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.
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?”
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.
Your 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.
“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.
Your 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?
- 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.
Like this story? To date, Ms. Fit Mag has published more than 100 original stories on a wide range of subjects from feminist pregnancy and childcare; to body-positive fitness; to recipes, reviews, and D.I.Y.; to personal essays and practical tips and advice about wellness and healthy-living from a distinctly feminist perspective. Help us continue publishing great stories like this one by making a donation to our year-end funding drive. Your donation of $5 or more will help keep us publishing in 2014. Thank you!
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