Help a fat girl have a relationship with in-laws who hate fat
August 20, 2010 11:06 PM   Subscribe

How to improve relationship with disapproving future in-laws: My boyfriend and I have been together for a bit more than two years, and we’ve been living together for a year and a half. We are both in our mid- to late-twenties. Our relationship is strong, and really, it is not at issue. The problem comes in with his parents.

I am from the US; my boyfriend is not. His family is very traditional, and very close-knit – by this I mean that three generations live under one roof, and his other set of grandparents live adjacent to his family. Boyfriend has visited my family a few times and everyone gets along famously. My family approves and thinks he’s as amazing and wonderful as I do. Both my boyfriend and I value family strongly.

But, his family literally detests me. Not because I’m bitchy or controlling or anything, though I certainly have my faults. It’s because I’m fat. I’m significantly overweight, and I’m working on it, but it’s been a lifelong struggle for me, and it probably always will be. I have never had much success at enduring weight loss, despite my efforts. (To give you a rough idea, I’m 5’6”, 240 lbs. The lowest weight I’ve ever achieved is 198 lbs, and that didn’t stick for long.)

Here’s what happened: several months ago I traveled overseas to meet and visit my boyfriend’s family for two weeks. Everyone was very hospitable. They cooked amazing food for me, drove me around their beautiful country, and in general were very polite, if reserved. But near the end of my visit, after meeting his parents, grandparents, siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles, I couldn’t help but notice that no one was interested in me at all. There certainly is a language barrier for the older members of his family, but among his parents’ generation and younger, everybody speaks English quite well. (I learned a bit of my boyfriend’s native language before I went, but it did not help much with conversation.)

One morning, I overheard an argument between my boyfriend and his parents, and the only bit I could understand of it were the words “the girl” repeated over and over. My fear was that his parents were telling him I was wrong for him because I’m American. If only that were true! It turns out that his father expressed that he had hoped to approve of his son’s choice, but upon viewing me when I arrived at the airport, he immediately disapproved. Aesthetically, I’m disgusting to him, and he can’t imagine that his son would want a heavier woman as his wife. Further, he believes that I’ll be unable to produce healthy offspring. His mother was apparently a little less harsh, but she, too, believes that I’m unsuitable because I am fat. They told him that he needs to dump me (“she’ll find someone suitable eventually”) and find someone else. Someone thinner, I guess.

I later learned that boyfriend’s grandmothers also cornered him on this subject with similar opinions, as well as his grandfather. Boyfriend’s sister (my age) agrees with her parents.

My boyfriend says that he simply told them that his feelings towards me weren’t going to change, that he wasn’t going to dump me, and that there was no need to “defend” me against this attack because I don’t have to “make up” for anything. Our relationship hasn’t been weakened by this, and we continue to discuss getting married within the next couple of years.

Boyfriend has since visited his family again, whereupon they continued to push him on the issue, telling him to stop seeing me.

My question is this: How do I proceed with his family, if and when my boyfriend and I get married? I hate knowing that his family is unhappy with him because of me. I truly don’t want to be the wedge that separates him from his family, but at the same time, I have no desire to interact with them at all. Whenever he speaks of his family, I get this bittersweet feeling—I would love for them to approve of our relationship, and I’d love to get to know them better, but his family currently has no desire to do so. Will it ever happen? And how can I deal with the fact that I simply don’t respect them as much as I should?
posted by redfishbluefish to Human Relations (25 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I would love for them to approve of our relationship, and I’d love to get to know them better, but his family currently has no desire to do so. Will it ever happen?

Who knows? That depends on whether they are able to get to know you better and accept you as you are over time.

Your story resonated with me because of my years as a lesbian. I always wanted my family to accept my female partner and include her in family things, and they didn't exclude her but they didn't welcome her, either. After awhile, tired of pushing, I went to family events alone if I went at all. It is bittersweet; you want acceptance for your relationship but it's up to the parents whether to confer that or not. Time can help, but with some families it doesn't. You get to decide whether you're less happy seeing them and knowing they disapprove, or not seeing them. But that feeling of longing for something else is sometimes just something you end up living with.
posted by not that girl at 11:17 PM on August 20, 2010 [3 favorites]

My fear was that his parents were telling him I was wrong for him because I’m American. If only that were true!

