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This post has been sitting in my drafts for a very long time, and I just haven’t found the appropriate time to post it. With the Holidays coming up, I think we all need a little guidance for how to handle the people we love getting in the way of how we love ourselves. Take care of yourself this Holiday season.
Let’s be clear here, I’m talking about our parents. I may say “someone you love” because this is absolutely applicable to a lot of relationships, but this is about my experience with my family. Who by the way, are pretty cool human beings.
I don’t think I have to go over the intricacies of mother daughter relationships and how they effect our body image. By now everyone knows that our parents are the first people who help to shape how we feel about our bodies. We take cues from them on everything, so it’s only natural to learn how to speak to our bodies from them. There are days where I can hear myself saying “ice cream is like mostly milk, so it’s pretty good for you!” in my head as I gobble up a pint of Ben and Jerry’s (thanks mom, I agree.. ice cream IS good for me!). The things they say stick with us. And some times, often times, it’s not cute things about how good ice cream is for you. A lot of the time it’s very hurtful stuff. Stuff that makes you tell yourself “I’ll be a different kind of parent!!!” and “HOW could they have EVER said that around me?”.
Before we really get started let me preface this by saying that this article is not about excusing abusive behaviors from people who should have had your best interest at heart. If abuse was part of your childhood, I do not want to set an “apologize and move forward” tone for you throughout this post. Each person’s experience is different, and you do not ever have to forgive or try to accept something if you are not ready. You get to choose how to handle your abuse, not some blogger from the internet.
The first thing we have to remind ourselves of is that our parents were working with the information they were given. Body love and acceptance is not a new idea, but the dissemination of these ideas has increased rapidly over the last ten years. Social media has created outlets for people who are not writers, or models, or fashionistas, to speak up about their own experiences and what they have meant to them. The beautiful side of social media, is that it has given all of us a chance to connect to other people’s human experiences. Our parents could not go onto their facebook and ask their friends “what do you do when your kiddo calls a stranger in the store fat?” or “why won’t my kid stop eating? Should I tell him he’s going to get a belly?”. Some times it’s really hard to think outside the box. Especially when you’re trying to raise tiny little screaming people. When I think about these things I try to remind myself that, in all likelihood, our parents were doing the best they can. Our parents “best” might not be the same as ours, and that’s ok.
Even if you whole heartedly believe your parents did the best they absolutely could, if you grew up with a lot of jacked up body image stuff and fat shame then they’re probably still practicing that in your current relationship. This is the tricky part. About six years ago I began treatment for an eating disorder that i didn’t know I had. I started going to therapy because my life was falling apart, and I was very sick. I hadn’t even considered that not eating could be impacting my mental health. And I had been doing it for close to 15 years. As my therapist helped me through understanding what was happening, I started quickly recognizing a lot of anxiety I had around food and eating.
One evening I was out with my mom and sister for dinner. I didn’t go out to each much, because it made me so anxious. As we sat down to eat the regular dinner time chats about diets and food habits and exercise routines started coming up. My sister had begun some diet that she was very excited about, and my mom was equally as excited to hear about it. I was able to make it through appetizers without saying much, but when our food came I said (probably much less lovingly than I remember) “can we not talk about diets and working out while we’re eating and just enjoy our food?”. That did not go over well, at all. My sister was hurt that I was devaluing her new interest, and told me what she was eating had nothing to do with what I was eating and that she was not judging me. I ate my food while holding back tears. I don’t think I said much more during dinner, but you know what? I said something. I spoke up and made it known that I was uncomfortable with what was happening. I took that first step, and I never looked back.
This is the part of the post where I tell you the hardest thing you have to do. You have to be willing to say “that hurt my feelings”, when something happens. It is so important that you understand that no matter how articulate you are, there are very few things that can make someone pause faster than expressing to them that they hurt you. For a very long time, when a friend or family member would say something fat-shamey I would try to explain to them why it was so fucked up. That did not work. It is difficult to see things as abstract as ideas some times, but feelings are easy to relate to. Everyone has been hurt. When they ask “why did it hurt your feelings?” you can try to explain it, or you can simply say “I don’t know, it just didn’t make me feel very good”. Remember, telling them they’ve hurt your feelings is not for THEM, it is for YOU. It is not so that you can magically make them understand all the ways they’ve made you feel bad about yourself. It’s about gaining back power over your own body image. It’s about recognizing the things that do not feel good, and using that information to create boundaries for yourself.
And then, you start building some boundaries. Again, these boundaries are for you. They are to keep you safe from negative thoughts about your body. They are not so that you can teach people a lesson or make them understand what you’re going through, because unfortunately that likely won’t happen. This entire process is for you. Your boundaries can look like a lot of different things. Frequently my boundaries consist of removing myself from situations where myself or others are being fat shamed. This is not easy. It’s not easy to excuse yourself from a brunch with friends to go look at the artwork on the wall of the restaurant because they’re talking about weight watchers. It is not easy to tell your mom you have to leave dinner early because you don’t want to talk about going to the gym anymore. It’s really really hard. And it takes a lot of practice.
It is essential to the process of setting boundaries that you do not invalidate yourself. If you have said “that hurt my feelings”, asked to move away from a fat shaming conversation that made you uncomfortable, and tried to set your boundaries, it is not your responsibility to go back and apologize for being too sensitive, or high maintenance. You get to have boundaries. You are worthy of boundaries, and you do not have to say sorry. Your pain, your safety, your feelings, and your commitment to loving your body is all valid and deserves respect. I used to invalidate my boundaries a lot. I would set them, and then the person would apologize and I would say “no no, I’m just like really sensitive about it”. Now I say “Thank you, I appreciate you respecting my boundaries”.
After you’ve lived with your boundaries, and enforced them with your loved ones it’s possible that conversations will start. It’s possible that the people who have helped shape your body image will see how you express yourself in relationship to your body and take notice. My family did, but it’s a little difficult to miss how I feel about my body considering I’ve made it my career. If you get that opportunity, cherish it. And realize that like me, you’re incredibly lucky to have people around you who have evolved with you. It’s also totally possible that those people will not notice your changing behaviors and attitudes at all. There’s a really good chance that the people in your life who have lived a lifetime of diet culture and bad body image will never come to you and say “wow, I see how far you’ve come with your body and I respect your choice and will try to refrain from making negative comments about your body or my own when you’re around”. And that’s ok. As your loved ones respond in different ways you’ll learn how to adjust your boundaries, and also how to adjust your expectations of different people.
Through my journey I’ve learned that the most important thing to do is to begin to trust myself and my body again. Sticking to my boundaries has been so essential to that, because I re-learned how to validate myself and my feelings even when someone is fat shaming. When I stand up for myself it helps me remember that I am the one who gets to make choices for my own wellness. When I refuse to be around people who speak negatively about my body, I am reinforcing the idea that I am worthy of kindness and respect. The people in your life may never “get it”. You may never be able to change anyone’s mind. So in the end, the best you can do is feel ok about your decisions. Be good to yourself, you’re the most important person in your life.
*you can see a video regarding this subject on my youtube channel