The Grandparents Are Not OK
How do I get my parents to stop talking about their diet in front of my child?
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OK, enough with the vague hype building! For now, let’s discuss one of the questions you have asked more than any other: What do we do about the grandparents?
Every time Rachel left the house as a teenager—to go to a friend’s house, to go to the mall—her mother would call out, “Be careful! Don’t eat anything!”
And most of the time, Rachel wouldn’t. She’d been writing out her own diets since she was five years old, sometimes under her mother’s supervision and sometimes in an effort to impress her mom, to show just how good she could be. Dieting was how Rachel (who has asked me to change her name) and her mom bonded. Sometimes it felt like the only way they bonded. And so together they tried medically supervised diets, they tried Weight Watchers, they tried a pizza diet. By 1989, the summer Rachel turned 14, her mom had started working for Nutrisystem, so Rachel tried that one too, for three months. She lost a bunch of weight, and celebrated the night before her birthday by eating an entire box of Teddy Grahams in secret.
The Nutrisystem diet didn’t last; Rachel re-gained the weight and now identifies as a fat adult who practices intuitive eating and works towards body peace, and towards silencing her mother’s voice in her head. When Rachel tells me about her mom now, her tone is mostly the kind of patient exasperation I imagine her perfecting even during her teenage years, slamming her way out of the house, away from the reminder to not eat. It’s the tone of someone who has recognized all the ways her mom’s belief system no longer feels true for her, but also knows that this is not a fight she can ever hope to win.
But Rachel becomes more emotional when she tells me how her mom talks about food and bodies, now, in 2021, to Rachel’s three kids. “If she sees me serve them strawberries, she’ll say, ‘that’s a good choice,’” says Rachel. “When we go to a restaurant, there is always a whole conversation about how she thinks the portions are so big, and she’s taking most of hers home to freeze.” And Rachel worries especially about how her mother talks to her 10-year-old Josie, who has recently come out as non-binary. Once, when Josie was five, Rachel’s mom spent an entire lunch explaining why she’d stopped eating carbs. “She was talking about herself, but it was clearly intended for Josie’s benefit. They are a big kid and they’ve struggled with it,” says Rachel. “And of course, my mother says to me, ‘well it’s because she’s obese, Rach! She’d be so much happier if she were slimmer!’”
The Grandparents Are Not OK
The second-most common question I am asked (after this one) is: How do I get my parents to stop talking about their diet in front of my child? The stories aren’t always about moms. One friend texted recently that her father-in-law was visiting, and she was braced for how he would inevitably spend dinner bragging about how much he was working out and how much weight he’d lost in front of her 8- and 4-year-olds. And although the comments are very often about a parent’s own diet, there are other flavors of this conversation. There are the parents who get weirdly competitive with their adult children—oh you just came back from a three mile run? I’m doing five miles every day!—or who can’t resist making jokes about fat celebrities or fat relatives. I once stood next to a total stranger in line at a restaurant bathroom, a woman in her mid-60s who was there with a table of adorable grandkids. A fat woman went into the bathroom ahead of us, and the grandma turned to me to say, “well, no matter how bad I feel about being old and fat, at least I know I haven’t let myself go like that.” And during my last book launch, whenever I signed books, I inevitably wound up in conversation with a grandmother who wanted me to absolve her of how much she had dieted or policed food when her kids were little. And yet at the same time: “My grandchildren are all so overweight,” one confided in me. “I don’t understand it. I’m sure it’s because their parents let them have snacks all the time. We never fed our kids like that.”
What we’re really dealing with here is the rampant and unexamined fatphobia of Boomers. Yes, of course, not all Boomers, though maybe a lot of them, as India Knight recently discussed. Concrete evidence on how fatphobia varies across generations is pretty hard to find. I dug up exactly one paper expressly on Boomers and body image; in the literature summary, the author notes that however women feel about our bodies (positive, negative or neutral), that feeling seems to hold steady as we age. Which translates to a lot of body-dissatisfied older women, of course: In this 2006 study of women aged 60 to 70 (so, maybe a mix of Boomers and Greatest Generation?), over 60 percent reported body dissatisfaction, with 56 percent dieting to control their weight. For men, dissatisfaction with muscles seems to be highest among 17-29 year olds but dissatisfaction with body fat rises with age, according to this 2014 study.