I just want to point out that the thing they're choosing to pick on is no less arbitrary than disliking you because of your nationality or your race or your shoe size or your religion. They've decided they don't like you for reasons that have nothing to do with who you are as a person, and their reasons certainly have nothing to do with the love and joy you bring to their son's life. If you can do nothing else (and unfortunately, there may be nothing else you can do if they're determined to find reasons to dislike you), please try to remember that this has nothing to do with you as a person or with your relationship with your boyfriend. This is about some people who have irrational prejudices that are preventing them from getting to know how cool you are and from sharing in the happiness you and your boyfriend share. That's sad mostly for them, but I'm sorry that you have to deal with repercussions of it.
posted by decathecting at 11:23 PM on August 20, 2010 [10 favorites]

I hate knowing that his family is unhappy with him because of me. I truly don’t want to be the wedge that separates him from his family, but at the same time, I have no desire to interact with them at all. Whenever he speaks of his family, I get this bittersweet feeling—I would love for them to approve of our relationship, and I’d love to get to know them better, but his family currently has no desire to do so.

I think the most important thing here is that, if you and the boyfriend do decide to get married, you sit down and have this very conversation with him. He and you both need to realize that a) this is likely not going to change in the course of your marriage, and b) it may potentially be a significant source of stress to you and your boyfriend. Your love for each other may very well be enough to sustain you and help weather such emotional storms, but I would sadly suggest that you have seen only a preview of said stormy weather to come.

Not knowing his family or even what culture they are from, it still sounds from everything you are describing that you are running up against some very deep-seated cultural and generational opinions on the overweight. Frankly, I can think of many traditional cultures where the family might have opposite concerns ("she's too thin" can be a very real problem for men in the country I currently live in who return with an American/European/etc. wife). I'm not so familiar with many cultures that would focus so acutely on this issue - actually I would expect it more from an American family!

I would suggest that you continue to work on a healthy lifestyle, address your diet and exercise as you are able, but don't expect massive physical change, and most of all be comfortable with who you are - an imperfect person who is working to be a better one. Most of us are - regardless of our weight. You sound like you may be very close to this state already. I would also suggest that you don't expect his family to change on their viewpoints either, and rather than seeing yourself as a wedge, seeing yourself as the stepping stone your boyfriend has decided to take away from a culture / society with such shallow physical points of view.

As for not respecting them as much as you should - this is OK but it sounds like you will need to be careful in how you approach it. Avoidance is probably going to be your easiest approach with the family, seeing as they have no desire to interact with you, I wouldn't see forcing it on them as an option. With your boyfriend, an honest discussion of how you respect his family but also respectfully disagree with this central issue (for them, not you) is in order - and on how neither you or them are likely to change much on that in the course of your marriage.

It does sound very bittersweet, and I am sorry for you. I wish you the best - be thankful that you have what sounds to be a wonderful boyfriend!
posted by allkindsoftime at 11:37 PM on August 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

Always be as nice as you can be and be 110% resolved that you are in it for the long haul. They'll come around and if they don't. OH WELL! I think I'g be super proud to have you in my family. For what THAT is worth. Seriously, you sound like an exceptional person. I would tell the lot of them to go to hell.
posted by naplesyellow at 12:01 AM on August 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

It's entirely possible that they won't come around and it is also possible that they will be just as disapproving if you happen to have a child who has a body type much like yours. For these possible reasons you need to be very sure you have this serious conversation with your SO considering the long term. It is very sad about his parents. If you are going to have to live there in that close-knit compound, that would add a more serious dimension. That would give me pause.

As for any suggestion that you should base a decision to marry on the possibility that you will die earlier than he does, that is presumptuous, I believe, and faintly ridiculous in view of the extraordinary hazards of modern life. It will serve you and your boyfriend better for you to focus on health at any size and on being happy with the wonderful relationship you are building.
posted by Anitanola at 1:41 AM on August 21, 2010

I almost feel its unfair sometimes for a fat person to date someone skinny because of the difference in lifestyles.

