When Your Holiday BBQ becomes a Fat-Shaming Roast

What a Load of CrapHere 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:

  1. state your boundary clearly (ie:  it’s not ok to talk to me about my weight)
  2. 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.)
  3. 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.

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 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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12 thoughts on “When Your Holiday BBQ becomes a Fat-Shaming Roast

  1. Are you trying to ruin my holiday?
    Cuz, I’ll be happy to return the favor. **big cheesy grin**
    Just say the word.

    If ugly comments persist, then they get to wear my meal. Hey, they were warned.

  2. I am just horrified that because of insensitive ignorant people that this has to be written at all, however, you did it well, I prefer the direct responses, I think that fat police should be embarrassed and stopped right in their tracks!!

  3. Yes, because dealing with your rudeness is depleting my glycogen stores at an alarming rate. 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’m saving these two in my quips notebook for later use.

  4. I wish I had armed myself with some of these responses that I could have adapted to two recent meal experiences where I encountered blatant racism. It caught me SO off-guard that all I could muster at the time was, “You’re making me feel really uncomfortable because I don’t share those beliefs” when what I really wanted to do was tell them they’re fucking racist assholes who don’t need to bother with dispensing pleasantries with me anymore.

  5. I enjoyed this because it made me realize how much I DO stick up for others (and myself) when I hear fat-shaming at events. I often hear that “somebody doesn’t NEED candy/chips/dessert/etc.” I usually respond with, “Well, nobody NEEDS cake, but I WANT cake and I’m GOING TO eat this cake. You got a problem with that?” I also stood up to my mother for my brother-in-law (even though I don’t like him) when she got on his case for taking two (small!) pieces of pie at Thanksgiving. We had two kinds of pie, mince and pumpkin, and he took about a half slice of each. When she started in on, “Oh, I see X has TWO pieces of pie” I told her, “So what? He can have two piece of pie if he wants to. We have plenty of pie.” Then when she wondered why he had left the table immediately afterwards, I said, “Maybe it’s because you got on his case for eating two pieces of pie.” She actually seemed surprised at that.

    1. Strictly speaking, nobody NEEDS more than a cave to live in, and just enough clothing to protect from the elements. Nobody actually NEEDS electricity (except people whose lives depend on it, for medical machines keeping them going).

      So, next time someone asks, “Do you really NEED that pie?” You can ask “Do you really NEED hot and cold running water, electricity and a more-than-one-room house?”

      Yeah, I’m definitely feeling snarky today.

  6. If they the food-shamers are the guests, and especially if both shamer and shamee are guests, there’s always, “Oh, goodness! Just LOOK at the time! And is that a storm brewing? You’d better get home RIGHT NOW, before you are soaked to the skin and catch your death. After all, we’re ALL SO CONCERNED about YOUR HEALTH.” Said, while gathering all the stuff that belongs to the shamer guest and physically shuffling them out the door, closing it firmly behind them.

    Then don’t answer the doorbell.

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