Do You Need to Eat That?

Written by Ragen Chastain. Posted in Body Logic, Featured Posts, Fierce Fatness

Ah, the holidays. Time to give thanks, celebrate, and deal with three solid months of diet ads, articles, and tips “you’ve never heard before” (which you’ve totally heard before.) Like: eat a bowl of fiber cereal before a party. Or: don’t keep snacks around. All of it topped off by a visit from the food and fitness police, aka your family and friends. Because nothing says “happy holidays” like being humiliated by and in front of your nearest and dearest.

Ms. Fit, feminist, health, fitness, wellness, body positive, Regan Chastain

You are halfway through dinner and there is a lull in conversation. You bring a forkful of potatoes to your lips when, in a voice that takes you straight back to your awkward middle school days, your mom breaks the silence: “do you need to eat that?”

Ms. Fit, feminist, health, fitness, wellness, body positive, Regan Chastain

Finishing your first helping of the stuffing Grandma only makes once a year, you reach for another spoonful. Aunt Ermentrude, eyebrow fully raised and voice dripping with disapproval says, “seconds?”

You flounce down the stairs in the new dress you’ve been waiting until just this occasion to wear. Your cousin Shereena gives you a pointed look over and says, “you aren’t skipping your workouts are you?”

These questions are more loaded than the bite of baked potato that prompts them. Even if the person asking is well-meaning, their questions end up seeming tailored to make you feel ashamed. There are three basic reasons people ask questions like this.

Judgment

Ms. Fit, feminist, health, fitness, wellness, body positive, Regan ChastainYour great Aunt Lupita considers herself an expert on absolutely everything. Time has told her sometimes people just aren’t ready for her wisdom, so she couches her judgment in passive aggressive comments instead. If she gets called on it, she is sure to say “it’s for your own good.” She may even truly believe that.

Here’s why this is crap: if Aunt Lupita truly cared about you and your health (however misguided she might be), she would talk to you privately, at an appropriate time, and she would ask questions that invited dialog, rather than try to embarrass you in front of family during what is supposed to be a celebratory meal on a feast holiday.

Power/Superiority

“Looks like she got a head start on her winter padding!” “You must be on a seafood diet—you sea food, you eat it!”

When you are wondering why your cousin Marqueza or Uncle Jim think it’s hilarious to shame you for cheap laughs, it can help to remember that some peoples’ bodies made it out of Junior High but their brains stayed behind. Nothing makes these people feel more superior than making someone else feel inferior, as publicly as possible. They are also typically adept at shaming anyone who calls them on it. “Can’t you take a joke?” They say, or, “don’t be so sensitive!”

Here’s why this is crap: when people haven’t learned ways to feel good about themselves other than making other people feel bad, it’s important to remember their lack of emotional maturity isn’t your fault, it’s just become your problem.

Insecurity

Ms. Fit, feminist, health, fitness, wellness, body positive, Regan ChastainYour cousin Shereena struggles with her weight. Since she feels guilty for enjoying food, she thinks that you should feel guilty about it too, or she wants to deflect attention from her behavior to yours.

Here’s why this is crap: as unhealthy as it may be, people are allowed to cultivate self-loathing relationships with their bodies, but, like the flu, it’s not ok to try to give it to you.

How to Deal

The truth is, you may never know why your relatives behave like they do. Here’s the thing though: it doesn’t matter why they comment—you get to decide whether or not it’s ok. If it isn’t, use this opportunity to try some simple three-step boundary-setting.

Step 1: Set the boundary.

State clearly and concisely what behavior you require.

  • It’s not ok to police my food intake.
  • I’m sure that you have good intentions, but I’m not interested in your opinion of my workouts.
  • It’s not ok to talk to me about my food or fitness choices, even if you think it’s for my own good.

Step 2: Set a consequence.

It’s extremely important to choose a consequence that you can actually follow through on, otherwise you just teach your family that you make idle threats. This is important for a lot of reasons but mostly because it’s not about trying to control someone else’s behavior, but rather about making choices about what you are willing to put up with and showing that you are serious about those choices.

  • If you continue to talk about my food intake I will leave, and we can try again next Thanksgiving.
  • If you keep it up, I’ll take my dinner into the other room and eat in peace.
  • I’m working hard to teach my kids to love their bodies and to avoid disordered eating. If you can’t control this behavior with me, you can’t spend time with them.

Step 3: Follow through

This one is key and, among my friends who have done it, the consensus is that they only had to do it once. If steps one and two fail and your family member continues the unwanted behavior, it’s time to follow through with the consequence. Be strong. They are likely to do everything from promising that they’ll stop (sorry, too little too late) to accusing you of ruining the holiday (a convenient, if completely fallacious, perspective.)