As a skinny person married to a fat person, I bristle at this. I'll choose my mate based on how much I love that person, weight's not a defining issue. Life's a crapshoot. And women outlive men on average, so would it also be unfair for any man to marry any woman because they'll statistically die first?

OP, your boyfriend sounds wonderful. I don't think you'll be able to have the ideal relationship with the in-laws - not soon, anyway. But you're lucky in that they live overseas and not around the block from you. I can imagine it's sad to have to forgo that relationship, but you can't control their perception of you.
posted by kpht at 1:47 AM on August 21, 2010 [8 favorites]

To counter the fat/health/moral accusation voices also in this thread, read Kate Harding's excellent answer to "But don't you realize fat is unhealthy".

Answers like lakerk's are an example of how fat gets conflated with health or morals/"lifestyle" (read: laziness, greed, gluttony) that makes it so personal, as you get into the position of having to prove that you're not immoral just because you're fat. Guilty until proven innocent.

Even though we're all pressured to be thin, in your case the pressure from his family increases the impact by a lot and you'll have to work more than most on feeling good about yourself. Luckily, your boyfriend seems like he supports you. He really needs to keep protecting you and your relationship from his family's prejudice.
posted by meijusa at 2:01 AM on August 21, 2010 [12 favorites]

If you are in this for the long haul, you proceed with grace, with wit and with humour. You proceed with the complete and total support of your partner or not at all. You proceed knowing that you will fight this battle over and over again and that even if they do come around, you will always have that initial meeting to taint everything.

I love the other anachronism but he almost didn't start a relationship with me because his family have drilled into him how terrible fat is. I wasn't even terribly obese, I was simply fat. So we've had to work through that. We've had to work through his mother calling herself disgusting over and over and pointing out her fatness in photos with both of us there and me being significantly bigger (and having more bulges/skin/cellulite in those exact photos). We've worked through 'jokes' from his father. 'Advice' from his siblings.

But each time we go through that, we go through it as a couple. We go through it as a team. I go through it knowing that he loves me completely and totally. We go through it knowing that I will smile politely and change the subject. Or point out logical fallacies with a polite smile. Or simply smile until they stop. Or joke about it. Or whatever we need to do to change the subject and get through the day.

We also go through it knowing that we stop this awfulness now because we will not hesitate to drop contact if they start fat hating on our child. Nothing is worth that.

If you aren't in it for the long haul though? Not worth it. Not worth it to your psyche.
posted by geek anachronism at 3:15 AM on August 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'm so sorry to hear about this situation.
Nobody deserves either of this:
Aesthetically, I’m disgusting to him and
“she’ll find someone suitable eventually”.
That kind of reactions are extremely disturbing. Cultural and age differences may be good explanations, but no excuses.

You seem to be dealing with it very well, if you indeed can feel "bittersweet" about it. I know and love people who, in a likewise situation, would be alternately exploding all over the place and be mortified beyond belief. Keep being strong about this. You will not be able to change the prejudices of all those people from his family; you should not let yourself be pushed into a position where you have to convince them over and again of your worth as a human being.

So I fear that the best thing to do is to define your distance to his family in a manner that is by and large accepted by everyone involved, and stick to the chosen model. Turned around, try to find a workable model of: "I truly don’t want to be the wedge that separates him from his family" that nevertheless allows you to maintain your dignity.

(This must suck for your boyfriend too...)
posted by Namlit at 4:37 AM on August 21, 2010

If your relationship is as strong as you claim, this thing is inconsequential.

Being a white girl, and attempting to change the generations of attitude another country regarding this issue is silly.

Im sucks...but you gotta get over it. Focus on the part where your boyf didn't back down and love him even more for that reason.

