Body talk and the holidays

A mixed race woman with blonde hair looks at the viewer in disbelief while women sit to either side of her.

Recently, Cory Steig of Refinery 29 reached out to me to ask for some advice on how to handle all the weird, body-shaming, food-shaming things families can do and say during the holidays (when food is EVERYWHERE, of course – mixed messages much?)  She published this great slideshow of some of my responses, but I wanted to offer a fuller transcript of my replies here.

Cory’s questions are in BOLD and my answers follow.

What’s the best thing you can do or say when you’re in a situation where people are talking negatively about food? For example, at a holiday party when admiring the dessert table.

Cookies and a cup of hot cocoa with whipped cream

It’s dessert. Not the Trolley Problem.

A few strategies:
  • Hey, I’m trying to cut down on the amount of negative self-talk in my life, so could we change the subject to something else?” (Have something else ready to talk about, e.g. “So what do you think will happen with the Winter Olympics since Russia can’t attend?”)

  • Well, I sure appreciate all the love Grandma and Uncle Martin and Cousin Priya put into making such a beautiful spread.  Thanks you guys!  You always make such a beautiful table.” (Followed by other positive compliments, praise, etc. for people’s efforts at setting the table, decorating the house, etc. – people will often join in when you start complimenting others.)

  • Well, the rest of us will just have to enjoy the potatoes without you, I guess!” (And then re-direct or find an exit – “Hey it looks like Bubbe could use some help with the napkin rings; I’m gonna go help out.”)

  • It’s just the butter dish; it’s not a moral test.”  (This one is potentially combative, but if you’re a family that likes to joke, it can be a lead-in to funny banter, e.g. “Could be worse; you could be an Alabama Republican!” (ONLY IF POLITICS TALK IS SAFE IN YOUR FAMILY, OBVIOUSLY!) or “Don’t worry, we won’t be having trials at the Hague to see if you committed crimes against humanity after we eat.”)

Other subject change ideas:
  • “So, how have things been going with [your work, your hobby, your dog]?”
  • “Nana, when you and Lelo were first married, what did you give him for Christmas?”
  • “How was your trip here? What’s the price of gas (or the weather) been like where you live?”
  • “Hey, let me show you this video of a cat doing something funny.  It’s hilarious!”

 

If a friend or family member who you haven’t seen in a while comments on your weight, how should you respond? For example, I feel like college students returning home for the holidays are often self-conscious about weight gain, and family members often point it out.

An American woman of Irish descent walks toward the viewer on a flight of steps outside on a cold December day. She has very pale skin and black hair. She's wearing a black quilted coat, a red and black plaid scarf, a silver pin in the shape of her family crest, and a red and white Santa hat. This woman is a teacher, and has been teaching for five years. She wears plus size clothing, ranging from size 24 to 26. Her ethnic heritage also includes German and English. Her entire body is visible in this full-length shot, and she's looking at the camera and smiling.

Coming home isn’t always easy.

Time for a stronger response.
  • “Wow, why would you say something like that to me?”
  • “That’s a pretty rude thing to say to someone.  Let’s pretend you didn’t go there.”
  •  “My body isn’t up for discussion. Hard pass.”
  • “It’s not OK to comment on my body. Please stop.”

All of which should be followed by SUBJECT CHANGE.

I am a big fan of the general “how do I stop a conversation that someone else is very determined to have with me” strategies over at the “Captain Awkward” blog.  The Captain often advises that you make it as boring as possible for the person pursuing you by giving them nothing to engage with.  Don’t debate them, don’t get drawn in, just acknowledge they’ve spoken with as little interest or content as you can offer (look away from them, turn your face or body away, communicate disinterest) and change the subject.  For example:

  • “Huh. [subject change].”
  • “Well, that’s one way to look at it I guess. [subject change].”
  • “I’ll think about that. [subject change].”
If they persist, you can tell them “I don’t know what you want me to say here; I’m not interested in discussing this.  We need a new subject.”
In my experience, it’s often difficult to have conversations with older family members about body-positivity, because there seems to be a generational gap in understanding. Do you have any advice for how to have productive conversations with people who may be less-versed in the topic?
African-American girl and her grandmother, dressed in holiday clothes

Great-Auntie Max doesn’t need to get Instagram to get body respect.

I don’t think you need to try to school Great-Auntie Max about Tumblr and Pinterest and the difference between body-pos and intersectional Fat Acceptance and Health at Every Size (r) in order to get across the idea that it’s a good idea to work on having a good relationship with yourself.  “I notice I take better care of myself when I’m feeling good about myself, rather than when I’m criticizing myself over how I look.”

Older generations of folks may remember when the media wasn’t so airbrushed and Photoshopped, and when women weren’t expected to be wrinkle-free thanks to Botox and facelifts right up to the moment they die.  So they may be able to relate to ideas like “I’m trying to focus more on what I like about myself, instead of trying to be someone else’s ideal.”  Or “I don’t like the idea that there’s only one way to be beautiful or handsome.”

You could take out your phone and offer to share some more diverse ideas of beauty that they can relate to, like this Pinterest of “Older Beautiful People“, the Idiosyncratic Fashionistas on Instagram, or the crazy-good “Advanced Style” blog.

If they get into that, try them on Notoriously Dapper and his “modern gentleman” plus sized style, a roundup of best plus-sized fashion blogs, The Handsome Butch and Tomboy/Femme for some queer style, and how about this list of 25 trans folks to follow on Instagram?  Let them see what you mean when you say “different kinds of beauty.”  What’s that about a picture and 1000 words?

If any blatant body-shaming happens around your family, what do you recommend saying in the moment to defuse things?

Santa is shocked.

Santa is shocked at your family.

Frankly, whether it’s directed at you or someone else, I recommend saying “Knock it off.”  “Stop.”  “I don’t like that.” “That’s not OK.” “… wow…”  And if need be? “OK, I need a break from this conversation.” Being an ally to someone else who’s being targeted is a good way to practice standing up for yourself, and it’s the right thing to do.

But blatantly shaming you about your body (or anything else) is just not OK. I recommend that anybody concerned about families who are critical, hurtful, or abusive approach family gatherings with:

  1. An exit strategy (your own transportation or cab fare so you can leave early; your own motel room or a nearby friend who has a couch to crash on if you need space);
  2. Headphones and a bunch of podcasts; and
  3. The numbers for your BFF and a crisis hotline or “warm line” (a line you can call when you’re not in crisis but you need to talk) on speed dial, so you can go dump when you need to.
Two friends with darker skin and curly hair talk

Have folks you can talk to if things get rough.

Put these in your phone:
Ultimately, I hope you know: Whatever comments others make about food and weight at the holidays, it’s not your stuff.  It’s their stuff.  Just say “no” to bad holiday gifts, including other people’s baggage.

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drsaddison@gmail.com

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