Handling Body Shaming + Diet Talk Over the Holidays
It's about that time of year. The weather is getting cooler, the days are getting shorter, trips home are being planned...and diet and body shaming talk are about to take over the dinner table. If you've been working on your relationship to food and prioritizing a healthy relationship with your body, the emphasis on dieting around this time of year can be especially triggering.
To complicate things, dieting is no longer trendy. When I reference diet culture, I am also referring to toxic wellness culture—the way our "health" industry has co-opted diet culture and made it cool again in the form of gluten-free, sugar-free, dairy-free, keto, paleo, plant-based eating for the purposes of weight loss disguised as for "health."
Keep in mind I'm not saying eating dairy-free, for example, is inherently bad. Sure, if dairy does not work with your body, absolutely be mindful of that and make the necessary changes you need to that respects your body's sensitivities. Or, let's say, eating plant-based for ethical and climate reasons. I'm definitely for that because, our planet. What I am saying, instead, is that the pursuit of weight loss and fixating on a "perfect" and "clean" diet is harmful both mentally and physically. Freaking out about eating your aunt's pumpkin pie that she used (*gasp*) real butter to make and feeling so stressed that you somehow ate out of your "plan" and "weight loss regimen" is far unhealthier than eating that damn piece of dessert.
YES! Eating in a way that honors your bioindividuality is important! Health matters. But eating in a way that is restrictive, rule-based (not eating past a certain hour), obsessive, weight-focused, and limiting to the variety and joy that all foods can offer is 100% a diet and not healthy whatsoever.
I recognize that most of our friends and family don't think this way. From personal experience, I know how much diet culture (or, wellness culture) permeate the conversations women have among women—what people are cutting out, how they need to "get fit", how so-and-so looked at the grocery store, how much weight they gained during quarantine, etc. It's so problematic and yet it's so normalized in this day and age that we're losing sight and completely dismissing how all of that is characteristically in the mental health space actually as disordered eating.
So, without further ado, here's how to handle and set boundaries with family and friends around body shaming and diet-y food talk this holiday season.
1. Ground yourself in what you know to be true to you
You've been there and done that. You've tried every diet in the book. You never felt happy or comfortable with your body on these diets longterm. And so you decided to ditch the diet bs and reclaim a gentle and kind connection to your body and an intuitive relationship with food. Maybe you worked with a HAES (health-at-every-size) and anti-diet dietitian, or resolved a lot of the underlying self-worth challenges with a therapist that manifested as years of dieting. Maybe you're still working through it. Whatever the case, I'm so proud of you! It's not easy to swim upstream and do the hard work imperative in healing with food freedom and body acceptance. Remember this going into the holidays. That what you know to be true is that diets taught you not to trust yourself, that food needs to be controlled, and that you were not worthy enough unless you were small, thin, and fit. And how damaging those beliefs were. Ground yourself in this realization in order to help you deal with triggers and navigate other people's stuff being unloaded onto the dinner table. Just because someone else is deep in diet culture, does not mean you have to internalize their feelings and fears. Remind yourself of where you are and why you chose to opt out.
2. Have compassion for other people's struggles
This is a hard one. But it's important that we remember to practice compassion for where people are at in their journeys. Some of our loved ones may never get to a healthy place with their relationship with food and their body. Some people live their entire lives fearing weight gain, missing out the immense pleasure of food freedom, focusing so intently on manipulating their bodies and never veering from their food rules and structure. And dang, that sounds really sad. But hey—we can't change people or do their work for them no matter how much pain we see that they are in. What we can do, however, is foster compassion for where they're at and how stressful their relationship to food is. Maybe you've been there so you can empathize with it. Let your heart be human and feel for others without letting yourself get overinvolved when your loved one just isn't ready to change, and may never let go of the diet grip.
3. Be assertive and speak up about how you feel
At the end of the day, hearing comments about your body, other people's bodies, how many calories that dish has, and how much someone feels they have to compulsively work off that dessert tomorrow, is not fun to listen to and can really take away from the joy and connection that we crave during holiday gatherings. This is where boundaries come in.
Here are a few examples of boundaries to practice:
"I'd prefer we don't talk about my body"
"It sounds like you're really focused on what you're eating and not eating, cool if that works for you, but that feels restrictive to me"
"No thank you! I'm good — I feel satisfied and do not want anymore"
"I'd love if we connected more on interesting + meaningful things than diet talk"
"I'm not on a diet — I'm just at a place where I'm really learning to trust and listen to my body's needs and I've never felt more mentally or physically healthy"
4. Remember that not everyone will like your boundaries
It's okay if someone reacts poorly to your boundary. Like I mentioned earlier, most people think in very all-or-nothing and rigid ways about food—blaming the culture here not dieters themselves. Maybe you've never spoken up when your aunt never fails to comment on your body the second you see her. These conversations are difficult and uncomfortable. So naturally, if someone is not used to your boundary, they may not be receptive to it. And that does not make your boundary wrong. It also doesn't make you mean or that you take things "too seriously when they're just jokes." Boundaries are the limits we set in order to preserve our needs and healthy relationships to others and rupture sometimes occurs. But trust that your boundary is for you and is in your best interest for your mental and emotional wellness at your annual family gathering.
Written by Joanna Townsend, LCSW, Owner + Founder of Root & Rise Psychotherapy, a mental wellness practice based in Bozeman, Montana. For more, connect with Joanna on Instagram at @joannatalksfeelings.