There is some good news: Across all age groups, self-reported attitudes towards body weight have moved towards “less prejudice” in the past decade, according to this 2019 analysis of over 4 million bias tests conducted online between 2004 and 2016. We’re also reporting less racism, ageism, ableism and homophobia. But: While bias against queer folks dropped by 49 percent in that time, bias against fat people dropped only 15 percent. And when the researchers tested for folks’ implicit biases (the bias you hold without recognizing it), they found that Boomers, Gen Xers, and Millennials are all becoming slightly more fatphobic as a population, not less. Gen Z was the only group improving on that front, so the children really are our future. (If you don’t believe Millennials have a lot of baked-in fatphobia, read this Anne Helen Petersen piece dissecting diet culture of the 90s and early 00s and prepare to be seen.)
But it does seem clear that Boomers tend to carry a lot of internalized weight stuff. And if the Boomer in question is your parent, it’s going to cut especially deep: Rachel’s other celebration/rebellion after going on the Nutrisystem diet was to buy her first tank top. “My upper arms have always been a thing for my mom,” says Rachel, now a 46-year-old divorced mom of three and a social worker living in Westchester near where she grew up. “She believes in covering up. ‘Flattering’ is her favorite word.” Even with the weight loss, the tank top did not pass the “flattering” test. Rachel wasn’t surprised. One of her earliest memories is of her mom saying, “oh, I knew you were going to be fat. You have your father's arms.”
How and why were these kinds of body comments normalized for Boomer parents? For starters, we have good evidence that the more experiences of weight stigma you have, the more distressed you are by them, and the more likely you are to internalize weight bias. Which means you’ll see weight loss as the best and only solution. Rachel confirms that her mom also grew up fat and remains tortured by that fact. “She still cringes if she sees pictures of herself from childhood where she has a belly,” Rachel says. “And she wears industrial strength Spanx every day.” Her mom thought she was being a good parent to Rachel by starting her weight loss journey early.
By the sheer fact of time, Boomers have lived through more versions of diet culture and been exposed to more cumulative weight stigma; which now all intersects nicely with their experiences of ageism. Consider that people in their 60s and 70s today spent their teens and twenties in the 1960s and 1970s. We all know about Twiggy, the 1960s supermodel who reinvented thin. Though what she mostly did was to be thin in shorter skirts. As I wrote last week, an unrealistically thin or otherwise controlled body has been revered in almost every culture across human history. But this was also the era of Betty Draper (not a real person but a nice composite of the pill popping, dieting mid-century housewife) and Betty Freidan (absolutely a real person, and a complicated one). Affluent white women were simultaneously aware that having the right body was a prerequisite to marry the American Dream—and that said Dream was not all it was cracked up to be.
By the 1970s, a lot of those same women were entering the white collar workforce in record numbers, with their shoulder pads and birth control pills. “Mother, you’ll be liberated!” Beezus says in Ramona And Her Mother, when Mrs. Quimby takes a job in a doctor’s office. In rereading the Ramona books with my own daughter a few years ago, I was sad to discover that Mrs. Quimby, who always seemed such a calm and reassuring presence to me as a child, is also on a diet and refusing dessert in every other chapter. So second wave feminism and modern diet culture rose up together. In some ways, they existed in opposition to one another: Although she’s since gone off the rails, Naomi Wolf was not wrong when she wrote that “dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one.” Plenty of women, like Rachel’s mom, continued to subscribe to the idea that landing a husband requires a thin body and is a woman’s most impressive accomplishment. And plenty of others chafed against those expectations—but could only fight so many battles at once. At a time when so many women and other marginalized folks were trying to be taken seriously in white, male-dominated spaces, it makes sense that we began to see the aggressive marketing of socially-sanctioned starvation. Of course, there were radical intersectional feminists and fat activists rejecting unattainable beauty standards back then (and their work is why I’m able to do what I do now). But for many folks trying to conform in order to succeed in a white, male-dominated workplace, championing the thin ideal probably seemed like the least of their worries while they also ignored the boss’s sexual harassment and blatant racism.
