“You don’t get to say that to me anymore”: Some thoughts on dealing with parents

By | February 11, 2010

NB: I am not a therapist. The closest thing I have to a credential in this area is my first Master’s degree, which was an interdisciplinary deal combining developmental psychology, family studies, and media literacy. That said, most of what I offer below is just old-fashioned personal advice, which is based on my own experiences as much as it is my academic background. Deploy my suggestions at your own risk.

One of the more common questions I get is how to deal with family when you’re trying to find a path to self-acceptance. Unsurprisingly, this is one of the most difficult questions to answer. Families are all so different. Some are wildly communicative, some are not. Some are close, some distant. All have skeletons and secrets. All have sore points and rough patches. But the finer points always vary.

We face a particular challenge here, because our families tend to know us best, and those who know us best are often those most resistant to big sweeping changes in our lives, our choices, and our identities. And it’s hard to make those changes when we’re dogged by the doubts and questions of the people who know and love us best.

This is a once-upon-a-time kind of story.

As a teenager, when I wasn’t wearing my school uniform, I basically lived in baggy jeans and my enviable collection of t-shirts for bands you have never heard of. It was a uniform that felt far more safe and familiar than the too-small skirt and blouse I wore to school, and it enabled me to hide the exact dimensions of the body underneath. I was a couple years into college and fat activism before I began wearing clothes that fit me. After my sophomore year, I lived in Boston full-time, and since then have seldom been in Florida for longer than a week at a stretch, in order to visit my family.

Things change when you have that much physical space between you and the people who brought you up; even if you continue to be emotionally close to your parents, as I was, you lose the day-to-day reality of seeing one another, the little habits, the inevitable changes: your dad’s hair going grey, your mom’s discovery of QVC, a favorite meal, a favorite song. I changed too — my nascent fat activism was only one example — but as I was there for the changes, and even orchestrated them, I noticed them less.

So it came to pass that on a trip to visit my father many years ago, I sat on the floor of his study (there was only one chair, and he was in it) and walked him through the use of some program or other on his computer. I wore one of those girl-cut tees, from Hot Topic’s new-at-the-time plus size line, and jeans. We finished, and as I stood up, my father blurted, almost like an explosion, apropos of nothing, “You’ve gained weight!”

I hadn’t, in fact — the jeans I was wearing were a pair that I’d worn in high school, and they were bigger on me now, but I was wearing a shirt that didn’t balloon over my body, and the rolls I’d always had were visible. I presumed even then that his comment was based on being able to see me, as much as it was on any perceived change in my size. But it wasn’t just the inaccuracy of the statement that got me. It was the tone. The tone with which these words were delivered was a deeply unsettling mixture of astonishment and accusation. It ripped through me like a rusty blade. Yes, it did, although by this point I was lecturing to undergrads about media representation of women’s bodies, and holding forth on fat acceptance in front of fifty students with nary a flutter of doubt. His words hit me like an unexpected wave, when I’d lowered my guard for just a moment, and carried me right back to my fifteenth year, in my dark bedroom listening to Tori Amos’ “Silent All These Years” on the local indie radio station, my ear pressed against the speaker on the boom-box, secure in the knowledge that I could never be happy, that no one could ever truly love me, that I would always be disposable and disgusting and isolated, until I lost enough weight. (Go cry, emo kid.)

I went into that old bedroom and closed the door. My husband — though we were unmarried at the time — was there. I sat on the bed and stared blankly into the air. D looked at me, and after a moment’s silence, asked, “What’s wrong?”

I explained. D told me I had to say something. “I can’t,” I whispered. He insisted. “I can’t!” It was a still a whisper, but ferocious, certain. Those words wouldn’t even form in my mouth. I couldn’t tell my father that this hurt me. It was an impossibility. I may as well attempt to flap my arms and fly.

D would not let it go. He assured me, repeatedly, that it was a thing I was capable of speaking aloud. And if I was capable of speaking it, why would I keep it to myself? And yes, why not try? What would happen? Would I be struck mute, never to speak again? Would the language come out all garbled, like speaking in tongues? Would lightning hit me and pin me to the floor? Few of us manage to escape the desire to please our parents, to make them proud of us, even those of us with the most troubled parent/child relationships. We have to navigate the tricky straits of being true to ourselves and the people we want to be, while still feeling afraid of our choices disappointing the people who raised us.

After a few minutes, I left the bedroom. I squared off in front of my unwitting father in the middle of the house. I told him that he had made a comment about my size, and I needed to talk to him about it. And then I said,

“You don’t get to say that to me anymore.”

I got as far as “don’t” before my voice broke and I knew I wouldn’t be able to avoid crying. I was embarrassed but let it go. And why not. Why hide that pain, why bury it now. It was like the dam that’d held it all back for so many years was failing, and instead of shoring it up, plugging the cracks, I brought my fist down and crushed the whole thing. I told my father that those comments hurt me, that they had always hurt me. I told him my body was not something he had a right to pass uninvited commentary on, and I didn’t care how normal this had been when he was just trying to help, when I was growing up as a fat kid who didn’t want to be what I was. I knew his intentions were pure; I knew he just wanted me to be happy. But it damaged me. It damaged me right down to my bones.

