Depending upon your personal situation, the holidays can be a wonderful, relaxing time with family and friends, or they can be stressful, full of drama, and exhausting. This year’s holiday season will be different thanks to the global pandemic, but many people still plan to get together either in person or virtually with family and friends.
Many people are lucky enough to have family or friends that they truly enjoy catching up with and seeing over the holidays. For others, the holidays are an extremely difficult time, especially if they have tense relationships with their family. Several people feel a looming anxiety as the holidays approach knowing they will have to talk to family members that have been/continue to be abusive, or there is simply palpable tension in the air at all times for whatever reason.
So yes, the holidays are intended to be lovely, relaxing times, but they aren’t this way for many people in America and all over the world. One major reason why people dread the holidays is due to fat phobic comments and diet talk at the dinner table year-after-year.
Once again, I have had the incredible privilege of receiving many messages from people in different parts of the world about all things diet culture and intuitive eating. Below are examples of a few things I have experienced personally at get togethers, heard from friends, or read in my DMs.
Not-So Hypothetical Situations
- Wow, look at that plate, someone is hungry!
- Wow, look at that plate, I wish I could eat as healthy as you.
- Wow, look at that plate, you’ll have to go for a run later!
- You’re not full, go back and get some more of the green bean casserole I brought.
- My, have you lost weight? You look great!
- My, have you gained weight? Don’t let yourself go too much, sweetie.
- Do you have a significant other? No person is going to want to marry someone of your size. (I have gotten messages about this multiple times)
Weight/Diet Related Gossip
- Have you seen so-and-so? They have let themselves go!
- He broke up with her, and then she gained so much weight.
- He broke up with her, and then she got hot!
- I know they were sick, but they lost quite a bit of weight and look great!
Self Deprecating Body/Diet “Humor”
- Ha ha ha, diet starts tomorrow, am I right?
- Wow, I am disgusting, look at all I am eating ha ha ha
- Look at my legs/belly. So bad!
Have you ever heard a variety of any of these? Probably. This list is by no means comprehensive, and there are hundreds or thousands of other possible phrases I could list here.
It can be hard to dismiss these comments and avoid viewing your relatives/acquaintances as downright rude and unkind when they say things like these. Most people are well-meaning, and don’t intend to be inflammatory or insulting by making comments like these. Others are downright cruel and mean exactly what they say when these utterances pass their lips.
Now that we have identified at least a few of the possible scenarios, let’s get into dealing with them. I have broken these tips up into two categories: for the non-confrontational and for the bold. You can use any combination of these strategies to your liking, and be aware that, like most things in life, there is no one-size-fits-all solution here.
Strategies for the Non-Confrontational
If there is one thing that I avoid like the plague, that is conflict. I hate the feeling of rising tension, and whenever I have to confront someone about even the most minor of things, my heart beats out of my chest and my anxiety skyrockets.
Let’s say you walk in, or log onto a Zoom call during 2020, and you are immediately hit with comments about how skinny you look or comments about a diet someone is trying. What can you do if you don’t feel able to say something direct? There are a few paths you can take when diet talk rears its ugly head during the holidays:
Change the subject
At the first sign of diet talk, change the subject to talk about a cool work project you have been working on, how weird school is this year, or a new show you started watching. Other light, neutral topics can include sports, weather, and home improvement projects.
Pro tip: to avoid diet talk, stir the pot with a hot political take if you have family members on the other side of the political aisle. I’m kidding, I’m kidding. I have found in my own life that it is best to change the subject at the first sign of these too.
Ask lots of questions
Get other people talking about their own lives. Ask the usual questions about work, school, family, how they are dealing with the pandemic, yada yada. Some will find a way to interject their diet/fitness routines or disordered eating behaviors disguised as healthy living, but you can steer the conversation again with another question.
Most people love talking about themselves, and won’t notice or think anything of you directing the entire conversation toward their lives instead of what is on your plate or how your body looks.
If you are feeling uncomfortable with the way a discussion is going, simply excuse yourself and go to the bathroom to catch your breath. As an introvert, I usually have to do this at get togethers even if it isn’t cringey or stressful. I just need a few moments to clear my head and recharge before I can get back out there.
Pro tip: use my old favorite, “I’m going to stop you right there. I have some real nasty diarrhea that is begging to be taken care of.” JK, I wish I could say this with a straight face, but bringing up bodily functions of this nature can do wonders of getting you out of horrible conversations
On a more serious note, simply saying “excuse me”, “oh I think I’m getting a phone call”, I’m going to go help with dishes” can all be gentle ways to get the heck out.
If someone is purposely being harsh or downright mean at your family gathering, you are under no obligation to respond. Children act out when they want attention, and many adults never grew up and matured out of this stage. If one of your family members says awful things to you or someone else, sometimes the best solution is to just not give it any attention.
