Dealing with holiday diet talk: A pop culture guide
Weight, food, and diet comments are abundant at the holidays. Channel these stars of screen to cope.
Every Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter, my grandmother used to pull me aside to tell me she was praying I’d lose weight.
She’s existed through more than nine decades of diet directives. Around the time she was born, Lucky Strike ads were encouraging Americans to “Reach for a Lucky Instead of a Sweet.” I’m not at all surprised that she didn’t quite know how to deal with her fat granddaughter. I adore her and know this was in her mind an expression of care, but I dreaded these sidebars.
Such confrontations or passive-aggressive remarks about eating, bodies, and weight are rife at the holidays. I’ve experienced a hellish cocktail of eating anxiety splashed in all directions, at all bodies — someone bitterly points out how skinny a cousin is, people scold themselves about a second slice of pie, everyone blathers about the imminent New Year’s diets.
Many articles advise on handling food shaming, diet talk, and body negativity this time of year. Some people feel more urgently in need of this advice in the post-vaccination era, as they prepare to attend larger family events after skipping them in 2020. Bodies have changed over the past 20 months and we anticipate people’s comments on ours and their indictments about their own, which can be just as taxing to hear.
I was a fat woman for much of my life and only began moving through the world as a smaller woman about six years ago. I no longer expect that my grandmother will tell me she’s praying my fat away or that anyone will side-eye my second helpings, but I’ve experienced a different kind of food commentary lately: People have said things like, “Oh, you’re being good?” when they see what I’m eating, or remark on my alleged “discipline.”
How I eat now isn’t a matter of dieting discipline or food’s moral value — I changed my relationship to food, and so my body changed, because I was tackling an eating disorder. If I’m not eating things it’s because they trigger the ol’ E.D. feelings, not because I’m dieting. These “you’re being good” comments don’t make me feel lauded, they make me feel under surveillance. They imply that if I think I’m being “good,” I think you’re being “bad.” There’s a notion that since I’ve lost weight, I must think of food in these terms. I don’t.
Even if no one says anything about my eating, I can usually count on their agita about their own.
I’ve listened to loud proclamations about “getting fat,” “gaining weight,” “leaving 10 pounds heavier,” and on and on, at holiday parties. Each expression jolts me like a slamming door, not for fear of these results but because I’m so exhausted by the fretting. I did it for years. I just want to eat.
“Getting fat”: SLAM — You’ll never be free from worrying about what you put in your mouth will do to your body!
“Gaining weight”: SLAM — As a woman, you have to publicly atone for eating, so people will know that you know eating a lot isn’t OK!
“Leaving 10 pounds heavier”: SLAM — Even when the general feeling is “relax and enjoy yourself,” that doesn’t apply to you!
Sometimes it’s all I can do to keep from clean-sweeping the tablescape, but cooler heads must prevail. How, though?
I’ve heard of people asking family members ahead of time to not discuss dieting, weight, or food worries at the holidays. I can see the appeal — the best-case scenario is that people realize they can keep their loved ones relaxed and let themselves off the hook too. Good idea, they might think, Maybe this year we can just not do the whole food grief thing. Dream big.
A likely scenario, though, is that everyone ignores or forgets the ask because body bullshit is so ingrained in us, or that the ask makes things worse. It can be perceived as a call-out.
We can ask that people exercise some consideration but we can’t depend on them to do it. We might just have to find graceful ways to face it or flee from it. I’ve learned some coping mechanisms. As ever, I find that popular culture references will get us through these trying times:
The Samantha Jones tactic
In an episode of “Sex and The City,” Carrie walks in a fashion show. Samantha goes backstage to sneak a peek at Carrie’s look, and upon seeing her blowout, smoky eye, and sequined underwear and blazer combo, breathlessly declares, “Oh, honey…You’re a model!”
That’s you at the holidays. You’re a model. You’re not wearing sequined underwear and Louboutins (unless you want to, by all means), you’re modeling best practices for interacting with food. You help yourself with a placid, holly-jolly air. You say nothing of food guilt or why you “should” or “should not” eat anything. You say only, “This is so good!” or “God bless that Ina Garten!” You let them follow your lead. You think as you kick back with a slice of panettone and an espresso martini, “Oh, honey…You’re a model!”
The Meredith Marks tactic
Recently on “The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City,” the women were embroiled in some overblown drama and housewife Meredith Marks has simply had enough. She rises and says: “I need to excuse myself. Goodbye. You guys can engage in this, I’m not engaging in this. This is nonsense.” See also: “This is just not productive, I think I’m done engaging in the conversation. Thank you, I’m disengaging.”
The power! You don’t have to say you’re disengaging from food dramas. Just go. Gently place your napkin on the table and waltz to the bathroom, or the kitchen, or out into the invigorating night air where the moon’s indifferent gaze will remind you that some beautiful things don’t have bodies at all. Walk deep into the woods behind your uncle’s house and scream into a balled-up pashmina. These conversations aren’t compulsory. Disengage.
The Inigo Montoya tactic
“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” In “The Princess Bride,” Inigo delivers the line as a gentle but knowing suggestion, with an “Aren’t you funny for getting this so very wrong?” tone. If you must respond to grating food talk, go for the spirit of the line here — people keep chirping about diets and weight gain and how buttered rolls are Satan’s sacrament, and you respond with a soft, bemused (you’re not really bemused) question, like: “Don’t you think we should just enjoy the food?”
They keep using words the wrong way, you see — they think criticizing others for eating will change their attitudes or behaviors, they think that criticizing themselves will alleviate their own stress, they think that referencing some future “good” behavior (the New Year’s diets et al.) will mitigate today’s “bad” behavior, etc. These words do not mean what they think they mean. Give them others:
“I’m just glad we’re all together to eat this great meal!”
“I don’t think we need to comment on other people’s bodies tonight!”
“I don’t want anyone to feel weird about eating, so let’s all just relax!”
You may have an unwilling or hostile audience. That’s fine. You’re not going to undo decades of food angst in one night. There is too much to explain. You can just sum up.
The Samantha Jones tactic, part two
Sam once said, “I will not be judged by you or society. I will wear whatever and blow whomever I want as long as I can breathe — and kneel.”
You will not be judged. You will eat whatever you want as long as you can breathe and sit. Make this your internal mantra, or (in emergencies only) roar it at your relatives before you clean-sweep those centerpieces.
All any of us can do is establish the ways we’ll get through these interactions, which might be intentionally unkind but are often just a result of cluelessness and lifetimes of indoctrination around the “right” way to eat and have a body.
As fat activist and writer Ali Thompson says in this thread, “You have the right to set boundaries about what you will and won’t talk about. Unfortunately, you should also plan for people who refuse to respect those boundaries.”
I turn inward these days when people won’t or don’t know how to stop talking about food and bodies in a way that wounds me. If other people are howling about the same food woes that caused me deep pain for years, I try to be the tranquil center of the storm. I imagine myself warm inside, watching the rain beat the window panes. We don’t always have to rage against these natural events; they’ve always happened and always will. But: We don’t have to be caught in them if we have the tools to build refuge.