Dinner Parties, Diet Culture and Social Control with Virginia Sole-Smith

“If you are hosting an event, make your home a safe space where people don't have to apologize or explain or justify how they eat. I think that is a pretty radical and powerful way to build community.”

Dinner Parties, Diet Culture and Social Control with Virginia Sole-Smith
Photo by Brooke Lark / Unsplash

Reminder: I’m seriously considering offering some courses focused on issues facing mothers + caregivers at work this year and I’d love your feedback on my ideas. Everyone who takes this 3 min survey by Feb 21 will be entered to win a $50 Bookshop.org gift certificate!

One of my favorite newsletters to read that has adjacent topics to what I cover in The Double Shift is Virginia Sole-Smith’s Burnt Toast. It’s helped me think differently about my own body and how I talk about eating and body size with my children. Virginia also has an exciting new book coming out April 25th called, Fat Talk, Parenting in the Age of Diet Culture  (Pre-order now!) that is a narrative deep dive into how parents can change the conversation around weight, health, and self-worth. It’s both political in its framing and practical in how it addresses real-world scenarios.

As you all probably know by now, I’m obsessed with community building and one of the most tried and true ways to do this is around food... dinner parties, potlucks, holiday meals, church picnics, and birthday cakes at the office. Reading Burnt Toast over time led me to some new questions, like, how do we think more intentionally around food-centered gatherings in an era where eating can be fraught for so many reasons?

Because Virginia is so insightful in explaining the unreasonable and problematic expectations society puts on us around body size and appetites, in addition to her thoughts on communal eating, I couldn’t resist asking her about her insights into the overlapping forms of social control policing of bodies can have, especially on mothers.

So without further ado, here’s my conversation with Virginia. It’s been edited for length and clarity. If you want an extended audio version of this conversation (it’s really wonderful, if I do say so myself) where we talk about how ridiculous it is to expect 4-year-olds to eat like 32-year-old hipsters that shop at Whole Foods and social demands to look sexy in mom jeans, become a member! You get great perks like the newsletter in audio form to listen on your favorite player. It starts at $7/mo.

Katherine Goldstein: To start us off, could you give us your definition of “Diet Culture?”

Virginia Sole-Smith: Diet culture is the whole set of systems and beliefs that teaches us that a thin body is the best body. It's deeply connected to, and a byproduct of, White supremacy. It’s baked into our larger institutions and systems, our public health communities and initiatives, the way food and weight and health are talked about in schools.

We are all part of it. We all hold these really deep-seated beliefs about body size and health and morality that show up in our parenting and our relationships with ourselves. Diet culture and capitalism are also fully intertwined. Wellness culture really is now synonymous with diet culture. That's kind of where the whole concept has gone. The new version of this is much more insidious. Because they don't call it diets, they call it “lifestyle plans,” “cleanses” or “resets” or whatever and it’s still just selling us things. It’s still rooted in the belief that one body is the best body and that you're failing if you're not striving to get that body.

Katherine Goldstein: I have been doing a deep dive into second wave (aka 1960s-70s) feminism. Something that you wrote a while back in one of your newsletters was that “second wave feminism and modern diet culture rose up together, even if they existed in opposition to one another.” This is such an interesting insight. Can you help me unpack this a little bit?

Virginia Sole-Smith: What really happened is, we got legal abortion in the sixties, and then in the 1970s we got birth control, and you see this real backlash against the idea that women would be in control of our bodies. You also see this intensifying of diet culture like Jane Fonda workout videos and the whole aerobics movement that got really popular. Diets became super popular in the seventies, really marketing heavily to women. And so there was this new conversation about how to control our bodies.

The person who helped me understand this, and she's problematic to quote now, is Naomi Wolf in The Beauty Myth. She talks about dieting as the most powerful political sedation of women. If you keep us hungry and obsessing about our thighs and our stomachs, we are not going to rise up. We are not going to challenge the patriarchy.

"If you keep us hungry and obsessing about our thighs and our stomachs, we are not going to rise up. We are not going to challenge the patriarchy."

Katherine Goldstein: So how can we translate this into our 2023 world? We’re in an unfortunate new normal around how difficult it is to access childcare and how our social safety nets, especially for mothers and families, are completely frayed.

I personally think that this relates to diet culture in that it works to keep us quiet. It's a way to channel energy into what we can control. Like, “I can't control how many days my kids are home sick from daycare or how I'm gonna pay my student loans, but I can control that I'm eating keto.” It’s a way that people can feel a sense of agency in a chaotic world. Do you think about diet culture in this way?

Virginia Sole-Smith: I think you nailed it. Diet culture has always been teaching us that we should control our bodies in order to be safe in the world.

