Where there is food, there is inevitably talk about the body. During the holidays, this talk seems to be even more prevalent. Maybe it’s because we’re often seeing relatives or friends that we haven’t seen in a while. Or maybe it’s the wide variety of rich foods and desserts that gets people so hyper-focused on their bodies. Or maybe it’s just the culture of indulgence over the holidays and the subsequent penance society tells us we have to pay come the New Year. Whatever the reason, visiting family (or friends) over the holidays is often a landmine for someone who is rejecting the diet mentality and trying to make peace with their body and food. Consider this your guide to setting boundaries around body talk.
After I moved out of state after college, my trips back home were limited to mainly holidays and an annual summer get-together. Because our visits became so rare, I looked forward to them for months ahead of time. However, there was one aspect of seeing family that I never enjoyed. Eventually, someone would make a comment about my body. Sometimes, the comments were meant to be flattering (I wish I could look like you) and at other times they were made out of concern (“Are you getting enough to eat? You’re so thin“). And my personal favorite- “You look sickly” which came after the birth of my first child when I was still breastfeeding and eating my husband under the table.
Regardless of how well-intended these comments were, they were unwelcome and felt like criticism. Finally, I got to a point in my own journey to healing my relationship with food and body image where I was able to set a firm boundary: My body is not up for discussion.
Tips for Surviving Holiday Table Talk
When you’re working to improve your relationship with food and your body, one of the best things that you can do is surround yourself with people that are supportive. Ideally, people who also have a healthy relationship with food and their bodies. However, we know we can’t control the beliefs and views of others. All you can do is manage your reaction to them. Here are a few subtle (and not so subtle) ways that diet culture and negative body talk may show up at your holiday table:
- “You look great, have you lost weight?” This seems like a compliment but it is really problematic. First, what if someone hasn’t lost weight? Are you implying they should? Or, maybe they have lost weight because of illness, stress, or disordered eating behaviors. By telling them that you think they look great, you may be reinforcing their behavior, which may be very unhealthy for them or cause them to develop a full-blown eating disorder. Diet culture tells up that we should value the pursuit of weight loss. This isn’t true. We should value our health and appreciate our bodies which has nothing to do with our body size and weight.
- “Somebody has been hitting the dessert table a little too hard!” This is making the assumption that we are 100% responsible for weight changes in our bodies. Some common reasons for weight gain include hormonal imbalances, medications, injury, stress, poor sleep hygiene, fertility treatments, and other medical conditions. It is also possible that this person is in recovery from disordered eating and is restoring weight after a prolonged history of restriction or purging.
- “You’ve gained weight, you look much healthier now.” Again, this is assuming that their previous weight was unhealthy, as well as assuming that their current weight is attributed to healthy behaviors now. Look back at the previous bullet point for reasons for possible weight gain. Body shaming someone for being at a weight that isn’t what you think they should be isn’t acceptable. Ever.
- “Are you really going to eat all that?” It is not your responsibility to regulate someone else’s appetite and food intake. Maybe they have spent all day on the road and this is the first time they’ve sat down to a meal that day.
- “You’ve hardly touched your food.” Again, it is not anyone’s responsibility to regulate someone else’s appetite or food intake. Maybe they’ve bounced around from holiday party to holiday party and only have room left for a nibble? Let’s just agree to let each person honor their own hunger and fullness levels.
These conversations can be uncomfortable to navigate. Sometimes, it may feel easier to just ignore them and move on. Believe me, I tried that– for years. However, avoidance will likely just lead to resentment down the road. It is empowering to stand up for yourself and your needs by setting some healthy boundaries with your loved ones.
How to Set Boundaries, Lovingly
So if my family member just keeps talking about dieting and asking me about my weight, are they just trying to hurt me? Probably not. Let me explain. Your family member is probably talking to YOU about YOUR body because THEY are unhappy about THEIR body. This is called projecting. That family member may be struggling with their own body image issues or defining their worth based on their weight. So chances are, it’s not about you at all, it’s about them. Diet culture is so ingrained in our lives that it can be very difficult to realize all the ways that it has impacted us.
This is where setting healthy boundaries can be beneficial. After all, you can’t fault someone for crossing a boundary they didn’t know you had. Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend are the authors of the fabulous book, Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No and Take Control of Your Life, and they offer some great tips in their free guidebook, Boundaries for the Holidays, to help you set those necessary boundaries with family members.
- Have an attitude of humility and grace. Try to approach the conversation by assuming that the other person is unaware that what they’re saying is hurtful. This is not letting them off the hook. It’s allowing room for some empathy and kindness to enter the conversation. If you want someone to learn from you, it’s important not to immediately put them in defensive mode by attacking them. Try something like, “I love spending time with you for the holidays but sometimes I’m hurt by the comments that you make about my body or the food I choose to eat. I’d love to talk about and see what we can do better in the future. What do you think about that?”
- Be direct and specific. Now is your chance to lay down your expectations. “I’m learning how to appreciate my body for the way it is now. I would appreciate it if you didn’t comment on my weight.” Or, “I’m learning to let go of diet rules and give myself permission to eat. I really need to be able to eat without fear of judgment.”
- Request a change. You’ve told them your needs and now you have the opportunity to ask for a positive change. “From now on, can we make the table a body talk free zone?” Or, “When we visit, can we talk about something other than dieting? I’d love to hear more about…” Sometimes, this is where the conversation can get tricky if the other person is in denial that they’ve done anything wrong. Feel free to use my example, “My body is not up for discussion” if you’re searching for something super explicit.
And lastly, if you have set the boundaries and there is still someone in your life who does not respect them, then give yourself full permission to skip seeing them this holiday season. That’s right– if your mental and emotional health will be compromised by spending time around that person then DO. NOT. DO. IT. Even if it’s family. Sometimes, ESPECIALLY if it’s family. Some relationships can be too toxic and damaging while you’re doing the hard work of healing. You can always revisit the conversation with them whenever you are in a healthier place. Hopefully, they will be too.
What To Do If You’re The One Doing All the Talking
If you are reading through this post and realize that you have been engaging in negative body talk, take a deep breath and give yourself some grace. It’s likely that you, too, are a victim of diet culture and you simply didn’t realize that your actions were causing someone else distress. However, it is very important that you acknowledge the harm you may have caused your family members so that you can begin to repair your relationship.
Take it a step further and learn more about how to improve your own relationship to food through resources such as Intuitive Eating, by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. To learn more about how to enjoy a healthier relationship to your body, try Body Respect by Dr. Linda Bacon and Lucy Aphramor or Body Kindness by Rebecca Scritchfield. Find a dietitian or therapist who is Health at Every Size informed and learn more about the impacts of negative body talk and food shaming and how you can find freedom within yourself.