With the holidays in our midst, many people begin to feel increased anxiety as they prepare to gather with family and friends for several days. Some of us might be worried about discussing politics with that one crazy uncle; others might hesitate before introducing our new significant other to our parents. But women (and men) have another fear that seems to rear its ugly head every time December rolls around: unsolicited opinions about your appearance. Whether you’ve lost weight, gained weight, or stayed the same, you can be sure that someone will feel entitled share their thoughts on the matter. Having struggled with an eating disorder and body dysmorphia for many years, the opinions of others, both well-meaning and not, are rarely welcome.
During winter break in college, I met up with a group of friends from high school that I hadn’t seen in several years. I was acutely aware of how thin I was and also cognizant of how much more I weighed when my friends had last seen me. The last thing I wanted was for someone to point out this obvious change. And yet, in front of everyone, one girl asked, “So Molly, have you lost weight since high school?” Sure, she probably didn’t intend any harm, but it’s these types of ignorant comments that can make an otherwise enjoyable holiday feel depressing.
Fortunately, there are some ways to prevent–or at least mitigate–the effects of such unsolicited opinions. Here are some of my tried and true approaches.
Reach out ahead of time. If you know you’ll be spending significant amounts of time with extended family this year, it’s helpful to send an email or text message in advance. Write to someone whom you can trust and ask for their help. You can say something like, “As you might know, I’ve been feeling self-conscious about my body lately. It would be helpful if you would let the family know and ask them to not ask me about it.” This is an especially useful tactic if you know you will be with a large group of people.
Be honest. If asking for their discretion in advance doesn’t work, try being straightforward. When someone makes a comment about your appearance, match their tone when you reply. For example, if your brother casually says you’ve gained weight, answer in a matter-of-fact way. You can say, “Actually, I have been struggling with my weight and I don’t appreciate you pointing that out.” The more honest you can be, the easier it will be to stop the conversation before it escalates.
Enlist an ally. Do you have a best friend, partner, cousin, etc. who you know will always have your back? If so, ask if they might be willing to intervene if and when you begin to feel uncomfortable. I experienced a family situation this year in which my boyfriend heroically stepped in and made my feelings known. It’s not weak to ask for help if you feel your own words won’t be taken to heart.
Change the subject. If all else fails, change the subject. You can pivot the conversation to just about anything: sports, weather, school, work, pets…the list goes on. And it doesn’t have to be a smooth transition, either; if you feel that the conversation is getting too personal, you have every right to abruptly change the subject. You can even make it into a joke: “…So how about them Patriots?” Usually, this will send people a message that you’re interested in moving the conversation away from yourself.
Walk away. You also have the option to walk away from a situation or conversation that feels triggering. You say you need to go to the bathroom, or even pretend to make a phone call. What matters is that you extricate yourself from a toxic dialogue. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with taking a few minutes to yourself, and if people continue to make comments, see if you can leave the situation altogether. Take a walk. Go back to your hotel room. Do whatever feels necessary to preserve your mental health!
It’s important to note that this commentary doesn’t need to be overt to be offensive. Subtle gestures and insinuations can be just as hurtful, if not more, than plainly stated opinions. You have a right to speak up whenever you feel uncomfortable.
How do you manage unsolicited opinions about your body?
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