Unhappy in our own way.
April 24, 2011 4:51 PM   Subscribe

Being around most of my mother's family makes me uncomfortable and angry. How to let go of my past with them and come out of family gatherings feeling more positive?

When I was in high school, I spent a lot of time with my mom's parents, her siblings, and their kids. We'd get together for biweekly dinners and go on annual vacations together as an extended family.

I was an athletic teenager, not thin but not fat, with a short, wide frame and big bones inherited from my dad's side. My mom, her siblings, my sister and all of my cousins are thin and leaning towards tall. As a result, I stood out in the group and my younger cousins pointed this out constantly. They'd ask me why I'm so "baggy" when my sister is thin and therefore "pretty." They'd tell me I "shouldn't be" wearing a bathing suit, or they'd simply look at me and say "you're fat" with disgust. This would make me cry, while the cousin who hurt me this time would be forced to apologize for making me feel bad, with nothing said by any of the adults to correct the opinion or behavior. Now that the cousins are aged 13 to 22, it seems that they still feel like being fat is one of the worst things one could ever be. They eat carefully, pinch their non-existent bellies through their clothes, and untag their "fat" pictures on Facebook.

My aunt and uncle have always had body image issues despite being thin, too. They'd go on cereal diets, mild starvation diets, Weight Watchers shake diets etc and my aunt would recommend these things to me even when I was eating like a normal teenager, getting tons of exercise every week for sports. She would tell me that these diets would make me "look better."

I developed problems with anxiety and depression in my teens that worsened and eventually ruined my athletic career and made college miserable. I was so afraid of my peers finding me hideous that I rarely left my dorm room except for class, was bullied, then gave up on caring about the way I looked completely. I gained roughly 100 pounds over six years and now, in my mid-20's, am unmistakeably Fat.

In this past couple of years, my mental health has improved tremendously. It's a probable result of being forced into the "real world" of adults -- having a job, having to dress nicely for that job, being around happy people of different shapes, sizes, and situations every day. To say that I've grown to love my body as it is now might be a stretch, but it's not a big one. I respect my body. I clothe it to make it look its best as it is. I feel comfortable in it most of the time now and I can see the ways in which it is beautiful, even if it is not the sort of beauty that everyone accepts.

The problem is that even though I've come this far, I still have an immediate, visceral negative reaction to being around my mom's side of the family. My cousins have grown up, I get along with most of them fairly well (even if we disagree about what sorts of bodies are acceptable at the core) and they don't say anything about the way I look anymore. I've accepted that my aunt is miserable no matter her size and feel sad for her. But I still have and hate this thought that I am sitting there at family gatherings being OK with my fattest self while they're probably not, and they're my family. I resent that none of the adults could ever get up the love to say "No, she's fine as she is" even if they didn't actually like the way my body looked way back when my cousins insulted me. So when I'm with them all now, I retreat into my shell and don't say much, and then when I leave, I'm self-conscious and depressed for hours to days afterward.

How can I learn to handle my feelings and let them go to make this a more positive experience for everyone? I have limited my attendance to holidays and some birthdays, but haven't ever talked to my family about it yet. I am wondering too if talking would even be helpful, since the bulk of the hurtful incidents are in the past -- if not the hurtful feelings -- and I doubt their opinions are going to change.

Thank you in advance for your thoughts.
posted by houndsoflove to Human Relations (12 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Continue to work on loving your body as it is right now - that's key for every day, not just these visits. Let go of their (admittedly Awful) behavior in the past, and move forward from your place of new-found self esteem. They can never be the adults you need to support your healthy body image; you can build a chosen family that will help with that, though.

I'd a) limit the family visits, and b) try to find every single possible facet of these family members I like and love, and focus on them. Try to find "safe" topics. Dogs? Babies? School? Hobbies? Homes and gardens? If people are talking about something they Love, they tend to be more positive, and you will come out feeling more positive overall.

It takes work, and being gentle with yourself when it's Hard (I have a therapist-endorsed rule of letting myself drink a little more during family gatherings). You will draw boundaries that keep out as much of their toxic body-related issues as possible while still loving them for the people they are. And then visits will be less stressful and better for you.
posted by ldthomps at 5:19 PM on April 24, 2011

I resent that none of the adults could ever get up the love to say "No, she's fine as she is" even if they didn't actually like the way my body looked way back when my cousins insulted me.

It sounds like they all have seriously damaging body image issues (as you realize), but it's entirely likely that in their messed-up heads, trying to get you to conform to their unhealthy idea of beauty was love. It's damaging and awful, but the adults likely meant well, even if their idea of what that meant was sick.

