Virginia Sole-Smith is a journalist and author, whose popular newsletter, Burnt Toast, dives deep into modern diet culture and fatphobia — but in a fun way (somehow!). Her new book, Fat Talk, explores the challenges of navigating these issues in parenthood. Virginia lives in New York’s Hudson Valley with her husband, two daughters, and massive flower garden. Here, she shares the skincare routine she’s done for a decade and how she lets one person make all her hair decisions…
What’s your personal take on beauty?
There’s a lot about beauty that I enjoy! I’ve gotten better at the self-interrogation part: Am I doing this for me, or for the world? I think about twenty-something me, wearing heels to work. I felt that I had to, but now I don’t — I’m not willing to be uncomfortable! I worked with Dacy Gillespie, an amazing fat-positive stylist, to choose clothes for my book tour. We picked one pair of comfortable stacked heels, but other than that, I was like, ‘Can I just wear clogs?’
Are there parts of beauty that feel like you’re doing it less for yourself and more for the world?
I’ve divested from thinness, and instead I am just showing up fat and not apologizing! But there’s still a certain pressure to look ‘put together.’ That’s a reality of existing in this world in a fat body. If I want to be taken seriously — if I want to go on TV to talk about these issues, if I want people to engage with me in this conversation — then I have to make sure to style myself very ‘tidily.’ The more marginalized you are, the more of that work is required of you. So, I think it’s important for us to interrogate current beauty standards and how each of us are helping uphold or dismantle them.
What are common misconceptions around fatness?
The biggest misconception is that fat people lack willpower and just aren’t trying enough/the right things to be thin. We know now that body size is determined primarily by genetics and other factors we have zero control over — how you eat and exercise are the smallest pieces of the puzzle. And yet this myth pervades because if we can characterize fatness as a matter of ignorance or a moral failing, we can then feel justified in our anti-fat bias. Related to this, of course, is the misconception that every fat person is unhealthy and every thin person is healthy. This ignores decades of scientific research showing that the relationship between weight and health is much murkier than we’ve been taught, and also ignores how often weight loss can be unhealthy (when it’s the result of disordered eating, depression, illness, etc). But it also misses the larger point: Even if being fat was always, unequivocally unhealthy, it still wouldn’t be okay to discriminate against people based on body size.
Great points. Now let’s talk hair.
I’ve worked with the same hairstylist, Kathy Goodall, since 2010. After a few years, I made the choice to outsource all the decisions — color changes, length, daily shampoo, etc. Now I have a standing appointment every eight weeks, Kathy decides what to do, and that’s that!
That sounds amazing.
My daughter Violet was born with a rare heart condition and spent long stretches in the hospital. When she was two, we were in the hospital for weeks after a surgery, and her hair got horribly matted from lying in bed for so long. I remember standing over her, cutting huge chunks off and crying — so awful. But when we brought her home, Kathy made a house call. We put Violet in front of cartoons, and Kathy carefully cut her hacked-up hair into a normal shape and didn’t charge for it. This woman showed up for me in one of the hardest moments of my life. So, yeah, she can decide what I do with my highlights until I die.
What’s your morning routine?
I get up an hour and a half before my kids, around 5 a.m. — but it’s worth it. I realized early on in parenthood that I couldn’t handle being shotgunned straight into their needs. Having them wake me up was sort of breaking me as a person. I just need a moment to, like, pee, you know?
How do you spend the next hour?
I drink black coffee and prep a smoothie that the whole family loves. It’s oat milk, frozen blueberries, peanut butter and chocolate protein powder. And then I read a book on the porch and admire my garden. When the kids get up, we do breakfast and hair-brushing and getting ready for school. My husband, Dan, takes over at 7:30, and that’s my time to work out. I love Lauren Leavell’s barre and strength workouts. She’s an awesome fat Black fitness instructor. Finally, I shower and do my hair.
What products do you like?
