I have found myself in many a situation that goes something like this: the person I’m with starts talking about their new diet, or maybe commenting on someone’s weight loss, or some generally uncomfortable thing that I do not want to discuss with them. I desperately want to say something that will change their mind on the issue, fully convincing them that they were wrong to bring it up while instilling within them the desire to never, ever discuss that thing again. Easy, right? Yeah, not so much.
We have all been in situations where someone says something you don’t agree with, but feel awkward about correcting. Especially when it pertains to someone’s body or food choices, it can be immensely difficult to violate the social norms of behavior and risk being labeled “too easily offended” or “one of those feminists.” But, if the ultimate goal is to liberate ourselves from the insidious grasp of diet culture, we have to get comfortable calling people out.
For me, I first consider: What is the desired outcome of this situation? Sometimes, I just want to shut the conversation down. This person does not need to learn the error of their ways, they just need to shut the hell up and change the subject. I’ll say something like, “I’m not comfortable discussing that” or “Let’s talk about something else.” These assert my boundaries without opening the topic for conversation. This works particularly well if the person is someone you know will not respond well to the learning opportunity you might otherwise present them.
If I want the person to recognize that they have said something unintentionally hurtful, but still put a stop to the conversation, saying something like, “Wow, that’s really hurtful” can help the person realize that they crossed a line. Sometimes people speak without thinking. It doesn’t excuse the things they say, but it does help to realize that they may not have intended to cause harm. Making them a little uncomfortable can help to flag inappropriate conversation topics.
Many of my experiences with uncomfortable body and food comments have come from strangers. That can be a completely different ballpark, since you may be in a situation where you can’t necessarily voice your opinion safely. When you are at work or any other place where you need to maintain a certain level of decorum, sometimes the best option is also the least appetizing: say nothing at all. This can be super challenging when your first instinct is to spit back a clever retort, but ultimately, your safety comes before any teachable moment. Try to accept that people have to learn and unlearn at their own pace, in their own time, and you are under no obligation to be the catalyst for that change. You do not have to pick every fight; sometimes it is better to save your strength for another day.
When you believe someone is genuinely open to new ideas, it can help to ask curious, open-ended questions. For example, if someone says something disparaging about themselves, a response of “why do you think that?” can be more helpful in starting a dialogue than, “Well, sorry, but you’re wrong.” Often, people will comment on their own food issues or some perceived flaw with their own bodies without realizing that the people around them internalize that shame as their own. Being honest and a little vulnerable can get them to that place of questioning why, indeed, they have held on to these harmful values and attitudes.
Sometimes, you can say and do all of the right things, and people still do not care enough to change their behaviors. Those are the situations that can make you want to curl up in a ball and never again speak up for the things you believe. But, we are not the keepers of those around us. Their health and happiness do not depend solely on us, and we are allowed to pick our battles.