Leslie Schilling, author of "Feed Yourself."
Leslie Schilling, author of “Feed Yourself.”

In a lot of ways, Leslie Schilling has been writing her newest book for years. 

Schilling is a dietitian who specializes in disordered eating, sports nutrition, and family nutrition. While she practices an anti-diet approach with her clients now, that wasn’t always the case. 

With the release of “Feed Yourself: Step Away From the Lies of Diet Culture and into Your Divine Design,” Schilling debunks the ways that diet culture permeates our culture, and even interrogates the way her own beliefs about weight and health have radically changed since she began her career. 

Schilling writes frankly and empathetically about the prevalence of diet culture in our lives. She pays special attention to the ways in which it shows up in the church and sheds a light on how Bible verses have been weaponized to promote a culture that they were never intended to represent. But you don’t have to be particularly religious in order to take something away from Schilling’s book. No matter where you fall on the spiritual scale, diet culture can be found around every corner. “Feed Yourself” is a handy tool to help you identify the signs.

Rough Draft Atlanta spoke with Schilling about her new book, which was released on Aug. 1. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Why did you initially decide you wanted to go into this line of work? In your book, you get into the idea that what you believe about food and diet culture has changed over the years. Has the reason you entered into this field also evolved? 

Leslie Schilling: Yes, because I’m doing what I didn’t know that I could do, do you know what I mean? Things have evolved, but I initially started in this field – nutrition and dietetics – because I had been an athlete my whole life. I didn’t even know you could major in nutrition and dietetics, and then I went on to do exercise science too. I had no idea that was even something that you could do. I started out [in] forensics, pre-med – really into the CSI stuff before it was cool – and then realized that I could do nutrition. 

I started really just interested in fueling the body. I was very fortunate to not have a super disordered – which makes sense in our culture – relationship with food as a reason to take that career path. But it very much did change over the years as I realized I had learned a lot about diet culture – meaning I learned it in my coursework in my undergrad and graduate work. And then did a lot of unlearning over the years. 

I feel like unlearning can be really difficult for a lot of people. You get into this in the book, but how was that experience or transition for you?

Schilling: I was really kind of torn between what I had learned in my life and what I learned in undergraduate and grad school. Not to say that I didn’t learn good stuff – I learned a lot of good stuff. But I also learned things that were really in service of diet culture, like calories and weight numbers being superior to someone’s lived experience and their medical history. Sitting across from a person when you’re doing what you were trained to do, and it feels so uncomfortable because you think – gosh, I feel like I might be harming this person engaging in what I learned. 

I jokingly say I was brought up professionally by a group of therapists that were already so far ahead of me – trauma informed, understood diet culture, understood that focusing on someone’s weight is quite harmful … It took, I’d say, a couple of years for me to kind of step from that place of this is what I learned to now I know better. I’m unlearning and relearning, and I’m committed to continuing to do better, because nobody ever wrote me a thank you note for prescribing them a diet. People write me thank you notes – which is just, still to this day, I can’t believe that – people are like, thank you for helping me see diet culture. Thank you for helping me swim upstream. 

Then there’s this piece of me that’s like, can I still do my job if I don’t promise people weight loss? I talk about that a little bit in the book, and the answer is yes. People want to know that there’s another way to help besides subscribing to diet culture. 

You mentioned it took you a couple of years. Was there any specific aha moment that you remember having at that time?

Schilling: I feel like when I was introduced to the intuitive eating approach, that really helped me understand – oh wait, we can trust these amazing bodies. We don’t have to micromanage them, or have all these external controls. Having my own professional supervision with therapists who were seasoned in eating disorder work, and also learning about intuitive eating really kind of changed the trajectory of how I practice.

Can you explain what intuitive eating is? 

Schilling: Intuitive eating – there are 10 principles, but the first one is rejecting diet culture. So being able to see diet culture, and then moving towards trusting your body. A lot of people take it out of context – it means if you’re hungry, you eat – and that’s not it, because sometimes we eat for self care, we’re not hungry. So it gets taken out of context all the time. But really switching gears back toward trusting your own body and trusting your own autonomy – that’s really what it’s about. 

You had co-written a book before this one, but when and why did you decide that you wanted to write “Feeding Yourself?”

Schilling: It’s funny, because my first book is called “Born to Eat.” And like, I have believed this to my core for a very long time [laughs] … And then “Born to Eat” became a feeding babies, get rid of diet culture from the get-go kind of book. Then I moved to this book, which even my co-author and my really good friends were like – finally, you’re doing this book! This is the book that has been on your heart for so long. 

Once I could see diet culture for myself in personal and professional spaces, I kept seeing how it showed up in what should be safe places and harmed people. And the more I saw diet culture showing up in the so-called safe spaces – which would be medical offices, churches, schools, and sometimes even homes, based on working with my clients – I was like, we’ve got to talk about how insidious this is and how it’s so wrapped up in health, but it’s actually harming us.

