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“I wonder how many calories are in there,” Justine said aloud as she made her way through the display of available food items. We were at the first of many events that mark that time of year we call vacations. We were in a group of women. And as anyone who has been raised feminine in our culture knows, there is a certain social pressure to react in these situations. A few of us moved our feet, one woman looked at her own plate, probably guessing at her choices. Kimberly was the first to take the bait: “I know, this is so bad. I promised myself to be good, but I’m already so bad.” Tina then felt the pressure, “Me too. I’ll have to go to the gym tomorrow for about two hours to get all this out.” They all looked around. My turn was approaching and I could feel the increasing pressure of the harness.
“I can’t take the risk,” Justine decided, relieving myself of the pressure, “I’m three pounds away from my goal weight.” She put down the beautifully decorated cupcake. I moved my eyes from her slim, flawless figure to my handbag, silently wishing my cell phone would ring, even though I knew it was on silent. Anything to get me out of this uncomfortable conversation. Food wasn’t as good when topped with a bite of shame.
Ah, the holiday season. Marked by infomercials, holiday music, lots of food and socializing and, for many of us, colder weather. But it also brings something else: increased discussion of diets in the office and in our social circles. And with the increase in “friendliness” as we emerge from the pandemic, we are bound to be exposed to these types of conversations more frequently. For my part, I did not miss it.
We live in a culture that is obsessed with food and with self-image, two things that don’t go well together. And while I know that no gender is immune to this social pressure, women are especially conditioned in our culture, in which a woman’s value is reinforced by her weight and appearance. Few women escape this social conditioning: gather us at a holiday party and you will hear these phrases: “I’m so bad.” “Ugh, my diet starts tomorrow.” “I shouldn’t eat this! They have so many calories!” It’s so normalized that many might not even realize they’re doing it. But for those who have spent their lives trying to make peace with their bodies, these conversations can be extremely painful. When Justine mentioned calories, she didn’t consider the avalanche of shame she unleashed. While she could assume it was just a conversation surrounding female bonding, little did she know that it also sent the message to everyone in the group that their bodies were somehow evil.
Women often feel the need to justify their appetite: “Oh, I didn’t eat anything for lunch”. “I, too, skipped breakfast.” “I exercised today so I could have this.” Then, when the food arrives, there are more “excuses” for what is placed in front of them. “It’s going to ruin my diet.” “I’m so bad [there’s that word again]I have to be good tomorrow.” We have been told since childhood that enjoying our food is simply unacceptable. Instead, we should throw shameful comments as if to “remind” or “show” everyone within audible distance that we to know what we eat is bad, which somehow makes it more palatable.
These conversations are commonly referred to as “diet conversations”. And while many diet cultures are tougher on women, this kind of talk is harmful to everyone. “Discussions about diets most often involve conversations about one’s body that encourage negativity about that body. This reinforces the idea that smaller bodies are ‘better’ or represent desirable attributes.” (Constantinovsky 2021)
And as someone who grew up in an environment where a woman’s appearance was shamed if she was overweight or unattractive, those conversations always made me feel uncomfortable. As someone in a larger body, if I indulge in a piece of chocolate cake once in a while, others think “Well, no wonder.” But if one of my thinner classmates eats cake, she “treats” herself. We shame people for what they eat depending on whether we feel they deserve it or not. Why are we so obsessed with what and how other people eat?
“Discussions about diet can often cause both the speaker and the person speaking to think that their body is wrong or that the food they are eating is bad. For people with disordered eating habits or disorders diagnosed diets, this type of conversation can quickly become distressing.” (Goldsztajn, 2022)
These conversations are harmful, especially for those of us who grew up in borderline poor environments. Here are three ways to treat:
- Remember, it’s more about them than you. If they feel the need to talk about how many “bad” foods or calories they are eating, or how much they will “need to eliminate this,” it is about them and their journey. You don’t owe any comments or follow-ups. , and you don’t have to disagree or agree. Like many of you, I sit there all the time thinking, “If they think that about their body (usually much thinner than mine), what are they thinking? me?” But I have to remember: they don’t do this for me.
- Change the subject. I generally recommend discussing non-food topics or body shaming over dinner. If you can’t get the conversation off the food, at least talk about the quality of the food and try to avoid shame. If someone says, “Oh, I wonder how many calories in that,” just say, “I don’t know, but it’s delicious. Pass the towels, please.
- Leave the conversation. If the conversation feels uncomfortable, shameful, or hurtful, know that you can leave. Many of my clients are recovering from toxic environments in which they were shamed and learning to love themselves. If participating in a conversation feels harmful to you, you have the right to apologize at this time.
It is important to note that there are many people trying to lose weight, gain weight, improve or change their body or their health, and this is normal. There’s no shame in wanting to improve or change or do whatever you want with your own body. This post is only meant to highlight the shame diet talk can bring when discussed openly with reluctant participants. But if you have body image issues or eating disorders, please seek help from a trained therapist. I frequently recommend that my clients seek out a Health All Sizes (HAES) trained therapist, but choose what is most comfortable and beneficial to you.