Never Say Diet

In 2011, I served as iVillage Health‘s Body Image Expert and author of their body image blog, Never Say Diet. Oh, Beef Fat Lady, A**holes, and Kelly Osbourne… what a weird and wacky year it was. I thought ten months in beauty school taught me a lot about how women relate to beauty — but ten months of blogging about diet scams, obesity research, and celebrity silliness was an education in its own right.

Why I Quit Dieting

iVillage Why I Quit Dieting by Ragen Chastein with Virginia Sole-Smith

I’m so thrilled to be participating in my girl Ragen’s iVillage slideshow of Diet Quitters. 

A) Because it’s really fun to be back over in iVillage Never Say Diet land for a visit.

B) Because I’ll be so stoked if we inspire even one woman to break up with an unhealthy diet/weight cycling pattern. And with 33 awesome women featured, I think those odds are good.

And maybe there is a C: Because I actually needed a tad of this inspiration myself this week. If you follow me on Twitter, you might have noticed that I’ve been in LA — and pretty often, in rooms where I was the person least likely to qualify for “Most Beauty Standards Achieved.” At least compared to when I’m in work-from-home mode, and my only competition for such titles are the cats. (Even though my cats are eye. candy.) Not seeking pity, just reporting facts. For the most part, I was pretty proud of how much this did not faze me — I do believe, in my bones now, that there are lots of different kinds of pretty in this world and I’m rocking my own thing over here and you can do your thing and we’re all good with each other. And more crucially, that pretty is well and good — but we all bring so much more to the table.

But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that towards the end of the week, I caught a glimpse of my stomach rolls in a full-length mirror and thought “I can’t seriously be walking around like this.” Because there are a lot of different kinds of pretty — but you have to keep exposing yourself to alll of them. Or the Beauty Myth eats its way back into your brain so fast.

Enter Ragen, with her sensible explanation of why dieting isn’t worth it because there’s no science to prove that it works and my 31 new best friends with their inspiring stories of getting all those “you’re not good enough” voices out of your head — so you can listen to what your body really needs to be healthy.

Ragen and I did a much longer Q&A while she was reporting this story and because I’m chatty, she couldn’t possibly fit it all into my slide, so I thought I’d copy and paste that conversation here, in case you guys are interested in the longer take on me and diet quittage.

PS. For the record: This is NOT to say that everybody in LA is beauty-obsessed or all about being pretty in the Beauty Myth way. Far from it! I had many lovely body positive conversations and moments this week with lots of beautiful (in all ways) people. The stomach rolls moment is as much about my own insecurities and how I’m a work-in-progress on this stuff as it is about being in a Beauty Myth-dominant setting. So we’re all clear. Onward!

RAGEN: What was the last diet you were on?

