Getting comments about your body or your weight can be everything from annoying to exhausting to downright harmful. Having to deal with or respond to these comments puts an extra burden on you, especially when you’re trying to foster a healthy relationship with your body. At the writing of this post, we’re smack in the middle of the holiday season and you may be seeing more friends or family members than usual. Here I’m sharing four steps you can use in deciding how to deal with comments about weight.
1. Consider your relationship
When considering responding to comments or asking someone to not make comments, first consider your relationship with this person. This helps you decide how to approach the situation.
There might be a difference in how you plan to respond to an immediate family member, a close friend, a distant cousin, or an old classmate you bump into in your hometown.
Based on these different relationships, you may decide to respond differently to different people. Thinking about it ahead of time helps you feel confident and comfortable if there is a comment about your weight.
2. Ask yourself about the person
Ask yourself: "Are they reachable and teachable?" That’s a phrase I learned from Ericka Hines and Desiree Adaway, via the Center for Body Trust. It may be a close friend, a mother, or a sister, but just because someone is a close relation doesn’t mean they’re open to learning. You may know that someone feels strongly a certain way, or has a stubborn view on the topic of weight, dieting, and health. There are just some people who are never going to “get it.” Assessing the person’s teachability helps you know if it’s worth diving in, or if you should go with a short response and immediate change in topic.
If they are reachable and teachable, is teaching them worth your time and energy? Just because someone might be open to learning why their comment was hurtful or what the weight-inclusive approach to health is all about doesn’t mean it’s your responsibility or duty to educate them.
Maybe you want to focus your presence on other things, like enjoying the gathering, delighting in the delicious food, conversing with people about their jobs or hobbies, etc. You can choose not to engage, debate, educate, or lecture. It’s 100% up to you.
3. Assess your desired energy input
Questions to ask yourself: How much energy do I have for this conversation right now? Am I feeling fired up and like I want to talk about this? Or am I wanting to save my energy for another time? You can do this both ahead of time if there is an event where you are anticipating weight- or body-focused comments, as well as right in the moment of the comment.
Just because you don’t have the energy right at this moment doesn’t mean that your opportunity to engage is gone. Remember, you can always bring it up at a later time when you feel better prepared. (Keep reading for examples of how to follow up later.)
So in the moment of the comment, you just have to decide: do I want to engage with this right now? If you don’t want to put your energy toward that conversation at that moment, you certainly don’t have to, and you can always revisit it later if you wish.
4. Envision your desired result
Important to consider: what outcome are you hoping for? What do you want to get out of this interaction? Maybe you want them to stop commenting on your body. Or you want them to get educated about weight stigma and the harm of weight comments. Maybe you want them to know the deeper reason why comments about your weight are harmful to you.
Planning for what you want as the result of your conversation or your response can help you decide how you want to respond or engage.
For example, you might simply tell someone: “Please don’t comment on my body again, at this event or any future gathering we attend together.”
Or you might want them to know something more personal about you, like “I’ve struggled with an eating disorder, and comments about my body are extremely hurtful. They can be a huge setback in my recovery. I know you love me and want the best for me, so please don't comment on my body, weight, food choices, or exercise habits.”
You could also encourage someone to go and do some research on the harms of weight stigma so they better understand the impacts of those kinds of comments.
Or maybe you just want the topic to be dropped. In this case, you can ignore the comment and change the subject. Done and done!
Options for responding
So with those four steps in mind, here are some possible types of responses:
Kind and thoughtful
You can make these kinds of responses with a gentle, soft but firm tone. You can reflect back to the person how their comment sounds, perhaps by rephrasing it into different words. You can ask them to clarify what they meant, or even ask a question back.
Here are some examples: “Would you be open to me telling you about my feelings on this topic?” “What I hear you saying is that you think that all people in larger bodies are ___. Is that what you meant?” “I think you probably didn’t mean to insult me with that comment, but it came across as hurtful.”
