My Super Secret Magic Phrase

I can explain it to youI’m finally back and settled from my Massachusetts trip, I had a wonderful time at the 5 colleges and I hope to see y’all again soon.  One question that I got a lot from the people at my talks was how to deal with the criticism and concern trolling that come at me.  There is a phrase that I have found to be truly useful in dealing with all kinds of situation.  The phrase is “Help me understand…”

Some examples:

A doctor tells me that I should lose weight to be healthier (or cure strep throat, a broken toe, or a separated shoulder).  I say “Can you help me understand what research you are basing this recommendation on?”

Someone comments on what I’m eating.  I say “Please help me understand what made you think I wanted your opinion about my food choices.”

Someone says something hateful  (blah blah blah landwhale blah blah blah). I say “Help me understand what makes you think that I want to hear what you think of me.” (though what I really want to ask is why they can’t just call me a fat animal that actually lives on land rather than making up an animal, but whatever.)

Someone insists that I should stop talking about what a massive failure Weight Watchers is because they did it 6 times and it worked every time. I say “help me understand your definition of ‘worked'”

Obviously, this isn’t for all situations, or for all people – you get to decide what works for you. I like it because it puts the onus on the person who began the interaction.  It can also have a number of different connotations depending on what tone of voice I use.  In situations where I’m actually interested in an answer (like with the doctor) it can be a conversation starter and be less combative than, for example, saying “I don’t think that weight loss meets the requirements of evidence-based medicine.”  In the case where someone has just been inappropriate it gives them the opportunity to make that determination on their own and apologize, which I have found often happens.

If you’re going to do this I think it helps to understand that you are inviting conversation – the person who commented on my food may come back with “your body shows me that you need somebody’s advice” and so I don’t use this unless I feel like I’m prepared to engage.  Also, please be clear that nobody is under any obligation to engage in these conversations.  It’s perfectly ok to say “I’m not taking unsolicited opinions about my food” in a way that does not invite conversation. Being fat in a society where people are encouraged to participate in stereotyping, bullying, and oppressing people based on their sizes leads to a lot of effed up situations.  So to me, it’s all about empowerment and whatever makes each of us feel the most empowered in an effed up situation. If you have suggestions – super secret and magic or otherwise – I, as always, hope you’ll put them in the comments.

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17 thoughts on “My Super Secret Magic Phrase

  1. I read every single blog post, how did I miss you were in my neck of the woods?! What a bummer! This area is particular hard on fat people, everyone in the valley is so health obsessed, could have used a pep talk!

  2. Love it! “Help me understand” is conversational aikido! Come closer, Ms. Aggressor… make yourself vulnerable…maybe even listen to yourself… and we can have a conversation that will make the world better.


  3. Thank you! I’ll certainly follow your example and simply ask them those questions. I think they’ll be baffled and won’t know how to respond really. Also, what I like to do is establish from the beginning the way I feel about my body (e.g I went to the gym with a friend recently and another friend commented on Facebook wishing us ‘good luck with our weightloss’. I responded saying that it is not my intention to lose weight).

    Anyway, any fat person can say he or she was at some point bullied (some memories are still triggering for me and they happened in middle school). I think the best defence is to ignore most comments and acknowledge that you are worthy of respect and dignity. To be honest, I feel sorry for people that bully me, mostly because in that way they are trying to mask their own insecurities and I am way past that.

    I like to think of myself as a free person while they are still in that small cage of self doubt and low self esteem, hoping that they will, someday become better people. It’s my wish to inform them but as you so well write in your posts, can’t understand it for them.

  4. Oh I desperately need these and any anyone else wants to add! We’re about to see family of origin people on both sides of the family in the next 2 weeks we haven’t seen in a while. I deal with serious social anxiety anyway & I’ve gained 50+ lbs since I’ve seen any of these people. I dread the look on their faces when they see me. I choose to take psych meds so I won’t end up killing myself like my dad but these are people that are anti-medication, anti-talking about our dad & anti-fat (and anti a bunch of other stuff about me too). I am putting these suggestions in my phone to memorize. Thank you Ragen!

  5. I really love your comeback. My daughter has one that is just for general weird comments. “What would make you say that’? Kind of the same thing, but I think yours is especially great for ‘fat’ comments or innuendos! Thanks so much for your blogs and for your activism!!

  6. I love this “help me understand…”! My greatest challenge, however, will be learning to use it in a sincere, non-snarky way, because it’s so perfect for snarking. 🙂

  7. “your body shows me that you need somebody’s advice”

    I would say (looking them clearly in the eye), “if you want to have a relationship with my body, you have to go through me.”

    1. This makes me recall the time a friend was given unsolicited advice on her appearance. Her comeback was “…last time I checked, you didn’t pay my bills, house me, support my children or provide pleasure for my body, so I don’t believe you’ve got any rights to tell me how to act or look’

      I was always impressed with her strength. I know now that even her comment implied that she might allow someone who supported her to demand or suggest changes about her looks… but at the time, it was an awesome situation to behold

  8. thank you very much. I will use this. Most times I read your column and say (out loud!) “she’s a genius”. Keep meaning to tell you.

    Now I’m helping YOU to understand how much you are loved by all of us. –gracias!

  9. Thank you so much! This is just what I needed. I had my first hospital appointment today at the diabetes clinic and was dreading the (alas almost inevitable) weight-loss talk, but I managed to not to my usual curl in a ball response. Though not as eloquent as you it went something like:

    Doc: So weight-loss helps type 2 diabetes..
    Me: I’m a scientist and I’ve looked at studies and most suggest that weight-loss is unsustainable and while you loose muscle and fat you tend to gain back fat and end up heavier than you started.
    Doc: Ah yes I know we don’t know how to sustain weight-loss but some people manage and it really helps.
    Me: I am not against more veg and more exercise but statistically weight-loss it is unlikely to succeed and I don’t want to use that as a measure of success.
    Doc: Well I guess if you take a pragmatic approach…
    (or you know, Science! I have no idea what the poor nursing student thought of all this, I resisted correcting her that bananas were a tropical fruit but felt the need to point out the mini-pill is less effective in very overweight people)

    But thank you for giving me the confidence to stand up for what I know to be right and to get one of the most useful appointments with a medical professional again. You do amazing work and we all really appreciate it.

    1. good for you. I’m itchin’ to try this. So far the world has been ever so polite to me.

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