Welcome to the new Burnt Toast.
We need a space to talk about diet culture and fatphobia, without the continual compromise required by corporate media.
Welcome to Burnt Toast! This is a newsletter about how we navigate diet culture and fatphobia, especially through parenting. (But non-parents like it too!)
I'm Virginia Sole-Smith, author of The Eating Instinct and a journalist who covers diet culture and weight stigma. I publish an essay here every week. They’re usually a mix of answers to the questions you submit (like why are all the Boomers on diets, or but, what about health?), short rants, and reported explorations of how we relate to food, health, and our bodies. I’m also deep into research for my next book, so sometimes you get outtakes, behind-the-scenes peeks, and the little research snippets that I can’t stop thinking about.
I've been writing Burnt Toast since 2019, at first monthly and then weekly for most of this year. I'm thrilled to announce that starting next week, Burnt Toast will up its game to a twice-a-week production. There will still be plenty of free content (see below), but I hope you’ll consider supporting my work (and getting even more content!) as a paid subscriber.
Here’s how it’s going to work:
Everyone will get to read the weekly essay, which will stay free for all, and arrive in your inbox every Tuesday. These will continue to be that mix of Q&As and essays, but may get a smidge longer and will definitely become more deeply reported as I’m able to invest more time in this project.
I will also be running weekly audio newsletters, which will now drop every Thursday. Those conversations will sometimes be their own stand-alone thing. More often they'll be a way to deepen the conversation started by a recent essay, and to introduce you to more of the researchers, healthcare providers, activists and other brilliant folks that I rely on to challenge and shape my own thinking around the questions we explore here. Oh — and if you’d rather read, I also include transcripts (lightly edited and condensed for clarity). Audio newsletters with guests are free for everyone; you can hit play right in your email or download these to your podcast player. Once or twice a month I run Virginia Q&A episodes just for paid subscribers.
Paid subscribers will also be able to post comments and participate in Friday Threads, and if you think I’m excited to have a way to weed trolls out of my comment threads you are right! (Or at least charge them for the right to troll me!)
Your subscription fee will also pay for less sexy but highly essential things like an editor, a fact-checker, and hopefully soon, an audio producer to make those audio newsletters sound super fancy.
The subscription costs $5 per month or $50 per year. As a special fun thing, the first 25 paid subscribers will also receive a free, signed hardcover copy of The Eating Instinct. I can sign it to you, or your mom, or whomever you want. (US residents only, sorry.)
If you’re a Burnt Toast Super Fan, you can also join as a Founding Member; I’m suggesting $150 per year for that, but feel free to name your own price. All Founding Members will receive a signed copy of the book (US residents only/while supplies last!) and you’ll be helping to keep more of my content available to all.
It’s important to me that Burnt Toast stay accessible. If you are unemployed, under-employed, a student, a gig worker, or otherwise struggling financially, please email me for a comp subscription, no questions asked.
Next week, all subscribers will receive both the essay and the audio newsletter. I figure this way y’all can see if you even like hearing from me twice a week. (ICYMI, you can also explore my previous audio newsletters with Amy Palanjian and Shira Rose.)
Starting June 22, the paywall will come down on the solo audio newsletters and archives. You can, of course, go paid at any time to access all of that—but why not do it now so you don’t miss a single thing?
This is a strange and exciting moment for me. Like most writers, I’ve always been paid by a publisher to do my work. And I’ve had a lot of professional and financial success on that track, due in large part to the various privileges I have. It feels odd to ask readers to pay directly for my work, especially when the Internet has conditioned us to expect to read everything for free, as I learn anytime I write for a publication with a paywall. But: If we value journalism and the people who produce it, paying for (at least some of the) words we read is an important way to sustain this work. This is particularly crucial for journalism on diet culture and fatphobia, because mainstream media outlets have always been perpetrators of those problems, even when they pay lip service to the need for change.
I know many of you are long-time followers of my work (thank you! I am so grateful that you’re still here, still reading and sending me your questions and critiques). Others are newer to this space, so in honor of Burnt Toast’s evolution, I decided to spend this week’s essay telling you a little more about how I got here.
