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Diet

Shutting Down the Diet Talk

Try these tips for coping with food-shaming talk so you can enjoy your meal.

Key points

  • "Diet talk" is when you spend time talking about calories, what you "should" or "shouldn't" eat, and shaming your body.
  • While all genders can be prone to this, it is especially common among women, who are often conditioned to critique and shame our bodies.
  • Diet talk tells yourself, and others, that your body is somehow wrong or undeserving of food. Putting up some simple boundaries can help.
Mahbub Hasan/pixabay
Source: Mahbub Hasan/pixabay

"I wonder how many calories are in this," Justine said out loud as she poked her way through the display of food items available. We were at the first of many events that mark this time of the year we refer to as the holidays. We stood in a group of women. And as anyone who was raised female in our culture knows, there is a certain social pressure to respond in these situations. A few of us shifted our feet, one woman looked at her own plate, presumably second-guessing her choices. Kimberly was the first to take the bait: "I know, it's so bad. I promised myself I would be good, but I'm being so bad already." Tina felt the pressure next: "Me ,too. I'll have to go to the gym tomorrow for like two hours to work this off." They all looked around. My turn was coming up and I could feel the increasing pressure of the hot seat.

"I can't risk it," Justine decided, taking the pressure off of me, "I am three pounds from my goal weight." She put down the beautifully decorated cupcake. I moved my eyes from her lean, flawless frame to my purse, silently willing my cell phone to ring, even though I knew it was on silent. Anything to get me out of this uncomfortable conversation. The food no longer tasted as good when it was topped with a mouthful of shame.

Ah, the holiday season. Marked by infomercials, holiday music, lots of food and get-togethers, and, for many of us, colder weather. But it also brings something else: increased discussion of dieting around the office and in our social circles. And with the increase in “togetherness” as we crawl out of the pandemic, we are bound to be exposed to these types of conversations more frequently. I, for one, did not miss it.

We live in a culture that is fixated on food and with self-image, two things that do not go well together. And while I know that no gender is exempt from this social pressure, women are especially conditioned in our culture, in which a woman's value is reinforced by her weight and looks. Few women escape this social conditioning: Throw a bunch of us together at a holiday party and you will hear these phrases: “I’m being so bad." "Ugh, my diet starts tomorrow." "I shouldn't eat these! They have so many calories!" It is so normalized that many might not even realize they are doing it. But for those who have spent a lifetime trying to make peace with their bodies, these conversations can feel cripplingly painful. When Justine talked about calories, she did not consider the avalanche of self-shame she set off. While she might assume that this was simply a conversation surrounding some female bonding, she was unaware that it also sent the message to everyone in the group that their bodies were somehow bad.

Women frequently feel the need to justify their appetite—"Oh, I didn’t eat anything for lunch." "Me too, I skipped breakfast." "I worked out today so I can have this." Then, when the food arrives, there are more “excuses” for what is placed in front of them. “This is going to ruin my diet." “I’m being so bad [there’s that word again], I need to be good tomorrow." We are told from childhood that to enjoy our food is simply unacceptable. Instead, we must toss around shameful comments as if to "remind" or "show" everyone in audible distance that we know what we are eating is bad, which somehow makes it more acceptable.

These conversations are commonly referred to as "diet talk." And while many diet cultures are harder on women, this sort of talk is harmful for everyone. "Diet talk most often involves conversations about one’s body that encourage negativity about that body. It reinforces the idea that smaller bodies are 'better' or represent desirable attributes." (Konstantinovsky 2021)

And as someone who grew up in an environment in which a woman's looks were shamed if they were overweight or unattractive, these conversations always made me uncomfortable. As someone in a larger body, if I occasionally indulge in a piece of chocolate cake, others think "Well, no wonder." But if one of my thinner peers eats cake, she is "treating" herself. We shame people for what they eat depending on whether we feel they deserve it. Why are we so fixated on what, and how, others eat?

"Diet talk can often lead both the talker and the talkee to feel that their body is wrong, or that the food they eat is wrong. For people with disordered eating habits or diagnosed eating disorders, this kind of talk can quickly become distressing." (Goldsztajn, 2022)

These conversations are harmful, especially for those of us who grew up in environments with poor boundaries. Here are three ways to deal:

  1. Remember that this is more about them than you. If they feel the need to talk about how many “bad” foods or calories they are eating, or how much they will “need to work this off," this is about them and their journey. You do not owe any comments or follow up, and you do not have to disagree or agree. Like many of you, I sit there the whole time thinking, "If they are thinking this about their (usually much thinner than my own) body, what are they thinking about me?” But I have to remind myself: They aren’t making it about me.
  2. Change the subject. I usually recommend discussing non-food or body-shaming topics at dinner. If you are unable to steer the conversation away from food, at least talk about how delicious the food is and try to steer clear of the shaming. If someone says, "Oh, I wonder how many calories this has," simply say, "I don't know but it is delicious. Pass the napkins, please."
  3. Leave the conversation. If the conversation feels uncomfortable, shaming, or harmful, know that it is okay to leave. Many of my clients are in recovery from toxic environments in which they were shamed, and are learning to love themselves. If participating in a conversation will feel harmful, you have the right to excuse yourself for the moment.

It is important to note that there are many people who are trying to lose weight, gain weight, or improve or change their body or health—and this is okay. There is no shame in wanting to improve or change or do anything you want with your own body. This post is only meant to highlight the shame that diet talk can bring when discussed openly with unwilling participants. But if you are struggling with body image or disordered eating, please seek the support of a therapist who is trained in this area. I frequently recommend my clients seek out a therapist who is trained in Health at Every Size (HAES), but choose what is most comfortable and beneficial for you.

References

Goldsztajn, Iris. 2022. Diet Talk Will Happen Whether We Like It or Not — But Here’s How to Make Your Peace With It. https://www.sheknows.com/health-and-wellness/articles/2361739/diet-talk…

Konstantinovsky, Michelle. 2021. What to Do When “Diet Talk” Arises. https://equip.health/articles/eating-disorders-explained/diet-talk/

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