How to shut down family commentary about weight/"health"
August 13, 2023 9:29 AM   Subscribe

It's early morning on day 1 of a week long family vacation. My mother is already giving commentary about my "being healthy" and exercising, her code subjects for valuing thinness and being terrified of fatness.

She has recently started doing this to my 9 year old too. She has always had disordered eating habits but not an ED. I once read a pamphlet in a pediatricians office that described the family culture I grew up in as being high risk for an ED but I also have not dealt with one. I HAVE gotten really into Maintenance Phase podcast. My mother won't touch a podcast so no use recommending it. I have always enjoyed moving my body outdoors, working up a sweat, and eating lots of vegetables alongside treats. I have also always been larger than my mom, who doesnt eat many vegetables or move her body as much as I do. I'm perimenopausal and my body is changing and I mostly dont GAF except for the whole finding clothes "appropriate" for work thing.

What do people do to shut down unwelcome conversations with parents about your own - or your child's - weight and exercise? So far anything I say is responded to with "I'm just being your mother, I care about you, being healthy is imprtant, this is who I am!" UGH.
posted by wannabecounselor to Human Relations (19 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
You need to make a strong, complete, unequivocal statement. Here's a suggestion:

"If you care about me, you need to stop bringing this subject up. I've heard your views, and I don't need to hear them again. Bringing this up repeatedly is hurting, not helping. I'm in charge of my own body, and you're not. I'm here to enjoy a vacation, not to talk about my appearance or my health. The same goes for my daughter. And if you will not abide by this request, then I will not stick around on this vacation. I can pack my bags and leave very quickly."

If the hassling continues, follow through.
posted by beagle at 9:44 AM on August 13 [46 favorites]

So a boundary isn't something she enforces. It's something you enforce.

"Mum, sorry, but I don't want any more talk about weight or healthy eating on this trip. I'm walking away now."

Keep walking away.
posted by warriorqueen at 9:48 AM on August 13 [28 favorites]

Your mother: "... this is who I am!"

You: "And THIS is who I am. End of discussion."

Exit stage right. Or left. Whichever is convenient.
posted by Dolley at 10:01 AM on August 13 [11 favorites]

If you can let go of the ideas of 1) convincing her of anything and 2) being seen to be right or understood (can be a tall ask I know), an easy way to shut it down is to just agree with her and carry on with your life. She believes what she’s saying, and her intention probably is what she’s saying it is, could nod to that. “Yep Mom, you’re right, thank you for caring about me”. And move on with your day.
posted by cotton dress sock at 10:02 AM on August 13 [3 favorites]

Hmm, I might lean into where you do agree with your mom as a way of neutralizing her. "I agree mom, it is important to eat healthy - that's why I eat so many veggies!" or "Yes, exercise is great for the body and mind - that's why I love working up a sweat on a regular basis!"

Of course, if she makes any comments about you or your child's body, that gets shut down "No comments about other people's bodies." But if she speaks in code, even if you know what the code means, I'd be obtuse about it and move on.
posted by coffeecat at 10:06 AM on August 13 [3 favorites]

I let my mom do this ONCE per visit because she’s unwilling and unable to control her obsession. The next one gets shut down with “Yes mom, you said that yesterday and I heard you. You need to find a new subject because I don’t like being around you when you talk about my body, and next time I’m walking away.” Then I do that. Your mom already got her one.
posted by kapers at 10:52 AM on August 13 [15 favorites]

Please, I am begging you, shut this down for your daughter's sake. You have a chance here to protect her from this generational trauma. Tell your mom to stop, forcefully if needed. Leave the vacation if needed. Protect your child even if you weren't protected. (I wish you'd been protected.)
posted by BlahLaLa at 10:54 AM on August 13 [56 favorites]

+1 to shutting this down now, especially around your kid. And I wouldn’t retort with anything about how what you’re doing is healthy or comparing diet habits. Unhealthy and disabled people and people who don’t eat vegetables are also deserving of equality and freedom from shaming.

“Stop commenting on bodies and food. All bodies are good bodies.” Repeat as needed.
posted by Crystalinne at 11:20 AM on August 13 [15 favorites]

"Who you are about to be is no-contact with your grandchild if you will not stop talking about this."