We have so many reasons to feel unsafe in the world right now that are not getting addressed. If we voice them, we're told to be quiet. This is why it is so important to not demonize people who are dieting and struggling in this way. The most logical thing to do in our culture is to pursue thinness because it is the roadmap we are given to safety and security. So, you may be faced with a situation of, “I have no childcare. I cannot predict day to day whether I can work, because if my kids are home sick, I'm screwed.” But I can meal prep for the week. I can spend some days making beautiful salads in little rainbow containers. I never wanna demonize a coping strategy.

Katherine Goldstein:  The totally savage image that's coming to my mind is, “I can't control whether my children are gonna get shot at school, but I'm gonna  make a bento box that's really beautiful.” It makes me feel sick saying it.

Virginia Sole-Smith: Absolutely. The terror that I feel on a daily basis, sending my kids off to school is real. I think that shows up in how I pack their snacks a lot of days, right?

Katherine Goldstein: Ok, so now I’m gonna take this conversation in a totally new direction, on a lighter note. I think bringing people together with a shared meal is one of our most ancient cultural and community building activities. I think that as people are so entrenched into individual diets, (I'm not talking about medical food allergies, I just want to be clear) It makes communal meals much more fraught and perhaps even discouraging to try to host and bring people together.

So, for anyone who's interested in bringing people together around food, what is a basic primer from a host and guest perspective around how to navigate hosting communal meals in the age of diet culture?

Virginia Sole-Smith: I think we are so conditioned to apologize for our eating and our eating behaviors and the ways our kids eat. And I think there's a lot of power in making a commitment to yourself to stop apologizing and stop feeling like your appetite is something you need to explain or justify to people.

I'm thinking of dinner parties where someone's made a beautiful cheese board and everyone's like eating the cheese, but apologizing for eating the cheese. Like,“I'm being so bad. I'm so sorry. I'm eating all your cheese.”

And you're like, “that's why it's there on the table. You're not going into my fridge and grabbing my cheese for next week.” And I think sometimes just saying, “Oh, it's so exhausting how we feel like we have to apologize for this. Let's just enjoy the cheese.” That can be a moment of reset for people and help people understand that this is a safe space where that's not expected of them. And that can be quite liberating. Another thought I'm having is whenever possible, I think there's a lot of power to doing a kid's table and an adult's table because if you are not sitting right next to your child who is only eating one food, you don't have to get as involved and feel defensive and like let the kids have their own food experience, and adults have their own food experience. That can mean less pressure for everybody, right?

I think just look for ways to set the tone. If you are hosting an event, make your home a safe space where people don't have to apologize or explain or justify how they eat.

If you are hosting an event, make your home a safe space where people don't have to apologize or explain or justify how they eat.

I think that is a pretty radical and powerful way to build community. And I would also say whenever you're doing that, always put the blame on the larger society, don’t attack individuals for how they eat. If there's someone who is dieting, they are also allowed to bring what works for them, and your dinner table does not need to be the place where there's a referendum about that.

Katherine Goldstein: Right. It’s not about calling out individuals, and if someone is dieting, then it's really not anyone's place to comment on that.

I think as we're getting out of the pandemic and after not having people in our homes, I think there can be trepidation about what it means to host and putting unreasonable expectations on ourselves. Like making Cassoulet for three days doesn’t need to be the bar for bringing people together.

Virginia Sole-Smith: I think questioning the performative aspects of this is really important. If your goal is community, then you wowing everybody with an intricately planned dinner isn’t necessary. (I say this as someone who has intricately planned five course dinners before...wanting that sort of validation and of displaying my domestic goddess skills.. this is a trap I've fallen into.) But if my goal is actually just to spend time with my friends and have the opportunity for connection, then actually making an overly fancy, overly complicated dinner is counter to that goal, right? And making myself super stressed out because the house has to be perfect and the table has to be perfect.... that's all getting in the way.

Katherine Goldstein: Right. And then if our bar is so high, then other people feel like, “wow, like I can't invite them over. I can't reciprocate until I'm able to do this three day marinade or whatever.”‌‌

I hope you all got as much out of this conversation as I did. And don’t forget to pre-order Virginia’s book!  

In tomorrow’s members-only thread, I’m asking you all, what issues or anxieties come up that give you pause about hosting or attending communal meals? Or maybe it’s not the food, it’s just worrying about your house being clean. Anyway, I want to hear your thoughts on all of this. Members, check your inboxes Thursday at noon EST. Our last two threads were lit, so be sure you check out what’s the most desperate thing you’ve done to secure childcare, and is organized religion doing it for you. Enjoy!

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