The choices are all yours. Some people choose to put up with this kind of behavior because it’s family, others draw stronger boundaries and both are completely valid perspectives. It helps to create a strategy for how to handle this before you get to the event, maybe even practice at home or on the way to the celebration. In the meantime, here are some suggestions on how to handle the dreaded, “do you need to eat that?”

Quick and Simple (Say with Finality)

  • Yes (and then eat it)
  • No (and then eat it)

Answer with a Question (Prepare for a Conversation)

  • Why do you think that’s your business?
  • What made you think that I want you to police my food intake?
  • I thought that you were an accountant; are you also a dietitian?

Ms. Fit, feminist, health, fitness, wellness, body positive, Regan ChastainCathartic (When You’ve Had Enough)

  • Yes, because dealing with your rudeness is depleting my glycogen stores at an alarming rate.
  • If I want to talk to the food police, I’ll call 911.
  • Thanks for trying to give me your insecurities, but I was really hoping to get a Wii this year.
  • No, but using my fork to eat helps to keep me from stabbing you with it.

You have the right to be treated well. It’s ok to do what you have to do to make that happen.

Happy Holidays!

 

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Ragen Chastain

Ragen Chastain

Ragen Chastain is a trained researcher and National Champion dancer who writes and speaks about Health at Every Size and Size Acceptance. Author of www.DancesWithFat.org and Fat: The Owner’s Manual, Ragen has recently spoken at Dartmouth, Amherst, CalTech, Google Headquarters, and is a feature interviewee in “America the Beautiful 2”.

Comments (19)

  • Tex

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    Good grief. If anyone at my table were to criticize or call out another person (about food or anything else) without provocation, they’d have their plate taken away and their coat handed to them tout de suite.

    Reply

  • Rie

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    “Do You Need to Eat That? ”

    There is a difference between need to, and want to, and as an adult I WANT TO soooooo S T F U while I TRY to ENJOY my MEAL and not stab you in the process.

    Reply

  • VeganGirl

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    I do not agree with using children as a weapon in fighting about food so strongly disagree with telling relatives that if they criticize YOU you will remove your CHILDREN from their presence. That is childish and creepy game playing putting the children in the middle, using them as weapons and setting them up for their own future guilt issues.

    I also do not believe in fighting about food and who should eat how much, or criticising anyone while they are eating – that is rude and nasty. But I do believe that TALKING about a good healthy diet is important and should not be hidden away from family gatherings and is probably a good thing to do while preparing or preferably while PLANNING the holiday meal – it is not a SHAMEFUL topic. And it is not off topic either.

    I think that people should eat healthily and try to maintain a good weight for them, a weight hey are comfortable with, and if they are happy being a bit pudgy because they like creme pudding that is their own business.

    BUT – I have the opposite issue – we have part of our family who are hugely overweight and unhealthy – the kids as well – and the whole thing started when the mother gained loads of weight, then the father, who was previously a normal weight, also gained weight. She is very gamey and controlling, and is a “know it all” who will not shut up. She bullies. She does not cook food and only buys and serves fast food takeaway and candy and this is what the whole family gets for meals. The mother keeps candy everywhere, even in the car glove box and in her purse, and is constantly munching it and encouraging her children to eat it – the girls all got their periods at 9 and 10 because they were so obese. Family members have tried to talk to her privately (never at dinners!) about the health of her kids and so have doctors but she refuses to listen.

    When any of her kids try to diet now that they are older because they are tired of it, and refuse to eat her food, she feels she is losing her food control over them and bullies them and guilts them back into over-eating again. At family gatherings when we have a pot luck as we often do, she runs around following them, encouraging them to eat more and take more helpings. I feel this is child abuse, and the kids are teased at school due to their obesity and are having numerous health issues already, not even in college yet. The family does not talk about it with her anymore, except behind their backs – but I think they should call her on the carpet about her sick controlling behavior and I really think someone should speak to the kids, because they have truly grown up emotionally abused by this woman, and scarred for life with hugely obese bodies and screwed up eating habits and guilt eating to satisfy their mother’s own insecurity.

    I think that healthy eating and how to have healthy relationships to food and to your body is a GOOD topic for families to share and discuss (not with blaming but with encouragement) to avoid this sort of thing. So in comebacks, I also think that suggesting you are continuing to eat to “get back at someone” who doesn’t think you should eat, or even suggesting you are doing so as a comeback is equally sick behavior that only continues this kind of family problem, because it is falling back into the trap of using food as a weapon and putting it in between you and another person as a way to try to control their behavior right back.

    YOU CANNOT CONTROL WHAT ANYONE ELSE WILL SAY TO YOU, YOU CAN ONLY CONTROL HOW YOU REACT TO IT.

