It’s Christmas dinner, and your grandmother points out that you’ve just reached for an extra helping of sweet potato pudding. She asks, “Do you really need an extra helping, dear? You look like you’ve gained some weight.” You feel embarrassed, unsure of how to proceed politely but assertively. You have two options: let folks comment about your food choices and your body, or stop them before they can start.
Whether it’s an accusation of eating too much or not enough, unwanted comments about food and family are fraught. HuffPost spoke with several therapists and nutritionists about how to deal with food shaming in its various forms, including unsolicited comments about quantity of food, diets, body talk and more.
Below are the cheat codes for common scenarios you may encounter this holiday season. Read on to find tips to prepare yourself for gatherings, and scripts to use if someone is making an unwelcome remark about your food choices or your body.
Scenario 1: Unwanted comments about the size of your body
Whether it’s positive or negative, commenting on others’ bodies is inappropriate, notes Lauren Muhlheim, an eating disorder specialist and psychologist at Eating Disorder Therapy LA.
We can never be sure we know someone’s health status ― maybe they’ve lost weight due to an illness, gained weight due to pregnancy, or undergone some other change because of reasons that are not our business (e.g., struggling with an eating disorder). So even a seemingly positive comment could affect the person negatively.
Abby Langer, a registered dietitian, explained: “The most important thing to know is that it can be very triggering to talk about bodies or diets with anyone. Even commenting on what someone is eating can trigger them. We never know how our words will affect someone else, not to mention that diets, food and bodies are intrusive and boring topics. Find something else to talk about.”
Jessi Kneeland, a body image coach, recommends tailoring your answer depending on who’s speaking.
“Some people just haven’t yet been introduced to the idea that such comments can be harmful, and just need to be invited into a conversation about it,” Kneeland said. “For example, if your co-worker says something like, ‘OMG, you look so good; did you lose weight?!’ they might have no idea whatsoever that they’ve just made a fatphobic comment, or that they’re reinforcing the idea that body size is important, and smaller is better.”
If you’re comfortable with that person, this could be the place to explain how those types of comments affect you or others.
In this scenario, try these scripts: “I prefer not to discuss my body/my weight. That feels really personal.” Or, “Please don’t make comments about my body.” Or, “I feel uncomfortable talking about this,” Muhlheim suggested. If you’re uncomfortable facing this topic head-on, ignore the remark and change the subject, or leave the conversation entirely.
Pro tip: Enlist allies ahead of your dinner or event if you think comments about food and bodies will come up. “Think of people either at the event or even who can be available by phone to help defend you or talk you down if things go sideways,” Langer suggested. “Ask them in advance to have your back in the case of unwanted comments.”
Scenario 2: Unwanted comments about how much or how little you eat
How much or how little you choose to eat is a personal preference, and it can fluctuate depending on hormones, activity, health, age and mood, among other factors. The novelty of holiday foods may make us more inclined to have more servings, and that’s OK. There’s a lot of hysteria around gaining weight during the holidays, but rest assured ― one meal doesn’t lead to instant weight gain, according to Amanda Frankeny, a registered dietitian and the program director of the Food Dignity Movement.
“Sometimes, we eat too much during the festivities,” Frankeny said. “It happens. The feeling of fullness can be uncomfortable, but it’s temporary. Relax and zoom out. Likely, your eating patterns look different outside of this time of year. A few days of out-of-the-ordinary food choices is not going to impact your overall health.”
Often, the judgment can start within your own head. It’s helpful to speak about food in a neutral way, rather than demonizing dessert and celebrating skipping meals in preparation for the turkey dinner. Muhlheim explained: “People should avoid identifying their own eating or foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy.’ Try to remember that certain foods have more nutrients, but they are not morally superior to other foods with fewer nutrients, and that all foods provide fuel that our bodies need. Eating healthy does not make you a more virtuous person or ensure you a longer life.”
But other times, the judgment might come from friends or family members.
In this scenario, try these scripts: “That is not up for discussion. Why would you say/ask me that?” “I am not going to talk about this with you.” “I am sure you’re concerned about me, but my body/my eating/etc. is none of your business.”
Scenario 3: Unwanted comments about your dietary choices
If your dietary style strays from the group, find a time to chat with the host or guests before the event to ensure that all parties can be respected. You may offer to assist the host by bringing a dish if you have a food intolerance or simply can’t eat certain foods. Provide the host enough time to create an inclusive menu.
“It’s important to remember that you are entitled to whatever foods you want,” Muhlheim said. “Similarly, you are entitled to celebrate using vegan instead of traditional dishes if you are vegan. Other people have no right to judge you for your food choices.”
In this scenario, try this script suggested by Muhlheim: “I appreciate your concern, but I think I can manage my own eating.”
Pro tip: Whether you’re hosting or attending these events, set ground rules ― no harmful food or body talk.
Scenario 4: Judgments about the food that’s served (store-bought vs. homemade)
Rich and crispy Stove Top stuffing mix, minty and sweet peppermint patties, jiggly and tart canned cranberry jelly (and more) can hold a nostalgic place for folks, making them a special part of holiday celebrations. Because food has cultural and social value, it’s important not to judge or denigrate others’ preferences. Let your friends, family and colleagues introduce you to their food traditions.
“Food is more than its nutrients and fuel!” Frankeny said. “It’s love, enjoyment, security, something comforting to get you through the chaos of this time of year, you name it! Don’t get hung up on comparing groceries. Life is fuller than that.”
Not all of us are economically or physically able to prepare a beautiful homemade dish, and it’s good to be mindful of that. “I always ask people to consider all the possibilities before throwing shade on people’s food choices,” Frankeny said. “Are they living with a disability that makes it hard to cook? Do they have a working stove or oven? Are they juggling more than one job and can’t find the time to cook?”
If you sense a stigma about bringing store-bought or pre-made food at the holidays, speak to the host beforehand. “So many of us have been socialized to think that pre-made mashed potatoes and pie from the bakery section are holiday cop-outs,” Frankeny said. “And sometimes the person bringing these items can feel like they’ll be run off the road before they even make it to a holiday gathering.” Sharing with trusted folks why you are bringing something store-bought, or what you’re worried about, can help ease the burden.
In this scenario, try this script: “I was traveling this year and couldn’t make anything. Is there something that I could pick out at the store? I would still love to contribute and make your job a bit easier.”
This is another great option: “Cooking is just not my thing, so I got food from the store! Hope we can still enjoy it.”
In all these scenarios, our experts recommend calling out food-shamers and indicating that their comments are unacceptable and won’t be tolerated. If the person refuses to stop, leave the gathering.