Kelsey Miller is an honest, intrepid commentator on absurd beauty standards and hidden dieting behaviors that plague women in our current culture. In her first book, Big Girl, Kelsey disseminates intuitive eating and the rocky path to finding her own personal peace. Besides being the author of Big Girl, she is the creator of the Anti-Diet Project and a features writer. Kelsey, her boyfriend, and their sweet cat Winston (who refused to participate in our shoot because he feels that cats are all too often exploited in the media) currently live in Brooklyn, New York.
Photography by: Laurel Golio
GAL: What was the name of the first book you fell in love with, that turned you into a life long reader?
KM: It’s interesting because I feel like I spent my entire childhood falling in and out of books so the timeline is a little murky. I don’t know exactly when I read The Giver for the first time, or The Cay, or The Color Purple, but I remember them all being really impactful during a particular era. However, I think the one that made me recognize myself as a reader was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I think it was probably because it felt like such a grown up book, and I was 9 the first time I read it. It was so big, you know? The primary character, Francie, who starts the book off sitting on the fire escape reading. It was the first time I recognized myself in a book, and discovered myself as a reader.
GAL: What is the power of story? Describe some ways in which fictional narratives have impacted you and your life.
KM: I really cannot overstate the impact of fictional narrative in my life. For better and worse! I think I dedicated a chapter and a half to this in my book. When I was growing up, it was my greatest joy and a kind of defense mechanism because it allowed me to create a protective environment for myself. Reading books, listening to books, and eventually getting hooked onto plays, musical theater, movies. All these different ways to get into story. Also, what adult is going to punish a kid who’s reading The Catcher In The Rye for the fourth time? However, I do think I got to a place where I was preferring to be surrounded by media than to be engaging in my own life. It took me a really long time to snap out of that. Now, I’m mindful of enjoying story but I don’t want it to be the thing that dictates my life.
GAL: How often do you read?
KM: I talk about this a little bit in my book, actually. I got really hooked on audio books and other audio forms of narrative for a long time, so I realized about two years ago that I’d kind of fallen out of the practice of reading words on paper or words on a page of some sort. And that was alarming to me, because I define myself as a reader, as I mentioned. I had to almost teach myself the skill once again. I don’t think I’m alone in this, though. We all have so many screens in this life! It’s easy to train your brain to have a shorter attention span and to absorb content in a different way. With this in mind, I trained myself to read again by using a timer. It was quite interesting to do that. A lot of my reading habits also have to do with context though. During vacation I read about four hours a day, so I was like, okay, yeah! I’ve still got that in me. But when I’m back in reality, I’m digging around in my phone all the time, and I’m in that multi-tasking mode. I think it’s all about practice, for me. I read something every day. I definitely do.
GAL: Something more than a text message, of course. I mean, with your job, you have got to be looking at strings of words all the time. You have no choice!
KM: Yes, that is very true. And that’s maybe the other part of it, since I'm a writer. It hadn’t occurred to me until this conversation that maybe the fact that I do read a lot for my job means that my brain now tells itself that the act of reading isn’t just about relaxation anymore. But I’m trying to talk back to that voice. I'm definitely talking back to that voice!
GAL: Do you have a favorite reading spot? Where is it?
KM: Yeah, I like my side of the couch. A big pile of pillows in my corner, on a not too sunny afternoon.
GAL: Can you read anywhere?
KM: Yeah! Everywhere. I have the magical ability to read in the car. It’s pretty great. Basically everything in the world gives me a stomachache except for motion. A hyper sensitive stomach – even with happiness! Too happy and I get nauseous. A weird piece of pizza - nausea. Back of the car with a book, no problem.
GAL: How do you choose the books that you read?
KM: Right now, it’s basically peer pressure! I’m reading A Little Life right now because I was tired of not being able to talk about it with my friends. I picked it up right before my vacation. It's an intimidating 800 pages, plus everyone who talks about it says it will rip your heart out. Regardless, I dove in, and it is totally worth it. I suppose I don’t mind the peer pressure in this case.
GAL: Do you prefer fiction to non-fiction?
KM: I don’t have a preference. It’s pretty much 50/50 for me.
GAL: What genre of non-fiction do you prefer?
KM: I like essays. Memoirs too, but essays are my favorite.
GAL: We have a friend who has a “Sanity Shelf” dedicated to books she returns to again and again, to reread for pleasure, knowledge, and solace. What books would be on your Sanity Shelf?
KM: David Sedaris for sure. He’s like comfort food. Radical Acceptance by Tara Brock, When Things Fall Apart, Being Perfect by Anna Quindlen. I also really enjoy a good cookbook. Like a Julia Childs cookbook, or a Marcella Hazan cookbook. It might sound strange but there’s something soothing about reading the magical science of cooking. Somebody giving you instructions can be comforting, I think.
GAL: What's your current or forever favorite book?
KM: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn will always be the first answer there because I have read it at so many phases in my life and have found new ways to love it, but I also love going back to Bag of Bones by Stephen King, and Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. This is perhaps not the best analogy for a discussion about reading, but Middlesex is like the 30 Rock of books for me. I always try to wait a little bit longer before starting it again. It's really hard to wait.
GAL: I have a dirty secret. I’ve never watched 30 Rock.
KM: (laughs) And I’ve never watched the Wire! It’s just one of those things where I just recently decided to stop feeling badly about not watching really good television. Like, you know what guys?! I’m just not going to apologize for it.
