For someone who spends a lot of time making brisket and trying to get you to eat more food, Bubbe sure can throw some serious shade about your body when she wants to. And oftentimes, it's not just grandparents: Whether it's your uncle, your mother, or your second cousin, it's not uncommon for relatives to give you unsolicited "advice" about your body.
Phrases like, "You look like you've been eating well," or "You're really showing off with that top," or "You might want to slow down with the cookies" are bound to come up when there's a family function. And, body-positivity be damned, you're respectful of your elders. But is it worth it to give your relatives a lesson in healthy body talk when they say something wounding about your appearance?
"If we don't challenge people on their beliefs, then change can't happen," says Summer Brown, LMFT, a relationship therapist who focuses on body positivity. Of course, you can do that in a respectful way without launching into a diatribe about societal pressures against women. But dismissing your relative's comments as a "generational difference" is unproductive, because words matter.
A 2010 study found that when parents or family members, particularly mothers, teased or commented on a child's weight or diet, it led to disordered eating later on in life. Another 2016 study found that daughters whose mothers even just talked about their own diet and body dissatisfaction were more likely to be diagnosed with an eating disorder. So there's evidence to suggest that body-talk is toxic and potentially dangerous for the people on the receiving end of it.
Of course, for the most part, these comments aren't meant to be malicious. And more often than not, your grandma's intention behind her comments is misinterpreted, says Deborah Tannen, PhD, author of You're Wearing That? Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation. As weird as it may seem, your relatives might make suggestions about your appearance because they want to help you.
If we don't challenge people on their beliefs, then change can't happen.
Summer Brown, LMFT
"Mothers, and grandparents as an extension, often feel they have a right or obligation [to make comments about your body], because they want things to go well for this person they love, and they think they're being helpful," Dr. Tannen says. Brown says there's a "pack animal" mentality in some families, so your parents and grandparents may think they're responsible for making sure you're doing well both emotionally and physically.
That doesn't mean these comments don't hurt. "When we get messages about ourselves from those people, they ring louder than anything else we give ourselves," Brown says. "It's damaging to get messages that your body is flawed from people whose opinions you trust." It also implies that the love they have for you is contingent upon your weight, and it's not unconditional, Brown says. "Being able to help [your relative] understand what it means to uplift you versus tear you down is a component of body positivity that's worth teaching."
This is actually something that Brown's experienced herself, and she's had many conversations with her grandmother about her septum piercing and purple hair. "For me, it's a matter of being able to challenge her idea that I can't look this way and still be valid and worthwhile," she says.
So, if you want to engage your relative, you can try telling them, "I know you're saying that because you love me and want to help, but it actually makes me feel bad. And I know you don't want to make me feel bad, so I thought it would be such a gift to me if you didn't make comments like that," suggests Dr. Tannen. You might not have this sort of open relationship with your family, though, so this convo might not work. "Gauge the safety of the connection you have, and if it's becoming unsafe for you, it's okay to abandon that conversation," Brown says.
If you want to start a conversation about body positivity, Brown suggests you say: "I've noticed you've been making a lot of comments about my body, and it's making me feel like you're equating the way my body looks with my worth. Are you open to talking about different ways to communicate what your hopes and expectations are?" Who knows? Maybe they're open to discussing this, and didn't even realize it bothered you.
Unfortunately, there's always a possibility that your relative rejects the conversation altogether, or just can't help commenting on your body. Try to remember that you can't control what other people say, but you can control how you react to their comments. Being calm in your approach, or laughing it off, instead of bouncing the criticism back to your relatives is the best way to handle these kinds of situations, Dr. Tannen says. In most cases, the "advice" they're offering isn't needed, so you can ignore it, and maybe vent to a like-minded friend or relative who understands your family and why it's problematic.
Also, keep in mind that this could have nothing to do with you. These comments could simply be a reflection of the cultural norms your relatives grew up with, or be a sign that they're grappling with body issues of their own, Brown says. "Sometimes, having conversations with older generations is helpful, because they can learn body acceptance in themselves," she says. Brown thinks that if she can push her grandma toward self-acceptance, it's a way of accepting her, too. "Start the conversation and let it trickle down," she says. And never, ever say no to more brisket.