How Black Families Can Handle Unwanted Food and Body Comments

Food and weight-shaming can be unwanted guests at holiday gatherings. Here's how to navigate unsolicited opinions this season.

Family eating together celebrating Christmas.
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Black Americans are preparing for the most family and food-centric holiday season of the year. Headcounts have been taken, menus prepared, food purchased, and accommodations have been made. Yet, someone, somewhere, is anxious, thinking and overthinking one final decision: to attend or not attend. And with good reason. They don’t want themselves or their children subjected to food or weight shaming. They don’t want their children exposed and vulnerable to what is perceived as just joking insults that can potentially hurt feelings and damage relationships. 

Psyche A. Williams-Forson, Eating While Black: Food Shaming and Race in America author and food scholar, asks, “Where is the hospitality when an unhealthy power dynamic enables hosts and some guests to question what we eat and how we look." Williams-Forson suggests that holiday dinner tables can be prime battlegrounds of control and often at the expense of our children. 

As a mother, Williams-Forson says she has learned to guard her well-being by protecting her daughter in hostile environments that include off-hand comments about weight and food choices. She takes into consideration that if the space isn’t good for herself, the promise of it being good for her child is nil, making it imperative to decline invitations. Williams-Forson says people can make their homes “Insta and Facebook” beautiful, but if there are no “spaces in your home where people can feel welcomed, I don’t care how beautiful your home is, I’m not coming.” 

There are Black parents like Williams-Forson who decide to buck tradition and not show up for family events that have left them or their children feeling wounded. Yet, others will choose to spend time with family anticipating a “food fight” or an insult about weight. 

Black people who practice non-mainstream diets may have particular concerns about feeling comfortable at family gatherings. Brooke Brimm, founder of Vegan Soul Foodie, experienced “shaming” and teasing after embracing a more plant-dominant journey. “There were a lot of comments about ‘you’re not eating good,’ ‘you’re missing out on something amazing because you’re not eating meat,’ ‘what’s the weird thing that you’re eating,’ and ‘why aren’t you eating.’ There’s been lots of conversation about what goes into my diet.” Some of those comments were spoken in front of her children. But she says it just goes with the territory of eating a plant-based diet.

Family-oriented parents may find it easier to attend the gathering and adapt than be absent completely. Instead of choosing not to attend a family function, Brimm chooses to extend grace to an offensive relative and some well-intentioned family. “You don’t know when you will see someone again,” she says. This is a personal choice. Individuals should decide whether it’s easier to confront the situation, adapt, or opt out of gathering.

Still, Brimm suggests that the responsibility of keeping family and communal eating situations civil and hospitable rests on both the host and the guest. As a guest, she says, “I’ve eaten greens cooked with turkey necks and picked around the meat. I’ve eaten cakes made with dairy products.” She has also brought extra food for her family and for her hosts, stating that she has done so not to compromise her principles or keep the peace but rather to keep the time with family in focus. 

Have there been instances when she wanted to protect her children or not attend a family event? Brimm says, “Yes, but never over food. There was some other issue.” 

Therapist and licensed social worker Jennifer McClellan Johnson agrees. “There is almost always some other issue looming.” She notes that other factors such as animosity, something that happened years before, and envy are often behind taunts at the dinner table. But ongoing friction, discord, and what Williams-Forson refers to as “critical toxicity” (hypercriticism) creates an environment filled with tension. 

Holiday dinners and other family events are not ideal for engaging in open and honest discussions about deep-rooted problems. Individuals may find it helpful for the offended party or parties to initiate hard talks before scheduled gatherings.    

“I have had clients tell me that they don’t feel like hearing their grandmothers and other relatives tell them how fat they are or how skinny they are,” says Johnson. She also says her clients don’t want to hear what they should or should not be eating, especially when it comes from a place of criticism instead of concern. Johnson thinks the decision to forgo potentially toxic settings can be wise. She also believes in alternative gatherings in a more controlled setting as a preventative and protective measure if the concerned parties think that’s the best way for them to survive their personal circumstances.

Is there anything parents can do should they decide to attend these events? Johnson says yes. Be ready. She recommends the following: 

  • If the issue is food, prepare and take food your family can eat and share with other guests, as Brimm does.
  • Positively affirm your children all year round, so they are ready with their truth when someone says or does something to devalue them.  
  • Practice respectful responses to family members who are repeat offenders. Be firm, stand up for yourself, and set boundaries. 

“We can’t control or predict what someone is going to say or do, but we do have past experiences with these people,” she says. “Once you know Aunt Sue is going to say something offensive, be ready with a response. It is imperative to protect ourselves and our children accordingly.”

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