What to say to people who comment on what you’re eating or what you weigh

Build up your Armour for the Christmas Period

Do you find yourself getting bombarded with unsolicited advice about your weight at Christmas? “Helpful” suggestions or “concerned” questions about what you’re eating can crop up at any time of year, but with parties and celebratory meals you may find yourself in more unwelcome conversations than usual.

Whether it’s your nearest and supposedly dearest, the nosey relative you only see at Christmas, weddings and funerals, or a total stranger, comments about weight and eating can leave you struggling to know what to say. Until you run through the interaction hours later and come up with the perfect deadly riposte, by which time it’s too late.

I don’t have an overall answer to what you could say in reply to unwanted comments, but here are some thoughts and 10 possible retorts.

The problem is being offered unsolicited advice about eating and weight

What is actually said reflects the relationship “dynamic” between them and you. The three types of dynamics I’ve heard from people I’ve worked with are (loosely named) the parental, the concerned-other and the deluded stranger. Let’s look at how these three types operate, and whichever you recognise, you can pick whichever of my suggested replies appeals to you, and try them out next time you need them, or come up with some of your own.

  • The “Parent”
  • These comments come from a lifelong pattern with a parent who doesn’t hold back on what they think about your weight or your dress, hair, personality shortcomings, choice of partner etc etc. Where they have never moved on from trying to dictate how they think you should live your life. And it may not literally be a parent – it could be another relative or family friend, or someone who’s simply bossy. They may be domineering and rarely listen to your objections or rational replies.
  • The dynamic here is a perpetual parent-child thing. They are imposing their will and their view of the world onto you. You can’t change them, and it would be pointless to try. The part of the “dance” you can look at is your own contribution to it. Are you in any way maintaining a child-like stance in relation to them? Like letting them pay for things for you, or do your laundry or other chores? Think about keeping the relationship whilst strengthening the boundaries.
  • What to aim for: notice any ways in which you are allowing the child-parent pattern to continue. Take responsibility for things (including non-food related) independently. Pay your way as an adult, and if the other person does things for you, pay them or repay the help in kind. If none of this is possible, then plan your escape. Work out how you are going to move away and get greater autonomy as you establish yourself with a separate adult life, in which whole areas of your life are private. Including what and how you eat.
  • The Concerned-other
  • It could be a friend or partner who talks or asks about your health, and throws in comments about what you’re eating. They may even be genuinely concerned about you. These comments happen in the context of a close relationship in which you end up feeling inferior whenever food’s around.
  • The dynamic here is an equal relationship with its not-very-equal aspects particularly around food and eating. It wouldn’t be a problem if you and the concerned-other are OK with them being more comfortable with their relationship with food than you are with yours, provided that this is counter-balanced. For example if they look up to your successes at work, or the stability of your love relationship. Think about keeping the relationship but levelling it out.
  • What to aim for: mainly steering clear of each other’s vulnerabilities may make life easier all round. We all have things we are unconfident or sensitive about, and levelling the playing field so that you both respect each other’s sensitivities will mean steering conversations on to neutral territory.
  • The Deluded stranger
  • I’ve now heard many accounts of someone in a supermarket telling another person that they should not be buying what they’ve got in their trolley and – get this – sometimes actually taking things out of someone else’s trolley! This is a non-existent relationship where one party adopts a “Let me save you from yourself” act. In my view it’s deluded because the speaker has failed to grasp their own lack of importance to you or anyone else.
  • The dynamic here is of one individual operating in the world through his or her own preconceptions, without an “off” button and without any self-awareness. It’s not a two-person relationship, unlike the other two patterns above. You are not a person to them; you’re a receptacle for whatever they want or need to rid themselves of today – an emotional toilet if you will. Their aim is to feel superior, their modus operandi is intrusiveness.
  • What to aim for: building an emotional shield so that their unpleasant arrows don’t pierce and hurt you. You may achieve this by having a quip or two to come back with (see below) but you may do just as well altering how you respond internally to the incoming salvo. Here remember that you have no relationship with the stranger – you have nothing to lose. Feel free to say whatever will make you feel better!

What you can do in reply

Being prepared for situations where someone makes an unwanted comment can give you a greater sense of confidence and control. Predicting that something predictable will happen and having a plan to deal with it when it does is empowering. Have a stock reply or two ready up your sleeve.

Whenever you find yourself being judged, notice that this says as much about the other person as it does about you.

The list below contains starting points for things you might like to say…

For the “parent”

  1. That reminds me, I had a question I wanted to ask you …. (can be anything at all)
  2. How old am I again?!
  3. I’m waiting until people back off telling me what I should be eating. Then, and only then, will I ask for advice

For the concerned-other

  • Hmm…… Have you seen the news today? (or any other neutral diverting question)
  • Yes, mum! (provided that the other person isn’t your mother)
  • Thanks for that… how is your (sensitive problem area)?
  • How I choose to eat is really none of your business

For the deluded stranger

  • Do you honestly think I am going to take advice from you?
  • I’m so glad there are people like you in the world who aren’t inhibited by knowing nothing and are willing to intervene in a total stranger’s life. If only there were more like you
  • Perhaps you’re confusing me with someone who gives a s*** about what you think

And what you say to yourself

Remember that how you speak to yourself matters, and alters not only how you feel inside, but how you act towards other people. Speaking to yourself in a compassionate, respectful and loving way can increase your confidence when dealing with other people.

  • A particularly helpful thing to remember is that you can gauge the stature of the person you’re talking to by the way they make you feel.

“People are the size they make you feel”. This tip* is from Vanessa Branson, a champion of global cultural and ecological initiatives. She says, “When I was a trainee picture framer I hated asking the girls behind the front desks at the smart auction houses the way to the relevant departments. They made me feel so lowly in my stained work clothes. A wise friend pointed out that they were only uneducated debutantes in search of socially acceptable husbands. From then on I realised that great people make you feel great, and those who make you feel small have something pretty small to hide.”

  • Be thankful you’re not related to the deluded stranger

Back in December 1996 I was heavily pregnant and struggling to finish my Christmas shopping. I was in Marks and Spencer’s clothing section, approaching the queue for the tills with my shopping basket, when a middle-aged man elbowed me out of the way (literally) with his overflowing trolley and barged in to the queue in front of me. I was speechless and too surprised to speak, but the middle-aged woman he was with (his wife I presume) said to me, “Just be thankful you’re not married to him, dear”. I’ve never forgotten that. What must her life be like?

What is your favourite reply to someone who’s commented on your eating or weight? Let me know so I can compile a fuller list to give people ideas or post your idea on social media

*Wienrich, S and Albery,N. (2001) Seize the Day – a tip for every day of the year. Chatto and Windus

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