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What This Mom Learned About Our Food Culture After Her Baby Stopped Eating

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You’ll want to have tissues handy when you dive into The Eating Instinct: Food Culture, Body Image, and Guilt in America. Though the new book from Virginia Sole-Smith might sound at first blush like a feminist or body-positivity book—both of which it is—it’s also a deeply personal, heart-wrenching story.

Sole-Smith’s elder daughter, Violet, stopped eating by mouth at nine weeks old, and didn’t start again until she was about 16 months old. Rare congenital heart defects landed Violet in the hospital four weeks into her tiny life, and she emerged with what’s known medically as an oral aversion or infantile anorexia. It’s “when a child refuses to eat as a way of protecting herself from perceived trauma,” writes Sole-Smith. Violet was restricted to feeding tubes for much of her infancy, leaving her mother stricken, frightened, and wondering, “What does it mean to learn to eat, in a world that’s telling us not to eat?”

A journalist who covers health, parenting, lifestyle, and culture, Sole-Smith dove into the topic with a reporter’s zeal for talking to experts. She interviewed dieticians (including some with their own eating disorders), poverty-stricken moms recovering from cocaine addictions, “health at every size” activists, anti-fat doctors, and plenty of researchers. The result is a data-packed book with the epic tale of little Violet re-learning to eat threaded throughout.

Here, Sole-Smith delves deeper into a few of the topics she covered in her book.

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Your book ends with your desire to feed your younger daughter by mouth. Did that work?

Beatrix is 10 months old and a very typical eater; she took swimmingly to breastfeeding and bottle-feeding. I really went into baby number two thinking my number one goal is a baby who eats by mouth. I am not picky. I also knew after the devastating experience with Violet and breastfeeding [that] I didn’t want all that pressure on my shoulders.

We did combination feeding [a mix of breast milk and formula] from the beginning. She had a little formula her first night [to] help take the pressure off. My milk took a couple days to come in. … Then we did what worked. I was like, “I’m not listening to anyone this time. Tell everyone to shut up. I’m going to feed the baby the way that makes sense.” 

The “breast is best” breast-feeding pressure thing that moms hear; is it hammered a lot?

A few years ago when I had Violet it really felt like I had to breast-feed this baby or I had failed as a mother. I don’t think that’s quite there anymore. What I’m still seeing is now a set of “allowed” circumstances in which you can [choose not to] breast-feed but you have to have failed at it. … “It’s OK to be using formula if you had a traumatic birth. If there are reasons … because XYZ happened.”

We’re not yet to a place where people can generally do what I did [with Beatrix], which is, “I’m going to do what works and not feel bad about it. I’m gonna stop breast-feeding when it stops being fun.”

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Isn’t breast-feeding also a big time commitment for women?

It’s a huge time commitment. Anyone who says, ‘Oh, breast-feeding is free,’ doesn’t think a woman’s time is worth anything. My billable hours are [worth] a lot more than a can of formula. It’s another way that our culture is saying, “We control women’s bodies; we control women and food.” That’s what I’m arguing against in the book. There’s a lot of overlap between diet culture messages and exclusive breastfeeding messages. I think the two have gotten pretty murky. The literature is not cut-and-dry on what the healthiest choice is. There are many circumstances where formula is the healthiest choice for the baby. We don’t celebrate that. We just say, “Women need to turn their bodies over to the babies,” just like we say the rest of the time, “Women have to be as thin as possible.” It’s all of a piece, in my mind.

Trying to get Violet to eat by mouth, you used the “division of responsibility” theory. Can you explain it?

It’s a theory developed by Ellyn Satter, a family therapist and nutritionist, back in the 80s. She’s written several books about it, but I’m seeing it more and more in the mainstream conversations around kids, which is really exciting. The premise of it is that children are autonomous beings who should have agency over their bodies and what goes into their bodies. Rather than parents being in charge of every bite of food and meticulously counting out portions and all that, it says, “Nope, parents and children are in a feeding relationship, and they each have certain roles.”

