When family members are absorbed in diet talk, it can harm the children who hear it. Here’s what to do when family members constantly talk about food and bodies.
“I worry about my toddler absorbing diet talk and messages about appearance, and what it will do to her in the future. I don’t really know what to say to my family members. I feel like it would be hard to ask them to stop talking about something they always talk about.”
What do you do when your in-laws constantly talk about nutrition and weight at family gatherings?
When family members seem to constantly talk about food, eating, bodies and diets, it can be hard to handle. Especially if you’re trying to raise kids who are neutral about food and about bodies.
In this article, I explore diet talk and weight stigma from families. You’ll learn what you can do when your family members engage in too much conversation about bodies, food, and health.
Weight Stigma from Family Members
Comments about bodies and size, whether they come from grandparents, in-laws, aunts and uncles, mom and dad, or siblings, can be damaging to the emotional health and well-being of a child.
Primarily because these comments are coming from family – the group of people who are supposed to love, support and protect a child.
A 2022 study in Appetite looked at family comments and teasing about weight and found that reports of family-based weight stigma (teasing, blaming, shaming, and negative or pejorative comments) were particularly high among women and girls (15 to 29 %), sexual and gender minority individuals (40 to 70%), and individuals with high body weight (33 to 87%).
They also identified the following:
- From an early age, individuals with larger bodies experience more mistreatment than their friends who were mid- or smaller-sized in general, including by their families.
- Women and children may experience more teasing and negative comments in general, and in the family home environment in particular, more than men and boys.
Another large, multinational study of women engaged in health improvement found that as many as 88% reported weight stigma or teasing from a family member.
It’s pretty clear that negative attitudes about body size are pervasive, even within families.
When children hear comments that reflect these biases or are the target of stigma related to food, body, or eating, it can do damage.
Effects of Teasing and Other Forms of Weight Stigma From Family
Studies have shown various outcomes when children experience teasing, comments about their bodies, or an intense focus on food and eating, including:
- Body dissatisfaction
- Poor self-esteem
- Unhealthy weight control/loss behaviors
- Binge eating
Furthermore, studies have looked at the impact of family-based teasing ten years down the road and found overall a greater body dissatisfaction, and in women, a greater inclination for more extreme unhealthy weight control behaviors, more body fat, eating to cope, and even more unhappiness with their bodies.
Too Much Body and Diet Talk? Here’s What to Do
When grandma is talking about her diet, or Aunt Mary is scolding your child for choosing Doritos instead of carrot sticks, what should you do?
Have a Conversation
I think this behavior deserves a conversation. Many families I’ve worked with in my pediatric practice have shared frustration over the conversations and direct comments about a child’s eating, size and even their parenting style at family events.
If it’s bothering you and you fear the impact it’s having on your child, let your parenting partner who is related to the family member involved take the lead.
For instance, if it were coming from my spouse’s side of the family, I’d ask them to initiate the conversation.
Use a kind and curious approach, because for the most part, relatives may not be intentionally trying to hurt your child or even be aware of their actions.
Summarize your parenting style and talk about what you’re trying to accomplish with your own children. For instance, you may share you’re:
- Trying to raise kids who like a variety of foods and you believe that all foods fit
- Raising kids who appreciate diversity, especially in bodies, and you operate with the belief that ‘All bodies are good bodies.’
- Promoting respect. You want your children to treat everybody and every body with kindness, empathy, and respect.
- Trying to raise kids who love themselves – no matter their size, shape, appearance, or food preferences.
Letting your family member understand your parenting approach and goals can help them get on the same page with you.
Acknowledge Times Have Changed
We know more today about nutrition for kids, psychology, eating, health, emotional well-being, feeding, and building habits.
Health is more complex than just adding fruits and vegetables to the plate or staying off screens.
Share that you are are learning and trying to parent in a new and better way.
You might say, “We are trying to be conscious of our child’s physical health and equally pay attention to their emotional wellbeing. Would you like to learn along the way with us?”
Be Curious about Why Appearance, Diet Talk, and Health are Important to Them
Maybe your family member grew up in a home that focused on appearance. Or perhaps they’ve struggled with their own size and accepting their body. Talking about food and bodies may be a natural focus or habit for them.
Some family members may be concerned or focused on their own health.
Or, they may be caught up in the societal norms that focus on appearance and believe that size represents health.
Dieting and weight bias may run in families. Passed down from generation to generation, sometimes talking about diets and weight loss is a way to connect within families.
Even though it can seem to be an unhealthy way to connect, it may be part of the family culture.
Set a Firm and Loving Boundary
It’s not easy to set a boundary within the family system, especially if the “elders” are involved. But you can be loving and firm at the same time.
You might say, “In our family, we make a point to not talk about weight, dieting, body appearance, or size. There’s a good chance it will hurt our child. I’d like you to not speak of these topics in front of my child. I know you mean well, but I stand firm on this request. I’d love to talk more with you about this personally and share what we’re learning so we can all be on the same page and support our little one.”
Encourage Family Members to Focus on What Really Matters
It’s common to comment on the appearance of another. If it’s positive, we feel we’re being kind and helpful.
When it’s negative, sometimes we feel like we’re motivating someone to do better. But this isn’t true.
Positive comments like “you’re so pretty” support a society that focuses on and values appearance.
Instead of saying ‘you’re so pretty,’ you can encourage your relatives to highlight the inner qualities they see in your child, like their creativity, their loyalty to their friends, their industriousness, or their quick learning style.
And remember, negative commentary does not motivate anyone. And, it can harm them.
Talk about Societal Norms and Challenge Them
The normalization of thin and smaller bodies as healthy, and larger bodies as unhealthy isn’t based in truth. It’s based in bias.
The truth is, there are children who are thin and small and unhealthy, and kids who are larger in size and healthy. And many kids fall in the middle.
I believe your first responsibility is to your child.
We can all do our part by standing up for our children. Don’t be afraid to quiet the conversations that do more harm than good, and redirect the focus away from size and appearance to body functioning and positive behaviors.
Protect them from potentially damaging comments that come from an over-focus on food, dieting, health, and thinness.
Let’s help all kids grow up feeling confident and good about themselves, no matter their size.
It starts with you and your family!
Want to Learn More?
Listen to this Topic on the Podcast!
Weight Stigma in Youth with Rebecca Puhl
How Body Image and Stigma Spur Eating Disorders in Kids with Kendrin Sonneville
Wellness vs. Weight with Dr. Lori Fishman