VA: January 2011 after I gained 20 pounds in beauty school and couldn’t fit into my pants. I mostly made up my own — but it was a sort of hybrid of the principles advised by Mark Bittman in Food Matters and the I DIET by Susan Roberts.
RAGEN: What did you learn from dieting?
VA: That I can’t outsource my food decisions. Neither of those diets was particularly demonic or restrictive — Bittman and Roberts both encourage their disciples to have a glass of wine with dinner, enjoy everything in moderation, etc. And there is a lot in their food philosophies that resonate with me (I don’t want to eat meat at every meal for health and environmental reasons; I do feel better when I eat plenty of high fiber whole grains and vegetables, etc). But as soon as I decided that I would follow the EXACT diet set out by Roberts, as in, eat all of the meals exactly as she dictated, in that order, quantity, etc… I started to chafe. Big time.
It was the classic restrict/rebel trap. It surprised me to have it come up here, when the meal plans seemed so well-designed and weren’t hyper-restrictive or sad sack like a lot of diets. But what it really comes down to is this: I want to be the boss of my own food decisions. I want to decide when I need to have seconds, or not, whether to have a glass of wine with dinner or not. In a lot of ways this is harder than just following someone else’s diet plan because I have to really focus on listening to my body and take responsibility for making all those choices — but it feels healthier and more empowering. I’m a big girl and I don’t like turning responsibility for my body and health over to someone else, no matter how well-meaning!
RAGEN: Why did you quit?
VA: In part because of the reasons described above. But also because the diet stopped working. I was following all of these external directions about what to eat and how much — but I wasn’t continuing to lose weight. So I knew my options were either to step UP the diet and restrict even further, or to step back and try to figure out where my body really wanted to be.
I knew from the beginning that my diet wasn’t about health — my health was perfectly fine, I wanted to lose 20 pounds because I wasn’t happy with how I looked and none of my clothes fit. I felt like that was a reasonable thing to do as long as I didn’t jeopardize my health — but trying to diet more aggressively to make my body smaller would certainly jeopardize my mental health (by making me obsess over food and my body in unhealthy ways) and run the risk of jeopardizing my physical health too, if I took the restriction too far.
So that left option B: Step back from consciously dieting, give up the aesthetic goal of looking smaller (and, in my mind “better”) and work on loving my body at its current size and shape, while also doing a better job of honoring its health needs, whether or not that impacted its size.
RAGEN: What changes you have made since to stay healthy?
VA: It was definitely daunting at first, to take back responsibility for my food decisions — even though I chafed at the whole outsourcing business of dieting, I was also a little scared to figure that stuff out on my own, because hi, being told “eat this and you’ll be healthy!” takes out a lot of the guess work. So this has definitely been (and continues to be) a work in progress in terms of learning to listen to ALL of my body’s cues.
But I made two decisions that I’ve stuck to pretty well and I think, have paid big dividends in terms of my health:
#1: I decided to stop trying to exercise according to some external notion of the “perfect workout schedule.” All sorts of sources (diet books, lady mags, etc) have trained me to think (for years) that I should do some combination of running and yoga, with more time spent running (like 3-4 days per week) as fast and as far as possible. But whenever I’ve tried to stick to these elaborate workout schedules (as part of a diet), I’ve failed, because the truth is, I just don’t like running enough to do it consistently!
What I do love is yoga. And the way I figure, my body is going to be better served by me exercising in a way that I love, consistently for the long haul, than dabbling in exercise that I hate, which causes me to give up and not exercise for long stretches. Even if plenty of external sources tell me that yoga isn’t “enough of a workout” for whatever reason. Now I consistently get to yoga 3 to 4 times per week* because I love it and crave it and my body is absolutely stronger and healthier than when I was attempting to do other kinds of exercise but actually not doing much of anything.
*Editor’s note: Y’all know I’ve had some health issues that have made this more difficult the past few months — but aside from that, this is true! Plus it’s been a novel experience to miss my workouts, instead of being secretly relieved I didn’t have to go…
#2: I broke up, once and for all, with any kind of “bad foods” or “off-limits food” concept. Knowing that you CAN have a food makes it so much easier to decide not to have it when you actually don’t particularly want or need it. Case in point: I get migraines and alcohol is one of my triggers. But when I tried to give up alcohol cold turkey in the middle of my diet phase last year, I was miserable and could only think about how badly I wanted a glass of wine with dinner. So once I quit the diet, I started having the wine with dinner again for awhile. Then my migraines got worse so I realized I should start cutting back on some of my triggers — but I didn’t put wine on the Banned List. I still have one or two glasses per week, usually on Friday nights or when I’m out with friends. This makes it 1,000 times easier to skip the wine during the week — I don’t even think about it as this forbidden fruit situation.
RAGEN: How is your life different since you quite dieting?
VA: Hmm… I’m not sure my life is radically different, maybe because it hasn’t been all that long (about 14 months). I am still working on loving my current size and shape vs. wishing it were smaller — although I am definitely making progress on this front, I’m proud to say!
RAGEN:  Where do you find support for your current health practice?
VA: Body image bloggers like you! Seriously, the body image blog community is rad and wonderful and has helped me tons. My husband is also enormously supportive of my choices — obviously, having your best friend/partner on your side goes a long way towards making this kind of thing do-able.
RAGEN: What’s your number one “love your body” tip?  
VA: To remember that there are SO many different ways to be pretty. Loving your body doesn’t happen at the expense of somebody else, or even your own “before” pictures. Me deciding to love my curvy body isn’t an indictment of every size two model out there — it’s about understanding that there are lots of different kinds of beauty in the world and they are all equally valid and wonderful.

[Never Say Diet] The 2011 Diet Hall of Shame

We’re only one week into 2012 and I’ve already lost count of all the weight loss and beauty makeover-related press releases in my inbox. I could be doing a massive Fun With Press Releases series for y’all, but honestly? I’m not even finding the fun. I’m just finding it all a bit sad and exhausting.

What has been fun: Looking back over 2011 to pick my 12 nominees for the Diet Hall of Shame over on Never Say Diet. (This post obviously went live on New Year’s Eve — sorry that I’m just now telling you about it! Let’s put prompter posting on my resolution list, shall we?) Oh, Beef Fat Lady, A**holes, and Kelly Osbourne… what a weird and wacky year it was.

