Alyson Gerber

Alyson Gerber

“We have a society that values weight and size and shape over actual well-being and actual value. Why are we not valuing resilience and being capable and critical and thoughtful and kind?” Alyson Gerber, author of Taking Up Space: Play by Your Own Rules, joins Zibby to discuss the way body dysmorphia and issues with food can manifest in children and young adults. Alyson shares how dealing with her own childhood trauma led her to realize that others might need help, too, and why she includes lessons on empathy in all of her books.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Alyson. Thanks so much for talking to me today about Taking Up Space: Play by Your Own Rules. Congratulations on your book.

Alyson Gerber: Thank you so much for having me. I’m so happy to be here.

Zibby: Can you tell everybody what your book is about and what inspired you to write it? That’s not you, by the way, on the cover, right? It’s somebody much younger.

Alyson: Yeah. Taking Up Space is a book about a seventh-grade basketball player who’s named Sarah. She is struggling to feel good about her body and herself. She’s going through puberty, so her body’s changing. She’s always identified as a basketball player. It’s really important to her identity. It’s really important to her family. Basketball’s a big part of the way that she connects with her family. It’s based on my struggles with disordered eating, body dysmorphia, and really, self-worth. It’s really a book about how we learn to value ourselves and how that changes as we change. That’s not just for puberty. You change throughout your life in all different ways as your identity shifts. Some points in your life, that’s bigger. Maybe when you get married, maybe when you have kids, the way that you see yourself changes. During puberty, it’s really the first time our bodies are changing. Friendships are changing around those body changes and around those maturity changes. This book is about a girl who is living in a house where food is complicated. Her mom has a complicated relationship with food. Her dad doesn’t really register that there’s a problem, and so he becomes an enabler. One of the things I wanted to communicate in this book is that there needs to be a conversation between adults and kids about what’s happening with food. Right now, fifty percent of kids eight and up want to be thinner. That is a problem.

Zibby: I shouldn’t even say this, but one of my kids wrote on their whiteboard, “I will not eat sweets from this time to this time every day.” I was like, what? I saw it this morning. I was like, “Why is this up here? What are you talking about?” This child was like, “I don’t want to be fat.” Oh, my god, this is my five AM, by the way. Anyway, this is another conversation.

Alyson: Wrong start to the day.

Zibby: This is my theme du jour here.

Alyson: It breaks my heart.

Zibby: It broke my heart. I literally was like, “Where is this coming from? Did someone say something to you? Are you getting this from school? Where is this coming from?” It’s so pervasive.

Alyson: The truth is that it’s coming from everywhere. We live in a diet culture. We’ve lived in a diet culture since the early 1800s. It’s systemic.

Zibby: But I try so hard. I’m like, this is my role as a mom, is to not mess up my kids and their eating. I try so hard. I do all the things. I never say, I hate how I look today. Somehow, it still happens.

Alyson: I love that that’s how you see your role. I wish every parent could see their role that way, to make sure their kids feel good about food and good about themselves no matter what. I think it’s a really important job. It’s really hard when you’re fighting an uphill battle against diet culture.

Zibby: What I ended up saying to her is, because there is no issue at all, I’m like, “Everybody’s bodies are different. Strength doesn’t come from skinniness. If you want to be strong and you’re an athlete, there are different roles for our bodies. Why would you want to be a wimpy — see that as wimpiness, not something to covet. We should do a lot with our bodies.” I don’t know. Not that I’ve mastered anything either, obviously.

Alyson: It’s a really hard struggle. It’s a really hard push and pull because we have a society that values weight and size and shape over actual well-being and actual value. Why are we not valuing resilience and being capable and critical and thoughtful and kind? Those are the qualities that I’m sure you are instilling in your kids. You’re like, let’s let those ones outweigh this other thing.

Zibby: Just another reminder that as parents, you basically have no control. We have no control as parents, none, which is why I think I was so horrified by the mother in this book. First of all, the idea of not remembering to feed a child dinner — okay, fine, maybe once. I mean, I’ve never done that, but let’s just say you could excuse a parent for that. The intentionality behind it and the mother’s own eating disorder and her hiding food in the cabinet by the TV and in all these places and the one scene where she was eating the candies in the kitchen and ran out and how she doesn’t allow herself to eat and all the messaging that her daughter gets about, is this on the list — is this on my coach’s list of healthy food? What is okay? You see her wasting away. I just keep looking at this mother being like, when is she going to wake up in this book and notice? Even her friends are noticing a problem. Even the random boy she has a crush on is — I was so horrified by this character. As it went on and on and on in so much detail, I was like, okay, where is this coming from? Your own experience, tell me more about that. I want to hear more about that because there’s a lot in here. That was a long pseudo-question.