    Personally, I think that if any person is truly concerned that your family will eat healthily during the holidays, you should serve HEALTHY holiday food at your table – it IS possible and this has to be done during meal planning. Check out numerous website for vegan desserts for example – those tend to be desserts which usually substitute really good ingredients like pumpkin or avocado to the recipe in place of fat and eggs – and they taste out of this world and have much more nutrition than their traditional counterparts – vegan brownies are made with tons of chocolate and cocoa but much less fat because animal fat is not in it, nor are eggs. That is just one example.

    So I would ask them instead as a comeback – “Well why did you serve this kind of food if you did not want people to eat it – if you want us to eat healthily, why not serve us healthy food ?” That puts the onus on them again to provide healthy choices for all. I think it’s a more positive and truthful message. Because learning to eat healthy food that keeps your body’s systems in good shape IS important – too many people grow up on fast food diets and really don’t know what a vegetable is. It only leads to increased cost for society in diabetes. I will not defend shitty eating though, nor will I say it is OK to feel good about being addicted to big macs – I think that is a sick behavior because it is self-defeating and makes your body weaker, not stronger. Too much scientific evidence is out there showing that all people, skinny or fat who eat a poor diet of fast food and tons of sugar end up dying of heart attacks or other illnesses from their food choices – society has to pay in increased health costs. Heavy people who eat healthily do much better than heavy people who eat junk food, or skinny people who eat junk food for that matter.

    And really, I would not excuse my own emotional over-eating with nasty comebacks which just make things more obscure and obtuse. Why not say “having a family like this, full of game playing and passive aggressive behavior such as the difference between your comment and meal – telling me not to eat too much but providing me with 5000 calorie meal options like mashed potatoes slathered in butter piled a mile high and serving enough food to feed an army at the table – is probably what lead to my emotional overeating to start with.”. What can they say back to that ? And you are being truthful. Maybe it would open up a discussion.

    Reply

    • closetpuritan

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      I think it’s more than clear from the post that this is not about using children as weapons; it’s about protecting your children from messed-up comments about food, eating, and weight, and therefore protecting their relationship with food from becoming unhealthy.

      I’m not sure what you’re saying at the end of your comment: are you personally an emotional overeater, or are you assuming that anyone who’s the target of these sorts of comments must be an emotional overeater? Just like any time an actress or model is called fat on the internet, she must actually be fat?

      Reply

    • Linda

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      I guess your point is that there are situations in which food policing is valid. But your relative’s problem is bullying and controlling. What makes you think that food policing — which is in itself bullying — is going to change that about her? In any case it’s not the issue that Ragen is addressing; for you to bring it up comes off as dismissive and derailing. As for the appropriateness of diet talk being “on topic” just because there is food at a gathering — well, sure, if the conversants both have an interest in the topic. But if you think you’re going to lecture me? That’s extremely rude and tiresome. I am so sick of people thinking they know what is healthy for *me*. You know, no one is asking you to defend “shitty” eating. They are just telling you to keep your judgment to yourself. You want a “conversation”. How about if I question whether veganism is appropriate for you because I know several people for whom veganism has ruined their health? Does that sound fun for you, like the sort of conversation you want to be having while you’re trying to enjoy your vegan dinner?

      Reply

  • Suggestion Saturday: November 23, 2013 | On The Other Hand

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    […] Do You Need to Eat That? I really dislike it when one person criticizes what someone else is (or isn’t) eating. This article provides a long list of ways to handle obnoxious behaviour like this without telling the reader that there’s only one right answer here. In the past I’ve ignored these comments, but I’m seriously thinking about switching up my responses in the near future. […]

    Reply

  • ninafel

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    “OMG, this dessert has so many calories, I shouldn’t!” “All this cholesterol is so bad for us!” I once stopped comments like this in their tracks by saying, “In Europe, a host would be absolutely shocked and distressed if a guest said something like that about the food they had worked so hard to prepare and offer. Polite European guests would either quietly refuse something or eat it, but they would never be so rude as to make comments about the health of the food or the lack thereof.”

    Reply

    • VeganGirl

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      I don’t know where you lived in Europe, but I have lived in Europe for a long time and people comment on the food all the time like this at dinner parties ! I have never been to a dinner party in France, Germany, the UK or Italy where some comment like this was not made, usually by a woman or an athlete watching their diet. I don’t think there is anything wrong with these comments AT ALL. They are truthful. No one should eat too much fat and sugar. Normally this comment is followed by someone taking a sliver and commenting on how yummy it is – the host or hostess I have never seen getting angry or upset at such comments.
      Better option – just start cooking more healthy delicious food and you can just say “oh actually this uses avocados in place of butter and oil for moisture in these brownies, so it is really not so bad for you, go for it” – with a smile, as I do now when I offer around vegan desserts. :-)

      Reply

      • RagenChastain

        |

        Hi there,

        I think that you are getting confused about what is your business and what is not. When you make statements like “everybody should” or “no one should” you are probably headed down a bad road.

