Wishbone and Backbone

I recently heard the phrase “Never put your wishbone where your backbone ought to be”.  The same day I read that, I got an e-mail from a woman telling me about how she doesn’t know what to do because her friends and family are so mean to her about her weight.  She said that they treat her horribly, always say nasty things to her etc.

A lot of us have been there – with families, friends, strangers –  we can be subjected to all kinds of poor treatment because of how we look.  This is a situation that requires backbone, not wishbone.  As people of size, hell as people at all, if we want to be treated well we can’t wish for it, we have to demand it.  Here’s one way I’ve found to do that:

Step 1: Decide what your boundaries and standards are

You get to decide how people treat you – you are in charge.  How are you willing to be treated?  Do strangers get to make comments about your size without you saying anything?  Do your loved ones get to nag you about what you eat?  How does your mom get to talk to you?  Think about it, make a list, write it down. (This doesn’t just apply to size either – you decide what your standards for treatment are in all areas of your life.)

Step 2:  Decide on the consequences

I have found that this can be tough and that being realistic is extremely important –  there’s no point in having boundaries and standards if you’re not going to enforce them and setting boundaries and then not enforcing them will likely end up making you feel powerless and teach people that you don’t mean what you say.

Personally I typically go with a teachable moment, then a warning, then a walk away.  Sometimes I give more than one warning but in the end  I’m absolutely willing to walk away from anyone who doesn’t uphold my standards for how I get treated …better alone than in bad company. I have disowned family members because they refused to treat me in a manner that was in accordance with my standards.   But that’s me. You may not choose to walk away from family or friends or you may not be in a position to right now.  Neither is better or worse, we just have to know ourselves and our situations.  The main thing to remember is that you can’t threaten to do something that you’re not actually going to do.  So if you’re not going to walk away from your mom no matter how badly she treats you, then you need to come up with a different set of consequences – maybe she doesn’t get to see you (or the grandchildren if any) for a certain period of time or until she apologizes.  The point here is to start to reclaim our power in how we get treated.

I hesitated a little to use the word consequences because I am concerned that there is a connotation of punishment and that is not my intention.  For me this is not about punishing people – it’s not about other people at all.  This is about you choosing how people in your life treat you.

Step 3:  Practice

You have to be ready, otherwise you will have a pretty decent chance of falling apart.  Practice in your head, practice in your car, and around your house.  Imagine what is likely to happen and practice your reaction.  Do it out loud, write it out if that’s your thing.  Just be ready.  Create an affirmation around it, maybe “I insist upon being treated with respect in ever single interaction.”

Step 4:  Engage Backbone

Stand up for yourself.  Consider though, that empowerment may not be about screaming at people, and I submit that it’s most definitely not about controlling the behavior of others.  I have found that being empowered is mostly about being calm and assertive and enforcing your own boundaries, rather than trying to dictate the behavior of others.  So not  “You have to behave [in this way]”, but rather “If you continue to do [this] I will do [that]”.

This may mean that it’s time to have an honest conversation with people in your life who currently aren’t living up to your standards and treating you as you deserve to be treated.  Explain that their behaviors (be specific) have not been appropriate for you and be very clear about what you expect of them moving forward.  Explain the consequences.

They’ll probably be surprised.  It’s reasonably likely that they’ll try to make it a debate – to negotiate.  You get to decide if this is a debate, a negotiation, or simply a transfer of information.   You can expect push-back on this, stay calm and remember that you get to choose how people treat you all the time.  They may try to make it about you – tell you that you haven’t been meeting their standards.  If that’s the case offer to have that as a separate conversation and give them the same respect that you want to be given, but make sure that you accomplish your mission of clarifying your boundaries and standards and the consequences for violating them. Watch for derailing behavior like trying to say that you are asking too much or, trying to give their opinion third party validation by telling you that “others” feel like they do.

Step 5:  Stick to It

For me, this is where the work really begins. Over and over again you’ll have to decide if upholding your standards is worth whatever the consequences are for doing so.  I personally find that the consequences for standing up for myself and what I deserve are always preferable to the consequences of being inauthentic or not standing up for myself, but that’s just me. [edited because my first try made no sense. Thanks to reader Peregrin8 for pointing it out!]

