As a teenager, the lead-up to the holiday season was one of the most anxiety-inducing times of the year for me. The moment our local Macy’s brought out its tinsel and twinkle lights, I felt a panic in my gut not unlike what hits me every time I contemplate who’s going to die in the next season of Game of Thrones.
The irony was that I adored Christmas, the holiday my family celebrates. I loved the thrill of finding the perfect gift for a friend. The hunt for the most unique or funny seasonal wrapping paper was just as amusing. I appreciated coming together with relatives from near and from far, joined together by that feeling of a clean slate on the horizon that is so characteristic of the end of another year. Most of all, though, I lived for the feasting.
For the turkey and homemade gravy. The sweet potato casseroles. My mother’s broccoli and raisin salad. The candied apples, delectable pies, and peppermint coffees. A family friend used to make this gingerbread mashed potato dish that sounds disgusting, but was nearly holy. I still buy myself a chocolate advent calendar every year.
The trouble was that although many of my relatives had similar feelings about food, few appreciated my enthusiasm for it. For them, the holiday dinner table presented the perfect opportunity to bring their “body talk” and, more specifically, their thoughts on my body, to the surface.
My fat and I experience this mess of a life together, after all. It carries me through it.
My weight has fluctuated throughout most of my life, but though I have experienced existence in a thin body (often as a result of disordered eating), I have mostly always been fat. “Fat” is a word I’ve come to love; a word that I now associate with softness and warmth and even gratitude. My fat and I experience this mess of a life together, after all. It carries me through it.
Back then, however, it was a word thrown around callously by those around me. By the friends and family who, come Christmas dinner, would ask, “Are you really going to eat all that?” signaling my second helpings. Who would follow it with, “Maria, pero mira esa barrigota,” which translates roughly to, “But look at that big belly, Maria.” Who, before I got married, swore that I was going to live a very lonely life unless I lost the weight.
Although I love them deeply, I now understand how conditioned some of those closest to me (along with much of the rest of humanity) truly are when it comes to their perceptions of bodies, weight, and diet.
In the western world, we are often taught that fat is bad, and thin is good. That fat is ugly, and thin is pretty. That being fat is a sign of an undisciplined, greedy person, while being thin is a sign of a righteous, successful, morally superior one.
My immediate family and some friends used to look at my body and genuinely believe that there was cause for concern. They genuinely believed I’d be happier if I just let the “thin woman within” escape. They genuinely believed that by shaming me, I’d find the motivation I supposedly needed to alter my figure. I will never justify their behavior, but I understand where a lot of it comes from.
Before I found fat acceptance, feminism, health-at-every-size literature, and the fulfillment that comes with learning to be at peace with oneself, their words cut deep. I could more or less ignore the bullies at school who told me I looked like Mickey D’s most frequent customer. I could turn off the TV when The Biggest Loser popped up. I could avert my gaze from the cashier’s stand at ShopRite to save myself from all the “lose your flab in just one week” content that’d be staring back at me.
Tuning out family was always the hardest, though. I had grown up with the belief that family always has your back; that family will love you unconditionally. My family didn’t seem to, though. My family seemed ashamed of the space I occupied, and tuning them out when we were all in an enclosed space together during the holidays was even harder.
Although I fully support cutting ties with toxic people who are detrimental to your mental health and general well being, that kind of permanent separation hasn’t necessarily been the right choice for me. That said, I reached a point in my adult life during which I knew that this separation would be inevitable unless something changed.
These days, I write about fat acceptance and body image. I believe that the diet industry is the most brilliantly devised and harmful industry out there: An industry that literally tells us what our “flaws” are so that it can sell us the diet pills, weight loss plans, and stretch-mark removal potions to “fix” them. I believe that the medical industrial complex has, for decades, vastly misunderstood fatness (a phenomenon that has irreparably and permanently hurt countless fat people). I believe us fats have just as much of a right as anyone else to take up space, to receive proper care and treatment from our health professionals, to wear bikinis, or to feel beautiful in our bodies.
These beliefs are a large part of my life. Of my work. Of my parenting. They inform everything I do, and how I choose to live.
I just said I didn’t want to hear it anymore.
So, a couple of years ago, I realized that I couldn’t maintain relationships with fatphobic friends or relatives unless they began keeping certain opinions to themselves. I’ve never assumed that I can entirely change their views. Some things are too ingrained. What I did assume was that I could change were the ways in which they spoke about bodies, weight, and food in my presence. Even if their perspective never shifted, I didn’t actively have to hear about it.
This is where my Body Talk Ban came into play.
I began by explaining to the people I cared for that “body talk” seriously hindered my sense of self-worth as a child and teen. I explained that the damage those insults had done to me back then had taken over a decade to repair. I spoke honestly about how offensive it was to me that they could belittle and berate others for their bodies alone; crafting assumptions about their personalities or intellect or worth based on something as trivial as dress size. I told them how much the fat positive and body positive communities have changed my life, and how their commentary essentially made a mockery of the work I was trying to do. Most critically, I just said I didn’t want to hear it anymore.
There is almost never a good reason to talk about someone’s body. There is almost never a good reason to remark on a person’s size. On their weight loss, or weight gain. On how “flattering” or “unflattering” something looks on them. And so, I requested a ban. A ban that would make my experience with them a more peaceful, less infuriating one. A ban that might mend some of the cracks in our relationships. These remain people who may never think like me, but if they loved me, they could at least respect my feelings.
Body Talk Bans aren’t foolproof, of course. People can and will slip up. Maybe they’ll make a fat joke. Maybe your thin cousin will say she “feels like a fat whale” after eating dessert. Maybe someone will tell you that you look like you lost weight, even if you haven’t and have no intention of doing so.
My family certainly slips up. Since the ban, however, things are better. Our meals together are better. Our holidays together are better. Our relationships are, overall, better. If you don’t want to cut ties with your body-talking fam, but you don’t want to hear their dieting advice, either, I highly recommend setting up some kind of ban, too.
This way, the lead-up to the holidays may become less anxiety-inducing and more joyful. We all deserve to think about the lights, and the decorations, and the snow, and the food (the glorious, glorious food) without feeling ashamed. We deserve to sit at a table surrounded by people we love, reconnecting and bonding over a meal, without worrying that someone might ruin it at any moment with their advice for calorie-counting. We deserve to set our boundaries and to surround ourselves with those who accept them.