ASK LESLEY: How Do I Deal With Family Members Bringing Up My Weight and Eating Habits at Holiday Gatherings?

BREAKING: It turns out YOU DESERVE TO ESTABLISH HEALTHY BOUNDARIES and to HAVE THOSE BOUNDARIES RESPECTED. Really!

Dec 3, 2012 at 4:00pm | Leave a comment

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Aww, look how well-behaved they all are.

In this latest installment of my once-in-awhile Column of Really Reluctant Advice, I’m responding not to a specific question from a specific person, but a more general inquiry I hear a lot this time of year. Usually on Twitter. Which is not the best medium for a wordy-ass correspondent like myself.

The question is some variation on: “How do I deal with my family (or anyone, really) criticizing my weight or eating habits over the holidays?”

For anyone who’s experienced any kind of weight change -- up or down -- over the course of the year, the holidays can be fraught with these sorts of interactions, particularly when you’re being thrown together with family whom you haven’t seen in awhile. Annoying though it may be, socially the first thing we may comment on when we see someone after a long separation is their appearance: “You got a haircut!” “I love your dress!” “Have you put on weight?”

It’d be GREAT if we all had extended families and friends we could trust to keep their observations on the complimentary side, but often that’s not the case, and in many situations, family can be amongst the most critical of our bodies -- I guess because we have this idea that we all own a piece of each other by virtue of being related. 

But when you combine hypervigilant family members -- even those whose intentions are not malicious -- and holiday gatherings involving big heaping piles of food, the body commentary and food guilt, both self-directed and otherwise, tends to flow. 

(Indeed, this is SUCH a popular question that a couple years ago, Marianne and I recorded a whole episode of our late lamented podcast about it, which I shall link here for those of you who enjoy hearing about these things in the form of two mouthy fatties spouting off over Skype.)

My own family is exceedingly well trained at this stage, and I hope they won’t mind me referring to them as such. Largely due to my influence, body commentary of any kind is strictly prohibited at family events, unless you’re talking about your own body, and even then, if you’re making endlessly negative judgments I’m gonna glare at you REALLY HARD until you stop, because even self-directed body negativity sets a certain tone that is not exactly conducive to a good holiday time.

Thus, I know enough about this to give a little bit of advice. Whether you’re facing the morose ruminations of your elderly grandmother who just wants to see you thin before she dies (which will probably be soon) -- or the skeevy assessments of your creepy uncle who is all too eager to direct your eating habits in order to remedy your too-fatness (or too-skinniness, for that matter) -- I have a few tips that I’ve relied on over the years.

Set Your Boundaries

Before going into any family encounter in which you expect your weight or food consumption to be an issue, establish to yourself which sorts of comments are okay by you, and which aren’t. I admit this can sometimes be hard to predict, as delivery is often a big part of how a comment is received. But you can, at least, define the lines you do not want people to cross, as doing so in advance makes it easier to defend them.

For example, you might decide that you are NOT going to get in an argument about whether you should be eating dessert, and will let any such remarks go. But you may decide that if Aunt Irma tries to pull you aside, like she does every year, to explain that she’s worried about you and how fat/skinny you are, and that you need to do something about it, and she has some ideas to help, and she’s only giving you this lecture because she cares about you -- you may decide that this is the year that you’re going to tell Aunt Irma to step the fuck off. Probably in less confrontational tones, but who knows? All families are different.

Or you may decide to laugh off your brother’s inevitable fat jokes; or you may decide you’re going to tell him you don’t find them funny. Or you may decide that you’re going to simply ignore your mom’s constant pressure to rejoin Weight Watchers with her; or you may decide you’re going to ask her to never bring the subject up again unless you ask her to.

Because I am seriously kind of domineering, I established years ago that our family gatherings would no longer contain any kind of negative body talk -- that means talking about how gross and fat you are, or anyone else is, or how horrible and guilty you feel for eating food are all socially on a par with racist jokes and farting at the dinner table. You just don’t do it. 

The fact is, extreme negativity brings a whole party down, no matter who or what it’s directed at, so expecting people to avoid being Negative Nancys at once-a-year events does not strike me as unreasonable. As a result, I experience whole lengthy holiday visits without once feeling singled out  or attacked for my size or my plate. And we all have a nice pleasant time together. (Actually, these days my family accepts me completely, although that took a lot of years and me writing a whole book to happen, so it might not always work out that way for everyone.)

There is no universal set of boundaries; comments that don’t bother me might ruin your whole week, and vice versa. Only you can decide which conversations you are not okay with. Of course, many of these situations can’t be anticipated, and sometimes a family member might say something after a few glasses of wine that you couldn’t have prepared for. But in general, thinking about these interactions in advance is a good idea, because being even semi-prepared can help to defuse any anxiety leading up to the happy family event.