Then came the 1980s, when all of that swirling discourse around bodies and control, (and particularly who controlled female bodies) culminated in the onset of the modern “ob*sity epidemic.” Lower body weights became synonymous with health, while our national conversation around dieting and a “healthy diet” became more granular, with specific foods called out for their evil, ob*sity-promoting properties. Of course, what’s “in” and what’s “out” has changed over the past 35 years, from butter and bacon to white bread, then refined sugar, then all carbs, then processed foods, and so on. But the thing about diet culture is that whenever we replace one diet with another, there are a lot of people who never quite let go of the previous food fear. My dad still doesn’t quite believe he can eat eggs, decades after the science reversed on them. When we think about Boomers today—the grandparents asking for their lettuce wraps and their salad dressing on the side—we have to remember that this is a generation who was actively making food decisions for their households through the rise and fall of every one of these trends. It’s a little bit amazing they let themselves eat at all.
Changing The Conversation
This is not a defense of Boomer fatphobia. Real and lasting trauma is caused when parents berate their children’s bodies, or their own. Millennials who survived the diet culture of the 1980s and 1990s are correct to want something different and better for our own children. But I don’t think we can set boundaries with the grandparents if we don’t first understand the context for their comments. I’m giving you the bird’s eye view here, but it’s also worth asking why your own particular parent is so convinced that their worth is their weight. Why are they placing such value on the dubious accomplishment of making their own cauliflower rice? What hole are they trying to fill in this way?
You don’t need to solve those problems for them. But identifying them might help you gain some distance from their comments. And that’s helpful because the next thing you need to do is set your boundaries.
It’s okay to tell your mother that you love her but you cannot talk about weight or dieting with her.
It’s okay to tell your father that you’re not here for his fat jokes.
And it’s really okay to tell any adult your kids interact with that you don’t body shame or food shame in your house, and you need them to follow your lead.
You might have to define those terms; when I suggested this to my friend with the weight-loss bragging father-in-law, she pointed out that he doesn’t think of that commentary as “shaming” because he’s celebrating his “success.”
One gentle way in might be to mention that you’ve noticed your child becoming more body conscious recently, and so these are topics you’re working really hard to avoid at family meals and you’d appreciate Grandma and Grampa’s help. Others might need a more straightforward approach though. However you set the stage, know it will not be a one and done conversation. You’re simply laying the groundwork with the first boundary setting, so that when a comment inevitably comes up, you can jump in and say: “This is what we talked about. We’re not doing diet talk around the kids.” If you have a partner, co-parent, sibling or friend who will be there, loop them in ahead of time so they can also help enforce the boundary and redirect the conversation.
If your parent is prone to comments about your child’s weight or eating habits, you’re going to need to be even clearer with your boundary setting. I talked about how to set some helpful food boundaries in this piece, and they pretty much all apply to weight as well. When you do have to cut off a hurtful comment, stand in solidarity with your child: “We trust her to listen to her body.” “We trust his body to grow.” “We’re not worried about their eating/growth trajectory/jean size.”
Depending on your child’s age, you might also need to debrief with them afterwards. But especially with younger kids, odds are good that you are far more triggered by your parent’s words than they were by what their grandparent said. Because the person they’re really listening to in that conversation is you.
Which comes with its own set of pressures and complications: “I’m not confident I’m doing it right either,” says Rachel. She makes a point to stock the sort of snack foods that were forbidden when she was growing up and sets few rules around how her kids eat. And sometimes, she wonders if she’s going to the other extreme. “I know I’m reacting to my mother, in my parenting. But it’s hard, when the one person in the world who was supposed to love me unconditionally told me I’d be more valuable if I took up less space.”
School’s in session: TONIGHT I’m giving a virtual talk at Foote School on “The Pandemic, Diet Culture and Our Kids.” Anyone can attend, just RSVP here to get the Zoom link.
ICYMI: I had a great discussion about millennial fatphobia with Anne Helen Petersen and Sabrina Strings, PhD, on KQED’s Forum yesterday. We got into the intersection of diet culture and racism, weight/health myths and so much more. Listen here.
You’re reading Burnt Toast, a newsletter by Virginia Sole-Smith. Virginia is a feminist writer, and author of The Eating Instinct and the forthcoming Fat Kid Phobia. Comments? Questions? Email Virginia.
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