So really that was it. It was just kind of the progression of seeing diet culture show up everywhere, and feeling like people didn’t recognize it. Because it’s so sneakily wrapped up with health, and in the church – even righteousness.

The book focuses a lot on the presence of diet culture in organized religion, Christianity specifically. I’m not particularly religious now, but I did grow up in a church. Reading it, I just had flashbacks to Lent, which was always tied to giving up sweets, or giving up soda. When did you start noticing just how prevalent that culture can be in religious spaces and why do you think that is?

Schilling: It’s baked right in because we don’t see diet culture, and because we all live here, so no one gets out unscathed. It’s baked into health lessons. We take verses from the Bible and we read them with a diet culture lens because that’s all we know. We grew up this way.

I will say, I’ve been writing this book in my heart for a decade. I kept seeing things show up. After I had switched gears professionally and personally, I kept seeing it show up in ways that I was like – if a pastor just made a food shaming comment or body shaming comment, the hurt that just landed on all the people sitting in the pews … my heart was breaking for the person who felt like not only were they unrighteous possibly because of the message, but their bodies weren’t welcome. 

So just hearing messages over the years – and people know that I’m into this, so … people send me stuff. My stories are not just from churches I’ve been to, but from what people have shared with me over the years. And like you said, being not particularly religious now, but having grown up in it … those stories kind of resonated with you. My hope with the book was that, yes it definitely is faith-based, it has a faith component – but I also want people who have possibly stepped away from faith in some form or fashion to feel safe and to understand that some of the seeds that were planted were false. I want people to feel safe whether they’re faith based or not. 

I did an interview with The Seattle Times last week, and [the reporter] was like listen, I’m not a spiritual person at all … it opened my eyes about how the church uses verses through the diet culture lens. I didn’t even know where some of these diet culture phrases had come from – that body is a temple type stuff, and fasting, and all of that. It’s in the safe places and it’s so mainstream now, diet culture, we just accept it as truth.

That reminds me – you use these little breakouts in the book that show what a verse in the Bible might say versus what it’s been warped into.

Schilling:The word versus the world, yeah. That’s interesting, because that was something in my mind before the book was really written. You know, the word says, the world says. Ultimately, there’s not one thing we can do that can separate us from the love of God. So what’s on your plate, or what jean size you wear, all those things – none of that matters. We need to stop using it to harm people. 

You talk about the concept of body privilege. I think that in general, privilege can be a difficult thing for people to recognize, especially if they have a good bit of it. But I think body privilege can be especially difficult for people to reckon with, because it’s tied to this idea of working hard. If there was one thing you could say to people to sort of start them on the path of breaking down those barriers around the concept of body privilege, what would it be?

Schilling: The word privilege irritates a lot of people. You’re right – and this is from my own experience and my own learning and unlearning – many of us with the most privilege in this life have the hardest time, or take the longest time acknowledging it. There’s even a callout box, it’s really early in the book, about privilege. But I would say, it’s to recognize that you have benefits in this life that other people don’t have. Body privilege would mean like, I can sit in the airplane seat … and not ask for additional accommodations. Or, I can walk into a regular store and buy clothes off the rack. I can go exercise without somebody hollering out the window, you’re so brave. Which is so awful, that people do that. Those are the things – I can really operate [and] move about this world without much challenge with my body. I can go to the doctor’s office without someone assuming that everything wrong with me has to do with my body size. But then, I think when we have trouble acknowledging privilege, we also really think well, if that person worked harder, they could have what I have. And that’s just genetically incorrect. 

In doing research for this book, was there anything that was particularly eye-opening for you, or something you learned that unlocked something for you?

Schilling: I wanted to be careful not to do what I suggest that other people do, which is take a scripture out of context and use it to support my own benefit. So I, on purpose, worked with a wonderful theologian and another pastor to really challenge the parts that I wrote about how we’re viewing these scriptures through a diet culture lens instead of through a grace or gospel lens. So [I] was really working on seeing things in context versus soundbites. It was really important to me to get that right, because I talk about the harm in how people use say, a Bible verse to wrap up a diet and sell it – Christian influencers do that. So I would say that was really, really important to me, and to really dig into some of these verses in context. Like, the body is a temple has nothing to do with food, and it never has, and it never was about that. 

The other thing was acknowledging – really, really acknowledging – and having so much compassion for the grief that is involved in realizing that so much that we’ve learned in this life around food, body, diet, health, is false. Really acknowledging the grief and trying to wrap it in so much compassion for the reader. As I was writing, I was sitting there thinking of the clients that I love so much sitting across from me in my office and how we would talk about these things. Acknowledging that this is hard. This is tough. This is really hard stuff. That’s why there are tissues in my office. 

If you had to pick one piece of advice from this book that isn’t necessarily the most important, but a key to opening up the rest, what would it be?

Schilling: To feed yourself consistently and adequately, no matter what people around you are doing.

Sammie Purcell is Associate Editor at Rough Draft Atlanta.