Actor & Comedian Jana Schmieding Talks About Diet Culture & Navigating the Entertainment Industry as an Indigenous Woman
Probably best known for her role as Reagan opposite Ed Helms on Peacock's comedy series Rutherford Falls, Jana Schmieding is a Lakota Native comedian, writer and creator of fat-positive content, including the podcast she hosted called Women of Size. A vocal advocate of Indigenous visibility and social justice, she highlights these issues regularly in her comedy and writing.
Schmieding started off our interview by sharing that she's healing from a binge-eating disorder—one that really took hold of her when she was filming Rutherford Falls. "I'm totally OK if people know that about me," she says. "And I am an Indigenous person with a history of pretty violent colonialism over my traditional foods. So there will always be shades of that in my answers when it comes to food and eating."
When we caught up with her this fall, Schmieding shared some of her favorite easy-to-make meals, the one dish she can't live without and why she doesn't agree with the rhetoric of telling people to "simply love themselves."
EatingWell: What do you typically eat in a day?
Schmieding: What I eat varies so much, every day is different. Because I'm not in a writer's room or on set right now, my schedule requires a lot of self-motivation. Ease and taste is top of my list right now. And options—I like having a lot of textural options throughout my day, as well as options on the savory-to-sweet spectrum. I'm not a huge breakfast girl. When I'm at home, my first meal is usually around lunchtime. But I really like coffee to help me focus. So I love to make myself a vanilla latte every day, and I use half-and-half instead of milk because I want it to be creamy and thick. I buy a lot of pre-made salads and proteins from Trader Joe's. I really like their gyro meat—I crisp up in a skillet and put it on top of one of their Greek salads.
EatingWell: What usually comes to mind when you hear the word "diet"? And how does that word make you feel?
Schmieding: We have such a range of opinions in our culture about this term. But I personally really do not like the word "diet." I feel triggered by it. If we're talking semantics, it simply means your intake of food, but I think that the way we use the term has a lot of cultural meaning and a lot of trauma attached to it. It's really unfortunate that something so basic as feeding ourselves, this core human function, has been really traumatized over the course of time. I began to diet to control my weight and to control my body as soon as I learned about it. That was before my adolescence. I grew up in the '80s and '90s, a time of diet mania, like the Wild West of dieting. So I was just struggling so early with my body and what it looked like, because I didn't see anyone like me on TV or in pop culture. I didn't see women who were fat—or any kind of body diversity. I really sort of developed this pattern of thinking that despite any artistic talent or ambition that I may have, if I wasn't thin, I wasn't going to have access to my dreams and aspirations to be in music and the performing arts.
Dieting is one way that predominant culture has perpetuated fat phobia in our world. But we are getting to a point now where we're seeing fat people with large platforms in pop culture. And a lot of us are doing what we can to eliminate diet and fat-phobic rhetoric from popular conversation, but it can't just be on us. So yeah, that's the very loaded answer to the question.
EatingWell: What food could you not live without because it makes you feel so good?
Schmieding: Curry. Oh, I am obsessed with curries of all kinds. They have all of the features of food that I adore. Curries are flavorful. They're warm. They're spicy—sometimes. They can be meat- or vegetable-based. And they're super savory. I'm a savory girl! Yeah, there's something about curry that makes me feel alive. I feel like the spices awaken the senses, like they clear my sinuses. There are real physiological effects of eating curry that I find beneficial. I feel full after I eat it, also, which is really important to me. When I eat, I like the feeling of satiation, physically but also metaphorically. Like there is this genuine hunger that I have grown to know about myself. Like I'm hungry for all things. And so the feeling of being satiated is really important to me. So with curry there's not only that feeling of fullness, but there's always leftovers, and they're even better the second day. Curry is like a love potion. If I think about it, I have to get it, I have to eat it.
EatingWell: What do you wish you could tell your younger self about body image?
