How To Respond When A Family Member Body-Shames You

Call it teasing, constructive criticism, or straight-up body shaming — it’s a uniquely sucky feeling when your loved ones put down your looks. And yet, it’s not a unique experience: It happens to everyone from the super-sensitive to the thick-skinned. My little brother once compared my thighs to hams. He was just a kid, and I laughed it off, but the words are still cemented in my memory. They pop up at random moments — when I’m trying on jeans, debating whether a skirt is the right length, or sitting next to thigh-gapped strangers on the subway (hmm, hers look more like hot dogs).
If you’re heading home to spend time with such well meaning but often obnoxious folks, you may be bracing yourself for an onslaught of these remarks, since family seems more than comfortable to mention that you’re “too skinny" and "need to eat!” or that you’re “looking very healthy” (WTF does that mean?).
Experts say it can take years to let go of comments like these, whether they’re lighthearted or serious, routine or isolated. Our family members’ words make a deep impact, whether we want them to or not. Luckily, there are ways to handle these interactions that empower you in real time, and help the sting subside faster.
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illustrated by Paola Delucca.
Mentally prep for the situation.
If you’re headed to a family event where you might feel vulnerable to digs from a snarky cousin or hyper-critical grandmother, come up with a few emotional strategies in advance. “There are tons of subtle ways we can take care of ourselves,” says eating disorders expert Jenny Taitz, PhD. “It may sound silly, but try massaging your hands, noticing colors around you, or mentally replaying your favorite Amy Schumer video.” (The sexting one is an instant LOL-inducer). Damage-control is a lot easier if you’ve anticipated the scenario and have some quick tricks to prevent reacting explosively or spinning a web of negative thoughts.
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illustrated by Paola Delucca.
Remember that their intentions may be good, even if their words are off-base.
When the people who care about you the most say super-insensitive things, it’s hard to believe they’re doing it for your benefit. But sometimes those harsh comments do come from a place of caring. “Body shaming by family members can be inadvertent,” says family therapist Joy Jacobs, PhD, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCSD School of Medicine. “Often, mothers criticize their daughters’ weight in an attempt to ‘help’ them date more, feel happier, or be more successful. Other times, people feel like it’s their job to tell their family the ‘truth’ about their appearance.” So next time your mom mentions that your clothes look tighter than usual, remind yourself that this could be her gone-awry attempt to show you she cares.
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illustrated by Paola Delucca.
Let silence (or a few choice words) speak volumes.
When your sister makes a ‘playful’ jab about your new haircut or a backhanded compliment about looking like you’ve lost weight, consider not saying a word back. “In the moment, sometimes the most powerful response can be a non-response,” says Dr. Jacobs. “Just look at the person who made the rude comment and say nothing at all.” This shows you heard what they said, but won’t engage, which may help the offender realize the gaffe — perhaps even making her or him feel embarrassed. Another simple response that deflects the focus back: “Why do you ask?”
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illustrated by Paola Delucca.
Get instant therapy from your friends.
This is one time it’s 100% okay to reach for your phone, even at a formal family gathering. Grab your purse, head to the bathroom, and hit up your most empathetic buddy — or whoever’s likely to reply ASAP. Even if they don’t, it can be hugely therapeutic just to vent about rude comments: “My grandmother just asked what was on my face in front of the whole table. Umm, is she too old to remember zits? FML.” Experts agree that moral support from your other family — the one you get to choose — is key to getting through these moments with your sense of humor (and sanity) intact.
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illustrated by Paola Delucca.
Be proactive, so it doesn’t happen again.
Instead of stewing over the interaction and mentally replaying it masochistically, let yourself feel fully pissed off, mortified, sad, whatever. It’s easier to let go of negative feelings after you accept them. Plus, pretending to be fine won’t fix anything. “Putting on a happy face takes a toll,” says Dr. Taitz. “We often feel worse when we suppress our emotions.” But don’t wallow endlessly. If the person is someone you care about maintaining a connection with, consider taking him or her aside and calmly explaining how their words made you feel. “For your own self-respect, it can be helpful to speak up and ask for a change going forward,” she says. “It’s much easier for people to validate our needs when we make specific requests, like ‘I don’t like when you mention my legs.’”
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illustrated by Paola Delucca.
If you have to, uninvite them from your life.
It may sound extreme, but sometimes the best thing to do with people who have a history of making you feel awful is to opt out of those relationships, or at least to take a major break. That may be hard to accomplish with some, like your mom or sister, but if they consistently make you uncomfortable, consider limiting the time you spend with them. “Some people may always be hurtful,” says family interventionist Brad Lamm, founder of the Breathe Life Healing Center. “No matter how much you psych yourself up for their verbal assault, they can inflict pain with brilliant speed and terrific efficiency. Making peace can mean making space — as in, several thousand miles, if needed.” If that isn’t an option, try setting firm new boundaries that mean not seeing them as much, and keeping any interactions brief.
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illustrated by Paola Delucca.
Use it as a chance to build up your confidence.
When someone puts you down, it’s up to you whether you’ll buy into it. It’s natural and human to feel upset by criticism — especially from family — but if you manage not to let those words infect your mood and thoughts, you’re becoming a more self-possessed person, one who refuses to be the victim of someone’s insensitivity or judgy-ness. “Each of us has to learn to love ourselves no matter what someone else says or thinks about us,” says Jacobs. “This doesn’t mean the comments won’t hurt, but we can use them to fuel our growth and ability to navigate difficult situations with grace and dignity.” Amen to that.

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