The comment was, in a nutshell, a joke encouraging me over exercise because 'it's the holidays, after all!' This mindset drives me nuts. I find it especially toxic during a time of year when most of us are busier than normal, thus struggling to stick to our self-care routines, and regularly facing food pressure.
Of course, this person didn't know that I used to suffer from an eating disorder. Nor did they need to. The bottom line is that comments like the one I received can be detrimental to everyone's experience, not just folks with ED. Additionally, between people feeling guilty about holiday treats and looming New Year's resolutions, 'tis the season for "shame speech" to really stack up.
Jokes of this nature or "harmlesss" comments about weight, food, and exercise almost always stem from a seed of guilt or insecurity rooting in the person making it. I rarely experience these moments in groups of people who are comfortable enough with themselves to express imperfection, emotion and vulnerability. Almost always, the comic in question is searching for some kind of connection through mutual admissions of shame or they are testing the waters as a way of understanding their own beliefs or insecurities. For example: this was not the first problematic comment about exercise that I've received. Not by a long shot. As an indoor cycling instructor and person with a strong relationship to movement, I'm well acquainted with jokes about running off food, someone being lazy in comparison, etc. etc. Over the last year, I've become more intentional about the way I hear and respond to this sort of talk. For most of my life I would have given a half-hearted chuckle and changed the topic. Now I try to redirect the comment to address the shame without necessarily pointing fingers at or calling the speaker out. For example, if someone says something like: "Well of course you don't have to worry about eating that, you can just cycle it off in class tomorrow." I might respond with, "You know, it's funny, I don't really look at my cycling as a way of earning or burning my food. I find I love it so much more when I do it for other reasons." By responding this way, my experience is that the speaker either sees my response as an invitation (the one they were looking for) to have a conversation about what they've been struggling with, feel reaffirmed in the belief they were questioning (i.e. that they don't have to work out in order to eat what they want), or admit that they didn't realize their comment held those implications. Either way, it feels a lot more productive than ignoring them or, the worst-case scenario, letting their comment trigger my own insecurities or ED habits.
So while you work to remember that you're free to eat and move however you want this holiday season, let's also remember that it's important to navigate conversations without adding stress and pain to other people's lives as well. Here are four tips for avoiding shame speech this season.
1. Look Inward
This one might sound the obvious but let's put it into practice. Let's go back to that office party dessert table. As you reach for a cookie, your co-worker Alex approaches the table. You open your mouth to say something like "Don't mind me! Just packing it on for the New Year's resolutions!" or "Guess I'll see you at the gym tomorrow to work these off!" Ask yourself why is your immediate reaction to punish or justify the activity that both you and Alex are currently engaging in? Are the cookies making your feel out-of-control? Are you feeling unhappy with your physical appearance or your worthiness at work? Last, are these thoughts that you want to discuss with this person or potentially instill in them? If you realize that you're feeling guilty for eating the cookie, perhaps it would be more useful to take note of that internally and engage Alex in a totally non food-related topic.
2. Redirect the sentiment
So you're feeling shameful, confused, or insecure about something. The easiest and quickest way to express that might be in a potentially harmful and misguided joke. However, what's that really going to get you? You'll feel a tiny bit of release but then, as the room chuckles in unison and most likely fails to address the underlying sentiment, you'll be left with the same lingering feelings. Try putting your feelings out there in the form of a question or personal admission instead. "Don't you just feel like you have to workout even more during the holidays?" or "I personally struggle with feeling like I need to overcompensate at this time of year" is a much more constructive way asking for help or searching for understanding. By asking a question or using a personal statement, you're leading with vulnerability and openness. Your audience will be more receptive to the conversation and more likely to meet you with vulnerability and openness in return.
3. Keep on the Sunny Side
You don't always have to be positive but if you're not in a situation where vulnerability feels like an option, sometimes it's the best coping mechanism. Try replacing that shame-ridden sentence you're about to fire out with something positive instead. If you're starting to feel guilty about your lazy day at home, try saying "What a refreshing feeling to not have anywhere to be!" rather than "I'm being a lazy piece of sh** today." If food guilt is creeping in as you reach for one of Mom's Christmas cookies, why not tell her that her cookies are delicious rather than moo-at and berate yourself for eating them. Simply switching to more positive language may not be a long-term fix for the underlying feelings you are experiencing, but it might help you to start associating those moments with more positive feelings. You will also be creating a warmer and safer environment for those around you.
4. Be More Interesting
This sounds harsh but let's be honest: diet conversations are boring. So is negative self-talk. As I get older, I find myself having less patience for teasing and taunting in group settings because not only is it harm-in-disguise but it's boring. I've found that there's almost always something more interesting to discuss than making fun of someone's new sweater or haircut. Likewise, there's probably something better to talk about than how you should all feel guilty for engaging in the activity that you're likely doing at that very moment. It's one thing to discuss your vulnerability and insecurities among friends who've elected to hear them or to have an open conversation with willing participants (re: Number Two) but tossing out inadvertant comments about food and body choices is a great way to lull stimulating conversation. Judith Matz said it well in Everyday Feminism when she suggested that you “Avoid diet conversations: They are boring, encourage competition among women, and keep you from knowing your true nature and spirit.” Ask about their kids, toss out a fun-fact or, when all else fails, use that pocket party-story you've been saving.
- This post is the first in a two part series. Today we'll be talking about avoiding shame speech ourselves and tomorrow I'll be giving you tools for responding to shame speech from others -