18 years ago this month, I graduated from college and started my first job the very next day as an editorial assistant at Seventeen Magazine. I lived in a shoebox next to the Queens-Midtown Tunnel. I walked to work in Reef flip flops because I couldn’t stand up for more than ten minutes in the shoes we wore around the office. I made $27,000 a year. But for those first few months, I was in heaven. My bosses were smart, feminist editors who thought the intelligence of teenage girls was under-valued and so we did features on hookup culture and youth marketing (yes, I realize, that last one now sounds deeply ironic). One of my tasks was to track down statistics or expert quotes that the editors thought the features needed but the writers had failed to deliver. I started to learn how to report in a way that would pass muster with our research chief, who was a terrifying person who would throw your reporting file right out the door if you dared to quote from a non-primary source, or couldn’t back up a controversial fact to her liking.
Yes, this is the same Seventeen that published “I got my period in front of my crush” horror stories in Trauma-Rama. And yes, this is the same Seventeen that first published Sylvia Plath. I learned quickly that being a feminist in women’s media (but also, all mainstream media) meant holding these strands together as lightly as you could. It meant successfully pitching a story on birth control, only to have an editor write in the margins: “But wait, isn’t Plan B the same thing as having an abortion?” (No. It is not.) And it meant, every day, reading letters from girls who hated their thighs, girls who tried to cut the fat off their stomachs, girls who skipped breakfast and made themselves throw up after lunch, girls who were trying to shrink their bodies in every conceivable way — and then brainstorming five new ways to put the phrase “bikini body!” on the cover.
I didn’t last long at Seventeen. A new editor came in, with a new team, and a new vision, and there was less meticulous reporting and more bikini body stuff, glossed over with the kind of girl power talk that has wooed so many of us into thinking weight loss can be a valuable self-improvement project. So I moved on, first to another junior editor job at another magazine, and then, when that publication folded, to full-time freelance writer. That freed me up to move out of the city, to wear shoes I could walk in, to write stories I cared about. But: I ran into the same tension everywhere I went, especially when I wrote about weight. I’ve talked plenty about the years I spent inside the diet culture beat, at first rationalizing it with the usual “it’s not a diet, it’s a lifestyle plan” song and dance, and then trying to crack it apart. That was uphill work. I found myself translating the principles of Health At Every Size into language a women’s magazine could handle. I continued to use “ob*se” without any awareness of its toxic history. I compromised and added health warnings to stories so that editors would run them because I figured it was better to get a few seeds planted where I could rather than see the story killed (and also, I had to get paid).
For a while, I even backed away from critiquing the diet industry directly—wellness culture was shifting things so fast, I wasn’t even always sure who I was mad at anyway—and focused on the beauty industry instead. In a weird way, it was easier to learn to Brazilian wax (so I could interrogate our obsession with it) and expose the exploitation of nail salon workers than to reckon with our (my) desire to detox. In other ways, it was harder: I couldn’t run either of those stories in women’s magazines where hair removal is gospel and nail polish brands pay the bills. But it was (and is) a tough sell to persuade “real” media outlets to care about stories in which no men would appear.
Then, almost eight years ago, I had my first daughter. As many of you know, she stopped eating when she was just one month old and needed me to make food feel safe again. That’s the experience that started to connect the dots, that led to my first book, and that pushed me all the way out of diet culture. I started to explore how we relate to food, and then realized how much fatphobia underpins everything we think we know about food. And health: I wrote about how weight stigma shows up in fertility treatment, in eating disorder treatment, and in science, full stop. Fatphobia is pervasive in parenting culture too, whether it’s as overt as a diet app for kids or more implicit in our anxiety about kids and sugar.
