How To Squash Negative Body Talk At Your Family’s Holiday Get-Togethers
So you can combat comments before they chip away at your kids’ self-esteem.
You’re lining up for a group holiday photo with your extended family when the peanut gallery pipes up: “Suck in, Frank!” your mom spews at your dad, as your cousin contorts her arm to look leaner. Your aunt bemoans how old she looks, your sister insists everyone stand up “so we don’t look fat,” and your kids sit there like little sponges, absorbing it all as you simultaneously fume and cringe.
If you have any intention of raising kids with body neutrality or, like, a modicum of self-esteem, it’s basically a crime scene. And although you know what’s coming (happens every year!), there would be nothing more awkward than confronting family members to STFU at that moment, let alone before this perennial calamity ensues.
Literally, WTF do you do? I’m just a mom standing in front of a fat-phobic grandma, so I defer to Zoë Bisbing, LCSW, therapist and creator of Body-Positive Home.
Step 1: Assess your kid.
Just like some kids are born with thicker skin than others, some are innately more attuned to body talk. “You can go your whole life hearing your mom say, ‘Ugh, I look fat in this picture,’ and not internalize it because you’re either not paying attention or aren’t sensitive in that way,” Bisbing explains.
Meanwhile, some kids absorb this kind of dialogue and decide their body’s problematic — and only a parent can predict exactly which comments will resonate and for whom. “It’s your job to protect your kid,” Bisbing tells me. Who knows them better than you?
Step 2: Get ahead of it.
It might be overkill to phone up family members and ask them not to say X, Y, or Z in front of your 6-month-old, Bisbing tells me. But if you have a kid whose body is changing as a result of puberty or unrelated weight gain or loss, you’d be wise to stay ahead of environmental triggers. That could mean telling your family’s worst offenders, “I’m trying to minimize conversations that suggest it’s a bad thing to be fat (or thin, tall, or short).”
If this seems acutely confrontational, well, it is. “Building up your capacity to tolerate other people’s disapproval can help you bring your values to the fore so you’re not accidentally complicit,” Bisbing reassures me. In other words, bring on the eye-rolls. Remember, our kids might not be aware that they are “supposed to” be self-conscious until a family member (unintentionally!) drops the bomb.
Of course, we can’t always micromanage other people. But you can prep older, more impressionable kids before family events. Try, “You know we love Grandma, but she can be super fat-phobic — she body-shames Grandpa all the time. It’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks, but I think that the things she says to him are inappropriate, and I don’t want you to think that I approve or that her comments are, well, normal.”
With the right warnings, they can stay on high alert for body size bias... and beyond. After all, when everyone gets together, they leave no body image baggage behind. And the last thing we want is for our kids to inherit the habit of scrutinizing themselves for imperfections, of seeing a "fat" arm or an "old" face in a photo instead of a family.
Step 3: Neutralize negativity.
The goal, Bisbing points out to me, is for no one to worry about how they look. But because you might not have the power to redeem Grandpa’s relationship with his gut, the bare minimum you can do is neutralize triggering comments for your kids. So, the next time your mom swipes through family photos in her camera roll and declares, “My ankles look huge,” counter it with something like, “You’re surrounded by all your grandchildren; isn’t that the most amazing thing?” Or when she goes after your dad’s belly, try, “Bellies aren’t supposed to all look sucked in.” Add an eyebrow raise and knowing nod toward any kiddos standing by, and consider it handled.
Changing the conversation or issuing a gentle but definitive correction is neutralizing, it’s disarming, and it’s less aggressive than really getting into it. Most important? It’s better than saying nothing, which is the worst approach. Says Bisbing, “Staying silent is being complicit.”
Step 4: Stand your ground.
If your family members don’t exactly appreciate these interventions, tough shit.
But approach any comebacks with compassion — it’s not entirely Grandma’s fault she’s fat-phobic. “We’re all victims,” Bisbing says, citing generations of giving a f*ck. “Grandma has no awareness she’s increasing risk [of body image issues] for her grandchildren. She’s not wrong for wanting to look ‘good.’”
And hey, we all have our version of what it means to look good. To truly confront both anti-fat bias and ageism, do we need to question our own definitions of looking “good” and what we’re worried will happen if we don’t? Sure. We all just want to feel safe and accepted!
But back to the peanut gallery: At the end of the day, as long as the benefits of keeping the environment body-neutral for your kids are greater than the consequences of trying to protect them, you’re in the right. Besides, Bisbing tells me, we need to normalize setting better boundaries with people — particularly when our kids’ confidence is on the line.