Unsolicited comments about your weight or food choices are not something you need to hear any day of the year. Thanksgiving, though, seems to be a particularly popular time to make inappropriate remarks on how other people eat or look. Even this year, with Thanksgiving looking different for many of us—whether your gathering is household members only, a socially-distanced outdoor setup, or on Zoom—the holiday is still a reliable occasion for hearing these kinds of comments.
Whoa, that’s a lot of carbs on your plate!You really should try keto, I lost 5 pounds on it.Hey, leave some room for pie there!It’s OK, I gained the “quarantine 15” too.Aren’t you going to have some stuffing?You look great! How did you lose the weight?
The person might be making what they believe to be a harmless observation about how much you’re eating or what you look like, or a well-intentioned (but ill-informed) show of concern for your health. Or maybe they’re being downright nosy and rude, or engaging in straight-up food shaming or body shaming. Blame diet culture, the food-centric nature of the holiday, fatphobia, generational differences about what is OK to say—or all of the above.
Regardless, a comment that crosses a boundary for you is not something you have to put up with. While you can’t control whether someone makes an inappropriate comment about your weight or eating—or speaks generally about bodies or food in a way that makes you uncomfortable—what you can do is prepare yourself to handle these types of remarks so that you enter the situation with a little more ease and confidence. First, you have to figure out if you even want to respond to the person at all. And if you decide you do, you’ll want to give some thought to the approach you’ll take and what you’ll say. We got tips from the experts on how to make both of those calls.
Deciding whether to say something or let it go
Of course, you’re not obligated to counter every unwelcome or inappropriate remark. “We have to feel that we’re in an [emotionally] safe environment to respond or push back against these comments,” Cara Harbstreet, M.S., R.D., L.D. of Street Smart Nutrition, tells SELF. So it really depends on the level of closeness and comfort you have in the relationship and the nature of the conversation, Harbstreet explains.
If you’re unsure whether you want to speak up, Harbstreet recommends asking yourself a few questions, like: Is this a person I feel I can be open and direct with? Am I anticipating harsh criticism or gaslighting in response? Is there anyone present who could back me up or offer support?
Depending on those factors, “You may or may not feel it’s the time and the place to respond, and that’s totally OK,” Harbstreet says. “Your boundaries are your own and they are flexible and adaptable. You have the ability to choose when and where to apply and reinforce them, and if it doesn’t feel like the right situation, you are well within your right to simply deflect and move past these comments however you need to in that moment.” That may mean simply removing yourself from the situation if you feel overwhelmed or caught off-guard, nutrition therapist and certified eating disorder registered dietitian, Erica Leon, M.S., R.D.N., C.D.N., founder of Erica Leon Nutrition, tells SELF. You can always excuse yourself from the table (even virtually) to go use the restroom, take a deep breath, or text a friend, she adds.
Deciding what to say when someone crosses a boundary
So, let’s say you do decide that you’re going to say something. “You can coach yourself on what to say or do if you feel your food choices are under scrutiny,” Harbstreet says. Leon recommends writing out or practicing a couple of go-to phrases ahead of time if you’re anticipating this kind of feedback. “Having some responses ready can be helpful and empowering,” she explains. That way, if and when somebody does cross a boundary, you have some intentional responses you can call on in the moment—instead of coming up with something on the spot and saying something that is, for instance, less clear or more reactive than you intended.
There are a few different ways to go about laying down a boundary and/or redirecting the conversation. Your approach again depends on the nature of your relationship with the person and the conversation you’re having; you can be as specific or vague, blunt or polite, lighthearted or serious, passive or direct as the situation calls for. Think about what you might say to the usual suspects—the people with a history of making those kinds of comments. It can’t hurt to also have a response on-hand you’d feel comfortable using with most anyone.
Here are a few different suggestions that you can use verbatim or make your own.
While saying “no thanks” to that second piece of mom’s pie should be enough, people often feel pressured to accept a serving of something they’re not actually hungry for out of fear of being impolite or offending the person who made it. “This is a neutral response you can use whenever you’re already full and satisfied, and don’t particularly desire any more food,” Harbstreet says. “You don’t have to fully explain or justify your reason for declining, but this takes the focus off the food itself and lets the other person know it has nothing to do with the quality of the food—it’s just that you’re already full.”
If you feel safe enough with the person to be vulnerable about how food and body talk actually make you feel, you might try being frank with them, Leon says. They truthfully might not know how that kind of talk affects you, and people generally don’t want to perpetuate someone else’s discomfort once they’re made aware of it. (You could also say, “I’d really prefer not to talk about my body or eating, if you don’t mind,” to communicate your discomfort in a different way.) This kind of phrasing is straightforward, while also giving the person an out, Harbstreet adds. “In all likelihood, their desire to be polite will steer the conversation to a new topic,” she says.
This candid response is a good one to use if the conversation starts to veer into fatphobic or diet culture territory more generally, or in regards to the other person or someone else—as opposed to you in particular. “It can shed light on the negative tone—something the other person may not even pick up on—and establishes your boundaries around what is and is not OK to say around you,” Harbstreet explains. Following it up with a topical question helps quickly redirect the conversation.
It is also perfectly OK at any point to just change the course of the discussion yourself, without explaining why. “If you do not have the energy to state a boundary, you can try to change the topic of conversation, even if it feels abrupt,” certified intuitive eating counselor Carolina Guízar, M.S., R.D.N., C.D.N., founder of Eathority and cofounder of Latinx Health Collective, tells SELF. The goal is to get off the subject, and sometimes the quickest and easiest way to do that is just by introducing a new one.
Leon recommends choosing beforehand a handful of topics you can bring up if you need to. For instance, you can ask the person about something going on in their life. (“I hear you got a new dog!” or “Did you take up any new hobbies during the lockdowns?”) You can also bring up a new movie, TV show, or book you’ve enjoyed recently, and ask if they’ve seen or read it.
Even when someone is coming from a place of care and concern, you are well within your rights to let them know in a firm and clear way that they are crossing a line. If the person insists, “I’m just worried” or “I just care about you,” Guízar says you can reply with a reminder that it’s truly not their business. You might also try, “I have a great doctor/R.D., but thanks anyway.”
If the person is someone with whom you feel comfortable enough to share more about your views on health and weight—and potentially open up a conversation on the often misunderstood topic—this could actually be a good opportunity to do so. For instance, Guízar suggests saying something like, “Healthy for me means not focusing on a number on the scale, and instead focusing on foods and movement that make me feel good.”
If you’d like to communicate that you have different views on your health and weight without getting personal, Guízar recommends making a more general statement along these lines: “You know, health is such a complicated topic. It can mean something different to every person depending on their circumstances.”
The sentiment is similar to the last one, but has the added bonus of channeling the wisdom of Amy Poehler. (The full quote, from her book Yes Please: “That is the motto women should constantly repeat over and over again. Good for her! Not for me.”) It’s a good line to use when, for example, your low-carb-proselytizing Aunt Mary is tsk-tsking the pie on your plate via Zoom and telling you she feels so much better not eating that way. “It’s a succinct way to simply say, ‘You do you,’” Harbstreet says. “It doesn’t cast judgment, but rather indicates that what works fine for some people doesn’t apply to everyone.” A variation: “That’s great for you, and I’m going to stick with what works for me.”