How to Ask Relatives Not to Talk About Your Child's Body
I open the door to frantic hellos from my parents, who I haven't seen in several months. My children run to their grandparents and give "squeezy" hugs. "Look how tall you've gotten," exclaims my mom to my son. "You're so skinny," she says to her granddaughter.
I love my parents, and I'm thrilled to have their company. They're kind, loving, and generous, but the focus on my children's appearance makes me cringe. My son is self-conscious about his shorter height compared to his peers, and my daughter's weight loss is from the medication she's taking.
For relatives who've gone an extended time without seeing each other, it may be hard not to say something. Still, I'm afraid the focus on physical appearance isn't healthy. Talking about body size, regardless of whether it's a compliment or said with concern for the child's health, can be damaging. Research shows kids internalize these messages and can develop disordered eating habits.
"The obvious issue is that it's harmful to kids in bigger bodies to be told they're getting too big or growing too fast," says Virginia Sole-Smith, author of The Eating Instinct and the newsletter Burnt Toast. "Body talk around their size makes them feel like their bodies are a problem they need to solve when they have no control over the rate at which they grow. And a larger body doesn't equal an unhealthy one."
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It's not just harmful for larger kids, either. "Kids all along the weight spectrum can start to believe messages like being thin is good. Compliments about their appearance can lead them to do whatever necessary to stay that way," says Sole-Smith. For example, my daughter is petite in height and weight, and I worry comments about how "cute" and "little" she is will impact her. I was also small until middle school, and gaining weight led me to start my first diet at age 12.
"It can be especially challenging when your identity is wrapped up in your body size," says Christy Harrison, MPH, RD, CEDRD, host of the podcast Food Psych and author of Anti-Diet: Reclaim Your Time, Money, Well-Being, and Happiness Through Intuitive Eating. "Compliments can reinforce the behaviors they're doing that may not be good for their physical and mental well-being, like focusing too much on what they eat or how much they exercise."
Body talk can create pressure for those with smaller bodies to want to stay small and those with larger bodies to want to shrink. We may not control messages our children receive outside our home, but we can set the tone for conversations within our walls.
How to Change the Conversation with Relatives
Address relatives appropriately
"The first step is to identify the individuals you can talk to ahead of time," says Sole-Smith. "You're closer with your mom than your great-aunt Edna, so a phone call or email to Mom makes more sense. With Edna, you may have to wait until the family reunion to address the issue."
With close relatives, Sole-Smith says to try something like, "We're so excited to see you, and just so you know, we're not doing body talk around the kids. We're aware kids are getting many messages around bodies that we're trying to get out in front of. Can you help us with this?" Enlisting their aid makes them feel involved rather than attacked.
With more distant relatives, you may need to redirect them in the moment. They may focus on body size or appearance because they don't know what else to talk about. You can say, "Ask him about the cool dragon novel he's reading, or let's tell you about summer camp." For me, that looks like having my children show off their artwork or crafts.
It's important to approach your loved one with empathy because they likely don't mean to be negative. "Starting from a place of acknowledging their good intentions and moving on to explaining the boundaries you're trying to set can go a long way," says Harrison.
Also, try not to get frustrated when they slip. You'll likely need to circle back to the conversation many times before it sticks. Old habits die hard, and diet culture is deeply entrenched in our psyches. If they were told to finish their plate all their lives, they might not be able to stop themselves from telling loved ones to do the same.
"In those moments, you can and should advocate for your child when a relative is out of line, " advises Sole-Smith. Say things like, "We trust his body, and we're not worried about his eating right now." Or "the doctor says she's growing fine." Your child will hear you and internalize that nothing's wrong, which is what you want.
The hardest conversation to change is the one your relatives say about themselves. When Grandma isn't eating bread or Aunt Linda goes on about how bad she is for eating cake, you may feel triggered, especially if it brings up memories of your childhood and disordered eating. "Your relatives are coming with their own baggage around food and weight, and it helps to be compassionate about that even as you're trying to set boundaries for your kids," says Harrison.
Talk to your kids after
Sole-Smith believes it can be better to let the issue slide and talk to your children about it later. With a younger kid, you can say something like, "I'm bummed Grandma isn't eating bread. I love bread, and it's such good food. I'm glad we eat it." If the child is older, you can say, "Grownups get a lot of messages around food, but I don't want you to worry about that." Don't be afraid to approach negative self-talk either. Saying something like, "It makes me sad when your cousin says she doesn't like her stomach. I think round stomachs are great," can help a child appreciate all body sizes, including theirs.
You can also ask your child how their relative's comments made them feel, says Harrison. Or start with something like, "Well, that was weird." But don't feel bad if you didn't get to address the issue promptly. It's understandable to panic and not know what to say, or you may not have the bandwidth to take it on. I hate confrontation, so I'll admit to letting many comments about what and how much my children eat slide. "The good news/bad news is you'll have another opportunity, so keep practicing," says Harrison.
Your kids will learn more from you anyway. "Remember that what you say and do has more influence on your kids than what a relative does because you are a larger authority figure in their life," says Sole-Smith. "Praising body diversity and calling out fatphobia should be a routine part of parenting, so it takes the pressure off any one moment."