Alyson: It’s really interesting. I feel like part of the horrified responses come from, probably, a place of truth, a place of, this is a mom who you don’t necessarily know, but you know exists because you see — it’s interesting, when I was editing this book, I was teaching a virtual workshop to a great group of kids in Charlestown, Massachusetts. They didn’t know about the book. One of them said before the pandemic, they had a really good friend who they would sleep over at their house all the time, and there just wasn’t enough food in the house. Her and her mom would come up with a plan for what they were going to do when she went — this was a really good friend of hers. She wanted to spend time at her house. She wanted to be in her life, but she didn’t know how to navigate the situation. I said, “Wow, I have a book for you.” It occurred to me that it’s not just the kids who live in a home like Sarah’s home where there’s a lack of food, and so there’s trauma around food, but it’s for the kids who are friends with kids like this. Since this is such a prevalent thing, it’s really important for kids to know how to navigate as a friend. How can you be a friend to somebody, an ally to somebody? How can you be the parent of a kid who’s a friend to somebody’s who’s struggling and having a hard time either because of what they’re going through — or it’s a generational thing. It’s really a generational conversation.

For me, I started writing this book when I was pregnant with my daughter. A little bit of my backstory is that before I wrote Taking Up Space, I wrote two other books, both also published by Scholastic. Braced, which is about a seventh-grade soccer player who has scoliosis and gets a back brace — I wore a back brace for two and a half years. My trauma with wearing a brace actually started much earlier because I was monitored from age seven. From seven forward, I was being followed at Boston Children’s Hospital by a team of orthopedic surgeons. When I wrote Sue Shapiro’s humiliation essay, the very first thing I ever wrote about was standing in my underwear at seven and having a team of men say there was something wrong with my body, and that feeling of, I’m a problem that needs to be fixed.

At the same time that that was happening, I also had undiagnosed ADHD. It was 1991. I was unruly in class. I was sent to a child psychologist for emotional disturbance. The child psychologist said, “No, she doesn’t have an emotional disturbance.” I put that in quotes because I did actually have an — emotions and ADHD are very connected. The part of your brain that controls attention also controls emotions. I just had a lot of feelings. I didn’t know what to do with them. I was sent to a tutor who really traumatized me. She rang a bell every time I got out of my chair. It was very destructive, beating down of my self-esteem. I thought there was something wrong with my body. I thought there was something wrong with my brain. I couldn’t quite figure it out because I knew I could do certain things that other people — I knew I was capable in my gut, but every day was a different storm. It’s because I was fighting the battle of undiagnosed attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder that I didn’t know.

On top of all that, my mom actually had one of the very first spinal fusions in the country. In 1969, she underwent a fourteen-hour procedure. She was in a body cast for six months. She wore a metal back brace for two and a half years. She was completely tortured and completely traumatized at the same hospital where I was being monitored. My dad is an orthopedic surgeon trained at Boston Children’s Hospital. We walked into a situation that was totally triggering for her. There was no way for her to process it because no one had ever talked about it. Her scoliosis was treated. Then it was never talked about again. It was the seventies. They just moved on and pretended like it never happened. When you pretend that things haven’t happened, then they build up and they create a life of their own. It became a complicated situation with body dysmorphia and the way that food was handled in my house, which created a bit of a food insecurity. The truth is that my self-esteem issues came from a totally different place. They came from a place of really thinking I was worthless, of thinking I had no value. That collided in this perfect storm of being reinforced that there’s something wrong with me.

On top of that, when you don’t have an eating disorder — this is a lot of what Taking Up Space is about. When you don’t have an eating disorder, which I didn’t — I’ve never had an eating disorder. I am a person who struggled with food. Food has taken up a lot of space in my mind, which is where the title of the book came from. Instead of thinking about other things, I was thinking about food. I was thinking about my body. I was thinking about what I’ve eaten, what I hadn’t eaten. It was a lot of constant negative self-talk. Food became another way to negative self-talk. I think that’s very common. It’s common. It’s complicated. It’s not talked about. It’s painful. The way that you feel about yourself and weighing your value based on what you eat and what you don’t eat and what size you are and how you fit in the world, that struggle is what I really wanted to address in the book, an un-talked about struggle that nobody wants to talk about because it’s everywhere and it’s everyone. I read a study that said seventy-five percent of adult women struggle with disordered eating. For those of you listening to the podcast who’ve never heard that term, disordered eating, it’s not a medical diagnosis. It’s not in the DSM. It means that you’re preoccupied with food. Maybe you’ve done some restricting and binging. You’re overwhelmed by food. It takes up a lot of space in your mind. Maybe compulsive dieting, things that we consider to be common.