Do not try to play this game to win. You protect your child, that is the priority. You tell her one more time what your boundary is and what you are going to do if she crosses it, which should be that there will be no more discussion about bodies or size or applying moral value to food or hiding behind "health" as a way to continue obsessing about this topic, or you take your child and you go home.

You can tell her you've already discussed the danger she presents to your child with your pediatrician, and that for her own sake and the sake of the family she should consider getting some help if she is in so deep she literally cannot stop talking about it.

If she does not stop it, you leave. You can't make her do a damn thing, she's an adult with agency who can make her own choices. If that choice is to have no relationship with some people because she refuses to stop harming them - she doesn't even have to think you're right, she just has to follow your instructions - then she is free to make that choice.

You may never get an opportunity this drastic to make this point so succinctly. Let her fuck up so badly she ruins everyone's vacation, if that's what she chooses.
posted by Lyn Never at 11:36 AM on August 13 [13 favorites]

Mom, I hate when you talk like that to me and you know it. But to my daughter I simply will not tolerate it, one word more and I am out the door. She will fuck up so maybe the first time you just take your daughter and leave for the day, come back after dinnertime. But one more time? Bounce.
posted by Iteki at 11:40 AM on August 13 [6 favorites]

Over time, ignoring a behavior can extinguish it. Engaging on the subject helps Mom dig in to her point of view. For the short run, try diverting the message. When she starts on the Exercise More, Respond You're right, exercise is key to health. I've been working on getting rid of obsessive or unhealthy approaches. We integrate exercise into our lives and I'm satisfied with our approach. If she continues, respond with I think there's a lot of unhealthy focus on women's bodies. We don't do that. I will not allow that message to be given to my child.

When she launches in on Eat Healthy, similar. You're right, quality nutrition is important. If she continues, respond with There's so much pressure on women and girls to be thin, but not on being healthy and happy with who they are and how they look. We won't tolerate that. I will not allow that pressure to be put on my child.

My Mom would get on a subject and Not. Let. Go. so I used distraction. Speaking of food, let's go blueberry picking. or Did you see how all the rain shifted tho old bridge? any topic that will engage her that isn't food or exercise or weight.

She'll start in on weight, at which point, Mom, I mentioned that we don't pressure Daughter about weight. I feel strongly about that. and then distract Hey, is Aunt Sylvie joining us? She always has the goofiest stories and Daughter thinks she's a hoot. I kept a mental list of topics for when my Mom was building up steam for a hissy fit. If you randomly ask your Mom about drapery, your siblings think you're a nutcase, but when Mom talks about curtains for 15 minutes - genius!

You are also modeling conflict resolution to your child, and showing her you stand up for her, but also keep the peace. My Mom was extremely difficult. I got off the phone, left the room/ house/ town so many times, but Diversion and Distraction were useful. She got openly anti-Semitic once while drinking at a restaurant dinner, and for that I was confrontational (but not loud) because Hell, No. Over time, my Mom learned she could no longer bully or manipulate me. Long effort, worthwhile.
posted by theora55 at 11:57 AM on August 13 [2 favorites]

The word "boundary" has various interpretations. Not sure what to call my version. I prefer to make rules for my own behavior, and let the other person know what those rules are. "I'm not going to discuss x with you at all anymore. If you bring it up, I'll change the subject or end the conversation." From family members, I've gotten a LOT of pushback. My mother would bring it up just so she could criticize me for not allowing her to express her thoughts. You have to keep saying it, calmly, over and over till it works. This isn't easy at all. At some point, you're going to have to say, "I'm leaving the room" or "I have to hang up now."
posted by wryly at 1:11 PM on August 13 [9 favorites]

My grandmother did this to my mother, and me eventually. It caused a lot of hurt feelings between the three of us but my mother never really had that conversation with her mother about it. Actually what worked for me was consistently calling out how rude, unhelpful, ignorant, and/or mean her comments were -- and depending on how egregious it was, stating it as a reason to not visit or call. It really bothered her to have her uncouthness recognized and for there to be consequences.
posted by sm1tten at 3:48 PM on August 13 [5 favorites]