Have a Script

If you’re like me, you’re constantly walking around with a head full of staircase wit -- staircase wit being those perfect retorts you think of long after the confrontation is over, when you’re already on the hypothetical stairs. While I am much prone to bravado myself, sometimes a family member I don’t know well will make a comment so completely unexpected that I find myself speechless.

Funnily enough, it’s usually something so blunt that it never occurred to me to anticipate it, like, “HAVE YOU GAINED/LOST WEIGHT?” I’ve heard both, sometimes at the same gathering. I think it depends on what I’m wearing and my posture.

So in the ultimate George Costanza nerditude, I tend to memorize little scripts for these circumstances. My reaction to the gained/lost inquiry is usually a bright and cheery, “I don’t know, I tend not to follow numbers but prefer to go by how I feel, and I feel pretty good!” Or sometimes, to put a lid on any further conversation, "My weight is not a subject up for public discussion."

My reaction to an unfunny fat joke is usually, “I don’t find jokes that rely on stereotypes to be very amusing.” (If it’s a funny fat joke, though, I just laugh.) My reaction to any cautions about my eating a cookie or a bigger piece of pie are usually, “HEY, let’s make a deal: I won’t make uninvited comments on what YOU’RE eating, and you can do the same!”

Of course, by now some of you are wondering WHY SO CONFRONTATIONAL, LESLEY? This is a self-defense mechanism. Although I appreciate that the conventional wisdom around Fat Life is that it’s a no-effort easy-peasy ride down a lazy chocolate river in a giant floating donut, the truth is it does take some effort to go around living in our culture as a fat person and resist internalizing all the body-hate we hear (this is likewise true of anyone whose body does not keep to social expectations, whether because you are skinnier than most folks, or because your gender identity is not what people are used to, or any number of reasons that a body may be socially marginalized). 

So it’s not so much that I am looking to be confrontational myself -- I am much happier and more relaxed when folks just don’t make negative body comments AT ALL -- the reality is that the world I live in is not always so kind. As an optimist, I remain convinced that in most circumstances, the people making hurtful comments about the size of my ass or the contents of my plate do not intend to be cruel. So I am going to explain it to them. To help them not be assholes in the future.

Setting boundaries is HARD. ESPECIALLY with family. Getting the boundaries to stick can sometimes be impossible, and this is why I know so many people who just don’t have close relationships with even immediate family members. But you deserve to establish comfortable boundaries for yourself, and you deserve to have them respected. Imagining a script can make things a little easier, can make you feel a little more in control of the conversation. Very often what is so disarming about these negative body comments is the way they make us feel disempowered and unable to speak for ourselves -- like we are simply reduced to our bodies, problematic monsters that they are.

Use the Buddy System

In the best of situations, you would have a comrade physically present with you at difficult family gatherings. Maybe you can bring a friend or a partner, anyone whom you can trust to be there if you need a dose of sanity or for someone else to restore your conviction that you are awesome just the way you are. 

But sometimes this just isn’t possible. Or sometimes the annoying family member in question belongs to your spouse’s side and you don’t want to throw down with dickhead Cousin Stan because it’s just not worth the stress. In times like this I suggest having a texting buddy. I rely on Marianne for this a LOT, like the year when I spent an hour listening to members of my husband’s extended family talking about defatted diet versions of real food, including a recipe for cannoli that used fat-free pastry shells (how is that even POSSIBLE) and fat-free cottage cheese.

My text to Marianne said something like, “That is not a cannoli; that is an ABORTION.” Saying that out loud probably would have made things uncomfortable for everyone. So I said it to my holiday-texting-buddy, and I felt better even while smiling politely and nodding at everyone else.

Having a buddy is also useful for keeping to one of my other non-negotiable pieces of advice: Do not return the body snark. Responding to someone’s negative comments on YOUR body with negative comments about THEIR body only reinforces the idea that this is an acceptable topic of conversation. If necessary, you can allude to this to get your point across, possibly by asking the snarker something like, “How would you take it if I announced to you, uninvited, that you look way more like an asshole than you did last year?”

But avoid making pointed comments about anyone else’s body or appearance -- you are better than that.

Finally, a word to those who make these comments: Please stop. Keep your observations to yourself. The fatter people probably know they’re fatter, and the thinner people likely know they’re thinner; I don't know ANYONE who has ever responded to such comments with a genuinely astonished, "OH MY GOD IT HAD COMPLETELY ESCAPED MY NOTICE THAT I HAVE A BODY WHICH HAS CERTAIN DIMENSIONS!" 

If you are legitimately concerned, you can express your concern to the person in a non-specific way -- "I just want you to know that I'm here for you if you're unwell, or if you need my support for anything."

But ultimately, all you do by drawing attention to their body is make the target of your observations feel uncomfortable and on display. Which may be your intention. But if that’s the case then you’re kind of an asshole. Odds may be that there are plenty of perfectly legitimate reasons to despise and attack your family members, but their weight is not one of them.

Got a question for Lesley that she may reluctantly answer? Email lesley@xojane.com and she’ll sigh heavily and think about it.