What To Do When You See Fat or Food Shaming

What a Load of CrapA 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.

Global Statement

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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19 thoughts on “What To Do When You See Fat or Food Shaming

  1. My parents harassed me about my food choices when I started puberty at 10 and triggered an eating disorder I still deal with today. I’ve tried to be direct with them when I see them pressuring my youngest sister to restrict her food intake and pay more attention to the numbers on the scale, but the always double down and defend their behavior by saying that they don’t want her to have diabetes later in life. I’ve tried asking them if they want her to have an eating disorder and hate herself both now and later, but the overwhelming response is that I’m just being dramatic. I try to be there for my sister as much as I can and to let her know that just because the body type we share tends to be larger and more curvy than the ideal that we are still beautiful in our own way, but I live so far away and she lives with our mom. I wish my parents would have learned from everything I’ve dealt with for the past 2 decades. I don’t understand why they won’t even consider the possibility that their prejudice is more dangerous than a few more pounds of flesh than a Sports Illustrated model.

    1. Wow. You actually *have* an eating disorder and they think you’re just being dramatic? That’s out of touch with reality. Probably wouldn’t help to point out that thin people get diabetes either.

      1. Oh, Ive pointed that out. But apparently i dont have an eating disorder any more because over a decade of therapy had helped me bring myself to a medically healthy body weight. Calling myself anorexic when i only stop eating when im stressed instead of all the time clearly means im looking for attention.

        1. Yikes your parents are seriously divorced from reality. If anyone doesn’t conform to their reality, that’s trouble for the other person.

  2. One other real possibility for speaking up is to talk privately a moment with the victim of the food-/weight-shaming. Just let them know you saw the awful moment and you understand how frustrating and hurtful it can be. They need to know they are not alone.

  3. This is an interesting one because I saw it happen in front of me about a month ago and it was so hurtful it’s still having an impact on me.

    I was at a grocery store and in line in front of me was a moderately fat father and his two kids who were making fun of him for being fat. They were singing a song that is literally burned into my brain it was so hurtful…it was “Big fat daddy on the porch, big fat daddy breaks the porch.” Then they and he would laugh at their “creativity.” I stared daggers at him to show how hurtful he was allowing his children to be but he either never noticed or just flat out ignored me.

    Then get this, when I got up to the checkout girl I said something like “I can’t believe some people would allow their kids to say that.” and she said something like “noooo, they were soooo cute!” Of course I was speechless again and didn’t say anything.

  4. Some responses for “Do you really need two of those?” (and other such remarks)

    —–“You’re right, better take an extra just in case…” (In the situation as mentioned, I might have given an extra slider to the girl saying “Here ya go precious.. enjoy!”

    —–To the person who said it: “Don’t be scared. It is just food”, or “Why? you planning on keeping them all to yourself? We have to share.”

    Regarding the man with his children at the checkout. I am sorry the poster was triggered and hurt by the children’s behavior towards their dad, although he seemed fine with their “song”. Shaming and policing his parenting doesn’t sound good to me though, and the staff should never criticize a patron to another patron. If I was upset enough by their behavior though, a response I might have used would be to say to the children “I don’t think your dad would break a porch.. that’s not nice to say”, or I would’ve said it to the dad “Well.. I don’t think you’d break a porch…”

    Naturally, self-care is paramount and it is perfectly okay to not say anything at all. For instance just being a fat person out in public, eating or doing anything in public is fat-activism in of itself… being visible when the world wants us to disappear.

