Liv Stratman, CHEAT DAY

Liv Stratman, CHEAT DAY

Author Liv Stratman talks about her new book, Cheat Day, and how its topics make it ripe for all three of Zibby’s podcasts. The two discuss how Liv managed to capture our current age of diet culture so accurately before opening up and sharing what their own relationships with food and weight are like today.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Liv. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Lose Weight” to discuss your novel, Cheat Day.

Liv Stratman: Thank you so much for having me. I’m really excited to be here.

Zibby: We were just joking about the fact that you could’ve been on basically any of my podcasts because this book is so applicable for everything from sex to eating to reading. Every women’s issue is inside of this little tome. Tell listeners of this podcast, first, what Cheat Day is about so they get it.

Liv: Cheat Day is a book about a woman named Kit who’s in her mid-thirties. She doesn’t have children. She is married to a really nice guy. She works for her sister in her hometown of Bay Ridge Brooklyn, which is a very residential neighborhood in Brooklyn. Her life’s trajectory for her whole adulthood has been following one diet after another. She begins, at the beginning of the book, to embark on this extremely strict wellness regimen that has to do specifically with dietary restriction. She, in the course of that, falls into this really passionate affair with this really hot carpenter that her sister has contracted to do work in the bakery where Kit is the manager. It’s a book that very much takes on deprivation versus indulgence in a bunch of different ways, but very specifically in terms of fidelity and nutrition, and fidelity to nutrition.

Zibby: Also, I was dying to see the cabinets. The way you described them, they looked so cool. Do you have a picture of the cabinets you had in mind, by the way? No?

Liv: I drew them.

Zibby: You did?

Liv: I did. I draw everything. I draw little cartoons of everything. I’m actually not in my home. I’m in an Airbnb right now in Cincinnati, Ohio, because I did — it’s a whole long story. I live in Brooklyn. I’m from New York. I have a lot of family in Cincinnati. I went to college in Cincinnati. I ended up coming down here to do a live outdoor event so that I got to do something live since we really aren’t doing that right now. I did that last night.

Zibby: My grandmother was born in Cincinnati, by the way. My whole family was from Dayton.

Liv: Really? Southern Ohio in general I think is extremely underrated. Cincinnati’s a great town. I’m here, which unfortunately means I don’t — otherwise, I’d have them right here and I could show you. I draw everything. I’m not a great artist, but I took a class in graduate school with the cartoonist Lynda Barry who just converted me to the idea that drawing would be really productive and helpful. I’ll send those along to you if you want to see them.

Zibby: Yeah. I was like, I need those cabinets, the way you describe them, which just speaks to how visual a writer you are about basically everything, which is great. I love when books are so cinematic like that, and so funny. You combine this interior monologue that I feel like so many of us share about food and dieting, even though it’s not a diet, it’s a program. All the stuff is in here. Yet you paint it so visually. You can see her going to the bakery and just sitting there working on her papers and dealing with her in-laws and all that stuff.

Liv: I owe as much to Nora Ephron as I do to all of the writers that have influenced me from Jane Austen to Lorrie Moore through the canon of women writing in English. You can totally, I think, see that in my work.

Zibby: Wait, let’s talk about you and eating for a minute. Having Cheat Day, cheat, obviously, is in many connotations with this affair and cheating on the program and everything else. What’s your relationship with food like?

Liv: There’s obviously things there. The book’s not about me, but there’s just no way around it. I obviously have a relationship with food. I was, for a long time, a calorie counter. If you held up a piece of food, I could tell you how many Weight Watchers points that is.

Zibby: So could I.

Liv: I’ve listened to a few episodes and was like, this is perfect. I definitely can identify with you and the audience on that. I still pay my Weight Watchers subscription even though I haven’t dieted during the whole pandemic. I tried not to do it since the editing in Cheat Day because Cheat Day is, in so many ways, a takedown of that culture and points out the ways in which it becomes insidious and gets out of hand. It’s hard to stick to in a healthy way even though the idea may be a very good idea, to just know what you’re putting in your body, be conscious of it. It’s just really hard once you start using math to intuit what you need to eat. I’ve been trying not to do it anymore. I am such a dieter that, if I’m being honest with you, Zibby, I opened my Weight Watchers app this morning and thought, okay, on Monday when I’m done with my book tour, I’m going to do it. My jeans just don’t have the elastic I need right now. I’m really feeling it. During the pandemic, I was thinking, this is so funny. I’m editing this book about how dangerous diet culture can become and there’s this pandemic that feels apocalyptic, and I was essentially still thinking about how I need to start my diet again. I’m dieting at the end of the world. I’ve tried every diet. My weight fluctuates by twenty pounds. It’s a very normal story that is also very personal for everyone who goes through it.