And I’m so grateful to Angela, Dina and all the other folks over at iVillage who gave me the opportunity to write the Never Say Diet blog and get up to my eyeballs in all of this body image business. I thought ten months in beauty school taught me a lot about how women relate to beauty — but ten months of blogging about diet scams, obesity research, and celebrity silliness was an education in its own right.

Nevertheless, I’ve decided that 2012 needs to be open to new adventures — so this is actually my last post as the official iVillage Body Image Expert/Never Say Diet blogger. But don’t fret — I’m still an unofficial body image expert (that’s a real thing, right?*) and for sure, I’ll still be blogging right here, all the time. In fact, I’ve got a fancy schmancy website redesign in the works that I’ll be rolling out in the pretty soon future, at which point I expect your socks to be metaphorically off.

In the meantime, please bear with me as some of my blogging energy goes into working on that vs. publishing posts — but expect a more regular and entirely-this-blog-focused posting schedule to resume shortly.

Oh and Happy New Year! (I know, I know, so last week.)

*I’m also an unofficial expert on chocolate gelato, shoes, and why Veronica Mars should not have been cancelled after just three seasons. In case those are issues that come up for you a lot.

[Never Say Diet] Do Women Need (To Be) Fat?

Why Women Need Fat Gaulin Lassek

The main thesis behind Why Women Need Fat (out this month from William Lassek, MD and Steven Gaulin, PhD of the University of Pittsburgh) is super fascinating and builds nicely on the Fat Trap business we were talking about yesterday: Your body fights weight loss tooth and nail because evolution has found fat to be quite handy in a survival of the species sort of way. So I went ahead and blogged about all of that on Never Say Diet.

But, full disclosure: I haven’t read the book yet. I’m still waiting to get a copy into my hot little hands, so I had to restrict my analysis to the unfortunate, red flag-waving subtitle (How “Healthy” Food Makes Us Gain Weight and the Surprising Solution to Losing It Forever — oh boy!) and, more encouragingly, the way Dr. Gaulin describes their research in this interview.

So I’ll be back with a more in-depth post about the book itself once I, you know, read it. Ahem. Yes, tireless and thorough reporting is what you can expect around here.

In the meantime, let me clarify that I’m not blaming Gaulin or Lassek for the subtitle. My guess is that was the publisher’s doing, as part of their “now this is how you sell a book about evolutionary biology!” strategy. They’re probably not altogether wrong either. But it does put the researchers between a bit of a rock and a hard place because they are simultaneously trying to explain why we’re probably all supposed to be a bit fatter than the Beauty Trap (and the diet industry) allows — and yet also, that we’d all weigh less than we currently do if our diet wasn’t so heavy in highly processed omega-6 fatty acids or “bad fats.” (There’s another red flag.)

Depressingly, I guess that sounds about right: Read more…

[Never Say Diet] Thoughts on the Fat Trap

Human Trap by Memkaos

Apologies to the friends who were sharing the New York Times around my breakfast table over the weekend and thus, have already heard all of my rantings on the subject of Tara Parker-Pope’s New York Times Magazine cover story, “The Fat Trap.

But for those of you who missed that diatribe — or perhaps, just want to digest the more articulate I’ve-had-my-coffee-now version — here’s my Never Say Diet take on the weird left turn she makes in that piece. Which is mostly, so excellent. I just read her “Behind The Cover Story” Q&A with the Times6th Floor Blog and it makes me like the first three-quarters of the article all the more. It’s the first time I can recall a major media outlet taking on a story like this. And we really do need to be talking about all of the research that shows, over and over, why permanent weight loss is such a moving target for most people: Because “a number of biological factors that have nothing to do with character or willpower can make it extraordinarily difficult,” as Parker-Pope explains.

Where Parker-Pope and I part ways is in what we want to do with this information. She views obesity “as a medical condition” and thinks the kind of all-consuming, food gram-counting measures adopted by the people she profiles are inspiring, if exhausting, preventive health strategies. So she wants to use this new scientific understanding of why weight loss attempts almost always fail… to keep on trying to lose weight. Even though it will be really difficult and ineffective for the majority of people.

In contrast, I think* the jury is still out on whether obesity itself is a medical issue (at least 20 percent of obese people have no health issues at all, and there are studies show that overweight women actually live longer than normal or underweight women) or whether it tends simply to correlate with lifestyle habits that are bad for our health in other ways. And since we don’t know for sure, but we do know for sure that diets don’t work and the war on obesity has mostly just led to a war on obese people, why don’t we stop chasing the weight loss dragon once and for all, and instead focus on the specific lifestyle habits that definitely do impact our health’s bottom line? Read more…

[Never Say Diet] Body Image Baggage and the Holidays


I actually wrote this Never Say Diet post back before Thanksgiving, but I somehow missed posting about it here (maybe this was why). (Un)Fortunately, it’s what we in the news biz call an “evergreen” because, well, mountains of holiday food + family members who press all of your body image buttons can = mayhem at Christmas or Chanukah just as easily as at Thanksgiving. I could probably also make a note to repost this at the 4th of July. See also: Arbor Day.

