Some people have trouble with boundaries. I still remember during that “fun” time of pre-adolescence, when my Aunt came to visit. The first words out of her mouth were, “Oh Mary Bridget, you’ve put on weight.”  That may not have been exactly what she said, but that’s what I heard. She wasn’t a close family member, but the words still stung. I feel the same pain when I hear other people judging or discussing other’s weight, or what’s on their plate. 

Since then, my motto has always been, “Don’t judge another unless you’ve walked some miles in their shoes.” If you are trying to have a healthier relationship with: food, diet, body image, or other health issues, how do you set boundaries with conversations on these topics? Especially with family members when around the dinner table?

Here are a few strategies you can try 

  • Ignore it. When a certain relative makes judgmental comments about people she sees in public (or me) –specifically about their weight or what they ‘re eating, I just ignore it. (And yes, sometimes that’s tough to do.) With some individuals, you know that it will be a waste of energy to argue or explain why that kind of talk is just not right. (Note: as people get older, they seem to lose their vocal filter, so octogenarians may be more likely to express comments that they might have kept to themselves a decade or two earlier.) You can hope that ignoring judgmental comments will make it go away, eventually. If not, try some of the next things on the list.
  • Tell the person (before the next get together if possible) that you’d rather not discuss your diet or your weight. Be honest and express why: It makes you feel uncomfortable; you’re trying to improve your relationship with food and this type of talk is not helping; you’re trying to have a more positive outlook on body image; it’s not enjoyable to be around negative/judgmental/shaming talk.
  • Try to anticipate what they might say: “Aw, honey, you know I’m just kidding when I tell those jokes about food!” “But you never said it bothered you before!” “That’s our family—we just like to tell it like it is!” Try practicing your responses and be honest and assertive. If talking about food and diet is a well engrained part of your family (or friend) culture. Realize it may take time to change them to a “new normal.”
  • Give your family or friends cues when they are veering past your comfortable topic boundaries: 
    • “That topic’s off limits.”
    • “Let’s not go there.”
    • “We agreed not to discuss diet here.”
    • “Let’s change the subject.”
    • “My weight is not up for discussion.”
    • Interrupt with something completely off topic—“How about those Cowboys/Astros/Red Sox?” “Hey, who got voted off The Voice last night?”
    • Use a non-verbal, pre-agreed upon cue: Put up your hand to stop the conversation; pay sudden, close attention to your cell phone; leave the room. 
  • Accept what you can’t change and figure out how to deal with it. If it’s avoiding family get-togethers where food is the central theme, suggest another venue. Perhaps something active like going bowling, or going to a concert or the theatre together or hosting a game night would be a better place to catch up.