A common question I get from readers, including fat people and thin people who want to work in solidarity with fat people is how to intervene when they see fat shaming, or food shaming (or really any kind of shaming) happen. Recently a reader asked about this situation:
I was wondering if you had any advice about what to do if you see someone else being shamed in that way, particularly children, who cannot easily stick up for themselves. As an example (and definitely not an isolated incident in my fat-phobic family): Several months ago, I was at a gathering with family and friends, and my SIL said to a child (not her own, a family friend), “Do you really need two of those?” (I think they were sliders or something like that.) The girl replied, “I always have two.” And my SIL said in an exasperated tone, “Alright, if you’re gonna do it, do it.” My heart sank for her, but I just froze and said nothing, and in the months since have kicked myself repeatedly for not supporting this preteen girl. But I just couldn’t think of anything to say that wouldn’t further embarrass her. What would you have said and done?
There are several options and which option you choose depends on how you feel on any given day, your relationship with the people involved, and what you are comfortable with:
Immediate and Direct
Say something immediately in the situation – you can be serious or try a little humor.
- Wow, that’s seriously messed up. I’m sure if she wants help with her food choices she’ll asked someone she trusts.
- If we want the food police we’ll call 911. Let’s keep our attention on our own plates.
Talk About It Later
When you say something in the moment there is the risk of further embarrassing/drawing attention to the victim of the shaming, or giving them support that they don’t want. I suggest that you not use that tactic unless you are very sure that the person will be comfortable with you standing up for them. If not, then addressing it later might be a better choice. For this you wait until later and then approach the two people separately.
You might share with the person who got shamed that you saw what happened and that you are sorry that they were treated so pooerly You can share your own story of how you realized that the problem wasn’t you but the people who think that their beeswax is located on your plate (or body.) You might share some tools that you use to deal with it.
Then you might talk to the shamer, let them know that what they did was dangerous, that talking like that can lead to kids having disordered relationships with food and their bodies that can cause them to develop eating disorders, or see their bodies as bad and unworthy of care. Maybe tell them that even though you know they meant well, that you are really uncomfortable with them commenting on other people’s food choices.
In this option you follow up a shaming statement with a non-specific global statement, it can be a little more immediate but without putting any more focus on the victim of shaming.
- I wish we lived in a world where people didn’t make comments about other food choices.
- I wish we lived in a world where bodies of all sizes were celebrated.
Distract/Change the Subject
If you are going to go with the “Talk about it later” option, or if you aren’t planning to address it for whatever reason (a totally valid option) you can try to give the person being shamed some relief by distracting the shamer/changing the topic:
- How about that recent/upcoming sportsball game and the local and/or college sportsballing team?
- How are your bowel movements? (and if they look surprised you can say “I’m sorry, I thought we are asking each other inappropriate personal questions.”)
- I need to get this recipe from you – who knew that you could get this much stuff to float in jello! (This may only work in the South…)
To me the most important thing about understanding shaming is that the problem is the shamer’s bad behavior and not whatever their victim is doing. I’ve found it to be helpful to suggest that if someone who is being shamed is feeling embarrassment, they consider that they aren’t embarrassed for themselves, but for the shamer who is making a complete and total ass of themselves.
Have other ideas? Please feel free to leave them in the comments!
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