So I brainstormed some helpful responses to the variety of well-meaning (or, um… not so much) comments you might get about your weight/body/food choices/etc as you gather round the yule log this weekend. Oh, and since this post first went up, Ragen on Dances With Fat has written about avoiding holiday weight shame and wading through weight loss compliments, which are both fantastic reads if you’re anxious about facing either/or.

I mean, hopefully it won’t even be a thing. Your loved ones will gather, merrying will be made, and food will be enjoyed as the nourishing, community-building, comfort-providing, joyful experience that it should be.

But just in case, please remember: You look great. Your health is your business. And you can eat (or not eat) whatever you want. 

Wishing you all everything that’s merry and bright! xo

[Photo: Adorable and tasty chocolate-covered marshmallow reindeer -- with pretzel antlers, gah! -- via Pinterest, originally from here.]

Michele Bachman’s Dating Advice and Other News

iVillage pulled me off the body image beat again last week so I could bring you these two breaking news stories:

  • While Michele Bachman believes a woman can be President (I mean, as far as we can tell from her campaign efforts) but she sure doesn’t think it’s okay for a girl to do something crazy, like call a boy up for a date.

And while I’m throwing links at you, here are a few other articles of mine that came out recently(-ish) and are making the rounds of the interweb. Click, link, love, etc.

[Never Say Diet] Thinks You’re Fat

But don’t worry. This website — which culls its literary talent from the very finest of frat boys and 40-year-old virgins — won’t come right out and say that to your face. Instead, they present a slideshow, imaginatively titled “Top 10 Subtle Ways to Tell Her She’s Getting Fat,” so we can all learn and share.

I don’t usually link directly to garbage like this, but in this case, I am — so y’all can click-through and add your votes to the “First Impression” poll. I trust that you will not feel that reading this article makes you “a better man.”

Because here are some of the gems on their list: “Buy her smaller clothes” on purpose, “try serving her smaller-than-usual portions,” and “plan a beach vacation” — all to shame your lady until she looks down at her body in horror and realizes how fat she has apparently gotten. Maybe because she has, I don’t know, birthed your child recently? Is too busy working hard to support your family to get the gym? Or is just a human with a full life and better things to do with her time than constantly train to be your sexbot? Anyway, as soon as the light dawns thanks to all these sneaky AskMen strategies, she’ll apologize for putting you through the hell of having to look at that. Oh and vow to take up a shame diet of carrots and Spin classes, obvs, until she can shrink back down to a person worthy of your love. Everybody wins!

There are so many things wrong with this story (and in general, and the slideshow’s author, Thomas Foley, in particular) that it was hard to know where to begin. When I put this on my Monday ideas memo for Angela, my iVillage editor, the best I could do was, “Gross, gross, grossgrossgross. Gross. They are gross. What is wrong with everybody? Gross.” Etc.

I’ve gotten a little bit more coherent in today’s Never Say Diet post, but wow. A lot of feelings. One thought that came to me after I wrote the post, so I’m sharing it here:

It’s not so much the core idea — one person in a relationship feeling less than attracted to the other due to a recent change in that person’s physical appearance — that is so abhorrent. It is gross to assume that anytime a woman gets fatter, her partner will automatically lose interest in her — plenty of people are attracted to bigger people of both genders in general, and plenty of other people are so attracted to their particular romantic partners that the standard fluctuations in weight that life brings don’t really do much to change that fact. Still, plenty of people aren’t attracted to bigger people, ever, and that’s their deal. Mostly. It’s also society’s deal, of course, because if we had an overall broader definition of beauty, “fat” wouldn’t be so automatically synonymous with “unf*ckable” in the eyes of and friends.

But what’s truly abhorrent about’s take on the issue is that it assumes that open communication with your partner is completely off the table — that there’s no respectful way to have a conversation about her appearance, health, lifestyle choices and/or whether any of the above is impacting your relationship. And that is a bunch of bullsh*t. I’m not saying that conversation will be fun or easy. But — excuse the gendered phrase but it seems appropriate here — manning up and having it sure beats’s approved tactics of lying and guilt-tripping your way through the issue.

