Q – My husband and some of my family members make comments about how they think I should lose weight or go on this or that diet. Obviously, I can’t avoid them but I don’t know how to address this without being confrontational or getting into a debate or a fight.
A – This is a common challenge in our weight-focused culture. Family members, usually out of concern, and only occasionally out of cruelty, will urge an individual to focus on weight loss—despite all of their previous unsuccessful attempts. They may not understand that restrictive dieting and a focus on weight loss may be a trigger for binge eating.
Sometimes they simply don’t realize that their advice is not helpful—or even backfires. Assertive communication about how you want others to behave can be very helpful. For example, “I appreciate your concern and I know you care about me. However, I’ve discovered that dieting and focusing on weight loss have not been effective for me—or for the majority of people for that matter. In fact, sometimes when you comment on what I’m eating or what you think I should be eating or on my weight, not only do I feel bad, but it sometimes leads to overeating. Now I am learning a new way to relate to food. The best way you can support me is by keeping your comments about food and weight to yourself and allow me the space to work on this – even when you don’t understand what I am doing.” (Learn more about how to communicate assertively about your needs.)
It is also useful to separate the meaning that the directive to lose weight has for you, and what the other person’s intention is when they suggest it. TFAR (Thoughts > Feelings > Actions > Results) is a helpful model for exploring what happens when you interpret the directive to lose weight.
- What are the thoughts that come up when you hear this?
- What feelings accompany those thoughts?
- What actions do you take?
- And what are the results?
Next, think about the person who said it. What is your relationship like with them? What is your history with this person, especially around this issue? Can you imagine what their intention(s) was when they suggested that you lose weight?
Depending on the relationship, you may be able to imagine some intentions of caring about you or their health. If not, then this relationship would be best served by good boundaries (and possibly worked on in therapy if you chose).
If you are able to identify a caring aspect to the intention, can you think through TFAR from that perspective? Can you predict what your thoughts, feelings, actions, and results would be if you heard their intention of caring?
While it is challenging, this process may help you hold both thoughts: That the other person may have been well-intentioned and that the delivery hurt your feelings or offended you. This won’t resolve the whole issue, but it may help you understand why this is happening and have more information as you set appropriate boundaries.
People tend to respond better to boundary setting when they feel that their intentions are accurately reflected. Saying, “When I hear you say I should lose weight, it makes me feel XY and Z. And I need you to stop!” may be taken differently than, “I imagine that you have my best interest in mind when I hear you suggest I lose weight, and it makes me feel XY and Z. I need you to stop.”
The main point is not to focus on what you think the intentions are, but to keep coming back to what effect it has on you and your relationship with food.
Our friends and family may never understand or be interested in our paths toward finding peace with food and our bodies through mindful eating. And that they don’t have to. We can give ourselves permission to practice self-care as we see fit. If needed, we can also let go of the struggle to convince others in our lives to adopt our perspective in order for us to move forward on our path. We can still keep our relationships and agree to disagree.