Your family is clustered around the dinner table, each person chatting about their day while plowing through a home-cooked meal. Suddenly, your mom pipes up: “Has anyone seen that new movie with [insert female celebrity]? She’s certainly put on a few pounds.” Your siblings chuckle, and the conversation continues. No one notices as you stop chewing, lay your fork on your napkin and cross your arms over your stomach.
The next time it happens, it’s personal. Maybe a family member slips in a suggestion about choosing healthier snacks while grocery shopping, or complains about always having to buy new jeans after you outgrow the last ones. Maybe the comment is even more direct: “You are getting so big! Have you tried dieting?”
If these situations sound familiar, you are not alone. Whatever your size, you do not deserve to have your body reduced to a topic of casual conversation. You may not be able to convert your family to the sweet, sweet life of body acceptance and the total rejection of diet culture, but at least you can make your school breaks slightly more bearable by setting some conversation boundaries.
When I first started setting boundaries, it was with my mother. Some background on my mother: compulsive long-distance runner. Obsessed with losing weight her entire life. Converted to veganism cold turkey after watching the scientific documentary—and I use that term very loosely—“What the Health.” Basically the most toxic influence on my relationship with food and my body. For years, I tried meeting her in the middle. I tried listening to her perspective. I tried recommending books and scientific articles. In the end, the only thing that worked was baring my soul.
I told her, in my most serious tone, that I needed to talk. I explained in detail which conversation topics were triggering for me. I explained again when she protested that there was no way she could go ten minutes without talking about low-fat cream cheese. We may have our differences (a lot of them), but I know that she loves me and does not want to harm me. Once I explained that she actively hurts me when she makes comments that violate my boundaries, she began to understand the necessity of my boundary setting.
She still slips up from time to time. I can sense her discomfort when she makes a joke and I fall silent, rolling my eyes. That’s another trick I picked up: if you are uncomfortable, you can let that person know, verbally or using body language. You do not need to fake a laugh just to make them feel validated. Those moments are good opportunities to reinforce your boundaries: “Remember what I said before about that topic?”
Setting conversational boundaries with your family and friends is difficult. It can often necessitate vulnerability and a great deal of empathy. Maybe you were once where they are now. You held those same biases, made those same jokes. But now you are trying to move beyond that, and you want them to help you get there. Be sincere and honest; passing the boundary violations off as a mild annoyance is a disservice to you and the people you are speaking to. You may need to repeat your point a couple times before they get the message. Structure the conversation around you and what you need to heal, rather than an accusation about what they have done wrong.
If they make a mistake, remind them of your boundaries. If all else fails and they refuse to respect them, keep yourself safe. Walk away from conversations. Distract yourself with other things you enjoy. Remember that YOU are not the problem, and you do not deserve to feel inferior around people who are supposed to lift you up.