Thoughts? Do you agree that it’s okay for one partner to sometimes not be so into something about their partner’s body — or is that never the business of anybody except that body’s owner?

Or should we just talk about how grossgrossgross that story is? Tip #5 is “Playfully grab her love handles.” I mean. You can’t make this sh*t up. More on all of that over on Never Say Diet. 

[Never Say Diet] Does The World Really Need Another Online Dating Site?

Whitney Thompson Dating Site

It’s a valid question — but it is not the question that former America’s Next Top Model winner Whitney Thompson asked herself when she set out to create her new online dating site, “The Big and The Beautiful.” Thompson seems to have been asking, “what can I do to earn $40 per month from tons of women I’ve never met?” Or, alternatively, “how many times can I use the word ‘real’ when I describe my new project?”

The answer to the latter question is three, as in: “I created this site for real women with real curves … looking for real pleasure,” says Whitney.

As regular readers know, copious use of the misguided “real woman” concept is one of the first warning signs of bodywashing… which is a term I just made up for when celebrities or companies pretend to be all about body positivity but are really all about themselves. Like what Bare Escentuals and CoverGirl did here. I’m borrowing liberally from greenwashing and pinkwashing, obvs. Except, yes, my term sounds like a sponge bath. We can work on it.

Anyway, I have my suspicions about Miss Whitney’s dating site, or really, whether we should be working on creating separate dating sites for bigger people in the first place. I explain them over on Never Say Diet today. So you should go check that out now. 

[Never Say Diet] H&M Models are Inhumanely Beautiful, Not Human

H&M Cyborg Lingerie Models

Nope, those aren’t real girl bellies.

And they don’t belong to the models whose (heavily Photoshopped) faces you see above.

Those bellies are actually all one and the same belly — let’s call her Eve. Eve is H&M’s digital representation of what they feel to be the Platonic ideal of torsos. She has pointy hip bones, a concave abdomen, very many ribs between her belly button and eerily symmetrical breasts and absolutely no body hair of any kind.

Yes, we’ve reached the point in these end times where it’s not enough to merely Photoshop already flawless but nevertheless flesh-and-blood women to match one impossible, narrow ideal. We’re now able to take that ideal and clone it, so we can build a digital army of lingerie modelbots. I don’t have to worry about the implications of the whole real women vs. models debate, because these models are not and never have been real women. And you don’t have to wonder why your H&M underwear gives you a muffintop and back bacon — you can just know that it does this because it was never intended to be worn by an actual human body.

Pretty soon, I expect, they’ll have the technology to raise this army of lingerie modelbots up out of your computer and into the real world. I wouldn’t have dared say it before, but it’s possible that some have already embedded as Rockettes or Victoria’s Secret Angels, and all that talk about Adriana Lima’s pre-fashion show liquid diet was just a Wag the Dog-style hoax to distract us.

And one day in the not-so-distant future, they’ll start rounding up all of the girls with real bellies and carting us off to the secret dressing rooms. Underground. Where they never, ever have your size in anything.

Let me be very clear: Nobody ever comes back from the secret dressing rooms underground.

My only hope is that blog posts like Kate’s secrets about her belly, Caitlin’s thoughts on six-pack abs and maybe my own faux pregnancy tales will continue to circulate. Probably in secret. The few remaining real bellied women will all be in hiding, after all, wearing trapeze dresses whenever they do venture out in public to disguise their lack of concavity, and insisting that no, no, these aren’t so 2009, they’ve gotten really big again in Europe. 

But when those brave women gather, by cover of night, behind the closed doors of the Curves gym they use as a front for their rebel headquarters, they will shed their Spanx, eat so much gluten, and drink dirty martinis with many olives. And they’ll find our posts and remember that there used to be a time when the sole purpose of a woman’s body wasn’t to take up as little space as humanly possible.

Read more over on Never Say Diet.

9,598 To Be Exact.

Hi there. Remember me? I’m that chick who went to beauty school, writes about beauty and body image and stuff, and then went MIA on you for all of last week without a warning.

Sorry about that.

The fact of the matter is, I had to write a 7,000 word story (that, hopefully, a few months from now — because that’s how time works in magazineland!  – I’ll be able to tell you all about) and let’s just say when you owe somebody 7,000 words, you don’t feel like you have a lot to spare for anybody else.

I did, however, also churn out my usual 1,500+ words for Never Say Diet, plus one extra post because of how we took a short week earlier in the month.

So here’s what you missed while I was typing all of the words in the world:

  • The xoJane girls have guts.  Anyone with midsection issues needs to go check out their Belly Project stat because oh my word, it will make you so happy.