When I started brainstorming ways to stay body positive around family members during the holidays, I initially thought that I didn't have much experience to pull from. After all, I'm incredibly lucky to have supportive, body positive parents who never shame me for how I look, and siblings that I feel completely comfortable around. Even my extended family rules. My aunts, uncles, and grandparents rarely make cracks about someone's appearance, and no one ever discourages anyone from tucking into a wonderful holiday meal.
But as I thought about it a little more critically, I realized a few things. For one, anti-body positive sentiments aren't always as clear as, say, a great auntie making a mean-spirited joke about your weight. Instead, the conversations that directly contradict the foundations of body positivity are often much more insidious and more difficult to notice: It's the cousin who won't stop talking about her 2016 diet, the little niece who is repeatedly told she's beautiful instead of smart or funny, or the sister who eats her fill of pie while simultaneously talking about how "bad" she is for doing so.
I can't say I've witnessed these subtler attacks on the fundamentals of body positivity in my own family, but I have noticed them in others. Fortunately, there are ways to deal with all of it, from the obviously cruel body shaming and snark all the way to the oft-ignored bad habits that some people have cultivated after years of subscribing to a narrative that says we have to find ways to shame ourselves. Here are my ideas on how to do it.
1. Bring Along A Supportive Friend Or Partner
If your family has a history of making you feel uncomfortable, or of making less than body positive commentary, then try to bring back-up. When you can, ask a supportive friend or significant other to join you at your family's gathering. Having a buddy along for the ride can help lessen the feeling that you're being ganged up on, and if any conversations start to go south, you know someone will always be in your corner.
2. Don't Let Anyone Project Their Issues Onto You
If a family member starts talking about how "badly" they've eaten over the holidays, or someone starts dishing out a plan to lose weight in the new year, don't mistake that for something that you have to do. Everyone has 100 percent autonomy over their own body, and everyone is operating from an entirely different perspective on the world, their bodies, and their approach to wellbeing. To put it bluntly, just because Aunt Sally thinks that winter is bad because she "packs on the pounds" doesn't mean that you have to feel the same. As with any other situation, someone else's opinion shouldn't dictate your own.
3. Share Compliments That Are Unrelated To Looks
I've observed that complimenting family members (particularly female family members) on their looks after not seeing them for a while is almost a default setting that is programmed into my brain. Taking note of that, I try to remember to compliment my family members on the things they've done since the last time I saw them — be it work achievements, an awesome article they wrote, or that one really rad tweet — and hope it inspires them to do the same for me. It doesn't always work both ways, but putting more non-looks related compliments into the ether generally improves the conversation overall.
4. Never Hesitate To Point Out Body Shaming When You Hear It
If someone is commenting on their own weight or diet plan (as mentioned in point two) it might be best to smile, nod, and remind yourself that their issues aren't about you. However, if someone is actively trying to body shame you or a family member, it's worthwhile to say something. But what to say when you don't want to cause an all-out fight? Well, take this hypothetical scenario as an example:
If Uncle Joe starts telling your sister that she's "really porked out," over the last year, or if your great-grandma starts commenting that your cousin is "way too skinny," come to the receiver's side and say something like, "How about we don't talk about so-and-so's looks?" or, "Do you have anything else to comment on besides his/her appearance?" Usually the commenter will be too shocked to respond, and the family member being subjected to it will appreciate not having to field yet another comment on how they look.
5. Move Away Any Correlation Between Food And Morality
We all know some version of this scenario well: After a lush family dinner, mom brings out the desserts. Cue the chorus of aunties, cousins, and other family members talking about how they're being "so bad" by eating unhealthy food or overindulging. Instead, try to steer the conversation to the positive side of things: Ask who made the dish, talk about how delicious it is, and try to move the conversation towards the food, and away from any judgment that some might attach to it.
After reading these suggestions, it might feel like the responsibility to remain body positive when seeing your relatives over the holidays is all on you. And unfortunately, it often is. Family members, particularly those in older generations, are often less knowledgable and receptive to the concepts of body positivity, and if you want to cultivate that environment, you may have to do all or most of the work.
That being said, the challenge of doing so isn't insurmountable: Not if you bring your knowledge, patience, and confident self love to your family's holiday table without apology. Finally, remember that while you can do your part to improve the body pos vibes of the room, the only actions and thoughts you can really control are your own. That way, no matter what happens, you'll leave the experience feeling like you've won.
Images: Amanda Richards