For me, that commonness made it so that I never asked for help. I refused to admit that there was a real problem when there was. I needed help. It wasn’t until I actually moved to New York City at twenty-one and my brother, who’s much younger, was diagnosed with ADHD and I started to understand what it meant that I went to a psychiatrist and got help. I really started to unravel all the pieces of a really self-destructive story. I pulled back the layers of the onion and found my way. This book came fifteen years after I started that journey. I was healthy. I was in a really good mental place. I was ready to get pregnant. I was safe. I had mental health. I knew it was going to be hard, but I had no idea that pregnancy was going to trigger my adolescent trauma, it was going to trigger that feeling of being in a brace, of feeling trapped, of feeling like nobody — I would try to communicate what I was feeling. I felt like I was suffocating. No one understood. Beautifully, my mom was really the only person who understood. My husband was very supportive and did his best to put himself in my shoes, but my mom really got it. She knew what that felt like. She understood the trauma.

That loneliness of not being able to express how I was feeling — I was taking my ADHD medicine. I was totally hyperfocused on how I felt about myself, how I felt about my body, how I felt about motherhood, and the fears that I was already messing it up and the fear that I didn’t want to mess it up. There’s so much evidence to support, if you struggled, then your kids will struggle. Ultimately, I wrote because I was in so much pain. You can only go to therapy so many hours a day. You can go a lot. I proved that you can go a lot. It really did help. Writing was a place for me to put it. The beginning of this book came from that. I didn’t want to write this book. I wanted to pretend it didn’t exist. I have a friend who was in a sorority at Penn. She said, “Every single girl in my sorority felt this way. Now they’re all moms. You’re going to be able to help them. Just keep writing. Just keep writing.” She’s a very good friend. We went to camp together. Every time I’d be like, “What do you think about this?” she’s like, “Just keep writing. Just keep writing.” Somehow, it ended up into this book.

Zibby: Wow.

Alyson: That was a lot.

Zibby: I thank you for trusting me with your story. Parts of that, I was starting to tear up, the self-hatred you had and just how easy it is for even the most loved child to feel like that and to feel that there’s something wrong. The eating is just a piece. It’s just a piece. It’s a symptom. How do you know? It took you so long. All the people out there, as you said, it’s so common. I find it very overwhelming. How do you effect change and make so many people feel better? Maybe it’s just hopeless. Then again, woe is me. Some kids can’t even have a family that can afford food. That wasn’t the situation in this book. It was that the mom chose not to buy the food. At first, I thought it was going to be about not being able to afford the food. That’s why they only had like two things in the house.

Alyson: What you just said is exactly brilliant and perfect. There’s this, especially right now, pandemic comparative suffering. I should feel lucky. I should feel grateful. We have enough. Yes, you can feel lucky and grateful and so thankful for everything you have and at the very same time, be in pain. The self-kindness that I’ve given myself, I think that that’s where the hope is. You can dedicate yourself to helping other people. You can feel lucky and grateful for what you have. You can also have had a hard time and be struggling and need help. Ultimately, for me, that’s really the message of Taking Up Space. It’s okay that everybody who’s in pain — listen, we’re all in pain right now. A lot of disappointment has happened. It’s been pain and suffering and hurt and loss and disappointment and mourning. There’s a lot of feelings. It’s okay for everybody in the whole world right now to be in pain and for that pain to exist even if somebody else has it worse.

Zibby: You should be a therapist now, by the way. You should take all that investment that you put into your own therapy and start getting it back on this other end. It’s so true. I wrote this piece forever ago called “Too Lucky to Cry on Easter.” I was sitting on my bathroom floor sobbing. I was like, what is wrong with me? I’m so lucky. I’m so lucky in so many ways. Why can I not stop crying? What’s wrong with me? Then you put that on top of everything else. The fact that there’s a baseline level of luck and appreciation and privilege and all of that is so important to recognize and to not take for granted, but it doesn’t mean that pain is not pain, physical, emotional. We’re all just people trying to get through the day.