        You get to make choices for your body, you get to decide what you should eat, I will defend your right to eat avocado brownies all day long. It’s absolutely not your job to tell other people what they “should” do with their bodies or food. If someone cares what you think about their food choices, I’m sure that you will be among the very first to know.

        On my blog, we call this The Underpants Rule http://danceswithfat.wordpress.com/2013/01/16/yes-its-the-underpants-rule/

        ~Ragen

        Reply

      • ComplexMolecule

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        Many things that are true should not be discussed at dinner. Medical procedures, religion, politics. It’s rude to comment on the food choices of others. It can be absolutely terrible if you’re speaking to someone who is in recovery for an eating disorder. I would hope that a person who calls herself VeganGirl would be more empathetic to other eating styles.

        Reply

  • pir

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    these days i hit back about as hard as it gets thrown at me, usually with a humourous tone, and it works fantastically well. in fact, nobody who knows me tries to talk to me about my food choices anymore. i can’t take a joke? let’s see how well they can take the joke when i twist it back on them — i have a fabulous sense of humour, it just doesn’t normally rely on cruelty, but it can, if needs be. depends on how mean they are. i can’t stand bullies. i love the junior high bit — i might use that in the future; it is a perfect comeback.

    “do you need to eat that?” — after a long, leisurely lick: “well, now i licked it, so it wouldn’t be polite to put it back, *wink*.” or i break out into song: “all i need is the air that i breathe and to looove you … but you’re making it difficult, so i gotta console myself with food.”

    “you must be on a seafood diet — see food, eat it.” — “actually i am on a whole foods diet — whole grains, whole chicken, whole pie; very fulfilling.” exaggerating somebody’s stupid health claim or passive-aggressive “joke” into absurdity is one of my favourites.

    when somebody fills my ears with TMI diet talk, i’ll come up with something gross to go on and on about, usually riffing off their subject. (olestra was a ghod-send). they might not get it the first time, but will catch on soon.

    i am long past appeasing people now. even if they truly mean if “for my own good”. it is such a relief to just not give a damn about their opinions anymore. the only thing that still gets me is when they shame somebody else who is still shameable. bastards. then i go 100% cathartic.

    people who speak ill of their own choices to other people? i leave them be. it IS their choice, i am no more entitled to give them unasked-for advice than i accept theirs. if they try to talk to me in that vein, i might try and introduce them to HAES, but i rarely do that in company; it works better one-on-one.

    Reply

  • Wickedjulia

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    Try “I refuse to feel guilty about trying to spend the holidays with my family without anyone having to feel bad about their body, food choices or life in general. Be nice, instead.”

    Or my personal favorite: “If you can’t think of anything nice to say, perhaps you shouldn’t say anything at all doesn’t stop working when you leave grade school”.

    Reply

    • closetpuritan

      |

      Good suggestions, Wickedjulia!

      To riff on your first response, I think that for people who aren’t familiar/on board with body acceptance, a lot of them can at least get the idea that on holidays, weddings, etc. we should also have a holiday from worrying about food.

      Reply

  • Moniqa

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    Great post. Do you have any suggestions, though, for dealing with relations who speak ill of their own bodies and food choices? I once tried to shut down a body-shaming joke (not directed at me but among other family members) by stating that I don’t find it funny but was met with hurt feelings and counter-shaming for not being able to take a joke.

    Reply

    • Pyctsi

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      Easiest way to deal with the ‘can’t you take a joke’ line is to quietly and simply point out that jokes are funny.

      Or you could use online resources to look up how to de-construct humour and jokes and use that to totally derail the topic…

      Reply

    • Daxle

      |

      If it’s a joke, I usually just briefly state, ” I don’t think this is funny and this is why…” After that, if people try to say (and they usually do!) that I don’t know how to take a joke, or I shouldn’t take it so seriously, I either calmly restate how I feel, and/or mention the seriousness of eating disorders. Also, good jokes lift people up instead of putting them down.
      When a loved one frequently talks disparagingly about their body, I sometimes just say that I wish they loved their body as much as I loved it. With kids or clients I might ask them to reflect on what they like about their body and all the good things it does for them, but that tends to be awkward in an every day friend dynamic. Sometimes we just have to love people and let them go through their process.

      Reply

    • inge

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      Regarding “jokes”:

      Serious voice: “You know, I used to think that was funny, but then *something happened*…”
      Most likely they will ask “What happened?”
      Serious voice: “I turned twelve…”

      Reply

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