It’s the beginning of summer, and one theme in particular has been popping up a lot lately in my appointments with patients. It seems like everyone’s mother/uncle/friend from college/cousin has gone on a “weight loss journey” since the winter. As you might expect, witnessing your loved ones and/or friends and acquaintances engage in intentional weight loss can stir up a lot of feelings in those of us who are trying to embrace the bodies that we have. Research on intentional weight loss has found “almost complete relapse” after three to five years. Other data are more specific and suggest 90% to 95% of dieters regain all or most of the weight within five years, while other research has found that between one third and two thirds of people end up heavier than they were at baseline. It can be hard to watch others receive the praise and acceptance that often comes along with these “weight loss journeys.” It’s difficult to watch these folks gain more and more privilege while we remain in bodies that often put us at a disadvantage in our fatphobic society. So what are we supposed to do with all of these feelings?
First off, I try to remind my patients that their mother’s/uncle’s/friend’s/cousin’s bodies are not our business. I firmly believe in body autonomy, or as Ragen Chastain calls it, “The Underpants Rule.” In essence, what someone chooses to do with their body is up to them (as long as it is not harming others). Our family and friends will often make choices that we don’t agree with. And those of us who are trying to fight the near-constant onslaught of fatphobia we are fed on a daily basis feel strongly that these friends/family members are doing harm to themselves and perpetuating diet culture. But at the end of the day, we aren’t in charge of others’ bodies. Just like we wouldn’t want someone telling us how to live in our own bodies, we can’t police others.
That being said, I think there is nothing wrong with protecting oneself and setting boundaries around diet and weight loss talk. If you are active on social media and the friend/family member is an active poster of weight loss updates, befores and afters, or touting their new “healthy lifestyle,” it might be time to either snooze them for a short while or hide them from your timeline indefinitely. This can be done by clicking the “unfollow” button on someone’s Facebook profile or clicking the “mute” button on Instagram. By doing this, you are removing the element of surprise from seeing these things popping up on your timeline. It’s hard to look away or unsee some of these posts, so preventing them from appearing on your social media from the start can be helpful.
Another way that you can set a boundary is by being up front with the friend/family member about how their diet/weight loss talk is affecting you. Sometimes I will help my patients role play what they would like to say to the friend/family member who brings up their diet/weight loss. In these types of situations, I encourage patients to try to give their friend/family member the benefit of the doubt. That is, it is very unlikely that they are intentionally causing you harm or distress; they just are unaware of how this kind of talk can be triggering. Here’s an example of how these conversations can be broached: “Hey, I know that you aren’t intending to, but when you talk about your diet/lifestyle/weight loss journey with me, it makes me feel uncomfortable. I am happy that you are happy with what you are doing, but hearing about it is unhelpful for me as I’m working on accepting my body and letting go of diet culture.” If you are struggling with an eating disorder (and this person knows about it), it could be helpful to also say, “Part of my eating disorder recovery is not engaging in diet/weight loss talk as it can make my symptoms worse.”
If after these tactics, the message is still not getting through, it is within your right to limit your exposure to these individuals. This might mean doing shorter meet-ups rather than long, drawn-out hangouts, limiting your time spent at family gatherings, or getting together less often. If this is not an option, you can take space when you need to at these events, excusing yourself from the room or going for a walk by yourself, for example. I also highly recommend cultivating your own “anti-diet” community either online or in person if you are able to. There are many fat-positive folks all over the world, and it can feel less lonely when you are around those who “get it.” Instagram and Facebook can be helpful in finding these people and connecting with them.
At the end of the day, I hope that the one thing you will remember is that just because your
friend/family member is actively engaging in diet culture, you do not have to go that route. You deserve to embrace and live in the body you have, and you do not have to change it. Your body has never been the problem – our fatphobic culture is.