How to Deal With Fat-Shamers at the Family Table This Holiday

’Tis the season to be jolly—but if you come for what’s on my dinner plate, you can fa-la-la right off

An illustration of a hand holding back another arm from reaching for a pie

(Illustration: Joel Louzado)

Ah, the holidays. Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at your nose—and Grandma Sheila pinching at your waist, screeching, “Have you put on weight?” Fat-shaming from family, friends and strangers alike seems to always hit a high during the festive season and, frankly, I’m fed all the way up.

And it’s not only coming from our so-called loved ones. A few quick headlines that popped up in a recent Google search for “holiday eating”: How to beat (not eat) your holiday stress; Season’s Eating: How to avoid overindulging during the holidays; 5 Tips for Enjoying the Holiday Without Gaining Weight. On top of all the BS that already comes with winter (I’m looking at you, S.A.D.), I find holiday food-shaming particularly hard to swallow.

In a recent column for Ravishly, Virgie Tovar points out that the American (and, I’d argue, Canadian) values that celebrate whiteness, thinness and heteronormativity are reinforced during the holiday season (see: every holiday movie ever), which means it’s no coincidence that widespread fat-shaming kicks into overdrive. “I really like warm sweaters and the seasonal Jack Daniels apple cider whiskey and watching Scrooged on repeat and fireplaces and my snowflake screensaver,” she writes. “I just don’t understand why all those amazing things have to come with a side of fat-shaming and nuclear family propaganda, ya know?”

These fat-shaming messages are popping up everywhere right now, from email newsletters to social media—even in doctors’ offices. But I don’t see how tips like this one, taken from one of the above mentioned articles, are even helpful: “Indulge on the holiday treats you can only get this time of year, like candy canes or chocolate oranges. Indulging on holiday treats and regular snacks like potato chips can leave you with an upset stomach.” Wait, what? Where is the logic in this? (And you already know how I feel about being told not to eat chips…) Pretty much all of these articles recommend loading half your plate with veggies and salad, and focusing on those instead of entrees and desserts. So this feels like a good time to remind you, friends, that there is no such thing as “good” foods or “bad” foods. I wish someone had told me that years ago, when I would spend an entire December evening feeling ashamed and self-loathing over eating a bag of gingerbread cookies. My friend Abbey Sharp, a registered dietitian, breaks it down like this: “Seeing our food choices in such dichotomous terms often leads us to associate the person (or ourselves) eating that food with its moral descriptor,” she says. “In other words, if I eat a ‘bad’ food like chocolate cake, I’ve ‘been so bad’ today…. Your body weight doesn’t hold underlying moral ties.”

While working on this story, I found myself increasingly fascinated with the reasons why even the people we love feel comfortable commenting on what’s on our plates. In most cases, I’ve come to realize, people are projecting their own insecurities onto us. (Ever have a cousin who’s constantly dieting try to “gently” advise you on your choices in the buffet line?) In other cases, as pointed out in this article from Walden Behavioral Care, it could be that your family member has some other issue with you they’ve been stewing on since last Christmas, and might be “targeting physical appearance rather than expressing what is really going on emotionally.” The holidays are often one of the few times families see each other in person, which might be why these issues always seem to come up then. Seasonal stresses don’t help—neither does the extra shot of rum in the eggnog bowl. These aren’t excuses, but it does help to shed some light on WTF people are thinking.

If comments are getting under your skin, you do not have to stay all sweet and quiet simply because “it’s Christmastime!” Co-founder of Body Confidence Canada and NDP MPP for Toronto-St.Paul’s Dr. Jill Andrew knows what it feels like to be fat-shamed during holiday meals by certain family members. “When fat-talk or fat-shaming occurs, address it with care and compassion, even if it means the glazed potatoes get a little cold,” she suggests. If you have the emotional energy, point out that your body is your business and that those judge-y comments really hurt your feelings. And if you’re not the one getting the jabs, say something anyway. Andrew, who’s advocating to get Eating Disorder Awareness Week (February 1 to 7) recognized across Ontario via Bill 61, says, “It’s everyone’s responsibility at the table to be a positive bystander.”

I crowd-sourced some additional tips from my social network and got a few gems. “I either confront the person head-on about their behaviour and the effect it has on people,” says Shannon Dickson. “Or I make prolonged, uncomfortable eye contact while I tuck in to my gigantic plate of holiday yummy.” Shantia Cross says she comes prepared with a long list of clapbacks, like “Is that another grey hair?” while Audra Williams’s tactic is to act super freaked out when people get all “Don’t put those cookies next to me! Too dangerous!”, asking what’s wrong with the cookies—poison? Bombs? Knives? “Then when they try to explain the calories, I act super bewildered and make them explain it again and again.” (I also highly recommend sending this article by Suzannah Weiss out to friends and fam pre-dinner for some bo-po holiday tips.)

If you’ve simply run out of effs, friend, then take a break from the bullshit—you’re allowed to prioritize your own self-care. Escape to the bathroom for a good cry, take a nap, call up your bestie for some emotional support. And remember to go easy on yourself; extend the spirit of kindness this season to yourself, too.


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