How to Defend Yourself Against Other People's Food and Body Weirdness

Just like colds, negative body talk and food obsession is kinda contagious.

We’ve all been there: A friend, sister, coworker, or, heck, even our mom starts talking about their “fat thighs” or their new diet, or how “bad” they’ve been this week. Being around that can be hard for those dealing with disordered eating and emotional eating. That’s the situation HealthyGirl.org reader Heather has found herself in. But I’m excited to say I got some amazing advice for her (and all of you!) from three of my favorite experts…

Q. I work in an office with a girl who has her own food issues, and find it difficult not to get into food-related conversations with her. I end up saying things or getting more involved than I ought to for my own health, and then feel guilty and regretful for putting myself into the situation. Similarly, I’ve been in conversations with friends about weight, food, image and eating that aren’t good for me and haven’t known how to get out of them. Do you have any advice for those of us who might have decided themselves that they aren’t going to diet to take care of ourselves, but still struggle in conversations and situations with others who do? —Heather

Answer(s!):

1. First, from the amazing Johanna Kandel, founder of the Alliance for Eating Disorders Awareness, who is recovered from eating disorders herself, and has a new book: Life Beyond Your Eating Disorder. She speaks all over the country and says this is a question she gets all the time:

•        Walk away from the situation—but don’t make it obvious.  Say that you forgot to do something.. “OMG, I totally forget to return my friend’s call.  I’ll be right back.”
•       Literally change the subject— “Oh I think I forgot to tell you…”
•       Don’t talk about it – “We always talk about food and weight, and there is so much going on.  Have you heard about Tom’s shoes?”
•       If you have a friend or colleague that is safe and supportive, make them an ally.  They can help change the subject as well.  You can even have a ‘safe’ word.

2. Now, some wisdom from my friend Leslie Goldman, blogger for iVillage’s Never Say Diet:

“This reminds me of the Sex and the City episode where the Carrie, Charlotte and Miranda are lamenting their various body parts (Carrie hates her nose; Charlotte loathes her thighs; Miranda has chin issues.) They look at Samantha expectantly to see what body part she’d gladly trade, but she just says raises her eyebrows and asks, ‘What? I happen to love the way I look.’ That would never happen in real life! Even if you were having a great body image day and were feeling strong and beautiful, it takes superhuman strength to speak out when all of your friends or coworkers are body bashing. It’s almost as if trashtalking about ourselves makes us feel like part of the group. It’s sick and wrong and I wish it would stop. But until it does, I think your smartest move is to extricate yourself from the conversation. Why surround yourself with negative energy? Even if you need to make up an excuse, like using the washroom, wander away and don’t return. It might be harder to execute when you’re with your friends, so the next time you’re having drinks together and someone starts talking about how fat she feels, use it as an opportunity to steer the conversation in a different, more positive direction: Maybe try something like, ‘You know, that reminds me of this article I just read about how Rachael Leigh Cook said she thinks airbrushing should be a crime,’ or ‘You know, I was just reading about Fat Talk Free Week, and I realized how freaking hard it is to go just one day without calling myself a bad name.’  And use that as a springboard for a POSITIVE discussion.”

3. Finally, a bit of advice from Dr. Robyn Silverman, author of the new book Good Girls Don’t Get Fat: How Weight Obsession is Messing Up Our Girls and How We Can Help Them Thrive Despite It:

“Part of being healthy is surrounding yourself with positive, healthy people who do not feed into the toxicity in one’s life. I think your reader has everything she needs—that is, she is fully prepared and able—to cope with this frustration in her life. She has identified the problem (her coworker and her friends bring her into conversations that aren’t good for her). Now she needs to go to the next part of the solution, which is, one of two things: (1) Be assertive and tell her friends and colleagues that discussion about food and weight aren’t healthy for her; or (2) Surround herself with different people. I was asked yesterday during an interview how to cope with this same problem so it’s something many people deal with everyday. Being a girl or a woman brings expectations of fat talk. it’s time to break that cycle and declare your friendships a ‘Fat Talk Free Zone’ (FTFZ). Simply bringing it to the attention of your friends can do wonders, for example; ‘Do you know that we get into the same conversations about food and fat every time we talk? Let’s just say that we are both beautiful and amazing so we can talk about something else! Deal? So what did you do last Friday when your brother came to town…?’ While being assertive takes guts, we have to make our health a top priority. You know the problem…now, here’s to putting the solution in action!”

Now, do any of you guys have certain friends or family whose focus on weight or food threatens your food sanity? What do you do to avoid it? xo…Sunny

8 Responses to How to Defend Yourself Against Other People's Food and Body Weirdness

  1. Angela says:

    Great advice! Thank you! I think this advice can be used in other life situations as well. I know that when I surround myself with negativity, I don’t even realize how it effects my well being. I take it all on and try to help and fix others and I just can’t do it anymore. It is one thing to have a discussion, but when it is a constant, day in day out issue, it really wears on a person. I know it wears on me and I am constantly trying to step back and say ” is this really healthy for me to listen to?”

