In theory, Thanksgiving is great: incredible food, a long weekend and time spent with people you love. But for those who live with eating disorders or food or body image issues, the holiday can actually be pretty triggering and fear-inducing.
“There’s a lot of stress around food, but also a lot about how you look,” said Amee Severson, a registered dietitian at Prosper Nutrition and Wellness in the Seattle area.
We live in a wellness-obsessed culture, and it’s common for well-meaning family members to make comments about weight or food choices. The problem is that these comments can be harmful in a number of ways and are never helpful. Below is a breakdown of why and of what you should do if this pops up at the dinner table, according to experts.
A person’s weight can’t tell you anything about their health
Thanksgiving is a great time to catch up with family and ask about everything going on in their lives, but steer clear of weight and body questions or comments.
“You don’t know what’s going on with someone just by looking at them,” said Rachel Millner, a licensed psychologist who has specialized training and experience working with eating disorders and body image issues. “So many people, regardless of their body size, struggle with food and disordered eating. A good rule of thumb is just never to talk about weight or diet, because it can be triggering.”
This goes for commenting on changes in weight, too. Although it was years ago, Severson still remembers the Thanksgiving after her mother passed away. A family member approached her about her weight gain.
“I remember it so clearly, because all I could think was, ‘Really? It’s more important that I gained weight than that my mom just died?’ It felt like they didn’t care about me — what was more important was that my body was different,” she said.
“Complimenting” someone on their weight loss can be equally damaging and may convey the opposite of your intentions.
“You never really know what’s going on behind changes in someone’s weight,” said Rachael Hartley, a registered dietitian based in Charleston, South Carolina. “I’ve heard many examples from clients where their weight loss was complimented, and really they were in the midst of a pretty severe eating disorder, or engaging in really disordered eating behaviors to get to that size.”
Many people suffer from eating disorders in silence, and comments about weight and dieting can be damaging
Weight shaming is a huge risk factor for eating disorders, according to the National Eating Disorders Association, as is internalizing the idea that thinner is better and you have to limit your eating in order to achieve the perfect weight.
“When you’re suffering from an eating disorder or body image issues, it’s so difficult to hear, ‘Oh, I’m so bad!’ from someone who’s eating the same thing that you are,” Severson said. Someone with an eating disorder is likely to internalize any comment they hear about diet or weight, even if the comment isn’t directed at them, she said.
“When you’re suffering from an eating disorder or body image issues, it’s so difficult to hear, ‘Oh, I'm so bad!’ from someone who’s eating the same thing that you are.”- Amee Severson, registered dietitian
If you are legitimately concerned about drastic changes in someone’s weight, Severson recommended waiting until after the big family gathering is over to act on that concern.
“Don’t bring up that you think something is wrong with their body, or the way they’re eating,” she said. “Just let them know that you’re there for them. Say, ‘I’m wondering if you’re OK. And if you’re not, I’m here to talk, to listen and to help in whatever way I can.’ And then be open to what they tell you, because it might not have anything to do with food or their body.”
Also keep in mind that weight and health aren’t inherently linked
Often, family members will make weight or food comments out of concern for someone’s health, which is misguided for so many reasons.
A 2011 study found that focusing on weight, rather than a healthy lifestyle, leads to poorer health outcomes. What’s more, 2015 research showed that weight discrimination against people in larger bodies leads to poorer health outcomes and higher mortality rates.
Being fat — a descriptor that many experts choose because it doesn’t have the clinical or pathological implications of “overweight” or “obese” — isn’t inherently unhealthy, but fat stigma is and can have dangerous consequences. And this stigma often comes from those closest to us, especially around the holidays.
“Making comments about someone’s weight gain, or their being in a bigger body, is just perpetuating weight stigma,” Hartley said. Conversely, she added, complimenting weight loss reinforces the idea that weight loss is always a good thing and “the false perception that thinness is better.”
The whole, “I’m just looking out for your health!” excuse is probably B.S., anyway.
“Weight comments aren’t really about health,” Millner added. “They’re wrapped up in our diet culture, and in fat phobia and weight stigma.”
Talking about weight ― instead of connecting on something deeper ― can make elements of the holiday feel shameful
As a dietitian, Severson finds that people often talk about “good’ and “bad” foods and label them as such. She encourages her patients to just enjoy what they’re eating instead.
“Think about how stress-relieving a holiday like Thanksgiving would be if you weren’t so stressed about food and how your body looks,” she said. “Get excited about the awesome pumpkin pie your grandma makes, or how your mom makes the best turkey.”
“The holidays can be about connection, which is so good for all of us. By focusing on weight, you’re weakening that chance for connection, and maybe even breaking it.”- Rachel Millner, licensed psychologist
If you find yourself talking or thinking about your weight or someone else’s this Thanksgiving, stop yourself. Instead, seize the opportunity to talk about and connect over things that are so much more important. (Here are a list of conversation starters for the dinner table that are actually meaningful.)
“The holidays can be about connection, which is so good for all of us,” Millner said. “By focusing on weight, you’re weakening that chance for connection, and maybe even breaking it.”
If someone comments on your weight, feel free to tell them it’s none of their business
No matter what your thoughts on weight and health, commenting on somebody else’s body is an invasion of their privacy. Period.
“I think it’s important to remember that someone should not be commenting on your weight,” Hartley said, adding that someone’s loaded, negative comment about your body likely is “more about their relationship to their body and their fat phobia than it is about you.”
The same goes for talking to someone about their health, which Severson said is “very personal” and “means different things to different people.” While of course it’s OK to genuinely check in on how someone is doing, it’s an entirely different thing if someone is making a stigmatized remark under the guise of concern.
“To make assumptions about a person’s health is wrong no matter what, but doing so based on weight doesn’t even make sense,” Severson said. “You don’t know anything just based on the way someone looks.”
If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.