Here in the US we are celebrating Labor Day weekend. For many people that means time with family, with a BBQ being a very traditional way to spend that time. I’ve already heard from a number of readers whose families are behaving badly – setting out a feast and then using the opportunity to food police, fat shame, and generally make their fat family members miserable. I offer the following support, both to help if you are being food-policed and/or fat-shamed, and to help if you see someone being food-policed and/or fat-shamed and want to support them.
If you’re being food policed or fat-shamed:
Ah, is there anything more fun than being under surveillance by the Friends and Family Food Police? There are only a couple of things that I can think of – root canal, shaving my head with a cheese grater, a fish hook in the eye…
This happens to almost all of my fat friends, but to be clear it happens to thin people too – food judgment and shaming happens to people of all sizes and it’s never ok.
First, I always suggest that you be prepared for boundary setting when you go into this type of situation. Think about what your boundaries are, and what consequences you are willing to enforce. So think about what you would be willing to do – Leave the event? Stay at a hotel? Cease conversation until the person can treat you appropriately? Be sure that you know what you want and that you can follow through. Then follow a three step process:
- state your boundary clearly (ie: it’s not ok to talk to me about my weight)
- state the consequences if your boundary is violated (if you continue to talk to me about my weight I’ll go home and we can try again next year.)
- follow through with the consequences if it comes to that
It can also help to have some responses ready. So you’re at a holiday BBQ, you take seconds on Aunt Agnes’s potato salad and someone asks the dreaded question: “Do you need to eat that?” It seems like the table falls silent, waiting for your reply. What do you say?
I suggest you find your happy (or at least your non-homicidal) place, and try one of these:
Quick and Simple (said with finality)
- Yes (and then eat it)
- No (and then eat it)
Answer with a Question (I find it really effective to ask these without malice, with a tone of pure curiosity. If you’re not in the mood to have a dialog about this, maybe skip these.)
- Why do you think that’s your business?
- What led you to believe that I want you to police my food intake?
- I thought that you were an accountant, are you also a dietitian?
Pointed Response (be ready with a consequence if the behavior continues)
- I find that inappropriate and offensive, please don’t comment on my food choices
- What I eat is none of your business, and your commenting on it is not ok
- I have absolutely no interest in discussing my food intake with you
- I’m not soliciting opinions about my food choices.
Cathartic (but probably not that useful if you want to create an opportunity for honest dialog)
- Yes, because dealing with your rudeness is depleting my glycogen stores at an alarming rate
- If I want to talk to the food police, I’ll call Pie-1-1
- I’m sure you’re not proud of the completely inappropriate behavior you just exhibited, I’m willing to forget this ever happened
- No, but using my fork to eat helps to keep me from stabbing you with it
I don’t believe that guilt is good for my health and I’m definitely resisting arrest by the Family and Friends Food Police.
What do you do if you witness food policing/fat shaming?
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. We all like you better as an uncle than a self-appointed food policeman.
- 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 people’s 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 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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