How to Help Your Fat Friends Have Happy Holidays
This time of year can be particularly challenging. Here’s how you can help.
Here we are again, at the beginning of the season of sweets. Last week at work, we finally received the first of what will be several much-anticipated boxes of chocolate sent by our consultants and vendors. Along with the boxes always come self-deprecating comments by co-workers as they dig in, searching for their favorites.
I really shouldn’t.
Ugh, more chocolates? What are they doing to us!
There goes all my hard work.
I sit at my desk and listen, and begin building the wall I have to put up around myself every December. I am experiencing the first twinges of the letdown of what feels like endless talk about diets and weight loss. Even when it’s framed as being about health, it’s all just a whole lot of buy-in to a really harmful diet culture. The holidays ramp up to their biggest money maker: New Year’s, with all it’s resolutions, promises, and false hopes.
For those of us living in fat bodies, it can be a particularly challenging time mentally and emotionally. Hearing so many people talk non-stop about how my body isn’t okay is demoralizing and frustrating and it hurts. So, how do you help the fat people you care about have a better holiday season?
Don’t shame yourself for enjoying food
Food has no moral value. After the year we’ve all had, we deserve to take comfort in tradition and nostalgia and the special things that make Christmas what it is. When you call certain foods bad or put yourself down for enjoying them, you’re buying into a false binary of good and bad foods. There are no bad foods, it’s much more complex than that.
If you choose not to eat chocolate or drink egg nog, that’s okay. But if you love the ridiculousness of candy before 8 am on Christmas morning or peppermint mochas with extra whip or an extra roll at dinner, that’s absolutely okay. It’s literally just food. When you shame yourself for those things, you are also shaming anyone within earshot and removing the enjoyment for everyone.
Don’t comment about anyone’s plates
Whether it’s at an in-person gathering with people in your quarantine bubble, or a zoom dinner party, resist the urge to make comments about how much (or how little) anyone has on their plate. Maybe they’re not hungry. Maybe they haven’t eaten all day. Maybe they’ve looked forward to mashed potatoes for a month. No matter what, you’re definitely harshing their mellow. At best, you’re attempting to make a joke that isn’t actually funny. At worst, you’re shaming someone for participating in what is supposed to be a fun celebration.
Telling someone else what they should or should not eat isn’t your job, and it’s unnecessary. Even if you think you’re helping, unless that person has hired you to be their nutritionist, you’re not. Almost always, these types of comments come with thinly-veiled, unwelcome opinions about the size of someone else’s body, which leads nicely right into the next big no-no.
Don’t comment on people’s bodies.
Commenting on people’s bodies is a minefield of triggers for all kinds of reasons. Talk about weight gain and weight loss inevitably comes with a value judgement, implying that our weights and our worth are in inverse proportion to one another.
When you say “You look great! Have you lost weight?” you’ve communicated that size is one of the first things you notice, and that a lower weight is more desirable. You’ve also, however unintentionally, implied that the person didn’t look good before. For someone who is fat, or has gained weight, hearing this can be devastating. Answering “no, I haven’t,” puts a weird, strained stop to the conversation, and it’s awkward.
Additionally, even if someone has lost weight, you have no idea why. They could have been ill, or have struggled with disordered eating. Making the assumption that any weight loss was intentional is flawed, and not welcome most of the time. It’s also just not that interesting. There are about 2,000 things about myself and my life that are more fascinating than my body fat percentage or my exercise routine.
Make a point to use non-weight based compliments
Around the holidays, we find ourselves seeing folks we haven’t seen in a while. It’s natural to feel that oxytocin flowing and want to connect and say nice things about your friends and family. There are tons of compliments you can give that have nothing to do with the size and shape of someone’s body.
It may take a tiny bit more effort, but it almost always leads to a more heartfelt connection and interesting conversation. Even if you have a superficial relationship with the person, you can compliment them without bringing up their body. Here are some examples:
- I love that scarf, the color looks gorgeous on you!
- Seeing your smile again is so refreshing.
- I’m so glad I get to see you/talk with you today, you’re such a good listener!
- You’ve accomplished so much this year (at work, at school, on hobbies, volunteering)!
- You have the best sense of humor, thanks for always making me laugh.
- I love hearing about your work, I can’t wait to see what you do next.
- I’m so glad we’re friends.
- You’re so smart, I always learn new things from you!
The options are pretty much endless, and I don’t know about you, but I’d rather receive any one of these compliments than being told that I look skinnier than the last time you saw me.
Rethink your New Year’s resolutions
To be honest, I stopped making New Year’s resolutions a while ago. However, I know that setting intentions and goals for the new year is a large part of many people’s tradition every December. There are a lot of ways to keep that tradition without incorporating body negativity, fatphobia, and diet culture.
If your goal is to move more, divorce that from anything having to do with a number on a scale. Frame your movement in terms of feeling good physically and/or mentally, getting stronger, or having specific goals. Maybe this year you want to hike a trail you’ve been coveting, and need to work up to it. Maybe you want to build your stamina or lung capacity so you can go on that bike tour of Italy you’ve always dreamed of.
If your goal is to eat differently because you’ve noticed some foods help you feel more energetic or enjoy life more, focus on meal planning and recipes. Stay away from words that give food moral value or imply that only these foods are good, healthy, wholesome etc. Talk about how good the food tastes and how you’re learning new cooking techniques. Remember:
There is not anything inherently wrong with wanting to eat more nutritious, nourishing food, to get exercise, or to keep your body in good health. But the pervasive diet culture that we live in goes into overdrive in January every year, and it’s damaging in so many ways.
People recovering from eating disorders are surrounded by triggering “inspirational” quotes and memes and social media posts and articles and tips. People who are not between sizes 0 and 10, regardless of their health or physical fitness, are even more constantly being told that they are not okay with anybody. You cannot exist in anything resembling a mentally healthy way when you internalize these messages that you are the opposite of desirable, beautiful, normal, and acceptable.
Call people out for promoting harmful ideas.
Most people I know are at least somewhat conflict-avoidant. Let’s face it, it’s a lot easier, and a lot more comfortable in some ways, to let a comment or joke slide than to make someone feel bad for what they said. Speaking up when people around you say things you know are harmful takes courage and energy. It’s easier just… not to.
It also takes energy for your fat friends to try not to internalize every comment we hear that makes it clear this world isn’t made for us. Over this weekend when Lizzo shared on her social media that she did a detox/juice cleanse, my social media exploded. It was exhausting, because it brought up all these feelings and commentary from people who praise weight loss, restrictive eating, and unsustainable diet practices. Whenever someone makes a fatphobic comment around me, I have to decide whether to say something and potentially be perceived as too sensitive or taking things too personally.
As an ally, when you refuse to laugh at fat jokes or point out that someone’s comment is fatphobic or based in harmful ideals around diet culture, you alleviate that stress. It shows understanding and support for your fat friends, and it shows that we are not the only ones who are noticing and pointing out problematic speech and behavior.
Your voice means something, and having you stand beside us and use your voice when we can’t is meaningful. Refusing to tolerate jokes, insults, and misinformation based on body size is important.
Let’s face it: 2020 has been a dumpster-fire of a year. The last thing anyone needs as we approach the finish line of the year that seemed like it would never end is to feel shitty about how much fat their body has on it. With a minimal amount of effort, you can contribute to helping your fat friends feel safer and more accepted during a trying time.
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