Family Says The Silent Part Out Loud

On navigating body talk, food shaming and perfectionism at the holidays.

Friends, the holiday season officially kicks off this week with American Thanksgiving and the start of Hanukkah. So I’m excited to remind you that we have gift subscriptions! For just $5 per month or $50 per year, give someone the gift of anti-diet journalism in their inbox. They’ll get my essays and podcast interviews, plus subscriber-only perks like Ask Virginia columns and Friday Threads.

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Also: No Thursday audio newsletter or Friday Thread this week, in honor of what I hope will be a pretty joyful—or at least more normal—Thanksgiving for all who celebrate. I hope you get to eat all of your holiday favorites with people you love, while embracing new holiday traditions (vaccines and a side of rapid testing!). 

Family Says The Silent Part Out Loud

It’s that time of year, and a new/strange year, and that means it’s time to talk about how we’re going to navigate our holiday gatherings. For lots of folks, staying home last year was a kind of sad reprieve: No well-meaning relatives trying to put green vegetables on your picky kid’s plate. No group commiserating about how many calories are in the average Thanksgiving feast. Nobody commenting on how fast or slow your large or small child is growing, or interrogating you about your own weight. “For my extended family on my mother’s side, a standard greeting at holidays is literally, ‘How much do you weigh?’” noted one commenter in a recent Friday Thread. If you are returning to seeing family, you may be returning to, well… all of that. 

We are a culture that demonizes appetite and fatness, and yet centers every major celebration on food. We are wired to show love through food, but also taught to apologize for loving food. We tie our understanding of children’s behavior to how they behave around food, even though we model such strange behavior ourselves. 

We are also a culture that sets impossibly high standards for the execution of these feasts, and yet makes the labor required invisible, or at best, a dumb meme. (Also this one, this one and this one. Honestly, anyone still confused about why women are angry all the time can just Google “Thanksgiving mom memes.”) On Instagram, it’s not just the turkey glamour shot, but also the homemade pies, the layered tablescape, the children dressed in subdued but coordinating autumnal hues, #grateful. In real life, all too often, it is still women scraping plates in the kitchen while men talk politics or watch football. 

We talk a lot about setting boundaries here, and you might need to set some this week. You deserve to enjoy your Thanksgiving meal without judgment or acrimony. Your kids deserve the same. Your bodies do not need to be up for discussion, or subject to more the oblique and veiled references that many families trade in. It’s okay to say you aren’t available for that conversation. 

For our kids, this begins with accepting that mashed potatoes can be dinner, as I wrote for the New York Times back in 2019. That column is geared towards parents of picky eaters, but I think it contains a lot of universal advice. Micromanaging your child’s plate in the middle of a big family feast is only going to make the day less fun for both of you. That’s true whether you’re paranoid that they aren’t eating enough vegetables, or that they are eating too much pie. (Also: There is no such thing as too much pie.) 

I’m actually texting with one of my best mom friends as I write this, who was dismayed that her kids didn’t want to eat anything at their Friendsgiving this weekend. She finally pulled out applesauce pouches and string cheese and felt like a failure. “Is this my embarrassment that my kids are so close-minded?” she texted. “I’m just stunned at how particular they are. Like they taste the nuance in bread [and know if it’s not our usual bread].” Amy, of Yummy Toddler Food, is also in this group text, and just wrote back: “Can you hold your frustration about their particular food likes and dislikes, but distance it from being the thing that decides whether or not a meal was a success or that you were a successful parent in that experience?”

And this is maybe, the whole key. It is frustrating when kids don’t eat; when they don’t appreciate our effort; when they don’t seem to be developing the palates we expected them to have by certain ages. And we’re allowed to feel all of our feelings about that. But how much should that factor into how we or they experience a holiday? Does that mean we are not allowed to truly enjoy or “succeed” at Thanksgiving (or any other adult-oriented menu) until our kids can enjoy it with us? And what if they never get there? I’m reminded of how Evie Ebert had to stop framing her son’s pickiness as a problem to fix and it feels even more critical to make that shift around the holidays. Because I’ve interviewed adults who were labeled “problem eaters” as kids. And too many of them remember family holidays as days of failure.