I notice that my ability to set boundaries is about realizing that:

I never:

  • Control all of my circumstances
  • Control the behavior of others
  • Control what others think of me
  • Control who I’m an example to

I always

  • Choose to take responsibility for my reactions to circumstances
  • Choose how I will deal with behaviors that don’t meet my standards
  • Choose what I think of me
  • Choose what I’m an example of

Civil Rights activism isn’t all about sit-ins and boycotts.  A lot of it is about standing in our lives and saying “No more, never again, will I be treated this way without speaking up.”

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21 thoughts on “Wishbone and Backbone

  1. I think this sentence is not exactly what you meant to say? /proofreader

    I personally find that the consequences for not standing up for myself and what I deserve are always worse than the consequences of being inauthentic or not standing up for myself, but that’s just me.

  2. “Watch for derailing behavior like trying to say that you are asking too much or, trying to give their opinion third party validation by telling you that “others” feel like they do.”

    OMG. The third-party validation thing gets me SO angry. If you are not man enough to say something without being backed up by these mysterious “others,” then maybe you shouldn’t be saying it AT ALL. Just pisses me off SO badly (and, yes, I’ve been guilty of it myself in the past until I realized what I was doing).

  3. This is a powerful message! I think we become better at setting boundaries as we age (mine kicked in around 30!) but I want younger women to know they have the absolute right to set boundaries with everyone in their lives. Being treated decently and respectfully is something we all deserve!

  4. Well Ragen, once again I see you are wise beyond your years. I was raised by the depression generation and told kids are to be seen and not heard. We were told to be quite all the time. Actually to shut up. Later learning my dad is an alcholic. He didnt talk to us till we were adults, then the verbal abuse came. I finally had to walk away from him. I tried to “respect” my elders, him, but I am and adult and have taken action. I had to walk away from him. As it turns out, he didnt like me or anyone else for that matter. Why take abuse from someone who doesnt like you in the first place. My point is if you find yourself having to deal with people who say mean things, they probably dont like you anyway. Remember, what other people think of you is none of your business. Walk away. Right or wrong, I taught my daughter that as fat people we have to dress neater, comb our hair before we go out etc. I just didnt want to give an excuse to have anyone say mean things to her. I never said a word about her weight. It was never an issue. I taught her to have confidence in herself. She can sure stand up to people better than I can. I like the advice you gave to teach, warn, then walk away. Great Advice. Thanks Ragen, Marla

  5. Reblogged this on thedancermohana and commented:
    “Never put your wishbone where your backbone ought to be”. As a curvy, voluptuous woman I have had to employ the following tactics in my life. As a belly dancer it is also relevant. Just because a performer is in the public eye doesn’t mean they are willing to be scrutinized. The only who can stop people from mistreating you is You.

  6. I’m quite surprised this particular blog hasn’t garnered more commentary. I think it is because it’s pretty much inarguable. I have read this particular entry repeatedly, just to remind myself that I have options in the way that I handle people and their responses to me– but the bottom line remains that I am deserving of respectful treatment. I can always choose to walk away, and sometimes, that’s the best possible choice. Realizing that I am not in control of (nor does it matter) what other people think of me has been really difficult, but ultimately, obviously, well worth it.

  7. Your posts are always so timely and seem to speak to exactly what is happening in my life at that moment. This one is no exception. Thank you.

  8. Excellent post, completely agree. I think sometimes working out what is your “stuff” that you can control and what is other people’s “stuff” that you can’t is quite a revelation. I too have walked away from family and so called friends.

  9. Oh, boundaries, how I struggle with thee. This post is a great visualization of what I’ve been struggling to do intuitively – and that will definitely help me be ready for my mom next time she starts in on how I don’t need to be any “stronger” so I should just lift small weights (seriously, she has osteoporosis, so I’m weight-training to keep my bone density up. Also, being strong is fun). Thanks.