Alyson: It’s true. I think being able to recognize other people’s pain and hear their pain for what it is also frees you up to be able to hear your own pain and to listen to your own voice. I write Own Voices books, which means they’re written from my own experience. It’s fiction. I never played basketball. I was never a superstar basketball player, but I really did experience a lot of the feelings that are in this book. I think one of the reasons I always liked reading Own Voices books as a kid and why I write them now is that I think there’s a lot to be learned from putting yourself in somebody else’s shoes. It gives you empathy for other people. It lets you look at yourself and say, oh, I’m allowed to be in pain too. It creates a lot of kindness when you can really just engage with somebody else’s story and live in their life for a little while. If people are listening and they’re thinking, what is an Own Voices book? I have one to recommend. Jerry Craft’s book, which I don’t have right here, his new book is called Class Act. He writes graphic novels. For me, it was such an important story. It really helped me see a spectrum of pain. There are so many amazing Own Voices middle-grade novels. It’s one of the reasons that adult memoirs are so popular, this ability to put yourself in somebody else’s experience. I think it opens your heart.

Zibby: That’s literally what I do all day long. I sit here. I was thinking about that this morning. I was interviewing somebody else this morning before you. Now I feel like I’m cheating on you with my other interview. I was sitting there listening to her story. I was thinking, wow, I’ve now heard hundreds, almost a thousand. This never gets old for me.

Alyson: You should start a therapy practice.

Zibby: I know. I feel like we have some sort of kindred something going on here. It just never gets old for me, hearing people’s stories, reading people’s stories, talking to people and hearing their stories. I’m so interested, but maybe other people aren’t as fundamentally interested.

Alyson: I think we are. I think it’s just really hard to let ourselves and give ourselves space. I think that’s really where the message with the book is like, moms do have time. We have time. We have space. We just have to let ourselves. Create a little space for it. It doesn’t have to be hours and hours and hours. It could just be a little bit.

Zibby: Maybe this is our space.

Alyson: I love that.

Zibby: Just practically, are you writing any more books now? What’s on your horizon?

Alyson: I’m working on something that is — one of the themes of the book, in addition to being a basketball book about a mother-daughter relationship that’s very complicated, there’s a YouTube cooking competition. participating in a YouTube cooking competition, but it’s so fun. I had such a good time doing it. The other piece of it is that we really get to see the mother-daughter love through their connection to books and their connection to mystery novels in particular. They read. They talk and connect. We can see that this a mother who’s doing her best and trying really hard to love. It’s confusing because food is a way that we love each other. I’m obsessed with mystery novels. I watch every mystery. Every British BBC murder mystery that has ever been created, I’ve seen it. I’m working on a mystery series right now, but I can’t really disclose anything about it because it’s so top secret. It’s really good. I’m so excited about it.

Zibby: Yay, that’s great.

Alyson: I’ve been secretly working on that throughout the process of getting Taking Up Space into shape and promoting it.

Zibby: That’s very exciting. My daughter’s birthday is coming up. We’re having a Nailed It! party. Her friends are all coming. We’re trying to make the cake. We’re going to have a professional, nice cake made. We’re going to have stations. Four teams are going to try to make the cake. Then my other kids are all going to be the judges.

Alyson: I love that. That’s so awesome. I love anything where there’s a very biased judge involved.

Zibby: Yes, it’s perfect. It’s going to be really fun. The whole YouTube cooking thing and the — oh, my gosh, this book made me hungry. Now I’m going to have to go have lunch. All the sizzling food and the cute boy who knows how to cook.

Alyson: That’s Benny. I know, I’m like, I love him. How is he so perfect?

Zibby: Alyson, I loved talking to you. I feel like I just went to coffee with a girlfriend or something. Thank you for that. Your book was fantastic and almost like a cautionary tale of sorts and a good reminder to all moms out there to try to get their own shops in order.

Alyson: I think it’s a good way for parents to start a conversation. If you’re a parent who’s struggling, even if it’s a secret struggle and it’s a small struggle, this book has all the tools you need to open up a conversation with your kids and say, let’s talk about this. It’s okay that maybe I’m having a hard time and maybe you’re having a hard. Maybe we’re all having a hard time. Parents who are listening, know that this is out there. Taking Up Space is out there. You can use it as a resource. I loved talking to you. This was so amazing. I’m so grateful.

Zibby: We’ll have to keep it going in person.

Alyson: Sounds good.

Zibby: Have a great day. Thanks so much. Bye.

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