  2. Very good article, but about the Sex and the City situation, I wouldn’t say that it never happens. I was just in that conversation not too long ago while competing in a modeling contest. Me and about 6 other girls were backstage getting ready for the runway show and one got started on how she hated her small breasts (they were probably a 34B at the smallest.) Then the other got rolling on what they hated about their bodies. I listened and looked at them in horror as they slammed theirselves. After they were done, they paused looking at me like “Your turn.” I said, “Well I am perfectly happy with my bra size and the rest of my body.” Of course, a couple shot me looks of envy, a couple of them…confusion, and a couple of them in disgust (like I was conceited for not hating my body.) I am actually the oddball like that a lot and for me, being around girls who slam their bodies don’t affect how I think of my own. It doesn’t make me want to say something negative about mine just to fit into the group. But maybe I am truly different in that way.

  3. Heather says:

    Thank you ever so much for all of your thoughtful and helpful advice. It is very much appreciated, and it means a lot that such intelligent and knowledgeable people would spend their time to help me.

    I was able to stop when I was full at lunch, because I felt I was worth listening to, so your help is already making positive differences to me. Thank you.

    I have spoken with her about this directly once, and got in a fluster when she was extra defensive, and have also spoken to my supervisors so that they are aware of the situation. In this way, I feel I have tried to do myself justice by standing up and saying this isn’t okay anymore.

    What is most difficult about my particular situation is that there is only her and I at a desk together for 90% of the day, so there are no other people to help diffuse the situation. We have nothing in common other than our work and food issues, so there is not much other conversation. I am trying to make light conversation now and then about TV, or films, or books, but it doesn’t go far.

    In my personal life, I don’t engage with people who won’t discuss anything but weight or food, or who bring me down in general, and this is getting easier to do. I guess when you don’t choose your colleagues, it is a little different.

    Whilst I don’t think this situation will ever be great. and I am looking for another job for this and other reasons, I think this advice will help me to make the best of an awkward situation.

    I know that much of how I feel in this position can be addressed by looking at me. In truth, she reminds me of everything I’d hate to be (a large body type; needy; lonely; desperate for others to approve of her; smiling to cover up her sadness) and everything I’m afraid I may be. Sitting across from this daily reminder is painful. And as she diets, I now want to eat more just to get through the day.

    I guess trying to change what I can in me to make it less painful and detach from seeing her in this way is what I need to do. Easier said than done, but something I have ot keep pushing for if I’m to keep my sanity!

  4. sam says:

    heather, i understand your pain and how difficult it can be to keep sane in what can often seem an insane environment. my best advice (aside from the Amazing suggestions already given!): step away from your desk. find your own personal zen throughout the day (perhaps even a book club that has afternoon meetings in the area or sit in a local coffee shop and journal about your feelings—trust: it helps!). breaking free from your desk may be difficult but the air you get (both literally and mentally) will help nurture yourself and your soul and hopefully help you get through the day with a little more ease.
    hope this helps!
    sam

  5. […] Healthy Girl, How to Defend Yourself Against Other People’s Food and Body Weirdness […]

  6. LG says:

    Thanks for these great tips. I have a few people in my life who always seem to steer conversations to working out, food and weight. I always try to focus on the non-weight related aspects of this stuff, like “It feels so great to be on a bike with the wind in my hair!” or “the cold is making me really enjoy my comfort foods like oatmeal and chili these days”. I know I’m not totally “normal” about food and weight, but it’s important for me to emphasize these aspects to try to get back to “normal”. It feels much better instead of being like “I went on a bike ride last night and burned X calories!” or “I’m going to get so fat this winter eating comfort foods!”, you know?

    But on the whole I’m SO thankful that, for some reason, this topic doesn’t come up much with my girfriends and I. We’re all young married Christian women, and maybe body-bashing is sort of like “bashing the body God gave you”, so…insulting to God? I would kind of consider it to be that, but it’s more that we just naturally gravitate to things that are more interesting, like our relationships, finances, work life, plans for children, holidays, sex, etc. A couple of us have histories of eating disorders, but I think we both try to not make it a focal point, which is SUCH A COMFORT, especially when you decide to have extra dessert or no dessert…there aren’t any weird “you’re being good” or “you’re being bad” comments.

  7. Nina says:

    I love this topic. Even after years of recovery, this is probably something that triggers me the most. I sometimes get into situations where healthy people – personal trainer friends – are discussing nutrition, diets, weight loss, etc. I personally deal with this by acknowledging that as someone who is predisposed to eating disorders and other addictions, thoughts and conversations like that are a no-fly zone.
    As long as I know that it is toxic and do not engage, it has no power over me.
    I think everyone here who has recognized it is already winning the battle.
    Great post – thanks

  8. SuperGirl says:

    I am 15 and I am in the lowest self-esteem ever. I just got back from a month of holiday and rose 2.2 pounds. Pressure’s so on around me with everyone meeting me saying that I have gained weight. On the other hand I feel a lot healthier since I believe I’ve improved my eating habits into a healthier lifestyle, and figured that all the weight gain was caused because of my increase in amount of muscles instead of fat. No one understands that though, its so hard living in a family of stick skinny people, especially when most of them are girls and are older and also taller than me. It only makes me feel so blobbed and I seriously don’t know what I should do :(

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Sunny Sea Gold

About the Author

Sunny Sea Gold is a media-savvy advocate and commentator specializing in binge eating disorder, cultural obsessions around food and weight, and raising children who have a healthy body image.