Our partners, like our good friends, are essentially the family members we choose for ourselves. But the same cannot always be said of our partners' family members, whose politics may not always align with our own. When it comes to body positivity, for instance, things can get a little tricky to navigate. I'm ultra #blessed in that my partner's parents and I get along like Solo and the Wookie. But when it comes to his extended family, particularly the older relatives housing a good dose of generational sexism and weight-related biases, it can be difficult to grin and bear it in aid of keeping the peace.
When dealing with your partners' family, striking a balance between getting along for the sake of said partner and making sure no one actively insults an ideology or lifestyle you're passionate about will likely seem impossible; but it's arguably crucial to master. Maintaining a happy relationship is hard work. But add some misguided relatives into the mix, and you've got yourself some full-blown disaster potential.
I know my partner Patrick has personally struggled with my parents and siblings when fat shaming jokes are uttered nonchalantly, much like I've wanted to make a run for it when having to listen to his nana's Methodist-fueled food shaming. Yet here we are, surviving nontheless. These are some of the coping mechanisms we've come up with over the year when it comes to dealing with a partner's anti body pos family.
1. Remind Yourself Of Generational Differences
Whether you buy into the trope of Millennial narcissism or not, one thing's for sure: Our generation is the most progressive age group currently alive in America. We're arguably more conscious of social justice issues like LGBTQ rights, race relations, and even size discrimination than those before us, going so far as to demand said social justice in our television, usually in the hopes that future generations won't have to endure the same BS. So when it comes to topics of self-image, we're the generation that's helped bring concepts of body shaming (be it skinny or fat shaming) into the mainstream more than ever before.
Your partner's relatives, however, might be coming from a different generation. One raised by the Betty Draper's of the world who thought being fat was one of the worst things a person could be (second only to being an unwed mother, perhaps). I'm not saying that being an older human excuses anti body pos behaviors, but it might at least explain those behaviors. Reminding yourself that society changes (and that the things we deem "acceptable" or "unacceptable" are fluid and ever-evolving) should help quell some of your anger so that you can approach the situation with calm logic.
2. Don't Be Afraid To Point Our Their Problematic Language
There are several ways a person can unknowingly be anti body positive, from judging someone's "appropriate" serving size of food based on their gender to correlating "success" to numbers on the scale. However, with the exception of Internet trolls, playground bullies, and the occasional group of fat shaming teenagers on subways, I genuinely believe most folks don't realize when they're perpetuating sexist, sizeist, ageist, or ableist beliefs. Things like saying, "Ugh, I feel so fat and gross," after eating "too many cookies" are just so ingrained in our culture that we utter them without even clocking the fact that such words have the potential to shame entire groups of people.
So don't be too afraid of letting your partner's family know when they've said something offensive. Chances are they'll be willing to listen. Hell, they might even thank you for helping them learn how to be more conscious of others.
3. Or To Tell Them Your Opinion Rather Bluntly
It's still shocking to a lot of people when they hear someone say something as innocent as "I like being fat" or, "Actually, I prefer having short legs." Whenever you have an opinion that goes against the grain, it's bound to be met with some wide eyes. But, honestly, that's all the more reason to stick to it and let said opinion be known.
Since I'm definitely more of an introvert than an extrovert, I find confrontation of any kind difficult. However, almost every time I speak my mind, I feel a whole lot better for it. Your partner's family will likely never know your stance on body positivity unless you tell them. So if someone quotes that skinny shaming Meghan Trainor song or talks about what a disgrace it is that America is so overcome by the "obesity epidemic," feel free to let them know that, as a matter of fact, all body types are perfectly valid and worthy; and that being fat isn't, actually, an infectious disease.
4. Be Cheeky
If someone is being prejudice — especially if they're being intentionally prejudice — then you have a right to confront them with their problematic opinions any way you deem appropriate. Even if that means being cheeky. Know your partner's mom absolutely hates "flabby tummies?" Why not get the sequin bodycon dress that accentuates your VBO out of the closet while she's visiting you? Aware that their grandmother thinks "eating in excess" is gluttonous and disgusting? Don't be afraid of enjoying that bowl of spaghetti up front and center on your living room couch.
Sometimes in order to become conscious of our body shaming, we need to be presented with it. There's no reason anyone should be judging your flabby tummy, or your long "chicken legs," or the delight you feel when you eat a burger, but if they're choosing to do so anyway, then you can choose to flaunt what you've got.