Kerastase, which is what Kathy recommended — specifically, their Curl Manifesto shampoo and conditioner for days when I want to air dry and do curls. I prefer to air dry in the summer, but I haven’t mastered second-day curls. So, if I have a busy week ahead, it’s easier to just do a full blowout on Monday, because I can maintain that for the rest of the week. I’ll then use smoothing shampoo and conditioner, plus hair lotion. For blowouts, I’m a devoted Revlon hot-brush fan. I almost splurged on one of those fancy $300 ones, but when I talked to Kathy and other stylists they were all like, ‘No need. Hot air is hot air.’ And they’re right! The $40 one works great!
Okay, let’s talk skincare.
I’ve had the same routine for 10 years because it works! I do what my dermatologist tells me to do (again, I trust the professional!). I wash my face with CeraVe Foaming Cleanser, and then I use prescription acne medication. The only other part of my daily routine is shaving my chin.
What do you use for that?
Those tiny Schick Hydro Silk razors. Hair removal is another thing I have mixed feelings about. I wish that shaving my face was a neutral aesthetic choice — but of course, it’s not. And there is no question that I’m waxing my bikini-line hair because I feel it’s expected of me. But not doing it would be making a bigger statement than I feel I can take on right now.
It sounds like you deliberated on this choice.
We have a pool, so I’m in a swimsuit a lot! And pubic hair is a private part, almost akin to cleavage, where you ask yourself, ‘How much do I want to show?’ And it’s so hard to find well-fitting plus-size swimsuits, let alone styles I like. I didn’t want the added complication of finding one that also had enough coverage for me. (For bikini tops, I like Birdsong in solid colors, which I mix with floral or striped bottoms from J.Crew or Summersalt.) I’m on a regular waxing schedule, but I don’t want my daughters to feel this is required of them, and I’m more conflicted about waxing as they get older and more aware. I admire people who grow in all their hair and go for it.
Do you wear makeup?
I’ll do mascara and eyebrow gel. My go-to brow product is e.l.f.’s Wow Brow Gel, which is great at keeping my eyebrows tamed — and I have a lot of them. I’ve been using the same mascara for five years: L’Oreal Air Volume. I saw it on the influencer Sherry Peterson, and I was like, ‘Done. This is my mascara now.’ I don’t often bother with face makeup, although I do love Glossier’s Cloud Paint in Puff, which I use in the winter if I’m feeling pasty. It’s so nice and creamy. If I’m feeling fancy, I’ll put on my Burt’s Bees Lip Shine in Smooch in the prettiest raspberry color.
Any deodorant favorites? There are so many these days.
I actually wear men’s classic Old Spice — ever since my twenties, when I said to my boyfriend (now husband), ‘How is it you never have sweat stains?’ He told me he used Old Spice, so I went, ‘Well, now I do, too.’ And I have for 20 years! It’s sexy on dudes. Why can’t it be sexy on me?
I’m curious to hear your sunscreen recs since, as a gardener, you’re in the sun a lot.
I use EltaMD — the clear, oil-free kind everyone likes. I also like Supergoop tinted sunblock for when I want glowiness. For body coverage, I keep a giant jug of Supergoop! Play on my porch so I can slather up and go. Between pool days and gardening, I’m covered in sunscreen all the time, and Supergoop Play is the only one that doesn’t feel greasy at all. It’s super light and smells like elderflower. It’s an investment, but I’ve had the same bottle for a year.
Any other gardening tips?
I found an incredible product for garden-gnome feet, where the dirt works itself into your feet, and your heels crack, and it’s not pretty. I stumbled across Kerasal Intensive Foot Repair Ointment, and it worked!
What’s your evening routine?
After the dinner and bedtime rush with the kids, all I want to do is melt into my couch and watch my little shows, then read a book and go to bed. I love Quietly Hostile by Samantha Irby, and Pineapple Street by Jenny Jackson is a fun family drama — think Edith Wharton but set in Brooklyn. Also, Camp Sylvania by Juli Murphy is a delightful middle grade novel about a fat camp with a vampire problem — it’s super pro-fat kid, anti-diet, and anti-vampire. So much fun and the right level of spooky.
I love your bright statement glasses.
I hated glasses when I got them as a kid, and I started wearing contacts the second my mom finally let me in eighth grade. But when I was pregnant with Beatrix, my pregnancy dried out my eyes and made contacts impossible. I thought, ‘Okay, if I’m returning to glasses, I am RETURNING to glasses.’
