Today I wanted to take a little break from the fun of writing about cake and faraway places to talk about something that I have been thinking a lot about: how I let my interactions with other people affect the way that I feel about myself. With that in mind, I wanted to share some thoughts about how people talk to one another about the food they eat and the way they look.
1. Commenting on other people’s plates.
Please don’t comment on what I am, or am not, eating.
Think about the last time you were at a dinner, or at a party. Did anyone comment on how much food you were eating, or not eating? Did they push you to eat more, or suggest you eat less? I hope not, but I also wouldn’t be at all surprised if they did.
In our culture and society, we are constantly policing one another’s eating habits, whether it be commenting on calorie content or portion size of someone’s chosen foods, or overall “healthiness” or “unhealthiness” of someone’s diet. When we make comments about what other people are eating – whether it be to eat dessert even though they’ve said no, or suggesting they get the side salad instead of fries – we position ourselves as being an authority on their health, wellness and lives. But do we ever have the right to be in that position?
In my own work in the health promotion field, I recognize that there are a wide range of interconnected factors that influence what people eat. These include individual factors (like personal knowledge, skills, and beliefs), social factors (like family norms), and physical and macro-level environments (like distance from stores, food marketing, and government policies). The point is that you never know why someone is eating what they are eating unless you are that person (okay, or maybe that person’s parent if they happen to be really young!).
With respect to eating disorders, this is a particularly sensitive and tricky subject. When a loved one is afflicted with any form of eating disorder, it must feel extremely hard, frustrating, and scary for their family and friends. To my knowledge, there is no “right” way to comment on what someone is eating. However, there is definitely a wrong way. Questions and comments about how much or what a person is eating can not only very embarrassing, but also extremely triggering.
My advice? Talk about literally anything else during meal time.
2. Commenting on other people’s bodies.
Please don’t make comments about my body shape, size, or appearance.
My body – like many women’s – has changed a lot over my lifetime. This is to be expected as we age and develop. When I think back, I was actually quite happy with my body in my younger years. I ate what I wanted, moved as I pleased, and was generally content with how I looked and felt. However, I can distinctly remember many body-specific comments made to me in my teens that made me look in the mirror and question if my body was acceptable. As an adult woman, I wish I could say that others’ comments about my body have stopped, but they have only become more frequent.
Unfortunately, I highly doubt that I am alone here. In our society and culture, it has become quite normal to make comments like the classic “you look great, have you lost weight?” We are hardwired to view weight loss as an inherently good and admirable endeavour, and we regularly comment on how other’s bodies look. The problem it that unless you are that person you have no idea how they truly feel about their body. Someone that looks “too thin” to you might agree, but be having a tough time putting on weight. They might even have a serious illness that is beyond their control. Alternatively, someone who looks “too big” in your opinion might be the healthiest and most confident they’ve ever been. You just don’t know, and to be blunt it’s none of your business anyways.
I recently became aware of how easily comments about other people’s bodies slip out of my own mouth, whether it be complimenting someone that I perceive as having lost weight, or a man that has appeared to gain muscle. The problem is that no matter how well-intentioned, it is never be anyone’s place to comment on other people’s bodies. Commenting on body shape and size is inappropriate and can be quite upsetting and damaging to others self-esteem and wellness. For example, when someone like me hears “you look skinny,” I hear “you look good, keep losing weight to look better.” On the other hand, when I hear “you look healthy,” I hear “you look so much bigger, start losing weight to look better.”
My friend Mel is a dietitian with an incredibly healthy and admirable approach to this subject. She recently explained that she makes it a point to never comment on other people’s bodies. Ever. Even in her practice, when people look to her for a pat on the back for losing weight (“See, I lost 5 pounds!”) she will shift to a topic that is not related to the person’s physical appearance (such as how they feel and how much energy they have). Mel’s approach is a revelation to me, and it has made me reflect on how I, and others, should complement others on features that have nothing to do with their body.
Tomorrow is Easter Sunday; a day when many friends and family get together to share in a meal and be with one another. At my family dinner, I know I will avoid commenting on anyone’s body or how much – or how little – they put on their plates. I hope you will consider doing the same.