GAL: Yeah! There are so many other far more important things to apologize for. Or actually important things to NOT apologize for. I don’t think that anyone, as my mother says, should ever explain, or ever apologize. To an extent, of course. That’s something you talk about in your book. The trials and errors that go along with the process of learning to accept yourself, or the struggle of accepting yourself. Not having to blame, or explain, or apologize to yourself above all.
KM: Oh god yeah, definitely. That’s an every day thing, that’s a whole life thing. What really helped me with that, which felt like battles, was to stop actually acknowledging them as battles. I think of them as an integral part of being an alive person, and I’ll be feeling those feelings to the day I die if I’m lucky.
GAL: Is accepting yourself something that you still struggle with?
KM: Yeah, absolutely. But again, because it doesn’t feel like a struggle, it simply feels like, okay, acceptance is easy today, and on other days when I’m cringing over an email I wrote or having trouble looking at myself in a plate glass mirror, those are the times when I have to not wait for the natural response to kick in. To recognize that acceptance maybe isn’t an instinct. At least not for me at this point. But I can actually decide to recognize it, and to make a deliberate decision to do it.
GAL: What did you hope your book would do or become for your audience and for yourself?
KM: For me, I just wanted to make sense of my own story. I think that’s what I’ve always tried to do when writing first person pieces. Writing is the form of communication I’m most comfortable in, so it felt like I was sharing my story in way that was clear. I felt heard! I felt validated, relieved, and all those good things. I certainly did write it with a reader in mind, which was me. I know my own story is very familiar to many women and men who have dealt with similar issues. I was hoping that it would connect with someone in that way. Similar to when I started my column, the Anti Diet Project, I was just hoping there would be an echo out there for me, and that my voice would be a rope that I could throw to somebody else. I didn’t find one – and I wish that I had.
GAL: In no way do I mean this in a negative way whatsoever: I sensed a real element of anger in your writing, and I think that’s there’s real legitimate reason to be angry, in terms of the pressure that’s especially put on women to look and to act a certain way in our culture today. I personally think the way anger is labeled so bluntly as being “bad” is really to our detriment. Do you feel angry? How do you deal with the anger if you do? Are you still angry?
KM: I do. I think anger is one of those things where I don’t know if I have fully embraced it in the way that I’ve embraced other emotions.
GAL: After you express the anger which I saw expressed in your book, what do you do with that? The stuff that’s left over?
KM: I wish I had the answers. I think you’re right. It’s interesting that you bring up the anger element, because since doing press for this book nobody else has touched on that. It’s definitely there, and I felt it, and I hated feeling it when I was writing it. When you’re writing a memoir, and going back to all those stories from your past, you’re walking right back into a mire. It’s really uncomfortable. I feel like anger is one of those things that wasn’t allowed for me to express in certain ways growing up. Certainly it was not allowed for me as an adult even for the reasons you expressed, and it still exists perhaps because I just don’t have practice dealing with it in a healthy way. I think it comes out sideways when it’s not properly or fully expressed. There’s always going to be that nugget of injustice when it comes to people who have hurt you or your past, and one does have to recognize when they're speaking from that hurt younger person place (which everyone carries around in them) or when they're responding to the issue at a reasonable level. I don’t have it all figured it out. I’m working on it.
GAL: I have to ask this, even though you’ve already written a memoir, but what would you title your SECOND memoir if you were to write one?
KM: It’s funny you ask the title question because I always thought it would be the most fun part of writing a memoir, but I have to tell you, it was so hard that it was actually horrible. All of a sudden the title seemed like the most important decision one would ever possibly make. It’s one thing when you’re daydreaming but it’s truly terrifying in reality. I think for my next book I’m going to start with the title. Maybe starting with a prompt will be a nice change.
GAL: What books about intuitive eating would you recommend?
KM: Intuitive Eating (the updated third edition only)! Janine Roth who is an iconic voice in this field- all her books are great. When Food is Love is one of her titles that I particularly liked. Definitely find your way into Janine Roth one way or another. It’s not really about intuitive eating, but Radical Acceptance was a very big support to me because you can’t do any of the other pillars of intuitive eating unless you have acceptance. Otherwise you’ll be eating in the context of weight control, of restriction. That’s kind of the central issue that needs to be knocked down when learning to eat in a normative way.
GAL: Is it truly possible in our current day culture as it is to come to terms with being overweight?
KM: Oh absolutely. It’s so possible. I think maybe you have to take the definitiveness out of the phrase “coming to terms with.” I think no matter who you are or where you come from, you have body conscious days. You know, that’s another thing that I’ve been seeing in the body positive community recently – that’s like the new taboo. Having an unconfident day!
GAL: Oh god. More shame!
KM: Yeah I know, right? You haven’t failed because you had a terrible day. Part of being “better” is being okay with your terrible days. So yeah. It’s more possible than you might imagine being a plus size woman comfortable in her own body. You’ve just got to make that decision to be comfortable over and over again. When you do that enough, it becomes more natural. I don’t think it ever comes easy though, for anyone, regardless of size. Don’t feel like there’s a gold star for coming to terms with being any size.
GAL: Please recommend at least 3 books and the reasons for your choices.
KM: When Things Fall Apart because everyone goes through phases in their life when it seems as though the bottom has fallen out and you will never hit the ground again. This book isn't about feeling better. It's just about feeling and being there in it.
The Color Purple because I think once you read that book it lives inside you forever. And that's a story and a group of characters I think we should all carry around inside us.
A Little Life because everyone already read it last year and I'm just getting around to it and I really, really need someone with whom to talk about it. Help me out, please.