What To Read: Virginia Sole-Smith is reexamining diet culture

This week, we interviewed Virginia Sole-Smith, a journalist who writes Burnt Toast, a newsletter about how we navigate diet culture and fatphobia.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What’s your Substack about in one sentence?

Burnt Toast is a newsletter where we explore questions – and sometimes answers – about fatphobia, diet culture, parenting, and health.

What does the title "Burnt Toast" mean to you?

Burnt toast is my literal favorite toast (with lots of butter and Marmite!). It's less pretty, much more imperfect, but also much more delicious than non-burnt toast, which felt like an apt metaphor for bodies, motherhood, feeding families, and pretty much every other topic I write about. 

When did you realize you wanted to devote your writing to countering fatphobia and weight stigma? 

When I was in sixth grade, my two best friends were in bigger bodies and talked constantly about their diets and how badly they wanted to be thin. I was a thin kid who absolutely did not know how to navigate that or be a good ally to them, but I could see it was a huge problem that these smart, awesome people kept hearing that their bodies were not okay.

I initially thought that teen media and women's media was the place to do this work because those magazines were read so voraciously by young women and girls. Once I actually began working at those companies, I realized that the infrastructure of those magazines is so completely built around the thin ideal. I was also, at that point, fighting my own body acceptance battles and very much entangled in diet culture. So it took a few more years of disentangling myself, reading, and learning from other writers and activists before I had the language to start doing this work myself.  

You write about how you've had to compromise when you write for major media outlets. Why is independence so essential for a topic like yours?

Every major corporate media outlet – print, online, radio, whatever – relies on advertising. That can make it really difficult to write criticism of the ideals, let alone the products, sold by those advertisers. I've had stories killed or extensively rewritten because they made advertisers angry. But even at outlets with a brick wall between editorial and advertising, I'll see my piece critiquing some aspect of diet culture running alongside banner ads for flat tummy tea. Or, even more frustrating, running alongside other articles that promote weight loss and fatphobic messages about health and wellness.

Doing independent journalism means I don't have to worry about advertising-driven censorship or editorial-driven biases, and I can more clearly call out weight stigma where I see it. I also love hearing directly from readers so I get a better understanding of the questions they're wrestling with and can help find answers. 

You bust a lot of stigmas and myths about food and weight in your writing. What's one of the most surprising learnings from your research?

For years, I've cited two pieces of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention research that found that people in the "overweight" BMI category actually live longer than people in the "normal weight" category. The lead author on those studies recently came forward and described the decades of abuse and harassment she received from the obesity research community for publishing that data – not because she was wrong, but because they didn't like that she was right. I wrote about it here. It was both shocking and entirely unsurprising to see the field's bias laid bare like that.

To be clear, people can be unhealthy in large bodies; they can also be unhealthy in small bodies. But what we're seeing over and over is that the relationship between weight and health is not nearly as ironclad as we've been told. We're told that thin equals healthy not because it's true, but because that's where the money is

What we're seeing over and over is that the relationship between weight and health is not nearly as ironclad as we've been told. We're told that thin equals healthy not because it's true, but because that's where the money is

You often analyze the language we use to describe weight. How do you expect our language around weight to change in the near future? 

If I could go back and rewrite my first book, The Eating Instinct, the one big change I would make is to be much more careful about my use of "overweight" and "obesity." These "o words," as fat activists call them, are stigmatizing and dehumanizing – even though they are also accepted medical diagnoses. I now only use these terms when referring to scientific research, or when quoting other people, and otherwise talk about the "ob*sity epidemic," in recognition of the harm that phrase has caused. 

But as we're understanding which words have caused the most harm, we're also seeing a growing awareness of the need to reclaim one of those words: Fat. To be clear, activists have been reclaiming fat as a neutral body descriptor and embracing it as an identity since the 1970s. Of course, some folks have only experienced that word as a weapon and don't want to label themselves that way. So we should always describe other people's bodies the way they want to be described, and honestly, we should ask ourselves why it's necessary to describe bodies as much as we do.

We're already seeing some research to suggest that Generation Z is much less fatphobic than Millennials and Baby Boomers. My hope is that we'll see that continue, and by the time my kids (currently ages seven and three) are old enough to be creating culture, we will have thoroughly normalized these shifts in language and the underlying celebration of body diversity that they represent. 

Who is another Substack writer you recommend? 

My friend and neighbor Melinda Wenner Moyer writes Is My Kid The Asshole? She's an incredible science journalist who has really practical solutions for common parenting problems. Her new book is also fantastic. 

Subscribe to Virginia’s newsletter, Burnt Toast, or find her on her websiteTwitter, or Instagram.