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Navigating Unsolicited Body and Food Comments this Holiday Season

Updated: Dec 19, 2023

By: Alison Ross, LMFT, CEDS

This holiday season, will you you be gathering friends and family who just can't help themselves when it comes to making food and body comments?

The holiday season, a time of joy, celebration, and family gatherings, can also be a minefield for those struggling with disordered eating. Sometimes coming together with family and friends means being exposed to diet-focused and body-judgmental conversations, which can be distressing.

This year, my friend won't be taking her kids to her family's holiday gathering. It's because her daughter has been struggling with her body image, and the constant diet talk and body comments at these gatherings could be harmful to her child. It's disheartening to realize how much fear, shame, and judgment are intertwined in our discussions about food and bodies. Seemingly innocent phrases like "I was bad, I ate ice cream last night," or casual chatter about someone's weight loss or gain can reinforce negative attitudes towards food and body, contributing to body image distress and disordered eating patterns for those involved.

Will the holiday season bring you into contact with friends or family members who engage in diet and body talk? If you're wondering how to protect yourself this holiday season, the key is to think - boundaries, boundaries, boundaries. Read on to learn more...

Boundaries are There to Protect You

Boundaries are invisible, spoken, or otherwise exerted lines that set limits on your personal space. They help you differentiate between your own needs, thoughts, and feelings, and those imposed upon you by others. This holiday season, establishing boundaries can act as a shield, protecting you from the harmful words, ideas, or behaviors of others, especially those that revolve around food, diets, and weight. Boundaries act as a shield, protecting you from anything in you environment that can cause harm.

Types of Boundaries

There are two primary types of boundaries you can use to navigate the holiday season while protecting yourself from harmful food and body talk - internal boundaries and external boundaries.

Internal Boundaries

Internal boundaries refer to the mental and emotional guardrails you set up within yourself to shield yourself from the outside world. They involve being self-aware and making conscious decisions about what you let affect you, how you engage with others, and your responses in different situations and environments. For instance, an internal boundary could be mentally preparing yourself before entering potentially triggering situations or privately challenging negative body talk in your own thoughts. Here are some examples of internal boundaries you can draw upon when navigating unsolicited food and body comments this holiday season:

You are Not Obligated to Adopt Other Peoples Opinions and Attitudes

When someone makes a negative body or food comment, remind yourself that you are not obligated to adopt their opinions as your own. Remember, these are their thoughts, not yours, and you don't have to agree with them. For example, imagine your cousin commenting on or criticizing your food choice at a gathering. Then, think of the comment as a reflection of your cousin's personal anxieties and societal conditioning around food, not a judgment of you. Sadly, your cousin might be deeply entrenched in diet culture, perpetually worried about their own calorie intake or food 'morals'. While your relative is entitled to have these concerns, you are not obligated to absorb their anxieties or alter your eating patterns based on their opinions. It can be very empowering to privately say to yourself, "Their words are a reflection of their thoughts, not mine."

Your Body and Food Choices are Your Business, No One Else's

Before attending a holiday gathering where there may be triggers around food and diet talk, mentally prepare yourself by remembering that your body and food choices are your business, no one else's business. You have the right to make choices that feel best for you. Set an intention to prioritize your own well-being and boundaries, above any expectations or pressure from others.

When Triggered, Take Time to Recover

Recognize when you are feeling overwhelmed or triggered by someone's body and food talk, and take a step back to ground yourself. Engage in an act of self-care or self-soothing such as taking a few deep breaths, stepping outside for fresh air, or texting with a supportive person.

Practice Differentiating

Remember, that others have a right to their attitudes and behaviors about weight and eating, just as you have a right to yours. Holiday togetherness might be a good opportunity to practice differentiating yourself from others. Differentiation is when you practice holding onto your own beliefs and values while respecting and allowing others to hold different perspectives. Sometimes it's helpful to simply agree to disagree. For instance, a friend of mine, in recovery from an eating disorder, felt triggered when her sister ate very little at a family dinner. It made her want to restrict her meal too. But, she set an internal boundary by reminding herself, "Maybe that's all she needs to eat, but if I ate that little, I would restart my disordered eating cycle. I'll stick to my planned meal." This helped her stay on track with her recovery. She was, indeed, differentiating from her sister by setting an internal boundary.

External Boundaries

On the other hand, external boundaries relate to the physical and verbal boundaries we set with others. They involve expressing our needs to the people around us and asserting our right to be protected from harmful food and body talk. To establish external boundaries, it might be necessary to excuse oneself from a triggering conversation, change the subject, or even have a frank discussion with loved ones about our needs regarding food and body discussions. Here are some examples of how to use external boundaries when navigating unsolicited food and body comments this holiday season:

Suggest a Mutually-Beneficial Safe Zone, Free of Food & Body Talk

If someone starts talking negatively about food and body around you, you can kindly express that it makes you uncomfortable and suggest changing the topic. Here's one way to approach it: "I feel like we're all under so much pressure to conform to appearance and eating standards. How about we try to avoid those topics in our conversations in order to create a safe zone for ourselves, what do you think?"

Assert Your Autonomy

When a family member comments on your food choices, you have every right to assertively remind them that it is not their place to comment on your eating habits. For example: "I appreciate your concern, but I am capable of making my own food choices and I would prefer if you didn't comment on them."

Move Away

When a conversation triggers you, it can be helpful to remove yourself from the situation. You can excuse yourself to go to the bathroom or step outside. For instance, someone I know found herself confronted by her grandmother's comments on her weight during a family gathering. In response, she excused herself, went into another room, closed the door, and gave herself a big hug. This simple act served as a powerful reminder that regardless of her grandmother's opinions, she loved and respected herself. Having your own back in this way can be incredibly helpful in protecting yourself.

"Be the Change You Want to See"

Gandhi once said, "Be the change you want to see." So why not start conversations that embrace the topics you want to hear? You can practice using language that appreciates body diversity while showing respect for different bodies, eating habits, and people. For example, during the holidays, you could confide in someone you trust about your journey towards respecting your body, developing a healthier relationship with food, or your commitment to avoiding food and body talk that may cause stress to others. In other words, be the body and food positive change you want to see.

As you navigate the holiday season, I hope you'll remember to set boundaries to protect yourself from conversations that may trigger body image distress or eating concerns. Setting boundaries is a way to show self-respect and self-care, serving as a powerful reminder that you deserve safe spaces where your eating choices and body are respected by others. Wishing you a fantastic holiday filled with joy, warmth, and the peace of mind that boundaries provide.


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