Schmieding: You know, I've been talking to my younger self a lot in therapy in the last couple of years. And the problem with this question is that it implies that there is this personal responsibility around body image and body size. As a girl, I really took that responsibility on, and it's a huge concept. Body image is so much bigger than just our own personal s--t. It's a huge, heavy concept. I grew up thinking that because of my body, and because it wasn't thin, that I wasn't lovable. I wasn't acceptable, and I wasn't deserving. And I still struggle with it. You know, even to this day. It's that insidious. So I can tell myself—and I do tell my younger self until I'm blue in the damn face—love yourself, girl. All bodies are beautiful. But that would be gaslighting her. That's what culture did to me and does to this day. I genuinely think the problem of the body-positivity movement is that the dominant culture doesn't believe in it. So, the second I leave the safety of my apartment, where I believe that my body is beautiful and valuable and deserving, I'm bombarded with the reality that it is harder for me to get access to quality medical care. It is shameful for me to be at the gym or at the grocery store. It's embarrassing to eat in public because I'm fat. I was being told that I was gonna die if I got COVID-19! So there's this genuine gaslighting that happens to fat people. So it is important for me, personally, that when I'm talking to my younger self, or when I'm healing my inner child, that what I'm saying is, I see you, I believe you. I know that what you're experiencing is horrible and hard. And you have no control over it. It's not your fault.
EatingWell: Are there things you think that the entertainment industry should be doing to help change it?
Schmieding: I don't know. It's hard. The industry isn't a person. And the entertainment industry is sort of in collaboration with advertising as the main distributors of harmful body standards. I wish it would change, but we've seen how hard it has been to diversify the industry and to ostracize abusers in this industry. It's been a heavy lift from a lot of people. And the lift comes from victims, which is not how justice works. I feel like my position in the industry is to be comfortable kicking down doors. I see that as my personal work that is within my locus of control. The thing that I can control is, I can do my best to ensure that when I'm writing stories that could potentially be in film and TV, that I am writing about experiences like my own, and that I am casting people who come from size- and gender-diverse and racially diverse bodies. That is something that I think about all the time. But I am only one person.
EatingWell: You used to have a podcast called Women of Size. Have any of those interviews in particular stuck with you?
Schmieding: So many of those interviews have stuck with me. And also so many of those friendships have stuck with me. That podcast really opened the space for me. I didn't really expect that. It felt more like a bit of a research project for me [at first]. But it ended up building a community for me that felt safe and helpful in a time when I really needed that. One of the interviews that I think about a lot these days is the interview with Eryn Wise of Seeding Sovereignty [a nonprofit that focuses on decolonization to protect people and the planet]. Eryn is an organizer who belongs to the Jicarilla Apache Nation and Pueblo of Laguna. What they talk about a lot in the interview is how they're trying to stay soft in these really harsh times.
Eryn's interview really alludes to a lot of that. Like, how do I employ love? How do I stay in a place of peace and hope when everything around me is so harsh? And even in the entertainment industry—my entrance into this industry has been so fun. And exciting and huge, it's been a major event in my own life. But it's a world with sharp edges; it's pretty cutthroat out there. So it's just that same wisdom of staying soft, staying true, putting trust in hope.
EatingWell: What's the one thing that you want our audience to take away from this interview?
Schmieding: The line that I'm pushing lately when it comes to wellness is that we need to come to a place where we see justice as wellness. So much of our unwellness or our sickness, if you will, is founded in racism. And colonialism. I mean, if we truly want to be a culture that cares, authentically cares, we need to take our eyes off of the dinner plate and look at how we're voting. We need to look at how we're treating our most vulnerable communities, our houseless, our working class, our imprisoned populations—how are we treating them? Are they well? Are we going to shame them for being unhealthy? How are we treating our food sources, including our animals? We need to look at our medical system. We need to take the pressure off of our individual choices and put the pressure on our larger systems and cultural institutions. Because these are big injustices, and we engage with them without batting an eye all the time, and they keep us unwell. It's so stressful to be an Indigenous woman. It's so stressful to be a fat woman in our culture. I'm thinking about it all the time. How do I stay soft? That is the work that I want to be focusing on. How do I stay safe? Like how do I protect my insides? How do I protect my mind and my heart, you know? One of those ways is eating the f--k out of curry.