  5. When I was 10 is when I started to feel fat. I was developing, and got called fat by my peers. Not only that, I didn’t have support at home. When I told my mom the kids made fun of me her suggestion was to try to lose weight. So I went on my first diet. But I couldn’t lose. Looking back, I now know I wasn’t actually fat. Just developing, and more curvy than most 10 year olds.
    I grew up poor. We only rarely had stuff like candy around. I remember one time we had a big pack of Reeses peanut butter cups. I ate quite a few. What kid wouldn’t? My mom made a big deal out if it. That’s the first time I remember being ashamed of myself for what I ate. I don’t think I have ever really gotten over that incident. It triggered a lot of disordered eating and a very unhealthy relationship with food that I’m still trying to overcome 33 years later.
    My mom wasn’t t a bad mom. She just didn’t know any better. But that doesn’t make it right or lessen the pain.
    If I had had just one person stick up for me then or in all these years, I know things would have been different for me.
    I applaud your reader for bringing this up and caring about others enough to want to help. There isn’t enough of that in this world.

  6. Reblogged this on Kiki Over Thinks Everything and commented:
    As a youth services librarian, I’ve seen fat shaming, slut shaming and all other types of bullying. I don’t stand for it because children need to be taught better. I remember I was doing a third grade class visit–the most lovely group of cherubs, really. One of the girls, looked very sad during the tour. When I asked her what was wrong, she told me that one of her classmates had called her “fat.” I said with a smile: That’s okay. I am fat too. Fat is just a word. It just means the opposite of skinny. Just like you’re tall and that little girl is short. It isn’t bad. The little girl hugged me. The other kids started murmuring in agreement. No one had told them this before.

  7. I like to try to normalize the idea that we eat food because it’s yummy. So when people start diet talk, or shaming things, I talk about how delicious the food is.

    “Do you really need 2 of those?” “Probably, they’re pretty delicious!”

    “This food is so bad for you!” “This food is amazing for my soul.”

  8. I was just food shamed at my new psychiatrists office this week. I am seeing her for pretty bad anxiety and depression and In attempt to show that I was pushing myself and doing something positive and enjoyable, I said “I have been making homemade bread for the last few weeks.” She looked at me and said, “Are you eating the bread?”

    Of course I’m eating the bread, its delicious and fresh!

    I was really caught off guard and immediately fell into the trap of justifying myself and my eating., “I’ve lost ten pounds, I don’t drink soda, I don’t eat out.”

    I would like to speak with my doctor at my next appointment and tell her I feel like I was food shamed and that I work hard to accept and love myself as I am. I would love suggestions for things to say to her and also responses to the old you’re going to die from being fat trope that will probably be a part of the conversation.

    I guess this will be good practice for dealing with my anxiety.

    1. Can you find another doctor? You could ask her what she meant by that, and maybe the answer will turn out to be benign. But you shouldn’t have to spend your valuable therapy time educating her, and certainly not defending yourself.

    2. With all the people starving in the world, it would be darned ungrateful to throw away fresh, delicious bread, rather than eat it.

      Bread is not evil. Eating bread is not evil. And you know what? Comfort food is comforting for a reason, and if you’re having some mental anguish, and need a source of comfort, fresh bread is much healthier for you than drugs, alcohol, random sex with strangers, cutting, or a host of other “comfort” behaviors I could name.

      And stressing about diet isn’t going to help your mental anguish, either.

      Ask anyone who has been to rehab for alcohol or drugs, and they’ll tell you that you’re not supposed to go cold-turkey on EVERYTHING. If you smoke, they let you smoke, because you can take some comfort in the smoking, while you’re fighting the withdrawals from drugs or alcohol.

      So why in the world would she food-shame you, when you’re already trying to deal with other issues? Unless you went to her specifically to address binge-eating disorder, I don’t see how the “are you eating the bread” question could possibly be helpful.

      Eating the entire loaf of bread by yourself would indicate a problem, to be sure, unless it’s a mini loaf. But comfort food in moderation? Not a problem.

    3. Why on earth would anyone bake bread and then not eat it? Okay, if you’re baking it for someone else, I can see that. But most of us who habitually bake do eat at least some of what we make.

      Heck, I’m going to spend my day teaching one of my neighbors to bake a cake from scratch, and you can bet your bottom dollar that I expect to eat a slice of that cake! It’s going to be warm and fresh from the oven.

      In fact, making lots of food and then not eating any of it is, IIRC, a classic sign of anorexia nervosa.

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