Most data I have read indicates that comments about someone’s weight or size have the opposite effect that the speaker is hoping for-assuming their intentions are good and not about sabotage or intending to demean. The data indicates discussing health is better. (Though something inside me is nagging that this too can be problematic depending on how its done.) Some research says parents should never discuss weight or bodies with their children. This leaves some parents wondering if this is going to leave their children overly coddled and dependent and unable to handle the “real world.” They wonder if they won’t be honest with their children they would be negligent in parenting toward helping their children reach their highest potential.
A few years ago there was an op ed or article that gained widespread popularity that claimed we should never ever talk about bodies except to discuss what bodies can do rather than how they look. The premise was that to do otherwise would be to cause or lead to a disorder.
I do think laying off the body shaming talk can be helpful. Furthermore, talking about what fit healthy bodies can do is very empowering and not at all dependent upon body size. In my opinion, making all body talk off limits can be dangerously unhealthy in a different way to some people and extreme discomfort talking about bodies may be symptomatic of trauma or disordered body image. Any time we make certain topics taboo, it raises a red flag for me.
Remember when cancer was discussed in hushed tones or not at all?..Or abuse? I want my kids to know they can talk to me about anything and that nothing is so shameful that it can’t be discussed at the right time with the right person. I know girls who looked to boys to tell them they were pretty because they didn’t feel like they got that kind of attention at home. Seems to me telling your child or anyone that they look pretty (assuming its done tastefully) shouldn’t be off limits. Only talking about what bodies can do or how they feel can also make someone feel invisible. However we know there are some folks who take body talk and especially body shaming to outrageous lengths and you may encounter some of these folks at your holiday dinner or in the street.
Take for instance a pregnant woman who was told she always carries large in her pregnancies by a casual acquaintance. Maybe it makes you wonder if you are somehow letting yourself go. How about the relative who comments about your pretty face? Maybe this makes you wonder if the rest of you is dumpy. When a relative comments out loud that she shouldn’t be eating that fried item which you also have on your plate, does it mean that you shouldn’t be eating it or that it makes you a bad person if you do. Or the friend who is talking about how she is going on a diet tomorrow or how she went to the gym for 4 hours before coming to the event. Does this make you want to eat a whole pie or become a hamster on a wheel to work off everything?
If these comments evoke strong emotions or a compulsion to act in self-destructive ways, noticing that you are triggered is a fantastic step! Noticing the feeling before acting on it or before the tsunami of emotion takes over and you’re out of control with your response is tremendous.
Once you noticed that this stirred up a strong emotion for you. Ask yourself the question: What are my interpretations, thoughts and assumptions about what this person said.
Test your assumptions. Do they fit the facts?
For instance: The pregnant client who is told she carries large might say.. Ah I notice that I am feeling angry. I am angry because when this woman said this I (I’m making this up) felt shame, I felt worried that I was less than, or it reminded me of a time when….and I felt…. Then she can ask herself if its true. Do I carry large? If so, and her doctor said its fine, then no worries or if she is on pregnancy number 5 and this stranger has only seen other mamas on their first pregnancy maybe she is the one with the unrealistic expectations of what a pregnant body looks like rather than that she is carrying particularly large. Any other possibilities? Perhaps the person who made the comment is concerned about her own body image and is projecting that outwards. There are many possibilities.
If you are sassy, maybe you can come up with a great comeback on the spot. For instance the lady who took the comment about her pretty face shot back with, “so what you’re saying it the rest of me is kind a piggy right.” Or the woman with the friend who talked about her hours and hours of workouts and dieting shot back with, “Are you saying all this because you’re so afraid of ending up like me.” If that is your style who am I to complain? Sounds like they asked for it.
Perhaps its more your style to educate the commentator by letting her know size isn’t always an indicator of health or maybe you prefer to remove yourself from the triggering conversation by leaving the room or not going at all.. Maybe you want to be more direct and let the person know that body talk or diet talk isn’t helpful to you in reaching your goals and what would be more helpful is…(and insert what is helpful to you). I can’t help you decide what is the right response for you but with some preparation and tuning into how you feel in your body might tell you what is.
If you know that you’re going to be with people who trigger you at holiday time, prepare in advance. How many times do we wish we had another 45 seconds to plan out what we’ll say and how we would have had the perfect response if we knew what was coming? If you have one of those kinds of holiday gatherings, you can anticipate in advance what will be said and how you want to feel and how you want to act. You can role play it with a friend or therapist in advance