Change the subject
It can be helpful to have some go-to topics ahead of time so you don’t have to think on your feet. Here are some questions you can use to change the topic. Or you can always resort to talking about the weather for a minute, then excuse yourself to get a breather!
What was the best movie they saw this year? What is a new food or cuisine they have tried recently? What is the gift they are most excited about giving this year? What is a new hobby you’ve recently picked up? What are the top three apps they use every day on their phone? Ask them how they celebrated their birthday this year. Discuss any travel you’ve both done since the last time you saw each other.
You can always bring out the sass with a spicy response. This is a great option when you want to assert your confidence in shutting down their comment. You can say things like…
"Oop! That's an inside thought!"
"Oh interesting! I'm not actually concerned with things like that."
"Wow. That's an interesting thing to choose to say out loud."
or “My body, my business. Chat with you later!” (Alternatively, “My plate, my business.” if the comment was about your food choices.)
Tell them you’ll follow up later.
If they seem interested in diving more into this topic, tell them you can share more later. You can send them a link to a podcast episode, blog post, or YouTube video that helps explain weight inclusivity. You can write them a text, email, or letter explaining how their comment made you feel. You can share your favorite instagram accounts to follow to learn about weight stigma and non-diet health. There are countless amazing educators out there who are professionals and experts in this field. Let them do some of the work for you in educating your friends and family.
Rant and lecture them
If you are feeling fired up, go for it! Let them have a piece of your mind about weight stigma, the patriarchy, the harms of diet culture, thin privilege, and more. It’s not your job to make them comfortable at your gathering. If they’ve made things uncomfortable for you, it’s perfectly fair for you to let them know that. If your response causes discomfort for them, then hopefully it’s the first step on the pathway to learning and growing and doing better.
Ways to prepare ahead of time
Think ahead. If you're expecting comments ahead of an event or seeing family/friends, go ahead and think about the four steps outlined here. Think about which people you want to give a more thoughtful answer and with which people you would just change the subject and move on.
Practice your responses. Even the simple changes of topic can be helpful to practice. Anything that makes you more comfortable and prepared can help the entire experience be less hurtful.
Find a podcast or blog that you can send to folks. Having that in your back pocket (literally, saved in your notes app on your phone) can give you a layer of bolstered confidence.
Plan what to say when they tell you about their body or weight. It may not only be you getting comments about your weight that you have to deal with. You might be thrust into conversations with others about their bodies and weights. You can plan a go-to response when someone tells you about their weight loss/gain or recent diets. (My response when I’m taken off-guard with this is “Oh, I’m not that kind of dietitian.” and then I either change the subject or say “I believe all bodies are good bodies no matter their size or shape.” And then sometimes I joke that I’ll send them an invoice if they keep talking about it - that usually gets them to change the subject, lol.)
Another option is to focus on their feelings instead of their weight/diet/body. If they’re excited about something, you can say, “I’m glad you’re happy!” or if they’re upset, you can say, “I’m sorry you’re feeling down about that.” It doesn’t indicate that you support dieting or weight loss, but you can support your loved one by validating their feelings and being an active listener.
Have a support system. Whether it’s someone else present at the gathering or friends over text message, have someone you can reach out to for support. It can feel nice and refreshing to send a quick text to a friend saying, “UGH Aunt Marge gave me crap about my weight and I am FURIOUS!” Or maybe you want to share a success story of how you changed a conversation topic and didn’t get sucked into an uncomfortable dialogue. Or you gave a snarky and spicy retort. Whatever your experience, it’ll be better if you’re not doing it alone. So plan for who your support will be.
I hope this post helps you feel more confident and comfortable with how you plan to handle comments about weight. If you want to do more reading about weight inclusivity, fat-positive health, anti-diet nutrition, compassionate diabetes care, and more, check out my library of blog posts here. Some podcasts I love include: Can I Have Another Snack, Maintenance Phase, and Burnt Toast. And as always, make sure you’ve checked out my page of free resources!