Throughout 2021, Good Housekeeping will be exploring how we think about weight, the way we eat, and how we try to control or change our bodies in our quest to be happier and healthier. While GH also publishes weight loss content and endeavors to do so in a responsible, science-backed way, we think it’s important to present a broad perspective that allows for a fuller understanding of the complex thinking about health and body weight. Our goal here is not to tell you how to think, eat, or live — nor is to to pass judgment on how you choose to nourish your body — but rather to start a conversation about diet culture, its impact, and how we might challenge the messages we are given about what makes us attractive, successful and healthy.
Diet culture is everywhere, and one of the ickiest parts is that it seems like everyone feels they have the right to comment on your weight or your body.
But guess what? They don’t.
You have a right to draw boundaries if it makes you feel bad or fuels disordered eating or weight obsession. For many women, it does. I’m an anti-diet dietitian, and I believe that eating intuitively and caring for your body without trying to intentionally lose weight is the best way to have a peaceful, positive relationship with food and to be your healthiest self, both physically and psychologically. (I actually wrote a book about it and run a group program so folks know they’re not in this alone.)
This can, of course, be hard to do, especially when the comments come from people you love, who you believe truly mean well. Family members or close friends who say things like, “I’m just worried about your health,” or “I really think you’d be so much happier if you worked out more” may think they’re motivating you to change your body, without realizing that they’re adding pressure that is totally unhelpful, not to mention that changing your body shouldn’t be your top priority, in my opinion.
Many of my clients say they find such “help” downright offensive, because it implies that they should want to be different than they are, when they’ve already come to accept and/or love their bodies as they are. They realize that rejecting diet culture-influenced comments like these are part of their road to feeling happy and building a positive relationship with food (and themselves).
One thing to remember is that we were all raised in a society that beats it into our heads that being thin makes you a better and happier person, and it takes a lot to unlearn that. Fatphobia — discrimination against people who weigh “too much” — is baked into our culture. The folks making assumptions about your body and what kind of a person you are based on your size — whether it’s a doctor or your Aunt Sylvia, who has been dieting since she was 10 — may simply not get it.
But no matter the reason for the diet culture talk (and whether you find it annoying, hurtful or downright rude) if you don’t want to engage in it, you shouldn’t have to. Whatever your boundaries are, it’s okay (and important) to assert them.
You’re not always going to have the “perfect” thing to say, and that is okay. And you don’t need to say anything if you don’t feel like it! Even though you have an anti-diet mindset (or are working toward one) you don’t always have to advocate, justify your choices or even get into conversations about weight in order to be making a difference or standing up to diet culture. These examples are purely to be helpful to you, if you need them.
What to do when small talk gets diet-y
- Example: At a party, a person at the finger foods table starts talking about their diet or exercise routine, and you don’t want to go there.
- What to do: You can change the subject, or excuse yourself to say hi to someone else. If you feel like being more direct, you can say something like, “I actually made a new year’s resolution to always talk about something new at parties – don’t you feel like we always talk about diets?! Have you read any good books recently?”
- Why it protects you: Diet culture is so pervasive that it’s become a way for people to bond, and you’re pointing out that there are other ways, which can feel empowering. Simply not engaging in it also saves you the brain fatigue.
- Another example: At a family birthday party, your aunt (who you don’t want to get into it with) looks at your plate and says, “If I ate like that, I’d gain so much weight!”
- What to do: To shut things down without an argument, respond by making it about you, not them. “I used to be really strict about what I ate, but it just made me more obsessed with food. Lately I’ve been trying to listen to my body and eat foods that I like and that feel good to me.”
- Why it works: No one can argue with what works for you. She might try (people can be rude, after all), but shrugging her off becomes easier when you stick to your guns. Or you can kick it up a notch and tell her you don’t want to talk about weight at all, and then excuse yourself. It’s okay if she doesn’t get it, as long as you do.
How to handle “good food/bad food” talk
- Example: An Uber driver, cashier or anyone you only see briefly comments, “Ooh, you’re being bad!” when you’re eating candy. You want to roll your eyes, and maybe you do.
- What to do: Put it back on them by asking what’s “bad” about candy. You can point out that you didn’t break the law by shoplifting the candy, so you’re not being “bad.” Or you can say something like, “Hey, there’s no problem with eating things that taste good!” If you’re feeling more confrontational, you can tell them that what they said made you uncomfortable.
- Why it works: It points out the absurdity of the idea we are “good” or “bad” based on what we choose to eat. Again, they may not get it, but you do, and it reinforces in your own mind that you get to eat what you like.
- Yet another example: Your partner suggests that the two of you start “eating clean” after a weeklong vacation.
- What to do: You can say, “Thinking about food as ‘clean’ doesn’t make sense to me, since the implication is that some foods are ‘dirty,’ which is not true. Plus, avoiding certain foods only makes me fixate on them.” You might also ask what prompted their suggestion — maybe they’re just craving structure after a week of eating in restaurants on an irregular schedule. If that’s the case, remind them that the feeling will likely pass after a few days back in their usual routine.
- Why it works: You’re taking the time to explain to someone you love and who supports you how they can do that better.
- One more example: A guy at the gym or someone on a bench when you’re out exercising, says some version of, “Making up for those weekend cheat meals, huh?”
- What to do: Exercise isn’t and shouldn’t be seen as a counterbalance to what you eat. Exercise has a zillion benefits and doing it can make you feel fantastic, but thinking of it as only about weight loss or as a way to “make up for” being “bad” with your diet fuels disordered eating. Plus, it’s rude. Here, I’d go straight to, “Please don’t comment on my body or the way I exercise.” You can also simply ignore him, keep going and remind yourself of all the other excellent reasons you’re out there. If the speaker is a misguided friend and you feel like being helpful, tell him that bodies don’t work that way — you’re exercising because it makes you feel good, is good for you and it has nothing to do with food or what you’ve eaten. Then, you might want to text them this link about intuitive exercise.
- Why it works: It says loud and clear that your body and food consumption is not up for discussion.
Navigating diet culture in professional settings
- Example: Your doctor mentions that you’ve gained a few pounds and casually tells you to “watch your weight.” However you feel about your weight, odds are you’re aware of your own body, so this isn’t helpful advice. And obviously it can sting — if you’ve tried to lose weight in the past it might feel discouraging or patronizing; if you’re rejecting diet culture and working to accept your body, at minimum it might make you feel unseen by your doctor.
- What to do: You can respond with, “I actually don’t weigh myself, because I feel much better physically and mentally when I don’t keep track of that number.” If you like your doctor and think they might be laboring under the same misconceptions many in the medical community do (i.e., that being in a bigger body always and automatically means you’re unhealthy), you can tell them that experts say stress caused by weight stigma actually contributes to health problems, and offer to share more information on the Health at Every Size movement. Then, the next time a provider asks you to step on the scale, tell them that you’d prefer not to be weighed unless it’s medically necessary. It is well within your rights as a patient to request this. Check out these helpful phrases to say at the doctor’s office (there’s even a printable card you can take with you to read).
- Why it works: Dreading doctors’ visits because you don’t want to climb on the scale or deal with judgment about your weight (intended or not) isn’t something you should have to contend with. Being armed with talking points will help you feel more in control of the situation.
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