  10. Thanks for this.

    Today I learned that our school’s health initiative switched from a (smaller and rapidly diminishing) funding source that didn’t mention obesity one way or the other to a (larger) funding source that explicitly tries to “tackle the obesity epidemic.” (Note: Any anti-fat advocate who tries to tackle me is going to have Another Thing Coming.)

    I was asked if I’d continue teaching my after school yoga classes. I want to — but not for them. Not for a program that inherently assumes my body is diseased. But saying no means giving back the equipment (mats) and either dropping the activity or else building the program on my own (for free or with my own money).

    I haven’t responded yet because I’m still trying to work out the details. (Can I get mats on my own? How many do I use, really? If I’m going to be donating my time, how can I arrange things so I don’t feel drained?) But the thing I’ve decided I’m not going to do is align myself with a program whose shame of me is in its mission.

  11. Thank you for your post, Ragen.

    The times I visit my Mom while I’m wearing slacks, a blouse, and heels, my Mom will comment, “Kim, you look GOOD (as if she’s AMAZED), you lost weight (which I didn’t)!” However, when I’m wearing a long, full, flow-y skirt with flat shoes, she will tell me, “Kim you REALLY need to lose weight.” But I’m the SAME WEIGHT either way (200 +/- 3 lbs.)!

    Now I have my “script” down. “Mom, I have told you repeatedly that a weight loss plan is NOT something I am going to pursue. It makes me sad that you won’t accept that I am in control of how I choose to take care of my own body. If you continue to bring this up, then I’m just going to have to stop coming over to visit.”

    This doesn’t stop her from making passive-aggressive remarks about what I should and should not be eat while I’m sitting at her kitchen table. Therefore, I don’t eat at her house anymore. I either drink water or non-caloric soda (she doesn’t approve of me drinking the latter, either, but that’s her problem).

  12. Great picture! Thank you for this advice, I was just contemplating how I need to be careful about what kind of relationships I have and this will help.

  13. I agree with what has been said: this is (again) a great post.

    I am lucky that my family and friends don’t make remarks and that they accept me and my new approach to weight and dieting. Sometimes I wish that I just would have known this when I was in high school, but the past can’t be changed and actually made me who I am today (and I like the me I am today).

    The advice you give can indeed be used for all aspects of life and I thank you for sharing your insight with us!

  14. I actually put my mother on a “time out” because she’s mean and negative.
    She’s always been negative, but I’ve finally decided to put my foot down after some particularly bad behavior on her part. But none of it was body image, she’s just particularly nasty about every aspect of conversation.
    My sister and I believe she suffers from bi-polar disorder and have on many occasions attempted to solicit help from her brothers and cousins to get her medical help to no avail.
    But even if she is ill, her behavior is appalling, and my sister and I are done with her abuse. It’s simply not healthy to keep such negativity in our lives.

    1. Dealing with bi-polar is a whole new ballgame. I have had to deal with that in our family too. There is no win for anyone. And if she isnt willing to get help, you can only do what you have to do to protect yourself.

      1. The fact that we believe she is bi-polar has been what has kept us from distancing ourselves in the past. We wish to help her, to take care of her now that she is getting close to retirement age. But the abuse can be so damaging to our psyches. After her comments belittling my feelings while my husband was going through difficulties at work and a good friend had committed suicide I decided I’d had enough. I cried for an entire evening from a crushing feeling of dispair that I do attribute the “final straw” being the viscious words from my mother.
        Just a month later she sprang an increadibly negative attack on my sister without warning. Now my sister has also put her on a “time out.”
        It’s incredibly frustrating, for I do love her. I just cannot subject myself to her abuse.

        1. Well Tara, I can only wish you and your sister and family the best. You have to protect yourself as best you can. I hope you can find a way. Best to all of you.

  15. Your “wishbones and backbones” column was one of tyour best, IMO. Very specific and clear, sounds sto me like a life-changer. Takes a bit of remembering, so I’ve copied it to a doc and will look at it again–several times–to make sure I can keep to my feelings/words. Not an easy thing to do. You’re a brave soul, You have my admairation.

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