Family Stuck in Diet Culture? Here’s How to Deal


Looking for action steps? Scroll down to the “Tips” section.

Last Sunday, I was grabbing a few extra dinner napkins off our kitchen counter when I heard my 87-year-old aunt say, “Wow! Are you really going to eat all that?” As I turned back to face the table, I saw that she was looking at my oldest daughter. Her words hit me like a sucker punch.

I adore my mother’s older sister and knew she was trying to be more playful than hurtful. However, her words spiraled me back to the pain of family mealtimes as a nine-year-old myself. Right around the time that my body started softening up and readying itself for puberty, my eating became an issue that everyone in my family felt the need to tease me about and comment on.

Luckily, I am no longer a vulnerable little girl. I took a deep breath. Before I went all momma bear on my sweet aunt right there over a bowl of penne, I centered myself and said loud and firm, “Yup! She’s a great eater. I’m so proud of her!”

My extended family isn’t used to hearing me raise my voice. The conversation paused. Then just as fast, it turned to another subject completely. If my daughter had any sense that I felt I’d just rescued her from certain diet culture-y doom, that’s the moment that she would’ve looked up at me and I would’ve winked back at her. She didn’t; she just continued eating.

Three Tips for Dealing with Family Food Comments

If you’re working hard at home to maintain a positive attitude towards food, here are three things (finally! the tips!) to keep in mind before you fire back at a family member who threatens to make your daughter feel bad about her eating.

  1. Know Your Goal

    Before you respond, remind yourself of the reason that you’re saying something in the first place. This will up the odds that you get the outcome you want.

    Personally, my goal is to help my daughter have a happy, healthy relationship with food and her body, to ensure she enjoys eating, feels at ease at meals, and stays in touch with her innate ability to self-regulate or be an intuitive eater.

    Here’s what I need to constantly remind myself my goal is NOT:

    1. It is not to erase decades of “thinner is better” programming from the mind of my dieting-her-entire-life-mother-in-law.

    2. It is not to get into a debate about the impact of patriarchy on women’s feelings about their appetites and their bodies with my uncle Bob. Nope. Changing culture is not something I work on at the family dinner table. In intimate settings, my goal is simply to make sure my daughter is eating in the most positive and nourishing environment possible.

  2. Know Your Audience

    Before you respond to comments that make you uncomfortable, take a second to think about to whom you’re speaking*. Based on what you already know about this person, would you consider them to be rigid in their thoughts and thinking? Do they seem to shut you down and ignore your opinion and perspective? Or, are they more flexible, open-minded, and responsive to the information you share?

    If the family member or friend in question is difficult and rigid, I recommend making a clear and firm boundary as soon as you feel your daughter’s eating-esteem is at stake. If mom or MIL says, “I think you’ve had enough” to your daughter, you can say for example, “We have a rule about not commenting on how much or how little each other eats.” If she says, “It looks likes you’re gaining weight,” you can say “we don’t comment on other people’s bodies.” If it continues to happen, privately you explain that if she breaks the rule or disagrees with it then you will not be able to eat meals together. Harsh? Yes. Necessary. In my opinion, very much yes.

    For family members who are more open, curious, and sensitive to your thoughts and perspective, you might share some of your reasons for the rules or boundaries you set. “We have this rule because I have had a difficult time dieting my whole life and I want to make sure that my daughter doesn’t.” Or “we don’t comment on the food because we know it will have a negative impact on her eating.” Explaining personal reasons can make the rule more meaningful and compelling, which will increase the chances someone will agree with and respect it.

    The rules you set can go for comments that cross lines with body types and even negative feelings about their own eating too. For example, if your uncle continually shares that his new keto diet is helping him slim down and “get skinny”, you can politely tell him that you don’t talk about dieting in front of your children. If your sister is lamenting about how “disgusting” she feels because she at too much cake, you can tell her talking negatively about her body makes your girls feel guilty about eating cake too, so please stop it. If your college-age niece shares that she feels “fat”, you can say, “My girls know “fat” is a beautiful thing that protects our bodies and that women typically have more of it than men! They know you have “fat” on your body and they know you are smart, funny and strong.” Whatever you opt for, fill in your own values and boundaries just be direct, clear, and positive to get the best results.

