With the holidays approaching, there’s a good chance that eating, drinking and spending time with family are at the top of your list. But sometimes that can be a toxic combination if you have a family member who always comments on your body.
Whether it’s presented as a good-natured joke, serious concern or just plain rudeness, commenting on a person’s body can have serious negative repercussions. A study published earlier this year in the journal Obesity found that body-shaming messages increased the risk of cardiovascular and metabolic disease.
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“There is a common misconception that stigma might help motivate individuals with obesity to lose weight and improve their health,” lead author Rebecca Pearl, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, said to Science Daily. “We are finding it has quite the opposite effect. When people feel shamed because of their weight, they are more likely to avoid exercise and consume more calories to cope with this stress.”
What’s more, it can have a serious impact on teens, who have shown a propensity for developing disordered eating, self-esteem issues and depression from receiving negative comments about their bodies.
While it can be difficult to shut down these comments, especially if you’re worried about creating an awkward situation between you and a relative, there are ways to cope with this behaviour as well as show people that it’s not acceptable.
Toronto-based psychologist Dr. Nina Mafrici spoke to Global News about ways in which people can cope with body-shaming comments from relatives.
Establish a preemptive coping plan
Most people know who the offenders are likely to be, so it’s good to have a strategy in place before heading into a family holiday party.
“Come up with a blanket statement like, ‘I’d prefer it if you would refrain from making comments about my body,'” Mafrici says. “And don’t be afraid to recruit support from another family member there who can come to your defence and reinforce your statement.”
She also says that opting out of the event altogether is a perfectly acceptable plan, since getting distance is sometimes the only way to protect yourself. But if you can’t be a no-show, feel free to send out a message to your family members ahead of time. Try writing an email before the event explaining that you don’t want to hear any criticisms or receive any comments about your body. If that’s too bold, try speaking to someone close to you who can subtly get the word out on your behalf.
Don’t act out of anger
Like with most situations in life, acting out in anger will only serve to heighten tensions and will send the wrong message to the culprit.
“Your angry reaction or comment will make it less likely for the person to validate your feelings or understand how the comment is hurtful to you.”
This is doubly ineffective when the person commenting on your body genuinely believes it’s coming from a good place and is well-intentioned. Again, a cooler head needs to prevail.
“Sometimes people just don’t know any better, but that doesn’t mean you have to stay silent. That can build resentment and reinforce members to continue to make those comments,” she says. “Calmly explain how those comments make you feel and that you’d prefer if they didn’t say them.”
Go ahead and avoid those people
Healthy boundaries are necessary in the best of relationships, let alone those in which you feel victimized. It’s OK to steer clear of those people that you know are going to comment on your body or provoke you. If they do approach you and say something negative, recite your blanket statement to them and then feel free to walk away.
“You shouldn’t feel like you have to engage further with them.”
What if it’s coming from someone really close to me — like my mom?
In a way, Mafrici says, this is easier to address.
“When someone is close to you, you have a greater opportunity to sit down with them and explain your feelings in detail. You can have a longer conversation and even bring in some research or facts about how detrimental body-shaming comments can be.”
This will give you a chance to have a discourse about your feelings, without being confrontational or defensive. It’s also a chance to explain that you understand her comments come from a place of concern, but there are gentler, less critical ways of expressing it.