The Center for Eating Disorders Blog

The Eating Instinct: Food Culture, Body Image and Guilt – Q&A with Virginia Sole-Smith


Virginia Sole-SmithVIRGINIA SOLE-SMITH‘s forthcoming book The Eating Instinct is described as “an exploration, both personal and deeply reported, of how we learn to eat in today’s toxic food culture”. 

Maybe you are struggling to get off the hamster wheel of dieting or you’re trying against all odds to raise kids with positive body image.

Perhaps you feel pressured to feed yourself perfectly or you’re working on recovery from an eating disorder. Maybe you can see the ravages of weight stigma and food shaming in your patients. We all intersect with this toxic food culture in different ways, but we can all benefit from Sole-Smith’s honest and eye-opening look at the issue.

In advance of her presentation in Baltimore next month, we asked Virginia Sole-Smith to tell us more about the book, her own experiences as a writer and a mom and about her mentors on the topics she writes about. Check out her responses below and register for her upcoming event here

{ Q&A with Virginia Sole-Smith }


What is The Eating Instinct all about and what inspired you to write it?

I’ve written about how women relate to food and our bodies for years — but when my newborn daughter Violet stopped eating as the result of intense medical trauma, I realized that I didn’t know anything about how eating begins or, really, why it falls apart. I began researching how we learn to eat and realized that we are all born with instincts for hunger and satiety, but somewhere along the way, we’re taught to ignore those instincts. I didn’t know how to teach my daughter to feel safe around food when that’s something so many people struggle with as adults — so I set out to collect stories of those struggles. In doing so, I discovered that our shame-based food culture is at the root of most people’s problems with food.


The subtitle of your book refers to the term “Food Culture” and you unpack this extensively in your writing, but how do you define food culture? And why is it a timely concept to explore?

I define food culture as all of the messages we get around food. We learn about food first from our family, but very quickly, from the wider world as well — teachers, doctors, media, advertisers, and so on. And all of those forces influence each other, so doctors, for example, may learn a little about weight and nutrition in medical school, but are also products of the family dinners they ate as kids and the diet memes they see circulating on Facebook. And right now, our food culture is at a sort of crossroads. For the past 20-30 years, it’s been dominated by two anxieties: the so-called obesity epidemic and the growing need for more sustainable food systems. Both of these issues are rooted in some very real concerns about our health and the environment. But we’ve really only tried to solve them by controlling how people eat in various ways — and it’s not working. Over the past decade or so in particular, these two issues have merged and created a new set of unrealistic standards around “clean eating” that perpetuate disordered eating without solving either problem.

The Eating Instinct [cover]


Your subtitle also references the word, guilt. What are some common examples of how guilt has come to be so intertwined with eating in our lives?

Unfortunately, guilt is a part of our eating life from the time we’re very small. We get pressure to clean our plates but not have any more cookies. Then as diet culture messages take hold, we begin to feel guilt over almost every food group in one way or another. As one mother I interviewed put it: “We’ve start to think that ‘low fat dairy’ should mean no dairy. Lean meat should mean no meat. Gluten is evil, so there go carbs. Fruit has too much sugar. Which means vegetables are the only foods parents feel good about feeding their kids — and kids don’t like vegetables!” It’s a mess.


As a writer, you’ve published pieces about body dissatisfaction and the diet mentality in several publications – like women’s magazines – that have traditionally been some of the biggest sources of fat shaming, weight loss advertising and thin-ideal promotion. Have you faced resistance or pushback from such sources when calling out these issues? If so, how do you handle it?

For many years, it was an uphill battle to get any stories criticizing diet culture into a mainstream women’s magazine. I’ve had some stories killed and others that were so heavily edited, I ended up feeling pretty unhappy with the messages they sent. But the tide does seem to be turning — British Cosmopolitan just featured Tess Holliday on their cover. Earlier this year, SELF ran a special “weight” issue with articles about weight stigma and health at every size.