You may come off as rude, but spending time trying to argue or change the subject when they say inflammatory things can often add fuel to the fire and encourage their behavior. Playing CandyCrush on your phone instead of engaging with that BS can leave you much better off in the long run.
While this may not be a direct action to get you away from the problematic language, taking a few moments to think about where diet talk or fat phobic language may come from can help you stay calm and cool in the moment.
Most people who make fat phobic or body shaming comments feel incredibly insecure themselves, and seeing a person working toward a more intuitive lifestyle may trigger the ugly parts to come out. We have all been subjected to a pervasive diet culture that tells us that smaller bodies are “better”.
Now that I have been engrossed in the realm of anti-diet websites, Instagram accounts, Facebook groups, and more, I sometimes find it baffling that regular people haven’t heard of intuitive eating or still try every new diet that comes out. I forget that most people still want to change their bodies and struggle with disordered eating, even though I was there myself not so long ago.
Remind yourself that these comments are more telling about the struggles the person making them is going through rather than signifying anything about you.
Honestly, this tip is handy for any unsavory conversations that come up. People that are unknowingly or purposely prejudiced or hateful are often suffering quite a bit behind closed doors. That doesn’t mean their behavior or comments are excused, but it does provide an explanation.
For the Bold Individuals Among Us
If you’re a bolder person than I, which quite frankly doesn’t take much, you may not need any advice about the upcoming holiday season. You may be able to tell it like it is and give Uncle Bob a piece of your mind when he comments on someone’s weight.
This can have mixed results, and I don’t recommend everyone suits up and goes to war with their family when diet talk commences. But, if the situation warrants it, that’s your call.
Here are some strategies for people who feel able to be a bit more direct during holiday discussions:
Lay Some Ground Rules Ahead of Time
When sending out an in-person or virtual invite to family, you can include a little caveat that says you’d like to avoid talking about diets, weight, and whatever else you would feel uncomfortable with.
Adding that reminder ahead of time can make people pause and think about what comments they may be used to making and how they can pivot against those this year. Plus, if anyone begins to make weight-centric comments, you can gently remind them of the ground rules put in place with the invite.
As we know, many people don’t like feeling as if they are being told what to do. Sending out an invite with a caveat about topics you’d would rather avoid can make some rascals rub their hands together manically while they plan out how to not adhere to your wishes. I guess that’s show business, baby.
Some people may not understand why you don’t want diet talk, and providing an explanation may help them be more empathetic to the cause. You always have the option to open up and be vulnerable, letting people know that you are recovering from disordered eating behaviors or body dysmorphia if you feel up to it.
After knowing the reason why you want to avoid these topics, most decent people would understand and at least attempt to adhere to your wishes. They may not be as educated as you on the subject, but it’s easy to see when people at least try to show respect.
Whether or not you decide to share your explanation, people who purposely disrespect your ground rules or call you a “snowflake” when you mention that you don’t want fat phobic comments or diet talk at the table can be asked to leave or simply kicked off the Zoom call. If you are at someone else’s place, you can also leave if multiple attempts to course correct have failed. Taking care of your mental and physical health should be priority number one.
Inform People About Health at Every Size and Intuitive Eating
We all have relatives or acquaintances that believe they are experts in everything, right? Sure, some people at the table may have a degree and decades of experience in a certain field, but your great uncle Stan still claims to know more about it regardless of his actual knowledge or experience. This happens quite a bit in the healthcare and nutrition fields, thanks in part to Dr. Oz and other daytime television hosts that push supplements and subtly encourage disordered eating.
Lots of people these days aren’t interested in science or factual information, but many people would be open to learning more about the research behind movements like Health at Every Size and Intuitive Eating.
If you have relatives that are vocal about diets or are fat phobic, you can channel your inner Hermione Granger and gently, or not-so-gently correct the person spewing fat phobia or diet talk at the dinner table. Tell them that you have read incredible books or articles that they can borrow or you can send to them about this topic if they are interested. Check out my resources list for some book ideas too!
They may or may not take you up on this offer, but it could lay the groundwork for more conversations about these movements in the future. If they are curious, share your knowledge in a kind, compassionate way instead of with an uppity, “you’re so stupid, I know more than you” vibe. It’s hard to resist giving explanations without giving off a self indulgent demeanor, especially when the person talking about diets is behaving in that way to begin with. But resist if you can.
People are much more likely to be receptive to things that are delivered gently and with kindness rather than with a sneer. At the same time, some people don’t respond at all to kindness or compassion either, and in that case, it might be time to get the heck out.
Confront Directly or Indirectly
There are tons of ways one could confront someone directly either in front of everyone or in private later on. Some phrases to use when confronting a person could include:
- Excuse me, you are being disrespectful.
- Please stop saying things like that.
- Your comments about weight aren’t funny.
