When conversation gets stuck on diet shaming and body criticizing, here's what to do.
Since I was a teenager, I’ve witnessed my fair share of body and food shaming, namely from friends and classmates. As we perused the dessert menu after dinner, I recall one friend saying she couldn’t order her favorite dessert because “I’m wearing a crop top out tonight and want to look good.”
I’ve listened to friends compare their own bodies to those of women in completely different circumstances. Every time, I’ve choose to smile politely and nod my head at these self-deprecating comments. But as the years have gone by and talk about disordered eating, body positivity, and body image have only become more common, I’ve increasingly wondered why we let our friends say these things about themselves and let it slide as normal behavior.
It really hit me during a recent brunch meet up with a few close friends. The conversation started with banter about our jobs, our love lives, and weekend plans, but soon, the weight loss talk crept into the conversation and overtook everything. I listened to people who I saw as beautiful already, both inside and out, consumed with thoughts of what they were eating and how they were working out to combat the extra calories or fat or carbohydrates in those foods.
I sat there in silence because I wanted to scream Stop it! but it felt rude and wrong to dis something they felt so passionate about.
And I’ve been there too. During my month trying Whole30, I found myself obsessing over every morsel I ate and how it affected my body. I would catch myself mid-sentence, talking about how great my new eating style was, and then suddenly think This isn’t the real Julia. She wouldn’t spend so much time talking about her diet in such an unsolicited way.
Still, obsessing over the diet and telling everyone about my final goal is what got me through the grueling 30 days. Because of my Whole30 experience, I understand the allure of talking about your diet and exercise regime constantly. It can provide accountability, yes, but at what cost? All that talk about weight loss goals and fitspiration seem exhausting, and frankly, not worth it.
To better understand the obsession some of us have with weight loss, exercise, and diet, I reached out to Andrew Walen, LICSW, executive director of The Body Image Therapy Center in Maryland. He confirmed my suspicion that obsessing over anything, weight loss included, isn’t healthy.
“A fixation on weight loss, any amount, means that a person is not paying attention to their body's actual physical needs,” he explains. “We all have natural body types from the very smallest of us to the very largest. When we fight what is normal for our body, we are working against all the hormonal mechanisms that keep us healthy, and that can lead to physical and mental illness such as an eating disorder.”
After hearing Walen’s explanation, I felt better about the unsettling feelings I have when friends and loved ones go on rants about their latest diet or weight loss kick. Still, interjecting when someone you care about is speaking about a topic they care about felt rude and insulting.
Is it possible to look at weight loss or diet talk as a hobby, just as someone might want to talk about taking up a foreign language class or going on a major road trip? Everyone has their own lifestyle choices and interests, after all, so saying “Your weight loss talk makes me feel uncomfortable” has never sat right with me.
But Walen insists bringing up your concerns is the best thing to do. “When you're surrounded by those who continue to obsess about weight loss or the food they're eating, it's appropriate to say how that makes you feel uncomfortable and if they can change the subject,” Walen explains. “It not only helps you, but can help the people around you grasp how much time they spend, and waste, on this topic. If they persist, perhaps this is a group need to spend less time with.”
There is a fine line: While giving your attention and praise to a friend who appears happy and healthy is normal, congratulating them when they lose weight they've been obsessed with shedding can prove dangerous. That’s because saying I can’t believe you lost 50 pounds! seems to suggest that the number on the scale defines their worth.
“If we celebrate the number, and the number goes back up, that person feels horrible about themselves,” says Walen. So instead of cheering on your friend for her pounds dropped, focus other wins like her positive mood, mastery of a new yoga pose, or cleaned up sleep schedule.
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Next time a friend goes on about her weight loss goal or diet regimen and I feel uncomfortable, I plan on taking the scary but necessary plunge into confrontation. Upsetting or offending a loved one isn’t a great feeling, but it's a way to challenge our culture's obsession with weight and diets—which perpetuates harmful, disordered thinking about the female body.