Zibby: This is the whole thing. I was literally thinking about this this morning as I was like, I’m starting again today. Today’s going to be the day. It has to be. Who should I email about it? Should I tell everybody on Instagram, or will I abandon this by lunchtime? which is highly possible. Diet culture, obviously, is not good. I don’t know exactly how old you are. I’m forty-four. I’m much older than you, I think. Growing up in that way of the SnackWell’s and the South Beach and just the whole thing, how everyone was always trying something new, that’s just what you did, almost. There was such an emphasis on it. Did you try Atkins? Everyone was doing it. It’s very hard at this point when it’s all about body positivity and “don’t diet” to then also realize, well, you know what, I’ve actually gained weight. I need to lose it because I cannot get into any of my clothes right now. What do I do? I don’t want to diet, but what kind of program or lifestyle can I get into where I can still put on a dress next week? Do you know what I mean? What do you do?

Liv: Absolutely. I’m a little bit younger than you. I’m in my late thirties, but it’s very much the same era of the SnackWell’s. You want to get all your clothes from Wet Seal, but Wet Seal’s biggest size is size eight. In the magazines, everyone’s Kate Moss size. Dealing with that and knowing intellectually that that’s not good — by the time I was out of college and I’d taken some women’s studies classes I knew how bad that was and how dangerous it could become and the serious issues it could lead to psychologically and physically. At the same time, I just simply can’t afford to buy all new clothes. My weight does really fluctuate in that way. There are times when I’m just not comfortable. I’m not comfortable doing the things that I want to do because I’d just gotten to that point that feels like I’m a little too heavy. It’s become this thing where I’m afraid to talk about it sometimes because there is a taboo. You feel like when you want to lose weight you’re letting everyone down. I think it’s a good thing that we are trying to be so much more inclusive about body size, but at the end of the day, if I have five pairs of pants that are my go-to pants and I can’t put a single pair on, financially, it’s not feasible for me to just accept that, besides the fact that sometimes I also don’t feel good. I don’t feel comfortable.

Zibby: Totally. How did you take all that and throw that into your character?

Liv: It’s really interesting. Anyone who knows me and reads the book can see the ways in which, it’s not an autobiographical book by any means, but can see the ways in which that character’s voice — I think she’s a lot meaner than I am, I hope. She’s a complicated person. I very much took a worldview and a backstory. There’s a backstory where she, in college, really starts to understand through friends the way you can gamify your dieting and your control of your body and your weight. I decided to take that to a different extreme where she gets on this really — it’s a Whole30-esque diet, but I would say it’s even more intense than the Whole30. It’s longer. It’s substantially longer. It’s seventy-five days. She takes this diet which, on the face of it, just looks like she’s trying to eat ethically, eat well, eat in a way that is good for the earth and for her body, but that slowly becomes — I don’t want to say that it becomes anorexia, necessarily, because the purpose of diagnosing someone with something would be to treat it, and this is a character in a book. However, by the end of the book, she’s hardly eating at all. That energy that she has from the psychological repressions of that starvation, she’s taking out in all these unhealthy ways. It was kind of an experiment in me imagining, before I start the Whole30, before I start another diet, instead of imagining how well this will go, because I often quit and I’m often disappointed or I don’t feel tiger blood, let me imagine the other way that it can go and that it does for many people. It was a thought experiment that turned out to be a really engaging plot for me to work with. I was able to make it really funny, in my humble opinion.

Zibby: When you were talking about your character, I was about to jump in and say, and she’s really funny. Then I didn’t, but I feel that way. I felt like I could kind of tell that this must be what you’re like as a person now. You can’t pretend sometimes in books to be clever. It has to come from the author.

Liv: I remember in school, a writing teacher saying, don’t try to write characters that are any smarter or any dumber than you. Your characters are just going to be as smart as you are. You’re going to have to live with that. You can do all sorts of things with plot. You can do all sort of things with setting. All of that can be whatever you want it to be. Your characters can be as different from you as you want, but they are never going to be dumber or smarter than you because people won’t believe it. I thought that was true.

Zibby: That is so interesting. That’s great advice. Now I’ve got to get that advice over to “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Liv: Have a little clip at the beginning.

Zibby: Totally. That would be kind of interesting. I wonder if I could figure that out. Here’s a clip from our other — actually, that would be a really cool idea to market all the podcasts.

Liv: Free tip.

Zibby: I love that.

Liv: Hire me, Zibby. I’ll be your intern.