I have no doubt that my partner's grandmother (who believes in living the frugal life and felt that the cruise-goers on her holiday were too liberal with their calorie consumption) doesn't love it when I sit on my lardy butt to eat a cookie, having already dined on Christmas leftovers. But shaming others for their diets, lifestyles, or looks is effed up. And it's not your place to cater to people's effed up opinions.
5. Actively Bring Up The Topics You Care About
We all have the ability to help steer a conversation into a more body positive direction. One way of doing so is simply to bring up a couple of go-to topics you care about. Passionate about the intersection of body positivism and trans visibility? Tell your partner's fam all about Laverne Cox or Hari Nef. Is size acceptance your thing? Introduce them to Tess Holliday and express what a groundbreaker she's been for size inclusivity in the fashion world.
Unfortunately, family gatherings are very often glazed with small talk, and small talk can all too often lend itself to food or body shaming. But there's no harm in switching gears with a simple, "Hey, have you guys heard about (insert far more interesting and body positive topic of conversation here)?"
6. Pick Your Battles
Much like it's important to take note of generational differences, it's also important to give your partner's family the benefit of the doubt in general. Those of us who believe in positive body image activism are going to be very in tune to the political correctness surrounding these issues. But not everyone else will be; and that definitely doesn't mean they're automatically a shitty person.
It's quite possible that the relative in question had no awareness of just how offensive they were being. So rather than respond with instant judgment (after all, judgment is what we're fighting against, right?), try to train yourself to distinguish between malice and ignorance. If something is being said maliciously, you have every right to bring up your concerns. But if something is said out of ignorance, it's also perfectly valid to let it slide and choose to keep quiet. Certain things — like my dad's failure to acknowledge that good music has, in fact, been made after 1969 — are beyond your power to fix. And that's OK.
7. Ask Them Why
Most of the time, prejudiced opinions are pretty hard to defend. I mean, what bona fide reason can anyone possibly have for shaming an entire group of people based on something like skin color or weight or religion?
So if your partner's family is waxing lyrical about their disdain for "women who look like 12-year-old boys" or "fat asses who never leave the couch," simply ask them "why?" Why do they dislike them? What have those people ever done to harm them? Why do they feel their one negative experience with someone of X, Y, or Z body type means that everyone else of X, Y, or Z body type is automatically a bad, unworthy, or unattractive human?
Even if they have some answer, you'll have forced them to confront their opinions of the world head on, which might make them reconsider their viewpoint.
8. Get Out Of There
Everyone's levels of tolerance are different; so what one person might be able to easily brush off might have the potential to trigger another. At the end of the day, prioritizing your mental health and holistic wellbeing is of crucial importance. You can't sustain your relationship and keep things afloat if you sacrifice your state of being. So if you're in a situation in which your partner's relatives have crossed a body negative line, it's OK to physically remove yourself from the environment.
This might cause temporary conflict with your partner, sure. But I really do believe that if your relationship is one rooted in mutual respect, said partner will be able to understand your position. Whatever you do, just try to stick to honesty. Tell your partner exactly how their relatives made you feel, without asking them to cut ties or forming any kind of ultimatum. If they care about you, then they'll know you had to do what was best for your state of mind.
9. Utilize The Power Of The Internet
Many of us have a love/hate relationship with the Web, but it's undoubtedly been a source of self love inspo for a lot of people. If you're with your partner's family and someone simply isn't getting your position on body positivity, try showing them some articles.
If the problem is as simple as them deeming something like double chins "ugly," why not show them 100 or more images of individuals rocking their two chins stunningly? If the problem is a deeper (and more factually flawed) analysis of weight and health, slowly begin introducing them to concepts of health at every size. And if you don't feel like discussing any of this stuff IRL because it seems too difficult or pointless, you can alternatively email some links you think they could potentially get a lot out of.
As with any human in possession of good, old fashioned prejudices — be they related to size or race or sexuality — some people will really never change. So no matter what coping mechanisms you enlist to try to deal with a partner's relatives, keep in mind that it all might be futile. But it isn't always. And hell, if you manage to help one person open their minds to the reality of body shaming in contemporary culture, and to all the ways they may be perpetuating (intentionally or otherwise) that shaming of whole groups of people, then you should undoubtedly consider that a job well done.
Images: Marie Southard Ospina (1); Giphy (9)