Parents are in charge of what food is offered, where it’s offered (preferably at a table, not in front of the TV or mindlessly grazing around the house), and when it’s offered. They try to keep kids on a schedule so that kids have time to get hungry and come to the table hungry. After that—after they’ve said, “OK, we’re eating dinner at this time, and this place, and here’s what your choices are,” the parents’ job is done.

Kids are in charge of how much they eat, which of the foods they eat of what you offer, and even whether they eat at that meal. They’re in charge of listening to their bodies, in terms of hunger and fullness, and in terms of, “Of the foods you’re offering me, what do I really need right now? Maybe I don’t really need a piece of chicken at this meal; maybe I’m really hungry just for the pasta.” That’s fine. We kind of trust kids to listen to their bodies and know what they’re really hungry for.

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Having seen parent friends negotiate “one more piece of chicken before you’re done,” I feel like this must be controversial. Is it?

We had to do division of responsibility; we were in an extreme situation. What I see with parents who are feeding kids in more typical situations, is when they’re not practicing division of responsibility, it’s probably fine for a while, depending on the temperament of your kid. A lot of kids are like, “Yeah, I’ll have another bite of broccoli, whatever. My mom really cares that I finish all these blueberries, so I’ll just do it.” … That’s fine. Not every family will find that strategy problematic, at least in the short term.

But what will happen over time is that child is being given the message that many of us received as kids of, “I don’t know what’s best for my body. I don’t know what I’m hungry and full for. When I do feel full, maybe I can’t trust that, because somebody else—this adult that I love and I trust—is saying, ‘No, no, no. I know what your body needs. It doesn’t need a cookie. You shouldn’t want a cookie. You should want broccoli.’” That doesn’t line up with the kid’s [experience]. It’s a really confusing message to send to kids.

My concern is that over time, with typical eaters, that leads to undercutting their sense of trust in their own bodies, and that makes them much more vulnerable to the messages of diet culture. Because now they’ve sort of grown up thinking, “I don’t know what’s best for me with food.” So of course when they’re struggling with weight, or feeling unhappy with their body for whatever reason, they think, “I must need a diet or this external rules to tell me what to do because I’ve never known. No one’s ever said, ‘[You] know what’s best for your body.’”

I want to be clear: It’s not about shaming parents who do that. It’s just about thinking long-term. We’re thinking short term, “I gotta get this kid through eating without a meltdown.” I have all the empathy in the world for that. Those short-term decisions are hard to pull off. … What you want long-term isn’t always what you want short-term.

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Some would say, “Kids are wrong that they need cookies. I know more than they do.”

What I would say is, I don’t think any of us know as much as we think we know about nutrition. The nutrition advice is always changing. When I was a kid in the ‘80s, it was all about fat, and low-fat and fat free, and now we’re all, “More with the avocados and coconut oil!” The science on this is not settled in any way.

To say I’m gonna follow nutrition instead of letting my kids listen to their own bodies, you’re not taking the more cut-and-dry fact-based approach by any means. There is good data supporting division of responsibility. It’s not as robust as I’d like, but we are starting to see more data supporting that teaching kids to honor hunger and fullness is a way to put them towards a healthier relationship with food. The parent is still in charge of choosing the what. You are still choosing the nutrition. But we’re not dictators. We’re more benign leaders.

We always have a banana on the dinner table; it’s one of my daughter’s safe foods. If she’s not going to eat the rest of the meal, I know she’ll eat the banana, and I’ve accommodated her that way.

In your book’s conclusion, you dream of a world of judgment-free, guilt-free eating. Are you an intuitive eating proponent?

Yeah. I’m in no way an expert on it. I’m not a dietician or someone who can offer the specifics of how you learn that. It’s something that I aspire to and practice myself, I try to encourage it with my kids, and as with all things, I’m always overly hesitant to use the label, because there are lots of diet plans marketed around intuitive eating that are really not. Caveat that I’m for true intuitive eating, not intuitive eating with a goal of weight loss. It’s the only way I’ve found that makes sense.

Alex Van Buren is a Brooklyn-based writer, editor and content strategist whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Condé Nast Traveler, and Epicurious. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @alexvanburen.

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