Okay, but what if you’re chill about your kid only eating (so much) pie but other relatives might not be? Make a call or send an email today to let them know that you’re aware of their concerns, but want to take that off the table at Thanksgiving. The magic phrase I quoted in that NYT piece from Jenny McGlothlin, a feeding therapist at the University of Texas Dallas Callier Center and co-author of two fantastic books on picky eating is: 

“We know that Johnny is a pretty cautious eater, and we’re trying a no-pressure approach that’s working very well for him, so this year at Thanksgiving, please follow my lead.

Then if a comment inevitably pops out anyway, you can circle back: “Dad, please follow my lead on this.” 

The “Please follow my lead” ethos can also work as a boundary for more general conversations about diet and weight. You might say upfront: “We’re trying not to [food-shame/body-shame/talk about dieting] in front of the kids. We’d love it if you could help us out with this.” Then, reinforce as needed because this may not stop the comments. People are who they are. But: Your child will see you advocating for them, and that’s powerful. 

It’s also valid to set this boundary if you don’t have kids, of course: “I’m trying to steer clear of diet talk right now because I haven’t found it helpful. I’d love your support on this.” I’d start by having this conversation with a family member who could be an ally to you. Can they help deflect or run interference if the comments start up on Thursday? Or if they won’t be there, can they be on text support standby in case you need to take a break and vent about the weird thing your grandma said?

Consider whether it’s worth talking to your “worst offender” relatives ahead of time as well. At the very least, you might plant a seed, or at least find they are less shocked when you remind them that this topic is off limits for you. Ragen Chastain, a writer and fat activist now publishing the fantastic Weight and Healthcare Substack has put together a fantastic workshop on dealing with fatphobia at the holidays and you might want to just go watch the video right now. She’s also covered how to respond to holiday fat shaming here and here. (And will be my guest here on Burnt Toast next week!) 

Now here’s the thing: I am all for setting boundaries and I’ll give some version of this advice every year, forever, probably. Nobody needs to settle for abuse. But so many of these relationships exist in a gray area. It’s the aunt who taught you to swear and to shop, but also lives on SlimFast. It’s the grandpa who put you through college but will also never pick up a dirty dish in his life. It’s the cousin who plays so well with your kids but also never shuts up about Paleo. 

And it’s the mothers and grandmothers who have worked so hard to make this meal, and so many other meals. They have lived through decades of diet culture and they are now watching younger generations march towards fat acceptance and a more free relationship with food. Maybe, they are wondering why these options were never on the table for them. 

It is essential to find some degree of empathy for these people, and for these women, especially. Because we are not so different, after all. Millennials and Gen Xers are also deeply fatphobic generations, as I wrote here. (But Gen Z may save us all?) And part of why these conversations feel so impossible: We’re wrestling with our own biases and insecurities and our families are the people most likely to say the silent parts out loud. And sure, our mothers had Martha Stewart, but we have all of Instagram teaching us how to manufacture cozy season, as Kathryn Jezer-Morton puts it. 

So, yes to setting the boundaries. But also yes to doing our own work. Yes to appreciating the roads we didn’t have to walk, or that are made even the tiniest bit smoother by those who went before. And yes to questioning perfectionism in all of its many forms: The body talk, sure, but also in the expectations we put on this holiday, and on each other. 

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The Gift Of Good Email: In addition to encouraging you to buy gift subscriptions to my newsletter, I’m also going to spend the next few weeks telling you about the newsletters I subscribe to and think make excellent gifts. First up:

  • Anne Helen Petersen’s Culture Study invites us to think more about the culture that surrounds us. It’s perfect for your smartest, most analytical friend (the one who had their Bad Art Friend take figured out before you even read it).

  • Lyz Lenz’s Men Yell At Me is some of the best feminist writing on the Internet right now. Give it to your mom, if she’s the kind of mom you drink bourbon with, while yelling about politics and your lives.

(AHP and Lyz will both have their own Gift Of Good Email gift certificates up later this week, so you can give Culture Study and give Men Yell At Me, and wrap them up pretty, too.)

Still Hungry? I talked about Noom, the “ob*sity epidemic,” and white feminism with Tara Whitney, who is one of the best podcast interviewers I’ve ever chatted with. Listen here.