It’s Friday night and you’re ready to relax, putting on those sweatpants and filling your favorite bowl with cookie dough ice cream. Just as you fire up your Netflix account, a comment from across the room hits you like a punch in the gut. “Do you seriously ever eat anything healthy?” That bowl of ice cream all of a sudden loses its appeal and you suddenly feel the urge to hide in your bedroom for the rest of the weekend. Does this or something like it sound familiar?
The hypothetical example above is something I have heard mentioned numerous times in sessions recently. All of us have insecurities about what and how we eat, especially in a culture fixated on image and portraying the idea that we must “have it all together” and be diet-conscious by choosing kale and quinoa over Doritos and fried chicken. Maybe a comment such as the one mentioned above was well-intentioned advice or meant to convey concern that what you are eating might contribute to future or present health issues. Or perhaps it was a way for that person to distract from their own feelings of insecurity regarding food choices. Either way, it comes off as judgmental and the result of these comments is a feeling of shame, which neither motivates us toward positive changes or brings us closer to others in a relationship. Shame causes us to believe we are bad and unworthy of love and belonging. When others use this form of shame, it causes a division in our relationship and the desire to hide ourselves from the threat of more critical comments. If food-shaming comments persist, they may even influence anxiety, depression, or disordered eating such as binging, closeted eating, or restricting intake of any food.
How do you respond to a friend or family member who makes an insensitive comment about your food choices? Taking care of yourself emotionally is crucial which means setting healthy boundaries and actually expressing that these comments hurt you and are inappropriate. For example, for that family member who might comment on your extra helping of dessert, stating “It makes me feel very uncomfortable when you make comments on what I’m choosing to eat” or “I know what’s best for my body. Let’s talk about something else.” This communicates to the other person that they have crossed a boundary with you and in effort to preserve your relationship with them, you are expressing your feelings so that they will not repeat this behavior.
Choosing how and what we eat is a personal decision based on our own beliefs and preferences regarding food. Checking in with yourself about how you define balanced eating will help maintain your boundaries when others make comments in an effort to influence you one way or another. If you find yourself becoming fearful of eating with or near a specific person, perhaps it is time to share with them that their comments are negatively affecting you. Choosing to be assertive and to stand up for yourself can not only prevent recurrence of food-shaming comments, but also reinforce your own empowerment at being capable of maintaining your own boundaries and enjoying food according to your own discernment.