- I have spent the last year working really hard on accepting myself, and I comments like these are why I have struggled in the first place.
- You are not setting a good example for all the kids around.
Of course, these are more polite versions of things that you might feel like saying, but I advocate for confronting someone with respectful language when possible. I have almost always regretted the times that I have lost my cool and said disrespectful things in a heated moment. But, sometimes getting fired up is warranted too. Ultimately, you know your situation best.
If you want to call someone out, but you are having a hard time forming the right words and being completely direct, asking targeted questions or for clarification can have a similar effect.
One strategy I have found that works like a charm is to ask a person to explain a racist, fat phobic, sexist, or otherwise distasteful joke they tell or statement they make. After they deliver the punchline or make their remark, sit there with a blank look on your face, and say “I don’t get it. Explain it to me.” Keep this going for as long as you want. This takes all the fun out of it for the joke teller, or person trying to rile you up, making them less likely to do this again in the future. Additionally, it gives them a chance to reflect on the very nature of the joke or comment and potentially confront their own biases. That’s the hope, anyway.
Truly, one of the best ways to get a person to stop doing a certain behavior is by not giving them the reaction they are seeking. If someone likes starting fights, don’t engage. If someone says mean things about others’ bodies for attention, don’t give it to them. It can take time to figure out people’s motivations for behaving a certain way or saying certain things, but once you do, it is easier for you to behave in a way that doesn’t give them whatever they are searching for.
In the end, you are only responsible for your actions. You cannot make other people behave a certain way or believe certain things.
Taking Care of Yourself During and Afterward
Any time I have had a large virtual or in-person gathering, I need at least a day to recharge my introvert batteries. I always feel exhausted, drained, and overwhelmed, and I just want to be home and do my own thing for a while. This is true even when I’m not subjected to diet talk or body shaming.
If you endured harmful conversations that you weren’t able to avoid or shut down, reach for a journal, blank piece of paper, or document on your computer where you can explore the comments that were made and how they have affected your mental space. Dig deep. If you were able to combat these things successfully, you can also journal about what worked best for you this time around, so you can use it again in the future.
If, after family gatherings, you can feel your mental health sliding down a slippery slope, reach out for mental health care to a trusted professional, or check out Aunt Bertha for low-cost care options near you. You can also talk with a trained crisis counselor for free by texting HOME to 741741, a service from Crisis Text Line.
Additionally, make sure you are making time to do things you enjoy doing every single day, even just a few minutes, and reach out to friends and other family members for support when needed. I have taken up piano and putting puzzles together during Covid-19, and they bring me a sense of peace like nothing else can. If you don’t already have activities like this, experiment and find ones that give you serenity, especially when you are struggling in the aftermath of a stressful event.
The holidays may be ripe with diet talk each year, even if this year’s celebrations occur over Zoom, but there are strategies you can use to get through them relatively unscathed. Is there anything you have done that worked for you in the past that I didn’t mention above? Let me know in the comments below!
I haven’t listed any revolutionary tactics or strategies to dodge or to take diet talk head on (apply directly to the forehead lol), but I think many of us feel obligated to put up with fat phobia, weight stigma, and diet talk from our relatives.
It can feel rude or improper to change the subject when someone is talking, or flat-out saying we don’t want to talk about weight or diets can feel like a sin to some of us. Sometimes, it feels like we need permission to stand up for ourselves or speak our truths, but the only person we really need permission from is ourselves.
It may not always feel like it, but the most important person in your life is you. You must take care of yourself as best as you can, especially after enduring tough family events or setbacks in disordered eating. You are not obligated to spend time with anyone who cannot help themselves from being combative or passive aggressive about weight, body size, or non-restrictive lifestyle choices, or anything else, especially after you have explained where you’re coming from.
You deserve to be at peace with your body, your food choices, and your overall lifestyle. Don’t let anyone get in the way of that just because it’s the holidays.
As Always, a Book Recommendation
Once again, I find myself recommended Untamed (affiliate) by Glennon Doyle. I first listened to this book at the start of quarantine, and it has stuck with me for months. It’s all about creating the life you want, not necessarily the life you think you are supposed to create.
Glennon, at one point in time, had the typical American life and family, but something didn’t quite feel right. She could have easily lived out her days this way, ignoring those tugging feelings. Instead, she leaned in and took risks, not allowing other people’s comments and criticisms to deter her from doing what felt right. Now married to famous soccer player Abby Wambach, Glennon expresses that things just feel right.
Her family and lifestyle may not be typical in the way it used to be, but she was brave enough to follow her heart and go against the grain. This book is amazing for women especially, but everyone can find nuggets of wisdom within its pages.
We all deserve to build the life that we want, but the opinions of others often hold us back. I highly recommend Untamed (affiliate) for everyone. In fact, it would make a great holiday gift 😊.
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