In the past five years, telling these stories has gotten so much easier. We are now in a moment where terms like “body positivity” and “intuitive eating” are embraced by popular culture; where Good Housekeeping and InStyle ask me to write about pushing back against pandemic weight gain and nobody tries to water down the rhetoric at all. Could these brands do a better job owning their own historical complicity in diet culture? Yes. But they recognize the importance of the conversation now, and I cannot underscore to you enough how much that was not the case even as recently as, say, when I sold The Eating Instinct.
Still: Anytime I write for a major media outlet (and again, that has been the primary way I’ve made a living for almost two decades), I am aware that my story is like a little boat tacking its way through a great churning ocean of other priorities. It gets stuck in a holding pattern if the hook isn’t newsy enough. It gets chopped in half because the word count is too tight. It gets dropped altogether if a new editor comes in with a different vision. Or it runs, but I’m asked to add caveats and softeners that make everyone more comfortable while making the story less accurate. Or it runs, and then, the next week, the same outlet runs a pro-weight-loss story and I hear from confused readers who feel betrayed by the switch in tone.
I still see the value in publishing journalism that way. I adore working with smart editors who tear my words apart and find something so much better buried beneath them. I love writing for outlets with copy editors and fact-checkers and art departments who are all so brilliant at their very essential jobs. And I adore seeing how a story resonates across a broader platform—yes even when it means the comment section goes bananas or the angry men send me emails. We can’t only preach to the choir.
But earlier this year, there were big changes at two of the outlets I write for most often these days. And it made me realize: Maybe, after almost twenty years of rolling with these kinds of changes, I would like to have a place that is just mine. A place where I can critique diet culture and combat fatphobia, without the continual compromise required by corporate media. Where I don’t have to worry that a sidebar ad for flat tummy tea will run alongside my explanation of why the ob*sity epidemic is over-hyped. A place where I can publish the stories I can’t tell in other outlets because they are too niche or aren’t newsy enough, but still matter deeply to people’s lives. That’s what I’ve been playing around with here on Burnt Toast over the past few months, and it turns out, I love it. And you folks seem to love it too, because there are more of you every day.
I will still be popping up in other venues, and I’m still spending most of my time working furiously on my next book. But I’m excited for Burnt Toast to become a central part of my work week. Thank you so much for supporting this project, whether that’s with a paid subscription or just by reading, commenting and sharing the pieces that resonate with you. I’m grateful that you’re here, and excited for the conversations ahead.
P.S. Awesome new Burnt Toast logo by Deanna Lowe.
Virginia and others: I'm a parent of two college-aged men. I was a very restricted/disordered eater myself (weight watchers + always on the edge of over-exercising) and it's only recently I see the problems it caused in my parenting, when I thought I was helping.
As I do my own work I realize how deep this issue goes for me, and I wonder how to undo damage in my relationship with my kids. They are both big guys and we all enjoy eating and cooking and going to restaurants. Way too often some comment about choices or portion size sneaks out of me. You'd think it would be easier to stick to a "say nothing" rule. I've been trying to acknowledge the issue and apologize and explain a little about where it comes from for me -- but not sure that helps.
Anyone have advice or experiences to share?
It's 6 PM here in Berkeley and I am eating (unheated) canned black beans, with just a little No-Salt added (It's potassium chloride, not sodium). This is on top of a week or so of healthy eating while inadvertently running a calorie deficit. Am I trying to drop a few pounds? Yes, because I have low arches, wear orthotics, and have to limit the time I spend on my feet.
It helps my tennis game too. I chose to build my tennis game as a hobby in retirement that was much more complex than running 10k's and lifting weights.
Meals are not so much planned as they are improvised. Breakfast is usually a couple of tortillas and cheese washed down with Thompson's Irish Breakfast Tea. Lunch is usually rotisserie chicken and more tortillas, with maybe a boiled potato. Supper can be more chicken and microwaved frozen peas.
Dessert is usually a cocktail, accompanied by lots of water. This setup leaves me plenty of time to stretch, do squat jumps and jumprope, shadow swing my service motion, etc.
If I ever get to play travel tennis tournaments, I plan to live on Caesar salad with grilled chicken breast, sirloin salad, and French Fries.