I do not think you should respond to this by emphasizing that actually, you are already exercising and eating vegetables. You know perfectly well that she's not talking about exercise or vegetables, she's talking about buying into a culture of pathological anti-fatness, so pretending not to know this and defending your own lifestyle puts you always on the back foot, insisting on how healthy you are. What if you then became unable to exercise for disability reasons? What if your daughter did? Your kid deserves to see you model shutting down this euphemistic fixation on "health," not insisting that you fit within it. E.g. "I don't think about food or bodies that way because I've seen how much harm it can cause. Please respect my parenting decisions and my daughter's autonomy over her own body." Other people's stewardship of their own bodies is not her business and you can and should tell her to butt out. You absolutely can put it in "I want my daughter to feel ownership over her body" terms if you and your mother agree on things like reproductive justice and sexual autonomy. Policing people's weight and their food and movement choices is absolutely part of that constellation of infantilizing, dehumanizing attitudes towards bodies seen as female.
posted by babelfish at 7:33 PM on August 13 [14 favorites]

Just be very firm about walking away when she brings it up. And if she's doing it to your daughter, tell your daughter to come to you, or if it's not possible, say loudly "timeout!" and walk away.
posted by kschang at 7:39 PM on August 13 [2 favorites]

My mother in law can be like this, then she puts on an affect of extreme hurt if you shut her down.

I have a young daughter and I don't play the game.

"We are not raising Champlet that way. Body talk is off the table. If you keep it up, we will leave the room."

She whines and fusses, but my kid sees me shut it down.
posted by champers at 3:17 AM on August 14 [3 favorites]

1) I agree with babelfish, this is not an opportunity to defend yourself because that requires dropping the boundary you have established. At that point you are having a factual discussion on what you do and don't eat and how you exercise or whatever when the point is that you are not interested in the discussion at all under any circumstance and don't buy into the framing behind it. Let's face it, until and unless you conform to her vision of what you should look like, no diet or exercise plan will be acceptable and if you did she would no longer be interested in your 5k time or how much you could deadlift or whatever.

Like, at what HBA1C will she not want you to be skinnier?

2) I'm afraid that I, a natural diplomat who would never start a scene also have to agree with the hard-nosed attitude of several others in the thread. A nine year old girl with ED risk factors cannot be exposed safely to such attitudes for the time it may require for a softer approach to bear fruit.

If you want to find a compromise you may find that you can accept a situation where you will permit her to talk about these matters with you in private (while disagreeing with her and making it clear that you have a strong preference not to have such conversations) but you have to come down hard on it occurring in your daughter's earshot. Eating disorders are dangerous and this is not a risk I would be prepared to take.
posted by atrazine at 5:26 AM on August 14 [2 favorites]

I also have a one-and-done policy with my mom around certain ongoing sticking points, and I do leave the room if she can't stop herself. But my mom is in cognitive decline, and I don't have an impressionable kid along for the ride.

If you do need to leave this vacation earlier than anticipated, I think you'd need to be clear with your daughter about why it's happening... to a point? You don't want her takeaway to be "my mom can't talk about these matters," or "protecting me is causing fights with grandma" (as children tend to blame themselves for adult discord).

That your mom has a problem (and that the problem can be contagious, and turn into a chronic condition) is one thing -- but you having a right to enjoy your vacation is its own thing, and the reason you might choose to stress to a young child, in the short-term, should you need to pack up. Then grant yourself a couple of days away from your mom for decompression before calmly discussing the leave-taking in greater detail. Lastly, you'd make special one-on-one plans with your daughter on remaining vacation days.
posted by Iris Gambol at 10:54 AM on August 14 [1 favorite]

Sometimes it is impossible to shut this stuff down and going no-contact is the only solution, sadly.

On my last visit my sister saw a picture of me with our other sister and commented "Have you lost weight? You look good!" beneath it. When I saw her in person a few days later she said "Oh. That picture was a lie."

She just can't help it, no matter how rude it is. I don't know why.

If she was saying this in front of my kids or about my kids, I'd cut contact. But since it is just in front of me, I choose to ignore her rudeness and change the subject.
posted by tacodave at 4:06 PM on August 14

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