Chana Porter is the author ofThe Thick and the Lean,a new speculative novel in which sex is publicly celebrated while food is a shameful secret, consumed behind closed doors and shunned as a pleasure. Cole Kazdin is the author of What’s Eating Us: Women, Food, and the Epidemic of Body Anxiety, a nonfiction deep dive into the relationship between gender and disordered eating. In the following conversation, Porter and Kazdin discuss food, feminism, and social control, against the backdrop of an increasingly fatphobic world full of new wonder drugs with uncertain long-term consequences.
Cole Kazdin: To begin: I loved your book. I became immediately wrapped into the world you imagined and these complex, (hungry) womenit got me thinking so much about food and autonomyfeeding ourselves (or not), feeding others, food and eating as acts of rebellion. Your book feels so intimate and your writing is so sensory and sensual on these topicsperhaps it’s why I feel comfortable starting off with a personal question (is that ok?): how did you begin to explore this topic and what is your own relationship with and experience of food and your body?
Chana Porter:Thank you so much Cole! I loved your book.
I began this book in 2016, thinking about the way our culture twists food with purity culturelets be good, lets be bad. In one of my first office jobs in NYC, I remember watching two women leave together, proclaiming loudlywere going to eat carbs! Like they were announcing they were going to a fetish party. To shock and titillate.
I grew up in the 90s, in the Baltimore suburbs, a young queer person who didnt know how to exist in my body. I began doing Weight Watchers in high school, dizzy with the power I possessed to lose weight. My goal weight was 125, but when I reached it I still looked healthy, cherubic. I got the flu senior year and dropped down to about 118. Then I worked to maintain my flu body for several years. After I went to college, anorexia turned into bulimia. I had been hungry at this point for years.
I made the trade that a lot of us make, the one that you so elegantly outlined in your bookI decided not to die. This meant gaining about 50 lbs. After that I did every kind of diet, but I never starved myself (mostly) or made myself throw up again. So I eat lots of kale, I exercise. But changing the way I feel about my body is the long game. I still have some disordered thoughts. Its an ongoing process.
Reading your book was a deeply personal experience for me. Ive never related to something so much.
CK: I still have those thoughts sometimes, too. I think its impossible not to, given the world we live inone that worships and moralizes a particular body standard. And for those of us who are on the other side of an eating disorder (or doing our best to be), it can be hard to distinguish where the remnants of that lie: Why am I eating the kaledo I even like it? Im still discovering and creating what my honest relationship to exercise is. I stopped going to the gym during the pandemic, of course, and once I had a child, I had very little time or energy to exerciseit just became impossible, and less central to my life.
But I still exercise almost every day. Its less extreme, but the compulsion is there. Its so complex when we add to the mix that movement feels great! Walking in nature (to me) is very therapeutic for my mental health. Recently, I started weight-lifting with a trainerthe poor guy, I led with this aggressive preamble about my eating disorder history, that I dont want to tone up or lean out (is that true?), I just want to lift heavy things and put them down and then lift heavier things and put them down, and he was like: Cool. And I thought, Oh. That was easy.
And so thats what we do. And it requires so much focus. Im not thinking about much else in the moment, except how to lift the weight, keeping my back straight, and so on. Im hoping that new physical strength seeps into my psyche. Helps reinforce the resilience Im working to build against all of our cultural messaging.
You introduce this idea of Flesh Martyrdomessentially starving oneself to death into some sort of sainthoodIm struck by the connection throughout history and in religion between morality and deprivationCatherine of Siena, in the 14th C, who starved herself to protest being married off to her dead sisters widower (she became a saint!) along with so many religious fasting traditionsRamadan, Yom Kippur Why do you think restricting food is considered pure morally?
CP: Fascinating, I didnt know about that saint!
I think fasting as protest is powerful because you are saying: I am prepared to die for my cause. Makes sense in prison, in apartheid freedom movements. Not helpful if your cause is wearing a size 2.
I grew up fasting for Yom Kippur. Did it help me focus on God? Not really, I was thinking about those bagels we were having that night. But I think it can be a good reminder of what it feels like to go for a few hours without having your basic needs immediately met.