Good luck.
posted by hal_c_on at 5:20 AM on August 21, 2010

Are you sure they're really, really only focused on the weight, and not just seizing on weight as a convenience? Perhaps it's just easier to harangue your boyfriend about your weight than it is to argue that you're foreign, you're strange to them, they are upset that he didn't pick some nice local girl, etc.
posted by galadriel at 5:45 AM on August 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

I think I know what country you are referring to, or at least area of the world. In the country I am thinking of, marriage is a family affair as well as an individual affiar (arranged marriages were the norm until relatively recently and in more traditional parts of the country it still happens.) Even when people choose their own marriage partner (and the purpose of dating is marriage) they are expected to get their parents' approval. I've had one friend whose father did not like her boyfriend (fiance) because he was slightly shorter than her (at least, that was the reason he gave). I've had two guy friends from this country who were dumped because their girlfriend's parents said they didn't make enough money (that is very common). Basically, family weighs in on choice of partner, and physical characteristics.other things we consider superficial can matter a lot (not just weight, but height, skin color, etc). So it's probably not that they dislike you as an individual or find you repulsive, really.

Also....the women of this country usually don't have many curves (to Western eyes) and people of this country don't really understand/have experience with different body types. Women much thinner than yourself would still be considered "fat" in this country. It's tough. I don't know what advice to give except to say that the family feels they have a say in his partner due to the collective nature of the culture, and also, superficial things like appearance can matter in selection of a mate. I hope it doesn't get you down and you can get past it. YOur boyfriend sounds great.
posted by bearette at 6:05 AM on August 21, 2010

I don't know what you can do about your boyfriend's parents directly, but I would recommend making sure you're on the same page with your boyfriend. I don't mean you need to make him choose between his family and you, but the two of you should discuss where your limits are: are you ok with him just changing the subject when his parents criticize you, or do you expect him to defend you? are you ok with him visiting his parents on his own while you stay home? is he ok with that? does he think his relationship with his parents will change due to your relationship? how does he feel about that? how do you feel about that? how will the two of you navigate cultural differences that put you at odds with his parents? etc. Try to be your own little family unit and make decisions together about how to manage his parents' bizarre, unkind attitude towards you.

I've seen several situations in which a parent-in-law is critical or controlling towards his/her daughter-in-law and the real problem isn't that behavior, but the son/husband's reaction of, "What? That's just how s/he shows love. Our family has always been like that..." or even "That's how we do it in my culture." It sounds like your boyfriend isn't inclined to have that reaction, but since he grew up with (and is still close to) his family, there may be little things that feel natural or normal to him but are upsetting to you, and it's good to go in with a sense of "When (not if) we encounter that kind of thing, we'll do X, Y, and Z together."
posted by Meg_Murry at 6:19 AM on August 21, 2010 [7 favorites]

You don't say if your boyfriend is specifically attracted to your body type. I am 5'7" and about 240, (and to add to the mix I am 21 years older than my bf.) If my bf was not dating me, he would certainly be dating someone who looked very similar to me. I am his type. So, if this is also true about your bf, he is never going to get his parents approval for his partner because his partner will be his type and therefore not theirs.

As to your question, when/if your boyfriend asks you to marry him, his family's acceptance of you has to be part of the discussion. You deserve to be around people who accept you as you are or, at least, are willing to keep their judgments to themselves. If his family continues to attack you once you are married, your partner must put a stop to it. Even to the point of cutting his family off, if necessary. He must put you first in his life.
posted by hworth at 6:20 AM on August 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

Boyfriend has since visited his family again, whereupon they continued to push him on the issue, telling him to stop seeing me....I hate knowing that his family is unhappy with him because of me.

Others have made some great points about how to proceed from here, but I would like to suggest that you ask your boyfriend to stop telling you what his family has to say about you. Once was enough -- you visited the home country, you overheard them arguing about you, and he told you the unfortunate story of why they don't like you. Then he visited his family again, came home, and told you "my family still hates you"? Ugh.

