Recently, a reader, Jen, left an excellent question on my post about what to do when you gain weight. She wrote:
“Also, I was wondering if you could write on the topic of family members commenting on weight gain. I grew up in a family that focuses a lot on weight and appearance, and doesn’t care to discuss emotional health. I’m visiting family over Thanksgiving this year, and have been ruminating and ruminating and ruminating about what my family will think of me. Some of them I haven’t seen for 3 years, so they’ll certainly notice if I’ve changed; and they’ll comment on it, too. That’s what I’m most afraid of, and why I keep thinking about Thanksgiving, and dreading it very much in the process.
Currently, I don’t have tools that I can use to deal with the emotional pain of them commenting on my appearance, if they do. I’ve learned to handle my own mean comments, but comments from family members just seem too difficult to manage.”
Of course, she’s not alone. This is a common, very common, issue that we face, whether we’re recovering from an eating disorder, working on embracing our bodies or trying not to focus on weight at all. Our families might comment on how much weight we’ve gained or lost. They might comment on how much we’re eating or not eating. They might make other comments about our appearance, which hurt us.
And they might make these comments at any time, at any gathering. Which is why I wanted to explore this topic right away. (Plus, the holidays are right around the corner.)
I’ve asked a few different experts to chime in. Today, I’m sharing an excellent response from Amy Pershing, LMSW, ACSW, the founding director of Bodywise BED Recovery Program in Ann Arbor, Mich. She’s also the clinical director of the The Center for Eating Disorders in Ann Arbor, and a past Chair of The Binge Eating Disorder Association (BEDA).
A big part of recovery is taking back the power of decision making regarding our body’s care and protection. Our choices about how to best care for our bodies (during recovery and after) must be based on our body’s wisdom and its varying needs. Learning this is a long, and ultimately very empowering, process.
But, at the beginning, it is a tough transition to go from hearing everyone else to hearing ourselves! Here are a few suggestions I offer clients for the tough times with family or others who may not be on board with the work of recovery:
- First, allow yourself to be honest about whether or not a visit home right now is the best for you. It is OK to decide to put your recovery first if it feels like being with family might be too much. Or consider limiting the length of the visit. Putting recovery first is absolutely reasonable.
- Keep in mind you have no need to defend, or apologize for, the amazing body you’re working so hard to protect and heal.
- Have a support person with you (or at the ready by phone or text) to help you remember your hard work in recovery.
- Take along some reminders of your recovery work (a favorite book or website links) and some simple mindfulness/breathing exercises to help you keep perspective and not be so easily pulled back into any family role, or current drama.
- If any family member would be open to being a support, offer resources to educate them on body image and the work you are doing.
- Ask family ahead of time to please not make any comments about your weight or body. You can let them know (if you wish) that you are working on these issues, and if they would like to help you, it would be best for you if they said nothing about it. Then, should they make any comment, you can remind them of your request, and ask if they are willing to help (or if not, why?). This puts the responsibility for inappropriate comments squarely where it belongs: on them.
- Remember that any negative or intrusive comments people make about your body are really about THEM, not about you. After all, what good motivation could there be in shaming someone? Try to think of comebacks you can use that “give the problem back” to them. For example, if someone says “Gee, you have gained some weight!” you might say back, “I’m curious why you felt the need to point that out? I am quite aware of my weight, thank you.”
- Finally, remember most of all: You do not need family approval to be OK, or to appreciate your body for all it has done. You can leave at any time if need be. Do what takes the best care of you, as best you can. It will get easier and easier as time passes and your healing gets stronger and stronger.
What’s helped you navigate comments about your weight? What reminds you of your recovery work? What’s helped you in setting boundaries with your family and friends? What other questions or topics would you like to see explored on Weightless?