Because we need food to be active participants in the world. When I was in the grip of my eating disorder, it was all I thought about. I had no stamina and very little creative energy. I so loved that line from your bookIm paraphrasingwould I have learned another language by now, if I hadnt spent the last ten years dieting?
I just heard someone posit on TikTok that maybe Almond Moms turn into Karens because they are so hungry. Undernourished people complaining to the manager. I wasted so many years of my life trying to be skinny. It didnt help my friendships. I wasnt having good sexit was too hard for me to be present in my body for that. My body was a cage, my mind was a corset. Do you think thats what diet culture intends to do, Cole? To keep us at best, preoccupied, at worst, at war with ourselves? Is it a bug or a feature of the program?
CK: I believe its a feature. In researching this, once I learned just how much money there is to be made in the weight loss, fitness and overall health and wellness spaces, I began to understand how massive the business is. Aspiring to a made-up thin ideal can keep a person occupied for a lifetime. I also think this is particularly insidious in the health arena. Weight is not-very-veiled code for health, and we get daily messages that thinner is healthier. We step on a scale the moment we enter a doctors office. Now, weight loss companies are actually partnering with health providers to prescribe weight loss drugs, and all boundaries between health and weight are becoming erased.
Which brings me to: Can we talk about the yellow pill in your book? That essentially removes hunger, both in terms of desire and need to eat real food. I know you wrote the book long before Ozempic but naturally I thought of that right awaywhen you first heard about Ozempic, were you like: Oh. I predicted that.
CP: It is uncanny. Its also wild to me that the news isnt covering what seems to be the most paradigm-shifting side effect to Ozempic and its myriad spin-offsthat for many people it makes food downright unappealing. The joy I feel in cooking a great meal at home, or going out to dinner with my partner is very important to me. I cant imagine trading that joy with going back to my flu body. So I hope that these medicines are used responsibly to improve peoples quality of life. But I could see it enforcing a new beauty standard and changing the way we feel about pleasure.
What do you think, Cole? Do you think well become curvaceous renegades?
CK: Im starting to believe that eating in and of itself is pretty punk rock. After my son was born, we bought a toaster and I realized as I was unboxing it, that Id never owned one in my entire adult life. Becausethe carbs. (Shakes fist!) Refusing diet culture is not a passive exercise; it requires constant vigilance, because we get from all sides. We hear friends or family talk about exercise, food restrictions, fasting, celebrity weight lossyou name it. Those conversations harm us all. Even the conversations inside our own heads. The constant dance of talking backeven silentlyto those messages is exhausting and once you see itits like the Matrix, taking the red pilltheres no going back.
Maybe thats how we knew Beatrice was destined for revolutionshe was making a grilled cheese! That grilled cheese scene, btw, was downright arousing.
How did you arrive at that almost flip of sex and food (though honestlytheres so much shame around food perhaps its not a flip at all?)
CP: So astutemaybe its not really a flip. I remember being a teenager and going to a diner with friends and ordering grilled cheese with fries. It tasted like freedom, and it also tasted fucking amazing, because that little diner certainly used butter and oil. AND CHEESE. My family was 90s health conscious which meant we cooked with a little margarine. Reminds me of your story about your first job in a fast food restaurantthe access to unlimited french fries.
There is something so particularly teenage about the tangle of desire, for food and for sex, in a changing body. And that body having a whole host of cultural expectations put upon itto be sexy but not overtly sexual. And those cool girl expectations. Its Andie Anderson in How To Lose A Guy In Ten Days. The main character eats the bacon cheeseburger and stays rail thin.
I want to ask you: What would you say to your younger self, if you could time travel back to her?
CK: The tangle of desire is such a perfect way to put it because it really is all connected. I love this question and its also bittersweet because I think about that girl, my younger self, and know that she probably wouldnt have listened. In hindsight, I wonder if this was just a fire that I had to walk through. (In the same way that we often have a string of terrible relationships before we find a healthy one?)