  3. Take Immediate Positive Action.

    As a pre-teen obsessing about my weight, I can’t imagine anything more positive and powerful than the image of my older cousin slicing herself a giant piece of our family’s favorite cheesecake immediately following a dinner table discussion about how many grams of sugar were in several different types of desserts. She sent a silent signal to everyone at the table that she couldn’t care less about a word of what they said—and a girl who admired her and been taught nothing but the virtue of food restraint, it was downright beautiful.

    While many of the comments and confrontations you might have will need to be done in private and away from your young daughter, taking positive action at the moment is also important. Sometimes it might be to deflect, minimize or pivot the conversation, and sometimes it will be to confront and neutralize the negativity.

    For example, when I’m with people I don’t know well or don’t think I’ll be hearing these conversations from again, I usually opt to quickly change the subject.

    Recently, for instance, friends we see just once or twice a year started talking to my husband about how much body fat their adolescent daughter had packed on during COVID compared to other girls in her class. Before I passed out in horror, I sliced through their conversation with, “Are we going to get outside with the kids now or what?” Poof! It was over.

    Other times, I’ve taken more direct action either by putting up a boundary (or restating it if it’s been an ongoing issue) or responding with something deliberately contrary and positive such as in all the examples above.

    Letting uncomfortable things lie with people you’re close with doesn’t help your daughter. If we want to teach her to advocate for herself with regard to these issues—such as having full say over what and how much eats—then the most powerful way to help her is by being brave enough to do it ourselves. You can start in a safe space. The last time my brother said, “Are you really going to have another slice of cake?” I used it as an opportunity to make sure both my daughters heard me respond, “Absolutely. And don’t ever comment on what I eat again.” Hopefully, they saw the smile I flashed him, too, so they understood this was an act not of hostility but self-respect and preservation.

Food Comments From Family Are Extra Tough

Dealing with comments about eating from family members such as moms, dads, siblings, or insert-person-you’ve-known-forever can be uber challenging for a couple of reasons.

First, comments about food and eating are often indirect (see above—my aunt implied something without saying it outright).

Indirect comments can seem ambiguous under close examination and therefore be difficult to address. Trying to pinpoint exactly what was hurtful usually ends up being an unproductive and, ultimately, way off-track conversation.

Also, sometimes it isn’t the comment itself but the tone that is hurtful. Saying, “Do you want another one?” with an inviting smile is a lot different than saying “Do you want another one?” as if it is an accusation.

If you want to counter comments on your child’s eating made by others, do the opposite of the indirect or unclear and negative approach. Make a comment that’s both direct and positive.

Second, if a food comment from a family member echoes something we ourselves heard over and over again during our own childhood, it can trigger deep emotion.

I, for example, heard what my aunt said and immediately went from placid and cool to boiling with emotion like a fiery cauldron in the amount of time it takes to fold a paper napkin in half.

Boiling with emotion is not a good place to start a conversation. Coming in hot will seem argumentative and contentious, which means this will continue to be a touchy subject going forward. (Speaking from past experience(s) here!) It’s best to calm yourself with a deep breath before you respond. To do so, keep in mind that the person making the comment probably doesn’t know how harmful or confusing his or her words might be to you or your child. Give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they want to do better when it comes to talking to you or your kids about food. If you’re in that frame of mind when you respond you’ll get a different response, I promise.

Regardless of what you do or don’t decide to say, the fact that you’re interested in how your family’s “food talk” might impact your daughter’s feelings about foods, eating and weight proves you’re a momma who cares deeply about what’s best for her. Great job! The world needs more people like you…

*My recommendation to “know your audience” was inspired by author and weight discrimination activity Virgie Tovar via a comment she made in an episode of her amazing podcast, Rebel Eaters Club. If you haven’t already, check it out! And thank you to Virgie and others like her for the incredible work you’re doing!

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