'Tis the season for triggering comments about food and weight

How to navigate harmful diet talk during the holidays.

Maxine McCrann
The Holidays

This story includes discussions about food and weight. If you or a loved one are struggling with disordered eating, contact the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline.

The holidays are supposed to be a time to unwind. But as my relatives trickle into my parents’ house for Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve festivities, I steel myself for the inevitable comments on my body. A decade ago, an aunt told me I was just the right size before cautioning me against gaining any more weight. I nodded and served myself palm-sized portions of the elaborate spread my mom had prepared. When I took up running a few years later, other family members complimented my weight loss. Hungry for more morsels of praise, I doubled down on hitting my weekly mileage goals.

Because the holiday season revolves so much around food, it can be a minefield of triggers for those of us who struggle with body image — and that may be especially true this year. Relatives we haven’t seen since lockdown might not realize what nearly two years of anxiety and isolation have done to our bodies. I spoke with Christy Querol, a Chicago-based psychologist, about how to navigate the harmful food and diet talk that can emerge during the holidays.

Besides overt appraisals of your weight loss or gain, harmful food and diet talk can also take the form of subtler comments from loved ones about the amount of food on your plate or how they ran a Turkey Trot to “earn” their dinner. Even I’ve been guilty of telling my family about the workout I squeezed in the morning before a holiday feast.

Querol, who specializes in challenges related to body image, tells me that the harmful impacts of food and diet talk can look different in communities of color than in white communities. In her own Latinx community, “the talk is more direct,” she says. “It’s not as sugarcoated.” In addition to explicitly commenting on weight fluctuations, relatives might ask, “Should you really be eating that?” or share their own recent weight loss as a means of seeking attention or validation, she explains. They might also talk about changes in another family member’s weight before or after a get-together.

While it’s impossible to generalize across all BIPOC communities (as Querol rightfully points out, some celebrate full-bodied physiques), I can relate. Body shaming is all too common in Asian families, especially against curvier women like myself, who don’t quite fit the slender, petite feminine ideal.

“They’re just very blunt,” I told Querol, referring to my Filipinx relatives. “They feel entitled to make comments about your appearance.”

“Yes, ugh,” she responded, my words seeming to resonate with her. “It’s like some kind of ownership of the body.”

Querol believes that in certain cultures, this sense of ownership might be due, on the one hand, to differences in understanding boundaries. They might also see talking about family members’ bodies as normal.

As innocuous as these comments might seem to the people making them, Querol says they can inflict real, sometimes lasting, damage. They can convince you that your entire worth is tied to your weight, eclipsing any other valuable qualities you possess. They can also fuel shame — which, in turn, “can feel really isolating,” Querol says — as well as perfectionism. Long-term, you might internalize the harmful diet talk, leading to unhealthy behaviors like restrictive dieting, binge eating, or obsessive exercise. Even “compliments” about your weight loss, like the ones I described above, can nudge you to adopt these behaviors in an effort to elicit more praise.

Having certain BIPOC identities can magnify the impact of harmful food and diet talk. Querol explains that BIPOC who internalize these comments might feel marginalized from not only the white community — because they don’t measure up to white beauty standards, which include being skinny — but the thin community, too.

While you can’t control what your loved ones say, you can control how you manage it. Here’s Querol’s advice on what to do before, during, and after a holiday gathering in which you anticipate triggering food and diet talk.

Clarify your narrative

Querol suggests sitting down before the event and writing about your own relationship with food and your body. Get meta, and ask yourself how it feels as you jot down this narrative. If you think it’s overly harsh, investigate where that self-criticism might come from. Ask yourself: Whose voice is that? Do I even want [fill in the blank] body type for myself? Or is my culture, Hollywood, or something else telling me I should?

Even if writing your narrative allows you to simply acknowledge that you don’t love your body, but that you’re working on taking care of yourself, you’ve at least created a filter for any food- or weight-related comments from loved ones, Querol says. This way, you can more easily recognize that those comments reflect their narratives — you don’t have to make them yours. Maybe this time, you won’t bristle at your uncle bragging about the Turkey Trot he ran, because now you realize that his attitude toward food — as something to earn — doesn’t align with yours.

“When you have that boundary, and someone says something, it can’t go through,” Querol says. “But if we’re porous, then it’s going to seep through.” You might get caught off-guard, in other words — “Like, ‘Oh snap, I wasn’t thinking about my weight, but maybe I should.”

Consider how you’d treat your inner child

Imagine eating dinner with your little kid self. You’d want them to eat what they want and enjoy it, right? Querol suggests engaging in that same nurturing self-talk during your next holiday get-together. At the same time, she recognizes that not everyone feels comfortable with inner child work. If you don’t feel like going there, talk to yourself as you would a friend or other loved one instead.

Ground yourself

“It can be so easy, especially with family, to go into fight-or-flight mode,” Querol says. Even eating in front of your relatives might be enough to make you anxious. Instead of anticipating Grandma making a dig about your weight like she did last Thanksgiving, Querol recommends focusing on what’s actually happening in the moment.

Jonathan Knowles/DigitalVision/Getty Images

Take a deep breath, and use your five senses. Feel your body in your chair. Savor the flavors in your food. Look at the room where you’re sitting. Smell the aromas. Listen to the laughter and other sounds surrounding you. It can also help to repeat a mantra to yourself, like “I am worthy,” “I am lovable,” or whatever feels true for you, Querol says.

Remember that you don’t have to engage

If your cousin starts talking about all the weight they’ve lost during the pandemic, leaving the room is always an option. Grab some water, or take a walk. “Who says you have to engage in this conversation?” Querol says. Refusing to engage can be a form of boundary setting, too.

Remember that it’s okay to speak up

Querol believes it’s always appropriate to speak up if you think a food- or weight-related comment has crossed a boundary. “If you’re feeling bothered by it, then that means it’s crossing your boundary,” she says. The question is whether you feel comfortable communicating that to the person responsible. “They might push back, and that’s something you might want to be prepared for,” she says. Getting into it with Grandma might not be worth it if your culture has a deep reverence for grandparents, for example.

If you do feel safe speaking up, state how the comment makes you feel and what you need instead. That might be something along the lines of, “That comment hurt me. I need us to stop talking about that.” If the other person says they were only joking or makes some other dismissive remark, you can always say “Great, and I’m not going to continue talking about this.”

Ultimately, setting a boundary is a loving act, Querol says. Otherwise, you might become resentful and lash out later. It’s not your responsibility if the other person doesn’t respond to your boundary — but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t set it.

List the qualities you love about yourself

“Recognize the things you do appreciate about yourself,” Querol says, noting you can do so before, during, and even after a holiday gathering. If you don’t love your body, celebrate the fact that you have one, and don’t forget to consider qualities beyond your appearance.

Normally, I’d fly blindly into holiday get-togethers, internalizing nearly every food- or diet-related comment. But through talking to Querol, I’ve learned that I can approach these situations with intention. This year, I’ll work on setting firm boundaries so that I don’t lose sight of the truth: that I am much, much more than my body.