And how to get people more on board with body/weight neutrality, Intuitive Eating, HAES, etc.
One of my client's whole family is wildly “unsupportive” of her body image healing journey.
They insult her intelligence for believing “it’s just as healthy to eat cake as it is to eat salad”-– a willfully ignorant misunderstanding of the Health at Every Size principles. They criticize her for gaining weight after giving up restrictive dieting-– even though she also overcame her disordered relationship to food and exercise by doing so. And they made fun of her stupidity and naïveté for thinking “looks don’t matter.”
Obviously, this behavior is all completely shitty and inappropriate. Unfortunately, it’s also extremely common.
People who embark on a journey to heal their relationship with their body via body neutrality and anti-diet work run into this kind of thing all the time. After all, this kind of work flies in the face of everything the people around them believe. As a result, they end up confused, worried, and unsupportive.
But it goes way beyond unsupportive, doesn’t it?
Weight, health, fitness, and diet are such emotionally and morally loaded issues in our culture (and so rooted in systems of oppression that people with privilege work very hard not to see), that people tend to bring an intense kind of zealotry to their beliefs about weight, health, and bodies.
For a lot of folks, their beliefs around these topics are sacred, and they can’t stand seeing them be challenged or abandoned.
It’s kind of like when, in a highly religious family, a family member gives that religion up, or breaks one of the most important pillars. (Think: by being gay, or having sex before marriage.) The rest of the family might feel hurt, betrayed, worried, angry, or even outright hostile.
Anyway, bad behavior aside, the question all my clients end up asking about the body neutrality journey is this:
How do I get my family more on board with this shit?
How do I help them understand that what I’m doing is safe, healthy, and good for me? How do I get them to unlearn their own oppressive biases, either so they do less harm, or so they too can find body acceptance? And perhaps most importantly: how do I get them to stop being judgmental, critical, or assholes about it??
Have you ever asked yourself any of these questions? If so, this is what I tell my clients…
First up, consider what the other person might be feeling or experiencing.
If you and your best friend have spent years trash-talking people’s bodies, diets, or weight for example, it might feel incredibly threatening to them for you to suddenly not be ok with that anymore—let alone for you to suddenly be scolding, lecturing, or making them feel bad for still doing it!
I say this not because you owe anyone who is being a jerk to you compassion or emotional labor. You don’t, and it’s always a valid option to just ignore or separate yourself from people like this, instead of spending the time and energy to help them understand.
It’s just that… well, a lot of the defensiveness, anger, and combativeness you’re likely to come up against when you stop dieting and start accepting your body as it is has less to do with your new body beliefs and approach, and more to do with the other person feeling judged, criticized, shamed, pushed away, or left behind. So if your goal is truly to get someone on board with your new beliefs and approach, you are probably going to need to make them feel respected, accepted, and well-liked as you do it.
(This can be incredibly difficult, I know. It’s a lot easier to just tell someone off for being misinformed, ignorant, and biogted. And I wouldn’t blame you if that’s the path you choose!)
It’s also important to recognize that getting people on board with something so big won’t be accomplished in one single conversation. You’ll probably need to prepare yourself for many conversations if, in fact, you do plan to support and encourage their transformation.
To be clear: as you change your beliefs about weight, health, and bodies, you might just find that some relationships really don’t suit you anymore. That’s ok! Whether it’s to protect your own mental health, or because you just don’t get much out of the relationship anymore, you have full permission to let people go.
But if you do want to get someone to be more supportive of body neutrality, weight neutrality, Health at Every Size, or Intuitive Eating, you have to be prepared to invest in them. And that means the first conversation you have with them is just about planting seeds, not changing minds.
Ready to prepare for that first seed-planting conversation?
Start by thinking of a small and manageable intention for the conversation: something you hope to achieve or arrive at by the end of that single conversation.
To let them know how their views are causing you harm.
To express concern about how their views might be causing them harm.
To spark curiosity in them about their relationship to weight, health, or diet.
To invite them to share their concerns so you can talk them through together.
To invite them to share their own body image issues with you.
To share your experience of body image issues with them.
Then consider your own limitations for what you can talk about without getting triggered, flooded, disrespectful, or combative. Do you feel safe enough with this person to be vulnerable and honest? Can you legitimately talk about this topic in a way that feels good for both parties?
I know that can feel impossible— sometimes it actually will be!
But the thing is, most people don’t want to have their beliefs challenged…and they don’t want to take up a whole new cause…just because someone told them they should. And they especially won’t want to when someone is sitting there telling them their worldview is stupid, wrong, bad, shameful, or harmful.
So if the goal is really to get someone to learn about, invest in, and connect to the value of body and weight neutrality, it’s usually best to be as honest and direct as possible, connect the conversation to a real and vulnerable place inside you, and to maintain (to the best of your ability) a feeling of mutual respect and care between you and the other person.
So. If, after all that, you decide to move forward with the conversation, I recommend leading with your intention up front, with as much warmth, care, and emotional openness as you can manage.
Hey Mom, have I ever talked to you about my struggle with body image issues? I know you think I’m judging you for dieting, but it’s just that I’ve been battling my own issues around food and weight for a long time, and I’m trying to get away from them. I’d like to tell you more about it, if you’re interested.
Hey friend, I’ve been reading this book called Body Neutral, and it’s blowing my mind about why people actually struggle with body image issues. I’m dying to hear your thoughts about it, because we’ve always had such similar struggles around body image. Can I lend it to you, so we can talk about it together?
Hey partner, I so admire your dedication to health and fitness, and you know I’ve always cared a lot about that stuff for myself too. But I’m not sure if I’ve been completely honest with you about why I was so into it, and how unhealthy my approach was. It came from a really dark place inside me, where I felt like I needed to be perfect or nobody would ever love me.
Hey Auntie, I often hear you make negative comments about your body and appearance. Why do you think that is?
Hey co-worker, I’m in recovery now, but I used to have an eating disorder. I worry sometimes, when you talk about your diet, that you might be struggling with food too? If so, just know that I’m happy to listen or talk about it, if you ever want to.
Hey Grandpa, do you think you could stop making comments about the size or shape of my body? It makes me uncomfortable, and it sends a harmful message to the kids.
Hey family member, I know on the surface it might look like I don’t care about my health anymore, but it’s exactly the opposite– this is one of the most important things I’ve ever done for my health! It’s ok if you don’t understand, but I want you to know that criticizing my new approach, or making fun of it, makes me feel like you think I’m stupid, or even that you don’t care about my health, and either way it’s incredibly hurtful. How can I support you in getting on board with this? Would an article or book recommendation to learn more about it help?
Hey sibling, I know body neutrality isn’t your jam, and that’s fine. But would you be willing to have a conversation about your specific issues with it? I want to understand your concerns better, because I love and respect you, but I also want an opportunity to help you understand how it’s been helping me, so that it’s not a source of tension between us anymo
See what I mean? Each prompt leads toward a specific and clear outcome, it invites empathy instead of defensiveness, and it maintains a feeling of connection and kindness.
This is only the beginning, of course. If your seed-planting conversation goes well, and the other person starts to explore and challenge their own beliefs, then at some point in the future you might want to offer them resources, perspectives, or educational material to keep them moving forward.
I hope this is helpful!
Yours in body neutrality, Jessi
PS: If you’re interested in 1:1 coaching with me, I have one more spot available to start in October! Fill out an application here and we can chat!