My very favorite designer is Sabine Be, who does fun frames combining tortoise-shell with pops of color. Another great one is Anne & Valentin. I got a pair of their hexagon-shaped two-tone frames for my book tour.
Another cool thing about glasses is they’re such a nice icebreaker. You’re at a party, people comment on your glasses, and you have a way into the conversation. I’m very big on not talking about people’s bodies, but I’m okay with complimenting sartorial choices. That’s a helpful way to avoid doing the whole ‘oh my God, you look so thin’ thing.
This comes up a lot in your work, and especially in Fat Talk: the fact that fatphobia is so inherently woven into our culture that it’s hard to even recognize it in ourselves or our parenting.
So many of us are desperate for better guidance on this. We don’t want to replicate the diet culture of the ‘80s and ‘90s that fucked us all up. At the same time, though, a lot of us are still thinking, ‘But I also don’t want them to be fat.’ That’s the unspoken coda. And that’s the most important part.
When we talk about kids and bodies, the conversation typically starts with food or body image. But neither of those things are the core issue. The core issue is anti-fat bias. That is the foundation of both food and body-image struggles. So, naming anti-fat bias, recognizing it in ourselves, starting to unlearn and navigate it in our kids’ lives — that is the starting point in changing how we parent around food and weight.
Can you share a bit of your personal experience in this as a parent?
My daughter Violet was dependent on a feeding tube until she was two, and we went through the process of helping her recover the instinct and ability to eat. It was traumatic for all of us, and going through that with her, among other things, put me on a different path with my body. As a journalist working in women’s magazines, I could already see the harm diet culture was causing, and I was beginning to learn about things like Health at Every Size and the fat liberation movement. And then there was this moment when Violet was a young toddler. We were sitting at the dinner table, and I made some crappy comment about my body — and Violet repeated it. And it just clicked. I did not go through all that to help her learn to eat just to make her want to not eat because she’s worried about being fat. Are you kidding me? Nope, not doing that! We’re gonna do something different!
You follow several families in Fat Talk, each struggling with familiar issues: parental worries about a child’s weight, children sneaking or restricting food, kids expressing their own fatphobia. Many parents face these problems, but often the harder they try to address the issue, the worse it gets. Why?
Parents are under so much pressure around their children’s bodies and eating. And we live in a world that’s constantly pushing ‘solutions,’ which are really just diet culture for kids — whether it’s having a no-sugar house or making rules about how many bites you need to take. It’s an unwinnable battle, but we fight it, because we want our kids to be safe. We put all our effort into controlling our kids’ bodies, because fixing the culture that makes their bodies unsafe feels overwhelmingly difficult. And then it backfires, because we’ve turned their bodies into the problem, instead of looking toward where the problem really lies — which is diet culture and anti-fat bias. It’s true, we can’t just flip a switch and turn those problems off. But we can do a lot to ensure our kids’ bodies are safe and loved in our homes. We can promote their body autonomy. And the research increasingly shows that laying that foundation helps our kids navigate these issues better.
What kinds of things help lay that foundation for kids?
One thing I do to promote their body autonomy is not involving myself in their aesthetic decisions. So, Violet wanted to dye her hair blue. Great. We did that. They choose their own school outfits — which are often completely bananas and not particularly weather-appropriate. Ultimately, it’s their decision. I’ll say, ‘It’s a hot day. Perhaps you’d like a ponytail.’ And they’re like, ‘No, thank you.’
Who were you envisioning writing to when you wrote Fat Talk?
I wrote this book for thin kids, who are likely hearing that their body size is their value and thinking, ‘I better hold onto my thinness at any cost’ — because I was that thin kid, who had to work through feelings of failure when I didn’t turn out to be a thin adult. And I wrote this book for fat kids, who are hearing every day that their body is a problem to solve, and need to know, instead, that we radically accept and love them in the bodies they have — and that we’ll fight to make the world a safer place for them, and for all of our bodies.
Thank you so much, Virginia!
P.S. More women share their beauty uniforms.
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(Opening and ninth photo by Garbielle Gerard, second photo by Stephanie Diani for The Times, and third photo by Yael Malka for The Cut. All other photos courtesy of Virginia Sole-Smith.