedures, and she’s super proud of them. They’re part of her story, her little sister’s quite jealous of them. You know, there’s lots of “well, you didn’t get to have a feeding tube, so you don’t have two belly buttons in our house,” which is pretty great. But I often think about, you know, the representation of that and wanting her to see bodies like that. So it was really special, as I think the first children’s book I found that really showed that. So, you know, special shout out from the heart parent community, because we really need that.

Tyler

It’s so cool to hear from people who point out individual elements that meant so much to them.

Virginia

Well, it just shows how hard you worked to think of all these different aspects of bodies that we need to see and that we don’t normally get to see.

I’m curious to know, as you think about parents reading this book with their kids, and the kinds of conversations that might come up. What do you think we need to be talking to kids about in terms of bodies? Obviously, your book is sort of a great starting point for these conversations, but where are you hoping it will lead families with this?

Tyler

I’m really hoping that people, families are talking about how different we all are, but in a neutral or positive way. A comparison I like to make a lot is, if you go to a flower garden, there’s all different kinds of flowers, big, floppy ones, little ones in clusters, and they’re all different colors. And we don’t think like, obviously this one is the best because of its features. The fact that they’re all different is what makes the flower garden so pretty to look at.

I also talk about dogs, like dogs look so different. And we think they’re all cute. You see a really chubby dog you’re like, oh he’s so chunky, then you see a really lanky one, and they’re so cute with their limbs flailing around. And I would like kids and their parents to be able to notice that their body is different from other people’s. But that that’s cool, that’s what makes the world beautiful, that we’re all different. And then also that they notice when they see other people that look really different from them that like, it’s cool that they’re different.

I think a lot of the focus of body positivity can be on just liking our own bodies, or liking our own bodies as they are right at this moment without gaining or losing any weight, or disability or any thing like that, or aging or whatever. And I think building empathy is a really important part of body positivity, and it can lessen fatphobia and all the things that come along with that, and racism, sexism, just like just thinking that it’s cool that we’re all different, and everyone should be included in spaces accessible for them.

Virginia

I think a lot about how with little kids in particular, we celebrate growth, for the most part, we celebrate that your body is changing. And then kids reach a certain age. And often it’s still pretty young, it might be just before puberty, or once puberty starts and suddenly the changes are bad. And that kicks off this whole lifetime of feeling any way your body changes, unless it’s becoming smaller, is a bad thing. And it’s so messed up. Both because it makes it more difficult to feel okay about your own body, and because of what it says about everybody else’s bodies, any body that is different than yours is somehow less than or you know, it creates these strange hierarchies. I love the idea of celebrating change and bodies because we all need that freedom to change.

Tyler

It doesn’t end in puberty, there’s a lot of changes that keep happening.

Virginia

Absolutely. I think that’s really useful.

I think parents often really worry and this is a question I get often, what if my kid calls out something about somebody’s body, whether it’s, you know, that they’re using a mobility aid or that they have a different skin color or that they’re fat, calls it out in a public way and then that’s so mortifying, you know, what do I do with those kinds of moments. And I’m just curious if you have any thoughts about, you know, if we’re going to encourage noticing difference, how do we pair that with respect?

Tyler

I wouldn’t ever want to speak over anyone in a community that’s more targeted by this kind of stuff. But in general, if your kid is like, wow, look at that person. They’re different, I think you can just be like, yeah, that’s great. That might have sounded sarcastic, and I didn’t mean it that way. Just, yeah, it is cool. That person’s hair is super curly, and yours is super straight. Isn’t it cool how hair can be all different shapes? And to just to not hush the kid away and make them think that it’s something bad to acknowledge that we’re different, because there’s nothing wrong with that.

Virginia

Absolutely. I think particularly white parents or particularly thin parents, anyone with a certain amount of privilege, has this idea that noticing the difference is going to be mortifying to the other person. But that’s actually their own internal biases, because what they’re really saying is it’s worse to be that way. So let’s not point out this bad thing.

But if you can let go of the idea that it’s bad to be bigger, it’s bad to be brown or any of these things, then it is just different and different is good. I have a feeling the people reading your book, like the parents are having to do a lot more work than the kids. We all have all this stuff to let go of.

Tyler

The adults are the ones that have been like swimming in this diet culture soup for their whole lives.

Virginia

Yes, and trying to do the work, but it’s not easy work, you know, when you’re having to unpack stuff that happened when you were six with your dad doing sit-ups or whatever. It takes a really long time. But this is such a great tool.

People are always asking me for other book recs, so if there’s another body positive book, either for older kids or just another book in this space you really love we always love recommendations.

Tyler

Yeah, for sure. I did a panel about body positivity with this author Shelly Anand, she wrote a children's book called Laxmi's Mooch.

Virginia

Oh, I don’t know this one.

Tyler

It’s about a little Indian girl who has hair on her upper lip. Mooch is a Hindi word for mustache. And she gets teased about it in school, and then she goes home and her mom tells her about all the women in her family that have this and all these historical figures like Frida Kahlo, and then the girl goes back to school the next day and is like, so excited about her mustache. And she’s like, I’m like a lion, or tiger or something. It gave me goosebumps. I can’t stop thinking about it. I think it’s great in general. But also, I had a mustache when I was a little kid. And it was something that would get pointed out a lot by other kids and sometimes adults. And it was really embarrassing. And I love the idea that it’s okay that you have this. You don’t have to hide it. But it’s like, it’s cool.

I mean, I cannot imagine in a million years, if when I was little, I had thought that my little mustache was cool.

Virginia

Right? If someone had given you space to embrace it. Oh, my gosh, that’s so powerful. I also love it from like, you know, fighting the gender binary perspective, like normalizing the idea that we can have all different bodies and that’s amazing. I’m really excited to check that out.

Tyler, tell us where we can find more of your work where people can follow you, how we can support your work.

Tyler

I’m on Instagram @TylerFeder. That’s my main space for posting art. I sell my art at roaringsoftly.com.

Virginia

And of course, we’ll link to the book, we’ll link to all your books so people can check those out as well. And I’m so glad I got a chance to talk to you, this was awesome. And yeah, Bodies Are Cool is just a must have in every parent’s library. So thank you for your work.