During the holiday season, it seems like conversations about weight, body image, and food happen more than ever. You have your cousin talking about her latest diet or your brother commenting on how much quarantine weight he’s gained. In the past, I’ve been at family gatherings where all conversations revolve around diet talk. It gets tricky because it’s one thing if someone is commenting on your body or food choices—that can be rude and invasive, even when it’s well-meaning, and there are ways to deal. But what do you do when a loved one’s comments about their own eating or body are triggering you?
Diet talk includes any conversation around restricting certain foods or exercising to lose weight and/or change your body shape. It can take the form of discussions about actual diet programs, like Whole30, keto, paleo, and more, but it can also be more subtle, like someone saying they were “so bad” for eating pizza earlier. If you’re like me and find these conversations super annoying and upsetting (but don’t want to flip out at the dinner table) here are some tactics that may help.
1. Lead with compassion.
These kinds of diet-related conversations usually mean someone you love is not feeling so great in their body. And this is totally reasonable since, as a society, we place so much value on beauty ideals that are unattainable for most. Before you react, think about how this person might feel about their body and acknowledge that cultivating body appreciation and respect is really damn hard. Dominating the conversation with diet talk may be someone’s way of trying to connect with you over something they’ve been struggling with. So how do you communicate with compassion about a topic you find unpleasant? Asking questions can be a great way to gain insight into someone’s lived experience. Here are some examples—you may need to tweak the language depending on how you talk to the loved one you’re talking to, but these questions get at the general gist of information that might help you have more compassion for your friend or family member:
2. Respectfully express your thoughts and feelings.
You may be past the point of asking questions or may not be interested in doing that because this conversation has happened so many times. In that case, let’s move on to plan B: Communicate why this type of talk is problematic and how it makes you feel.
If you want to go this route but just thinking about having the conversation gives you major anxiety, role-playing—even with yourself—is a great tool. Think about a few key talking points and also think about how you will respond to resistance or negative feedback. You don’t have to create perfect replies to touch on all of the things. Keep it concise and to the point, and who knows? This can create a great opportunity for growth on both sides. Here are some phrases that you might try:
“You can’t determine how healthy someone is by how much they weigh.”
“It doesn’t make me feel good when our conversations are about diets and weight loss.”
“Research shows that most people who lose weight from dieting gain it back—are there any smaller, more sustainable lifestyle changes I can support you with?”
“There are so many things that are good for our health that have nothing to do with weight loss.”
3. Offer helpful resources for rethinking bodies, weight, and diets.
There are so many articles, websites, books, podcasts, and research studies on concepts like health at every size and intuitive eating. If the person you’re talking to seems open to learning about these topics, offer to share resources that you have found to be helpful in shifting how you see health and weight. Always ask before offering up information because they may indeed not want to hear it. Here are some examples of how to do this gently:
4. Change the subject.
Let’s face it. You may not have the energy to do any of the above, which is totally cool because it’s not your job to be an advocate for body respect to people who are really pushing your boundaries. Having these conversations can be great, but they can also be an energy suck, especially if you find yourself talking in circles. If you’re not up for engaging in dialogue, sharing how you feel, or offering resources, find a way to change the subject. I do it all the time without any explanation. Oh, we’re talking about how “great” you’ve been doing because you ate salad all week? Cool, how are things going with work? What hobbies have helped you feel sane these past few months? Have you been reading anything good lately? What shows have you been watching? Questions like these will shift the conversation quickly, and you may be surprised at how quickly people forget about what they were talking about.
5. Fully clock out of the conversation.
Self-preservation is incredibly important, and you should consider how you’re going to feel based on your approach. If you’ve reached the point where you’re literally done talking, see if you can work up the courage to just not say anything, walk away, leave the Zoom, or otherwise exit stage left. The logistics, as with the rest of this, really depend on your personality and also who you’re dealing with. Maybe you’re blunt and walk away from your mom mid-sentence after the umpteenth time of telling her you’d prefer not to discuss diets, or you may go the subtle route and say you’re going to grab some wine (and never come back). Maybe you even pretend your internet connection is failing, and oh no, you have to leave the family video chat! It all works. Ultimately, you get to decide if this is a conversation you want to engage with based on how you’re feeling at that moment. One day you may walk away, another day you may be sharing podcast episodes.Finally, remember that if you’re feeling upset due to food and body talk, you should check in with yourself to figure out what kind of self-care may help. That can be a journey on its own, but tackling diet and body talk in the moment with these kinds of suggestions is a great first step.