I'm really, really sorry you had to go through all that. As for today, if it were me I'd almost certainly completely avoid them. Body image and food issues are incredibly contagious and damaging, even if you didn't have this family history, and it sounds like you've gotten yourself to a really good, healthy place now (props for that, by the way!). If you do decide to see them and they start talking about weight or food, do not engage.
posted by you're a kitty! at 5:22 PM on April 24, 2011

You could stop going altogether to family functions, even holidays.

When people ask why, say "Growing up, they said some pretty horrible, cruel things to me. I don't think much of their opinions have changed as the years have gone by."

Seriously, not putting yourself in painful situations with people who don't hold a particularly high opinion of you is 100% an option. And tell them exactly why when they ask.

Don't let them brow-beat you, ignore their entreaties of "Oh, that was when you were children, you should put that aside for the sake of the family."

Fuck that. Family is as family does.

The glow of burning bridges can often keep one warm, especially when the wood was rotten to start.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 5:28 PM on April 24, 2011 [30 favorites]

The Pirate's answer is a good one, but easier said than done, and if you come from a close family (I know from experience), it's not really a viable option in that you feel an obligation (based on your upbringing and probably pressure from your mom and whatnot) to at least show your face. And because holidays and such are tailor-made for seeing the family, you would likely feel odd and even lonely without that.

So I suggest learning to be assertive and just nipping all the snide comments in the bud when they happen. Eventually, you will find the comments coming less and less until they don't come at all. For the most part, people treat you the way you allow them to. So it's time to re-train them...

Next time a dart is thrown, instead of waiting on someone ELSE to save you, why don't YOU say, "Actually, I feel fine the way I am. I'm not overly interested in what other folks think of me right now. Cereal diets work for others, and that's cool. But I'll do what I want to do when I want to do it how I want to do it. Can you pass the peas please? Thank Auntie!"
posted by GeniPalm at 6:40 PM on April 24, 2011

It sounds like they have a deeply ingrained set of (warped) values about how human bodies should look. I don't know that talking to them about your hurt feelings would do much good. I mean, it might, but it seems to me that the sort of person who tolerates that kind of cruelty and disrespect toward a child is kind of a lost cause.

You feel hurt and depressed and self-conscious because these are people who have hurt you--not necessarily because they are malicious but because they have an attitude and a set of values that is inherently harmful, and it hurts to be around them even if you are an adult who can stand up for yourself. If I were in your shoes, I'd skip those family events and attend events with the other side of the family, or with friends--or, frankly, celebrate by yourself if that's the only other option. As a child, you had no choice but to be around those people. Now, you have a choice.
posted by Meg_Murry at 7:27 PM on April 24, 2011 [3 favorites]

Look, sometimes you just don't fit in with your family, even if they're "blood." (I say this having come back from yet another awkward family gathering.) I've come to the conclusion over the years that for my relatives, I am just Not Their Kind, Dear, and not the sort of person they would remotely choose to associate with were they not forced to at the holidays and the occasional graduation. And there's really nothing that can be done about that. As long as they keep whatever not-nice thoughts they are having about me to themselves when I'm there and behind my back otherwise, I consider it a relief. (I say that because one side of the family doesn't do that.) All I can really do is minimize the time spent with people who don't like me much, which you are doing, try not to take it so personally, or just accept that they can't accept me, but are forced to tolerate me. But it's THEIR issue, rather than mine.
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:54 PM on April 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

When they would say that you were fat, I'd guess that they were doing it to make themselves feel better. If they're obsessed with being thin, and you were slightly larger than they were (in the relative sense, not in the sense that you were fat), then the more fuss they made about you being fat, the better they looked to themselves.

People can only give you what they have. It seems that the only thing your relatives could "give" you, the only way they could interact with you was through a veil of obsessiveness about bodyweight. They couldn't see you in any way other than through a lens of how fat you were. And that might have been hurtful to you, but it's possible that they didn't mean it to be. They were just so wrapped up in this world of bodyweight issues that they couldn't see beyond that to your nice qualities. These people will never get up and say that they were wrong. First off, their pride probably wouldn't let them do it, even if they wanted to, and in any case, they don't think that they were wrong. They were wrong, and they probably were very mean, but they will in all likelihood never accept that.

I'm not trying to say that what they did was OK. I'm just trying to explain how it might have come about.

Family is an accident of birth. The only family that one gets to choose are ones friends, and if we're lucky, those are the people who show us unconditional love and support us. The people in families sometimes treat one another like absolute shit, because that's all they can do. There's an attitude that relatives should do X and Y and not do Z, and sometimes we're lucky, and it all works out. Sometimes, it doesn't.

Now, though, you're left with your feelings towards your relatives, and it's perfectly reasonable that you feel the way you do. These people said mean things to you, and haven't yet made any kind of reparation for doing that. It's entirely normal that you feel the way you do.