But I think about my time as a dancer, and so, if I could go back, I might slip her a note that read, Pssst, check out modern dance take that Afro-Cuban class. Ballet is not why I developed an eating disorder, but its a community where those disorders thrive and are often encouraged. Years later, I expanded my study to so many other forms of dance, but I wish Id arrived there sooner. And its not like other dance forms necessarily welcome body diversity. But simply saying, Youre beautiful inside and out would have only annoyed Young Cole. Id nudge her in the direction of communities where she could do what she loved, in an environment that was diverse and accepting and nurturing. Community is a way out of all of this. And then when she wasnt looking, Id whisper that she was beautiful inside and out. And Id mean it.
Speaking of beauty, you often dont reveal what a character looks like right awaywe may find out about their body size or type after weve already been getting to know themwhy was this important and are you able to talk a little about how you arrived to that in the writing?
CP: I like to let physical details of a character accumulate, rather than launch into a full blown description when we first meet them. Metaphysically, I dont feel like my body is my self. I like my body and I appreciate my fuzzy little animal self, but I dont feel like thats what I am. So maybe I try to give my characters that same generosity.
CK: The role of corporations in body regulation, manipulation and propaganda really resonated and is something I wrote a version of in my own (not science fiction!) bookIRL, the weight loss industry is a behemoth thats got its hooks into most if not all of us. Why was it important for you to go beyond the morality aspect to whos making money from all of this?
CP: Its definitely profitable to keep us on the diet treadmill, but also it saps our criticality and our energy to imagine new possibilities. Our modern food systems grew out of colonialism. They are rife with exploitative labor practices and short sighted environmental approaches which hurt the land along with our gut biomes. Healing our relationship to the land and treating workers with dignity go hand in hand with healing our own body-mind relationship. It can feel overwhelming. And its very simple: people deserve to be nourished and treated with care, not exploited, and not starved. And that includes us, too.
CK: Lastly, I want to talk about Ijo, the narrator of The Kitchen Girl, an ancient-seeming story that is read in secret theres this idea throughout of women discovering for themselves whats best for themI dont even think I have a question here, I just love the discovery process that is different for each character, honest for each character, where choice in itself is an act of rebellion, which is so often something unique to women. Discuss?
CP: I was raised as a people pleaser, a peacekeeper. My eating disorder was an extension of my people pleasing. In many ways, eating was my rebellion. But maybe rebellion is a tool, too? Makes me think of the Buddhist story about the hammer and the nail. The hammer is powerful, and once it does its job you gotta put it down or youll destroy what youre trying to build. The rebellion becomes its own kind of prison.
The hardest thing about food freedom for me is developing the relationship when I listen to my body but dont let rules make me rigid. An example: I dont eat a lot of sugar anymore because it can make me feel bad. Last night I went to a Passover seder with a bunch of queer Jews and I ate a lot of sugar. I ate the chocolate covered matzah, I ate the almond cake. I ate it next to my stepdaughter and we talked about each one. It was easy, light, and funfor the most part. One part of my mind always belongs to diet culture. I would be lying if I said it didnt. But thats a part of me too. Ill be 39 this summer. That sick girl, the dying girl, still lives inside me. I think shes happy we made it out alive.
What do you think, Cole? Is there wisdom in our bodies, who have been through so much suffering, about how we can all get free?
CK: Id like to think theres wisdom in our bodies. I know theyre wired to protect usfighting infection, fleeing saber-toothed tigers and whatnot. Toward the end of writing my book I started thinking about survival in a way that I hadnt previously. You talk about that girl within you, happy you both made it out alive, and I think about that too. But it will always be a battle and a choice to not go down those roads.
At least it is for me. Battling the culture we live in; for many of us, eating disorders are brain-based and so were battling our own biologyto this day, I often dont get hungry and if I forget to eatwell, hell hath no fury So, I cant always listen to my body. For others, the onset of an eating disorder is a response to trauma or stresstheres actually quite a bit of scientific research to support this, and that trauma may always be there. Eating disorders can be coping mechanisms.
When we talk about healing, the freedom partIm not sure we can do it alone, and that is one of the most valuable things I learned. Cultural and structural shifts take time, and theres so much work to be done. But in the Right Now, its important to know that were not alone. In a capitalist society, community is rebellion too. Its how we survive. We survive in community. I keep coming back to that.
What’s Eating Us: Women, Food, and the Epidemic of Body Anxietyis now available from St. Martin’s Essentials.
The Thick and the Leanis now available from Saga Press.