On a recent family vacation to Disney World, I made the apparent mistake of going up for a second plate of food at the breakfast buffet, a move that prompted my dad to ask me if I’d left any food up there for anyone else. I’m 33 — a full-blown adult — and also in recovery from an eating disorder, but his throwaway comment left me reeling, unable to eat much more off my plate.
Like so many others, body-shaming, weight-shaming, food-shaming, and health-shaming are deeply woven into my family’s dynamic, and it’s taken years of therapy to unlearn what I’ve been told is true about bodies, appearance, and people’s inherent worth related to them. I’m also intensely fearful of confrontation, so I didn’t (or couldn’t) react to the comment in real time. Instead, I remained at the table calmly, crumbling later on when I was eating lunch alone with my husband. Even in my favorite place on the planet, one cruel comment from someone who’s supposed to love me unconditionally had me feeling somehow both too big and so small at the same time.
Body shaming can be so covert and so insidious, sometimes it’s tough to even realize it’s happening in the moment. Whether someone’s questioning your clothing choices (or calling you “brave” for wearing something) or offering up unsolicited “health” advice, these comments can hurt even if they’re allegedly coming from a place of concern or a well-meaning person — especially if they’re coming from someone who should love you and have your best interests at heart.
Despite a culture that places tremendous value on thinness (oftentimes at any cost), bodies come in all shapes and sizes, and a person’s worth and value don’t change if they don’t fit into a thin and/or “healthy” ideal. But diet and weight loss culture is so prevalent that people feel entitled and empowered to share their opinions on other people’s bodies, whether it’s a backhanded compliment like “You have such a pretty face for your size” or, in my case, commenting on the amount of food I was eating. These comments are often rooted in projection, reflecting on the person’s own insecurities, and have little to do with you at all, though that’s likely of little comfort when you’re at the receiving end of a hurtful jab.
So, if a family member comes out of nowhere with a comment aimed at your body or weight, how can you respond in a way that lets them know your body is not their business? Jennifer Rollin, M.S.W., L.C.S.W.-C., a therapist and the founder of The Eating Disorder Center in Rockville, MD, offers up some solid options to shut that sh*t down immediately.
- “I’d rather talk about something more interesting than the size of my body.”
- “I’m working to have a positive body image, so comments like this are hurtful and aren’t helpful. I’d rather you refrain from commenting on my body.”
- “Research suggests that body shaming isn’t helpful in any way, so I’d prefer if you no longer commented on my body.”
- “I like to ask that you not make comments about my body, as I find these kinds of comments hurtful and harmful, and they can also negatively impact others who are listening.”
The unfortunate reality is that it can be hard to set boundaries with those closest to us, especially if you’ve experienced a lifetime of living in a certain dynamic with your family members. If you’re like me and don’t have it in you to firmly and nicely tell a relative to f*ck off, Rollin has a few indirect ways you can handle the situation without confronting them directly.
- Ask a support person at the event to come to your defense if someone makes body-shaming comments. This could be a spouse/partner, a friend, or a sibling who understands the dynamic and how it makes you feel.
- Find an excuse to leave the room. The beautiful thing about being an adult is that you can just get up and leave. You don’t have to listen to what this person has to say.
- Change the topic without engaging in any discussion about your body. The more abrupt and swift you are with this, the more likely they are to get what’s going on — no worries if you do clam up, though.
- Give them a blank stare without responding to their body comments. They should hopefully get the hint.
- Say, “Well, I feel great about myself.” Serve up a well-placed smile and a confident reminder that you are beautiful and bad*ss, and that they can take a seat with their baseless nonsense.
No matter how you handle the situation — and yes, you’re well within your rights to flat-out tell the person to f*ck off — Rollin hopes you can offer yourself compassion and grace, allowing yourself to fully feel your feelings. “It’s completely understandable if body comments make you emotional, hurt, and/or upset,” she says. In these cases, she recommends walking away from the situation so you can cool off, texting a supportive friend or loved one to vent, or even writing down how it made you feel, either in a journal or a note on your phone.
Just because someone shares a bloodline with you doesn’t mean they’re entitled to your peace or your time. You deserve to live freely and comfortably in your body, no matter what someone else has to say about it. End of story.