There are still tons of damaging women’s media stories out there. Our work is not done. But I do think some of these brands are finally recognizing that the conversation needs to change.


Social media has become a huge part of our culture. Are there some intersections with social media and food culture, and do you address this in your book?

Absolutely. Instagram, in particular, has become a huge source of food culture and the diet mentality thanks to posts of what people are eating, before and after diet photos, and the rise of “wellness influencers” who make big bucks endorsing diet products and plans. It’s a huge problem because we’re on social media so constantly, which means the messages are becoming harder to shut out. But I also wonder how the performative nature of these sites is changing our relationship with food. After showering, going to the bathroom and sex, eating is probably our most intimate physical act. Yet we do it in public all the time — and now, we do it on the Internet all the time. That’s a very large stage.


Given the current culture you reference around food and weight, recovering from an eating disorder or just trying to eat more mindfully can often make us feel like we’re swimming upstream. Do you have any simple recommendations for individuals who want heal their relationship with food but have a hard time with conflicting messages from friends, doctors, diet industry, fitness gurus, etc.?

I think it’s very important to curate your media intake. Delete any health influencers, fitness gurus, etc — basically, anytime a post makes you feel bad about your own body, take that person out of your feed.

The other thing I suggest, which sounds simple, but often is not: Stop apologizing for your food choices and your body. Women are conditioned to feel like we can’t take up space and that we shouldn’t ever feel hungry. So many of us talk negatively about food or apologize for eating as a kind of unconscious reflex. If you can stop yourself from saying those words out loud — and it’s fine to just say nothing if saying something positive feels too hard! — it can be game changing.


As a mom, how do you prepare your own kids to be resilient and resistant to toxic messages about food and bodies that they will most certainly encounter? Do you ever worry about the messages they are getting about eating at school?

When my older daughter was 2 years old, she came home from daycare and told me “I have to finish my lunch before I can have my cookie!” It was such a record scratch moment. We worked so hard to help Violet feel safe around food again – and literally just a few months after she started eating on her own, here was a new message about food that was fundamentally saying “you’re doing it wrong.” I realized then that when it comes to feeding kids, one of our most important jobs is helping them learn to recognize and question these messages, and provide a space where diet culture rules don’t apply. Now Violet knows that at home, she can eat her meal in any order she wants — yes, even cookie first. But we’re continually navigating this as she hears new messages. The work is never done.


11/4/18 Event Flyer Who are some of your favorite resources and mentors on the topic of body acceptance that you turn to or have learned from the most in exploring these topics related to food and eating?

Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth is almost 30 years old — but still completely relevant.

Linda Bacon’s Health At Every Size was a huge influence on my thinking on all of this.

And I love the groundbreaking work of Lexie and Lindsay Kite of Beauty Redefined.


What can people expect to take away from your event in Baltimore on November 4th? Who do you think could benefit most from attending?

I’ll be sharing my personal story of how we helped Violet learn to eat again — and how that made me realize that our current food culture has made eating feel unsafe for so many of us. We’ll look at how diet culture messages are showing up in places they absolutely should not be — like during pregnancy and in our kids’ lunch boxes — and talk about strategies for disconnecting from the onslaught. My message resonates particularly with parents — because we’re all struggling with the twin responsibilities of feeding our families and feeding ourselves. But anyone who has felt victimized by our modern food culture will find it helpful.

Virginia Sole-Smith is a journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Harper’s and Elle and she’s a contributing editor with Parents Magazine as well as co-host of the highly recommended Comfort Food Podcast. She lives in New York’s Hudson Valley with her husband, two daughters, and three cats.

You can meet Virginia and hear her speak in Baltimore on November 4 during our free fall community event, Food Culture, Body Image, and Guilt in America.

Pre-registration is highly encouraged as space is limited. Online registration available at:


photo credit: Gabrielle Gerard Photography