If I were you, until and unless this pressure from his family starts to affect him and his desire to be with you, I wouldn't want to hear any more about it. Hopefully they'll come around, but until they do, why make yourself miserable about it?
posted by Gator at 6:21 AM on August 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

My husband and I have a somewhat similar conflict with my mom. The conclusion we've come to is that if it ever gets to be entirely unbearable, I will have to cut off my relationship with my mom. I've had several conversations with my mom defending my husband and our relationship. The underlying issue for us is a conflict of religion, but there was a conversation my sister overheard that was criticizing his weight. I went to battle with my mom over it, and although she said "I'm sorry" what ultimately resulted was she just got really upset with my sister for telling me what had been said in a gossiping conversation. Some people are just set in their minds/ways, and you can't do much about it. I can try to change what my mom thinks, but what's more important is that I speak up for my husband so he knows how much I will always love and support him. So you need to discuss with your boyfriend what will happen in the worst case scenario, if this treatment from his family doesn't stop. Will you be ok with him visiting his family alone? Will you need to cut all ties with them? Will you be ok sitting there and smiling?

One piece of advice someone gave us was that if you are a committed couple (this advice was from an engaged couples retreat), when guy's family says to guy "Can we talk?" guy should grab you and say "Sure, we can talk." When you're married (assuming that's where this goes in spite of family issues), you two are a unit, and you need to be treated as such. Families may think that if they can separate you in a conversation, they can put a wedge between you. Don't give them that opportunity.
posted by Terriniski at 7:32 AM on August 21, 2010

I was going to also say that it is probably Cultural, as in stemming from the country they live in, their religion and mores of the people who are around them. But I think it is more likely small-c-cultural, pertaining to those families in particular. I have experience with people like this, whose family culture is simply insular and judgmental, and somewhat co-dependent. They try to chase everyone away, and so the only people who stick around are people who are equally insular, judgmental and co-dependent.

Considering that you like him, he likes you and your family likes him, my guess is that the problem is theirs, not yours.

His sharing what his family says is a feature of a good relationship, not a bug.
posted by gjc at 8:06 AM on August 21, 2010

First of all, congratulations on finding a boyfriend who is firmly in your corner and defends you. It's refreshing to read about someone who isn't a spineless noodle in the face of a controlling family!
Now, have that long talk with the bf, as someone upthread suggested. If a wedding is in your future, this issue won't disappear magically. Best to have your roadmap laid out now. Be a strong force of two that they cannot beat down.

Your story is mine, by the way....just substitute "fat" for "votes democratic." My motto was, and remains: fuck 'em.
posted by BostonTerrier at 8:07 AM on August 21, 2010

It's possible that your boyfriend is just the child of Disagreeable Parents. This has been a consistent problem in my relationships - all of my girlfriends/wives (3rd time's the charm) have had rocky relationships with my parents. When I was freshly married the first time, at the tender age of 19, we invited my parents over for dinner, and my step-dad showed up with an newspaper article about one of my ex-girlfriends for high school, plopped it down, pointed it out and said, right in front of my wife, "Why couldn't you marry someone like this?" My wife cried for about four hours after they left, and I don't think ever spoke to them again.

That was the worst of it, but it happened again and again to lesser degrees in every single relationship, since. (I'm 48 -- there have been a few long-terms -- 5 or 6 that were serious) The long and short of it is, my parents are not nice people. I'm lucky to have a wife that loves me, anyway.

I'd bet that your boyfriend's parents would seek out something wrong with any of his prospective wives. So long as you and your boyfriend are on the same page as to how to deal with this, and resolve yourselves to not let it affect your relationship it'll be okay. Make sure to talk through it with him, though. I didn't really do that the first few times, until I saw it was a pattern, then later sort of developed a "let's talk about my folks" thing when relationships started to get serious.

I've had to distance myself a little bit from them emotionally, for the sake of my partners -- your boyfriend may find that he needs to do this as well. I hope it doesn't come down to a "which side of the fence are you on?" decision for him, and that he'd side with you naturally, and learn to just sigh when they get Disagreeable. They're in the wrong to dictate to him who to love, and he'll probably figure this out if he's a mature person.
posted by Devils Rancher at 8:43 AM on August 21, 2010

N'thing the guess that if you weren't fat, you'd be American. Or the wrong color. Or the wrong height, or religion, or anything else. Controlling families gotta control, and any girlfriend that they didn't choose is the wrong girlfriend. Good advice upthread on how to deal with it, but I just wanted to emphasize that it's not about you, as strange as that sounds. Your boyfriend sounds like a good guy. Stick together and good luck.
posted by Quietgal at 10:10 AM on August 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

If your boyfriend comes from a culture where it is not unusual for parents to help select their children's spouses, it may be that their objection stems from not having had a say in picking you, and they have latched onto the aspect that is most immediately visible. Your size may be a red herring here, albeit one that you are sensitive about. If this is the cultural milieu you are in, understand that even if you weighed 100 pounds less than you do, they still wouldn't approve, because they didn't get to have any say.