One way to get past that, though, is to think about how correct they actually were. Their brains were skewed by the fat "thing", so they probably weren't being 100% rational about your weight. These people aren't your doctor, your dietitian, your nutritionist, etc. They're just some people that you know who have a really big hangup about how much they (and by extension, random other people) weigh. I wouldn't be surprised to find that they spend time thinking about how everyone they ever meet compares to them and their weight. If it's any comfort, I doubt it's just you.

But these people are your family, and you want to spend time with them, which is natural. I think part of the trick is to see how invalid their opinions actually are. Your relatives are not perfect, and their opinions are not perfect. Being related to them doesn't make them right. They're entitled to their opinions, but having an opinion doesn't make one correct.

Quit caring about their opinions, therefore. The only person whose opinion matters is you. It's all about you and what you think of yourself. Yes, they said mean things to you. But that's in the past. Accept that it's over now, and that it's done, and you'll find it easier to move on. Accept that they will never apologise, much as you think they should. Try to look for some positives in them, or maybe even try to pity them. Imagine what it must be like to be constantly thinking about your weight and what other people think of it, and think about how awful that must be. It's no wonder that they lashed out at people, is it?

You can deal with the conditioning that you've put yourself through. That conditioning is the reason you have a visceral reaction to them. Again, perfectly normal, but ultimately unhelpful. Change your lens, so that you look at them in a different way. Try to find something nice about every one who said something mean to you. Maybe one of them works at an animal shelter, or another one works at a soup kitchen. Given that nobody is 100% "bad", there must be something. Then try to think of something else nice about them. Try to build up a new picture in your head, and view the hurtful things that they said to you as the tantrums of a child who didn't know any different. Because they didn't know any different. It's extremely unlikely that they were so unable to feel that they deliberately set out to hurt you, and if they did do that, that's just more reason to pity them.

If you can do that, and apply that skill to the rest of your life, you'll be a better, happier person because of those insults.

[I recommend it a lot on here, but Feeling Good is a great way to learn how to deal with negative thoughts and by extension negative emotions. It's aimed at depression, but it's good for so much more than that.]
posted by Solomon at 12:31 AM on April 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Screw 'em. You're better off without them in your life, so avoid gatherings with them as much as possible --- and yes, I understand that to keep your mother happy, you can't COMPLETELY avoid them. Be busy that week, "sorry but I have to work then", whatever works. No one needs this kind of heartburn in their life.
posted by easily confused at 3:39 AM on April 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Look, they bullied you in the past in ways that seriously damaged you, they have never apologized although they have stopped the behaviour, but they haven't gone far enough to make you feel better about being around them. You doubt their capacity to comprehend that they've done anything wrong.

So don't be around them.

There are all kinds of contortions you can go through to manage the pain, but why should you have to?
posted by tel3path at 6:33 AM on April 25, 2011

Do you stay in contact with them on an individual level? You might try confronting one or another with the whole thing. Divide & conquer -- bullying is often done for an audience. You're carrying this stress around with you even if you don't go to these functions, and you might feel better once you get it out into the open. Honestly, it sounds like they are the ones with something they need to get over, not you.

Past that, I have to support the Pirate's answer. Be blunt about why you don't go: "Because you guys make me feel like crap."

If they honestly cared about your weight because they are worried about health issues, they'd tell you, and it sounds like you have already either made peace with that one way or the other. If it's something else -- like body image -- then screw 'em.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 8:58 AM on April 25, 2011

The Pirate's answer is a good one, but easier said than done, and if you come from a close family (I know from experience), it's not really a viable option in that you feel an obligation (based on your upbringing and probably pressure from your mom and whatnot) to at least show your face. And because holidays and such are tailor-made for seeing the family, you would likely feel odd and even lonely without that.

Their closeness is exactly the reason I haven't stopped going altogether. I've cut out the family dinners and gatherings by saying I'm too busy; there are also times my mom will mention maybe inviting my aunt and cousin out with us for shopping and dinner, and I'll say outright that I don't want that and she accepts it without a fight. But I know she would be very hurt if I refused to go be with everyone on Christmas, Easter, or Thanksgiving at least, and I can't stand the thought of hurting my mom like that. I have a good relationship with my grandparents and try to focus on that when I have to be around everybody at once.

Even though cutting them out completely (much as I would like to, much of the time) isn't an option for me, I think it will be helpful to absorb the bluntness in the things you've said. Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey especially. I can imagine it might be less hurtful if I walk in with a "fuck these people" attitude rather than the conciliatory one I try to have now.
posted by houndsoflove at 3:09 PM on April 25, 2011

In the past, I've gotten through stressful family dinners by bringing along a friend. It gives you someone to lean on, someone who you know is on your team, and with whom you can laugh about the weirdness and rudeness later. People are often on their best behavior when a stranger is around. It may be tricky if you're needing backup on holidays, but it could work for random in-between dinners or events.
posted by lhall at 4:25 PM on April 25, 2011

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