Dear Virgie, how do you tell your family to back off discussions about your weight? I’m in a place right now where my weight is solidly going up for a good reason, but my mother seems intent on chiding me to not let it go too high. It feels like this is just another diet culture reinforcement, even though I *should* be gaining weight! Help?
Oh my god FAMILY.
Raise your hand if you secretly wish a magical sand worm would gobble you up and transport you to a place where you didn’t have ambivalent feelings toward your mother.
Family is one of the most challenging elements in so many people’s lives. They are people we are connected to by blood, Disneyland visits, and a bunch of really horrible memories.
Quick aside: let me just tell you right now that my response to your question is going to involve a lot of projecting and over sharing about my family. Ok? Ok.
I spend almost my entire therapy session each week talking about my family, and how to negotiate the fact that they did so much to ensure that all of my material needs were met; we never went without food, I grew up with a roof over my head and clothes to wear, and we even went on vacation every year. But they didn’t have a lot of skills when it came to taking care of me emotionally; I spent most of my childhood feeling like no one was in charge punctuated by stints of my young mother leaving me to hang out with boys for days or weeks at a time with no notice.
The truth is that my grandparents (who largely raised me) came from a time and place when there was no room for introspection because they were trying so hard to survive. At the end of the day they had no skills in the emotional department, but they were willing to work their asses of to make sure we had money. I can’t blame them for that, but I am still allowed to be angry about feeling like my childhood was a total shit show.
One of the most difficult parts of the whole blood-connection thing is that often we realize that ALL the work we’ve done to become good grown ups comes UTTERLY UNRAVELED in the face of the people who inspired all the self-help journey shit in the first place.
Alright I’m FINALLY ready to give you some advice.
1. Admit how much your family bugs the shit out of you
I know this might sound like something you’re already doing, but just in case: I just want to tell you that you have every, single right to feel upset. I want you to take a minute to just own that your mother is being inappropriate and that she’s bugging the shit out of you. Just own it. Right now girl! Sometimes the first thing we need to do is stop gas lighting ourselves and pretending that stuff doesn’t bother us as much as it does. Write it out. Say it out loud. Allow yourself to have the feeling.
2. Manage time spent with family carefully
It is so incredibly important to manage the time you spend with people who don’t get what matters to you. I don’t know your family or how you manage friendships, but I can imagine that if it was a friend saying these things that you would have a much easier time recognizing that you might have a major incompatibility on your hands. It’s totally OK to recognize that you and your family have divergent world views, and decide how you want to proceed with that knowledge. If time spent with family is causing you lots of stress (for whatever reason – stress is stress, and stress is valid!) then start by cutting time spent with family by 1/4 for six months. Once the six months are up do a check in. Ask yourself “Is my life better since having cut back by 1/4?” If the answer is yes then cut back by another 1/4. Check in with yourself again after 6 more months. If you’re anything like me you have no desire to cut your family off, but being INTENTIONAL about family time is something you HAVE to prioritize, especially if your family has the capacity to take you to a bad place.
3. Have a broken record style script
I recommend having something you say to her when she starts talking about your weight, and repeating it whenever she says anything. This saves emotional energy and also signals to her that she’s not getting any more than that from you. I might say something like “I am not interested in talking about my weight with you because I know what’s best for me.” Just keep it really simple.
4. Let them do some of the work
One of the things I’m learning is that my mother and grandmother are often totally disassociated. This is very common for women from my grandmother’s era (and to a certain extent my mother’s era, but less so) because of the lack of choices women had financially, romantically and reproductively. What I’m getting at is that many times family members say things and are not able to hold enough space for other people to recognize how hurtful what they’re saying is. I advocate that you sit back and let them do some of the work. Rather than explain or spend heartfelt hours trying to reach them, I recommend telling them your script and spending some time in the nothing-you-say-can-reach-me VIP loft in your mind.
5. Do self care before and after
Oh my god. Self care is so important. You can have a ritual (if you don’t want to think too hard about it) or try new things (if you have the time and space to come up with new things), but have a grounding exercise that you can do before you see your family and afterwards. Even if it’s just taking 3 minutes to take deep breaths before and after you see them. One thing that really helps me is visualizing myself all grown up, not a child anymore, not their child, my own person who has a job and a car and a credit card. Remind yourself “this is unpleasant right now but it won’t last forever.”
6. Change the thought pattern
Often times when it comes to family this is not new territory. We have been in this place again and again and again. Your family might be stuck in a moment, but you don’t have to be. What do you want to do to change YOUR part in the story?
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Dear Virgie is a weekly advice column by Virgie Tovar, MA, author, activist and one of the nation’s leading experts and lecturers on fat discrimination and body image. She is the editor of Hot & Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love and Fashion (Seal Press, November 2012) and the mastermind behind #LoseHateNotWeight. She holds a Master’s degree in Human Sexuality with a focus on the intersections of body size, race and gender. Virgie has been featured by the New York Times, MTV, Al Jazeera, the San Francisco Chronicle, NPR, Huffington Post, Cosmopolitan Magazine Online, and Bust Magazine. Find her at www.virgietovar.com.