My father was shocked, I suppose, but bless him, he tamped down any defensive impulses and listened. Or perhaps he was just too astonished to do anything else. He apologized. I didn’t get into the nuts and bolts of body acceptance right then; it wasn’t the time. I finished my piece and I walked away. Back into my old bedroom. Back behind the closed door.

I felt, ironically, a hundred pounds lighter.

I don’t recall if I ever, aside from this moment, formally announced my intention to stop trying to lose weight. But this interaction opened the door. It would be years before my family would accept my acceptance, and it would only come after extensive conversations about my weight and my health and my happiness. It began because I stood up for myself for the first time; because I had a moment in which I couldn’t sit by and quietly swallow my rage any longer. I think we all have this point, where the pressure builds and we have to open ourselves up and let it all fly free.

I don’t have magic answers for dealing with parents; I sincerely wish that I did. So often the things that inspire these revelations to family are unplanned and unpredictable, like the story I relate above. How you handle these conversations will depend heavily on your relationship with your family and the dynamics you have in place. You can’t just talk size acceptance with the people that have known you this long; everything you say, on both sides, will pass through dozens of filters of experience and understanding, and neither you nor I can accurately predict how things will unfold. That said, I offer below a few basic tips for having these conversations in a productive way, if you think the time has come.

1. Be patient. It took you a certain amount of time and big thinking to come to the conclusion that size acceptance may be the best option for you. It’ll take your family at least as long to get there too. In most cases, parents’ primary motivations for everything they do are the health and well-being of their kids; in most cases, parents are trying their very hardest simply Not To Fuck This Up. It will take time for your family to assimilate any new perspectives, as they don’t have the same motivations you do — you may be spurred on to size acceptance because you believe that the prevailing thinking around food and weight is causing you harm, by cultivating disordered eating patterns, compulsive dieting, or low self-esteem. Your family cannot know what really goes on in your head here; they can only take your word. And convincing them can be a long-term process.

2. Know yourself, and know your reasons. Body acceptance is very attractive on the surface, and can seem like an easy fix for a failure to lose weight and the attendant self-loathing and insecurity that can go along with the idea that your body is a problem. But though it looks easy, unfortunately there’s nothing easy about it; it is in fact a long hard uphill slog, with the wind in your face and the peak you’re trying to surmount always masked by clouds. Arguably, it’s harder than dieting. Sliding back into old ways of thinking is always possible, all the moreso if you’re confronted with constant challenges and disbelief from people you love. If you don’t really know why you are doing this, and if you don’t really believe in it yet, then talking to your family about it is going to be much harder.

3. Know your arguments. Going into conversations with family fully armed with useful information makes these discussions go a lot smoother, and also means you’re less likely to feel personally attacked because you’ve been challenged on a question you can’t answer. Read Linda Bacon’s book, Health At Every Size; it gives a thorough, qualitative analysis of our traditional thinking around weight and health, and how it may be inherently flawed. Bacon uses the term “weight neutral” which I like a lot, as it describes this very different mindset around health in a succinct and direct way — we’re not talking about IGNORING health altogether, we’re just talking about dealing with the subject in a way that doesn’t privilege weight loss as a priority over everything else. If your family is particularly fat-phobic, and many families in which fatness runs in the blood are, then using terms like “weight neutral” may get you further than proclaiming your fatassery loud and proud.

4. Be optimistic. Your family loves you. At least, if you think it’s worth talking to them about this, then you are probably relatively certain that they love you. They want you to be happy and healthy and fulfilled. If they object to your size acceptance, odds are it’s because they believe it will negatively impact these three aspects of your quality of life. Also, be aware that individual family members may well be fighting internalized fat hatred of their own, and you may be unknowingly forcing them to confront feelings about their own bodies, feelings they’re not willing to analyze right now. They may be pushing back on you, but it may be as much about their own feelings and fears as it is about yours. Remember this, and be kind.

5. Be open to the possibility that your family may never understand your choice. That said, even in this circumstance you are within your rights to respectfully acknowledge their feelings while asking them to likewise respectfully acknowledge your choices about your own body, and not to harass you about them. Mom still pushing diets on you? Calmly and firmly explain that you are not interested. If she persists, set boundaries by politely excusing yourself from the conversation, and either ending the phone call or leaving the room. Explain to your family that while you can respect their position, for the health of your relationship you all need to come to some kind of truce on the subject, even if this means simply agreeing to avoid the topics that may lead to an argument.

In the additional-reading department, there was a wonderful article in the November issue of O Magazine (of all places!) that deals more specifically with weight struggles between mothers and daughters; you can read it here. I’d like to open the floor now for readers to share their stories and experiences working through these issues with parents and other family members. Do you have additions or subtractions to the above? Did you have a moment in which you “came out” as fat to your parents? What was your experience? Was your family supportive? If you’ve succeeded in forging a truce, how did you go about it?

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