How To Survive Fatphobic Comments Over the Holidays - Insights from a psychology expert

Dr. Marina Harris

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The holidays are incredibly stressful. In fact, 88% of Americans view the holidays as the most stressful time of the year. Unfortunately, this stress includes being exposed to a barrage of negative body talk, fat-shaming, and food-shaming over holiday breaks.

I’m an eating disorder specialist, and I typically spend a few weeks ahead of the holidays preparing my clients. Planning to be around food, planning to be around family, and planning for the inevitable comments around weight and shape. This year can pose added struggles for people attending virtual celebrations, who are more exposed to their appearance when they’re on video calls.

Most of us have friends and family who have fallen prey to diet culture. These people can be found talking about their new diet, commenting on what you’re eating (or not eating), differentiating between “good” and “bad” foods, making comments about your weight, making comments about others' weight, making comments about their weight — the list goes on. These comments can seem innocuous enough. And sometimes the comments are so subtle that we barely have time to register that they are fatphobic, like “are you really going back for seconds?” But they still sting and they can hinder our progress in healing our relationship with food and our body.

Most of our friends and relatives are well-meaning. They think that weight is the most important thing. They think that worth is contingent on weight. They are so obsessed with food, weight, and shape that they continue to discuss the topic despite cues from us that we don’t want to talk about it. Some of them go so far as to say “I want you to be healthy.” But despite these claims, our weight is not others’ business, and neither is our health. And despite popular belief, weight and health are not the same thing.

Here are some quick tips for coping with fatphobic comments over the holidays, straight from a psychology professional and eating disorders specialist.

Set the expectation ahead of time

Other people are not mind-readers. Your family may have no idea that discussing weight, shape, or food is problematic. It is our job to communicate our boundaries to other people.

Set the expectation ahead of time that you would like friends and family to respect your decision to avoid discussing weight, shape, and food.

You can do this by sending a text or making a phone call ahead of holiday events to warn your friends and family that you will be asking this of them. When setting boundaries, it is important to make a clear request. Directly request that others avoid discussing topics related to weight, shape, and the morality of food (i.e., labeling foods as " good " or " bad "; saying that you should or should not eat certain foods; implying that guilt is associated with enjoying food). Let your family know that this might be difficult for them, but it is important for your well-being.

When making requests, it is important to reinforce the person for complying with the request. This could be thanking them or letting them know that you would really appreciate if they could support your well-being in this way.

These strategies are part of the Dialectical Behavior Therapy skill called DEARMAN. See the full skill here.

I understand that some of us come from home environments in which it does not feel safe to do this. Ultimately, this is your decision, but if you do not communicate this boundary ahead of time, make sure to have a plan when it comes up in conversation.

Keep your cool

I know it’s unfair to ask that you keep your cool when others are hurtful. But it’s crucial so that 1) you feel better about the interaction and 2) others accept your message. Keeping your cool protects your well-being.

Have a plan or skill ready to help you keep your cool. When you feel emotions rising, try one of these strategies:

  • Take a break or walk and come back to the situation when emotions are more manageable
  • Take a deep breath
  • Meditate before the gathering or during a break
  • Hold a stress ball or fidget spinner
  • Use progressive muscle relaxation (You can discreetly use progressive muscle relaxation by squeezing your fists and then relaxing them)
  • Text a supportive friend
  • Have a card of positive affirmations in your pocket
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Be a broken record

The broken record technique is an assertiveness skill that can help you hold your boundaries. It is most often useful when someone ignores your request, resorts to attacking or name-calling, or simply forgets your request. It gives you the ability to stay firm in your message without escalating the situation.

In a calm tone of voice, acknowledge what the other person is saying and hold firm to your message. For example, you might say “I know that your diet is important to you, and I would really appreciate you not bringing it up in front of me.” Or, “I know that it’s difficult to remember, and I ask that you please not talk about weight at dinner.”

Say the message over and over again. Your acknowledgment of the person’s perspective makes the message non-threatening and prevents emotional escalation. Keeping a calm tone of voice shows that the strength is in your message. By repeating the message over and over again in a calm but firm tone, you show the other person that you mean what you say and the message is important.

If it doesn’t feel safe to set the boundary, change the subject

I always find that being direct with requests improves the likelihood that people will support it. But some of us don’t feel safe enough to directly set a boundary. If that’s the case, change the subject when unhelpful food, weight, and shape talk comes up.

  • I feel uncomfortable with comments around weight and shape. Can we talk about something else?
  • I’m working on a healthier relationship with food. I would appreciate if we could change the topic.
  • How’s your family?
  • I would love to focus on enjoying this food with the people I care about.

Have a contingency plan

It’s very important to have a structured plan at the ready in case the event doesn’t turn out as planned. In Dialectical Behavior Therapy, we call this a Cope Ahead plan. To cope ahead means to plan ahead for a difficult situation by anticipating potential sticking points and coming up with skills to utilize when that happens.

For example, you want to have a plan in case others in your family continue to talk about weight and shape despite you asking them not to. You want to also have a plan if intense emotions threaten to overwhelm you.

For each potential setback, come up with an action plan. Then rehearse that action plan in your head over and over until you feel confident that you could use the plan if needed.

Have a support person ready

Designate a support person. This person ideally can offer both support and encourage you to hold firm on your boundaries.

Ask a friend/family member who supports your recovery and well-being to be a designated support person. You and the person can decide together what that looks like. Some ideas:

  • Get together for an encouraging phone call before the event
  • Ask your support person if they can be on standby to text support throughout the event
  • Get together for a fun, low-stress activity after the event

Regardless of what the support looks like, just knowing someone is there for you is incredibly helpful.

Additionally, if you are trying to support your loved ones by avoiding fatphobic comments, here are some phrases you can swap with diet talk.

How To Swap Holiday Diet Talk with Non-Diet Phrases - That Certain Touch
As much as I try to steer clear from negative food talk in my daily life, I just can't seem to get away from it during…thatcertaintouch.com

Feel your feelings

Probably the most challenging part of hearing food and weight-shaming comments around the holidays is the emotions that come along with it. You might feel sad, angry, ashamed, disgusted, guilty, envious or jealous, or more. And you might also feel those mixed in with positive feelings like gratitude, love, or joy. Which can be really confusing.

Please give yourself permission to feel whatever you are feeling. It is all valid, and it probably makes sense given the circumstances.

For more information on emotions and using them to your advantage, check out this article.

You Can’t Run From Your Feelings
Everything you need to deal with your emotionsmedium.com

The takeaway

The holidays are stressful. When you add fatphobic comments, it can be a volatile combination. But if you arm yourself with these tips, you can feel more confident to manage the situation.

I know that it’s unfair that you have to manage fatphobic comments. I wish I didn’t need to tell you how to do that. And yet — with careful boundary setting, planning, emotion regulation skills, and giving yourself permission to feel whatever you feel, you can take back ownership of your well-being. Put yourself first and don’t fall prey to fatphobic comments.

Please take care of you during the holidays. That could mean going to family functions (in a socially distant way or via video) or deciding not to go to at all in order to protect your well-being. If you go, arm yourself with these tips. And choose to put yourself first.

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PhD in Clinical Psychology | Science-backed advice for living your best life | Expert on eating disorders, relationships, and athlete mental health | Former Division I Athlete

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