Zibby: Great. Come on over. I’d love it. Are you working on another book now? What’s your story? Yes?

Liv: Yeah, I am. I’m really excited about it. I’m also, like so many people who lived through the pandemic in New York City, I’m moving to Long Island next month. I am thrilled to be getting into the suburbs. It is that time in a city person’s life for me. I already have a sister out there who has the best baby on earth. I’m sorry to all the listeners who think their baby is the best. My sister has the best baby. Please don’t email me because I will fight with you about it. No, I’m kidding. I’m obsessed with my nephew. My sister’s out there. I’m really excited to be moving out there. To answer your question, the next book is set out in the Long Island suburbs. It’s about a couple. It’s similar to Cheat Day. It’s got a few elements. It’s a roboticist and a family that’s starting to try and deal with a fertility struggle. It’s called Vicious Breeds right now. They lost their dog, spoiler. It’s not similar to Cheat Day in the fact that it’s a longer story, but it’s got a lot of those zingers. It’s very much a story about the complications of intimacy and domestic life.

Zibby: I love it. So what is your normal day of food? This is completely intrusive to ask. What’s your go-to day of eating these days?

Liv: It changed so much in the pandemic where I was just like, all things are boring and the same. I couldn’t tell you a thing I ate during the pandemic, though of course, I spent the whole time eating. There was nothing else to do. Right now, I’m eating my balled melon that I bought premade at the Cincinnati Kroger. I’m starting off with fruit. I’m going to be honest. I’ll drink coffee. Then I’ll drink tea. Then I’ll drink seltzer and have some fruit or a hard boiled egg and kind of stave off an actual meal. Then in the afternoon is when I make the choice. Am I going to actually take the time to cook this chicken and put it on this salad, or am I going to get a bagel? It’s really anyone’s guess how the day goes from there. If the day goes toward the bagel, then dinner is pizza and pasta. If the day goes towards the salad, then dinner is fish and brown rice and vegetables. It’s that choice. I bet if I could just get it together and start with breakfast, like a lot of nutritionists would tell me, that I could probably have days that were at least more consistent either way. I just never have a stomach in the morning.

Zibby: I love that. I feel the same way. You set your day off on a course. Then you’re just like, well, it’s out of my control now. People are like, no, it’s every bite. You can make a new choice. Every meal, you can start over. I find that very challenging. If I go for ice cream, which I did yesterday — meanwhile, I’m wearing my “Moms Don’t Have Time to Lose Weight” T-shirt. I’m standing on the street holding an ice cream cone from a truck with rainbow sprinkles dripping all over my hand. I’m like, oh, this is too much. I can’t even believe myself right now. I’m not going to come home and then be okay with just a regular, healthy dinner. I’m obviously going to have dessert again, which makes no sense.

Liv: It makes no sense, but also, it makes perfect sense. It’s the same as if I get a stain on my shirt. It’s there. Then that shirt is an indoor shirt from now on. I can’t get rid of it. It’s the same kind of thing where if I eat the eight-hundred-calorie bagel with bacon on it or whatever for lunch, then the idea that it’s a clean slate by dinner, it feels like then I’ve lost the plot. It’s a non sequitur at that point for me to try and even bother cooking, let alone cooking something that is healthy and not going to make me totally lethargic.

Zibby: I’m envisioning some sort of stable with horses going a certain way. I’ve unlatched the padlock that puts me down going this way. There’s no way I can corral that horse to now go back into the other padlock with the grilled vegetables or whatever. That is my course. I can wander around that course, but that’s where I’m staying. Yes, I am at a similar place with the wardrobe issue. I started this whole podcast and community after the pandemic when I was like, okay, let’s all lose weight together. Everybody was losing weight. Then I was like, um, I’m not really focused on this right now. Then I’m like, now I’m not even helping anybody. I’m hoping with the podcast, if people feel a little bit less alone in the fact that, you know what, it’s not perfect and it’s really hard a lot of the time and cheat days are a thing — I don’t even have so many good days I can have one be a cheat day. My whole week is a cheat day. I’m like, do I have a good day? Not that we’re supposed to say good and bad. You’re not supposed to say that anymore.

Liv: Right. You’re not supposed to assign the moral value. It’s really hard to stop doing that when your whole life you’ve been conditioned to do that. I listen to “Food Psych,” this anti-diet podcast, sometimes, with Christy Harrison. I listen to it. She’s a nutritionist. She says all these really affirming things. She’s right, but it goes back to the beginning of our conversation. She’s right up until I can’t put my pants on. I had the same situation. At the beginning of quarantine, I did yoga every day. I had a plan. The problem was, at that point, we didn’t know that it was going to be over a year of our lives and that people’s children were going to be “going to school” on Zoom. Essentially, everyone’s educating their own children while working their job, while trying to get food on the table, while trying to listen to their partner talk about the stress of their own job, while trying to call their parents and make sure they didn’t go anywhere. Of course, I would’ve done great if quarantine had been the six weeks I knew I had the stomach for. After that, I just feel like we have to give ourselves a break.