Sometimes people don't like you no matter what you do, for their own reasons that are part of their own drama. Be sure that you and your boyfriend are on the same page, and then carry on with your life.
posted by ambrosia at 10:13 AM on August 21, 2010

Thank you for all your answers.

Based on his father/grandfathers/uncles, all of whom are a bit overweight, it seems to me that they have a problem not with fat people, per se, but with fat women. I do agree with the points made by decathecting and Galadriel -- it's entirely possible that they've just seized on this, my most obvious flaw, as a means to try to end our relationship. My guess is that his family would be happiest with a daughter-in-law (thinner and matching their ethnicity/nationality/religion) whom they've fully vetted in advance, then introduced to him in the hopes that they'd hit it off. It's not quite arranged marriage, but it is a system that seems foreign to me.

Boyfriend has told me that he is normally attracted to somewhat chubbier women, though I am admittedly heavier than anyone he's dated thus far. I do exercise regularly, and I do try to eat healthily, but as of yet the scales aren't budging.

I very much like the multiple suggestions of figuring out how to manage this attitude in advance, when we encounter it. Since it's unlikely that his family would tell me, in English, to my face, how they feel, I guess I have no problem just sitting there and smiling. My boyfriend just says that I should think of their views as mistaken, and that his feelings won't change. Mine won't either, and I guess that's the most important thing. Thanks again for all your advice and support.
posted by redfishbluefish at 10:58 AM on August 21, 2010

Hmm. I find it hard to believe that your boyfriend could have been surprised at their reaction, since it appears from your story that it was nearly unanimous: everyone in his family apparently doesn't like you simply because you are overweight. This makes me wonder… why would someone that cares about someone put them through all that? Besides the one partially understood argument, is the only evidence that the entire family dislikes you that your boyfriend said this?

The reason I bring this up is because normally when you care about someone you don't put them through that kind of shit. And if your family was a fatty-hating family, you'd probably know it. It'd be like bringing a black girlfriend to a white boyfriend's local Klan rally… "What's that, honey? You say they didn't like you? No!"

So I have to wonder about the motivation. If the two of you were trying to prove something, that I could understand. But otherwise I have to ask myself why someone would put the person they love through that, unless they were trying to look for an excuse. I would talk to him and make sure he's really happy with what he's got. The 'ol "Can't. Family." excuse is as old as they come.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 11:07 AM on August 21, 2010

I recently asked a similar question, but from the skinny-person-with-insensitive-foreign-parents perspective. Some of the advice in that thread might be helpful to you, or to your boyfriend.

I'm guessing your SO might be from the same culture as my parents, since you say that it seems like they have a problem with fat women in particular. It sounds like you might be dealing with a culture that doesn't value women very highly in general, and in which potential brides are subject to especially close scrutiny. So I'd recommend taking all your in-laws' opinions about you with a grain of salt. I'd venture a guess that they're slightly misogynistic and that they might not be genuinely interested in getting to know any girlfriend of their son's, regardless of size.
posted by arianell at 12:46 PM on August 21, 2010

At least your in-laws are open about their dislike of you. Mine hate me for being an atheist and previously married, and tried to talk my husband out of dating or marrying me, and since we got married they have encouraged him to divorce me (hypocritical much?). But to my face they tell me how much they love me and miss me. The two-facedness is much harder to deal with than overt hostility.

Anyhow, my in-laws live on the other side of the country so I just avoid contact with them as much as possible. With your in-laws in another country it seems like you could just do the same.
posted by Jacqueline at 6:49 PM on August 21, 2010

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