Reader Question - Dealing with Diet Culture at the Holidays
Today I’ll be taking a break from research breakdowns and such to talk about navigating nonsense that happens during the holiday season. Reader Anna asked:
It seems like I can’t put a bite of food in my mouth from November to January without somebody saying something - my mom, the people at my work. I’m looking forward to seeing my family but also dreading it. A little help, maybe?
I’m so sorry about this and I’m happy to offer some thoughts.
As the holiday season is upon us, there can be an uptick in diet culture - from work parties, to family gatherings, to the deluge of diet ads and people we know signing up for one more ride on the diet roller coaster.
Below are some options for anyone who may have to deal with inappropriate friend/family/coworker/rando-at-the-gym behavior during this holiday season (whether they are celebrating any holidays or not). As a bonus, these can actually work during any season.
Being under surveillance by the friends and family (or co-worker, or anyone) food police can really ruin a good time, or even a mediocre one. What’s more fun? A few of things come to mind immediately – root canal, shaving my head with a cheese grater, a fish hook in the eye…
So what do we do?
I want to point out that the opportunity to respond in various situations can be impacted by things like power, privilege, family, culture, neurodivergence, energy level and/or you might just not feel like doing anything. So remember that you aren’t obligated to respond. It can be helpful to name what’s happening (even if you don’t say it out loud. ) Thinking something like “That’s diet culture/weight stigma/body shaming.” What you want to do is put some space between yourself and the message to help you avoid internalizing it. We can remind ourselves that this kind of nonsense becomes our problem, but it’s never our fault and it should not be happening.
Set Some Boundaries
It can help to be prepared for boundary setting when we go into this type of situation. One option is this three-step boundary setting process. Think about what your boundaries are, and what consequences you are willing to enforce if they are violated. So think about what you would be willing to do – Leave the event? Stay at a hotel? Cease conversation until the person can treat you appropriately? Be sure that you know what you want and that you can follow through. Then follow three steps. You can have these conversations prior to the situation and/or you can have them in the moment.
Step 1: State the Boundary
“It’s not ok to talk about what I eat.” or “It’s not ok to comment on my body” etc.
You can explain why if you want, but you aren’t obligated. So you could choose to say “I’m working on developing a healthy relationship with food and my body, and negative comments are harmful” or “I’m sure you mean well, but policing my food/making negative comments about my body is not appropriate.”
Step 2: State the consequence you can follow through with
If it happens (or if it happens again) I’ll…head home/take my dinner into another room/stop engaging with you/or whatever works for you. It doesn’t have to be something big, it just has to be something you can follow through with.
Step 3: Follow-through
So you told told your Aunt Gertrude that it was not ok to police your food and that if she does you’ll head home and try again the next holiday. As you reach for some potatoes she says “do you really think you need those?”
You get up, pack up and say something like, “I’m sorry that you’ve chosen not to respect my boundaries so, like I said, I’m going to head home. We’ll try again next holiday.”
It’s important to say it this way because the people who refuse to respect our boundaries tend to be the same people who blame us when they experience consequences. We want to make sure that they are clear that WE aren’t ruining dinner, THEY are ruining dinner.
Again, if this doesn’t sound like something you want to do, you absolutely don’t have to.
A Little More Conversation
You might decide to engage in a conversation - you can use this to try to educate the person, to educate those who are observing this, and/or to feel like you’ve said what you need to say.
As an example, I’ll use that age-old shaming question “Do you need to eat that?”
This is such a loaded question. What do they mean by “need”? Are they asking if our glycogen stores are depleted? If, at this exact moment, our body requires the precise nutrients that are delivered by cornbread stuffing and gravy? Do they feel that fostering a relationship with food that is based on guilt and shame is in our best interest?
Regardless of why it’s asked, we don’t have to consider it to be an appropriate question. Still, for the record, I think it’s typically asked for one of about three reasons:
The person asking the question has decided that it is their job to pass judgment on your activities. Being too cowardly to directly state their opinion, they use this question as a mode of passive aggression to “make you admit it to yourself”. This is one of those situations where they would probably claim to be mistreating you for your own good.
If the person asking this question truly cared about you and your health (however misguided they might be), they would talk to you about it in person, alone, at an appropriate time, and they would ask a question that invited dialog, not try to embarrass you in front of people while you’re eating what is supposed to be a fun meal.
Remember that some people’s bodies left junior high but their mentality was, tragically, left behind. For these types, nothing makes them feel so powerful as judging someone else and then making them feel terrible.
Sometimes this is because the asker is actually drowning in…
The person asking the question perhaps struggles with weight stigma, their guilt about eating etc. and since they feel guilty for enjoying the food, they think that you should feel guilty about it too, or they want to deflect attention from their behavior to yours.
The degree of difficulty on discerning someone’s intent in this sort of thing can range from “of course” to “who the hell knows”. Again, though, it doesn’t matter why they are asking this question if we are not ok with being asked.
So you’re at a holiday meal, you take seconds on mashed potatoes and someone asks the dreaded question: “Do you need to eat that?” It seems like the table falls silent, waiting for your reply. What do you say?
This can bring up a lot of emotions and those emotions are valid. One way to reframe might be to consider that you are feeling embarrassed and/or sorry for them for being so steeped in diet culture/inappropriate, and not ashamed of your own actions.
Then you can try one of these options:
Quick and Simple (said with finality)
Yes (and then eat it)
No (and then eat it)
Answer with a Question (I find it really effective to ask these without malice, with a tone of pure curiosity. If you’re not in the mood to have a dialog about this, maybe skip these.)
Why do you think that’s your business?
What led you to believe that I want you to police my food intake?
Why are you policing my food?
Pointed Response (be ready with a consequence if the behavior continues)
I find that inappropriate and offensive, please don’t comment on my food choices
What I eat is none of your business, and your commenting on it is not ok
I have absolutely no interest in discussing my food choices with you
I’m not soliciting opinions about my food
Cathartic (but probably not that useful if you want to create an opportunity for dialog. On the other hand, you are under no obligation to center the feelings of people who are doing you harm, nor is there any requirement that you open yourself up to more possible harm by creating a dialog. If you’re just over it and want that to be clear, these can be a good choice.)
Yes, because dealing with your rudeness is rapidly depleting my glycogen stores
If I want to talk to the food police, I’ll call Pie-1-1
I can’t imagine what made you think that was appropriate to say, but as a holiday gift I’m willing to forget this ever happened.
Thanks for trying to give me your insecurities, but I was really hoping to get an air fryer this year
No, but using my fork to eat helps to keep me from stabbing you with it
We deserve to enjoy holiday meals (and, really, all meals) in peace. Our choices around food, movement, and our bodies aren’t other people’s business unless we ask them to make it their business. And, finally, just another reminder that we shouldn’t have to deal with this because this shouldn’t be happening.
If you’d like more support around this, I have a video workshop about dealing with diet culture and weight stigma at the Holidays which includes a pay-what-you-can option and you can find it by clicking here!
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*Note on language: I use “fat” as a neutral descriptor as used by the fat activist community, I use “ob*se” and “overw*ight” to acknowledge that these are terms that were created to medicalize and pathologize fat bodies, with roots in racism and specifically anti-Blackness. Please read Sabrina Strings’ Fearing the Black Body – the Racial Origins of Fat Phobia and Da’Shaun Harrison’s Belly of the Beast: The Politics of Anti-Fatness as Anti-Blackness for more on this.