Zibby: I agree. Now the world is coming back to normal. This will come out soon, but as we’re talking, it’s right before Memorial Day weekend. I flashback to all those magazines I would’ve read that were like, beach body summer, let’s go! I’m like, oh, dear.

Liv: It doesn’t matter how many memes you see that say, any body’s a beach body. If you don’t feel that way, . I think we have to have space to honor that even if we know that there’s an indoctrination that happened at a certain point. Factually, we grew up in the eighties and nineties.

Zibby: I totally agree with that. That’s the other thing. You want to feel better in your body. You don’t have to go and be a bathing suit model. Shame doesn’t come from what other people say. It can be just how you feel about how you look, how you run, or how it affects your exercise or energy or whatever.

Liv: Exactly. If I could choose to just feel the way the body positivity movement tells me I’m allowed to feel about my body, that is what I would choose, but I can’t. I know in my late thirties that I’m not going to be able to do that. It’s not realistic for me even if it is great advice. It’s just not for me.

Zibby: Meanwhile, when I was in my twenties or whatever, the idea that women would sit around in their forties and late thirties still worrying about this would’ve been like, what? Why do they care? Isn’t this over by then?

Liv: Aren’t they not people anymore?

Zibby: Do they count?

Liv: Aren’t they done being people?

Zibby: No one’s looking at you anyway, Mom. Why do you care? It’s true. I’m like, why? I’m just getting so old. Why do I even still care? Back to the closet, you got to get dressed.

Liv: And because you’re still a person. If I could go back in time and tell myself at twenty-five, you’re always going to care about yourself, you’re always going to be your own main character, it’s only going to get harder because of these very ideas, I don’t know if I would tell her or not.

Zibby: Totally. You’re going to worry about this forever. Great. PS, make sure this doesn’t happen to your kids, whatever you do.

Liv: You’re going to worry about it forever. It’s normal to worry about it forever. Also, you’re responsible if anyone around you worries about it.

Zibby: You can’t say a word about it. The other day, I was literally like, I’m so good, I don’t say a word about my body. Meanwhile, I have a podcast and an Instagram account. It’s obvious I’m clearly — . I write about it all the time. Who am I fooling? No, I don’t look in the mirror and say, ugh, you look terrible, but it doesn’t take a genius. These kids can see right through me.

Liv: The project of diet culture’s always in the back of your mind.

Zibby: I know. I used to feel, when I was growing up, like if I had alcoholism, that would be a thing and I would know where to go. Maybe now it is a thing. I think about food all the time. Sugar is everywhere. I’m not going to give it up because that’s too black and white. You can’t get away from it. It’s not like I can stop going to bars.

Liv: It’s a psychological labyrinth, absolutely. We have all this information, but we also have our lives to live, which completely run contrary to all this information we have. We deserve pleasure. Food is comforting and pleasurable. By the end of the book, that’s where the character lands. I don’t want to spoil anything. It’s an ambiguous landing. She’s not unrealistic about these forces being stronger than her.

Zibby: It’s so true. I once had this therapist. I was like, “No, you don’t understand. I think I enjoy food more than most people.” I love it. I appreciate it. I’m not just blindly — I love it.

Liv: If I didn’t, then none of this would’ve — if there’s a personality or a person who just really is the eat to live person, then maybe they don’t deal with this.

Zibby: Lucky us that — I’m swooping you into this. I shouldn’t. To get such pleasure from anything is great.

Liv: Absolutely, and community. The community we get from food I think is really important. Though the struggle of the book is really intense and the trajectory of her own dieting goes disastrously wrong, the book is very much about how food is a comfort and food is all about how we gather and love.

Zibby: It’s so true.

Liv: I keep all these truths in my mind while I also do just have a favorite pair of jeans and I want to look good in them again. I want them to button up.

Zibby: I guess I’ll just see you on the Weight Watchers app then.

Liv: Exactly.

Zibby: Thank you, Liv. Thanks for talking about Cheat Day, this totally amusing, delightful, thought-provoking, delicious read.

Liv: Thanks so much for having me. It was a lot of fun to talk.

Zibby: Thanks. Have a great day.

Liv: You too. Bye.

Zibby: Bye.

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