Yesterday, we explored ways to avoid engaging in what I call "shame speech" during the holiday season. In truth, these tactics should be used year-round but it always seems that we need some extra encouragement when the Christmas cookies and distant relatives join the party.
When I use the term "shame speech," I am referring to comments, whether they be about food, body, mental health, or otherwise, that stem from a source of shame within the speaker. This kind of talk might be experienced outright through the act of shaming you or themselves (as you probably imagine when you hear that term) by making a derogatory comment about appearances or habits. It might also appear less blatant.
Shame speech as I am referring to it can be subliminal. Backhanded compliments, omission, selective praise, and sarcasm are just a few of the ways I see people engaging in covert shame speech on a daily basis. For example, making excessive comments about a thin person's (such as a celebrity) appearance being attractive may not be harmful on its own but when it is done to such a degree or in such an intense way that it starts to diminish the value of other, less thin people (including the speaker themselves or the person the speaker is talking to), that's shame speech. You've probably been there before. Remember during the Game of Thrones watch party when So-and-So wouldn't stop talking about Khaleesi's body? We get it. She's hot. But when you had to pause the show because they just couldn't stop talking about those abs? Did it start to make you squirm and leave you feeling a little shitty? Yeah. THAT. These moments are hard to describe, but we always know them when we see them. It's like bullying. You can bully someone without using hateful speech and you can feel hate without hearing it.
As mentioned in the first post of this series, I find that I experience this less in groups of people who are comfortable expressing imperfection and vulnerability. When someone starts putting down their own or someone else's bodies, they're usually looking for validation of some sort.
So what do you do when one of your family members or friends starts engaging in diet-talk or body shaming at the dinner table? How do you respond to negative or leading comments about someone's appearance or eating habits? Here are four tips for reacting to "shame speech":
1. Have a Conversation
If someone close to you, someone that you'd like to maintain a positive relationship with, is engaging in language that makes you feel uncomfortable, it's probably worth breaking down. It doesn't have to happen in the moment. It can be days later after sending one of those awkward "hey, can we talk?" text messages. Whenever you find the courage, explain how those words make you feel and make a request for your friend to avoid using them around you. When someone is given a specific course of action, it can be easier for them to oblige and thus begin their path to softer, less-harmful language.
2. Don't Engage
Sometimes no reaction is the best reaction out there. This doesn't necessarily mean giving everyone the silent treatment when they start talking about weight loss or commenting on your dinner portions. Choosing not to acknowledge a negative remark or changing the subject can send a powerful message. When we continually don't get the results we want from something, we eventually change our course of action (or give up). Whether the person making the comment is looking to gain power over others by putting them down or is maybe looking to be validated through self-deprication, your silence can send them elsewhere.
3. Employ your Empathy
After stomping your feet temper-tantrum style and muttering "ugh"because taking the high road can be hard, try putting yourself in their shoes. It's easy to react to shame speech with anger and volition because it strikes at our weaknesses or the weaknesses of the people we love. That's why it's important to be aware of. However, not everyone is aware as you are. It's possible that the person speaking in this manner doesn't quite realize the cause or the effect of their words. Or, even if they do, they might not be ready to talk about it.
4. Lead by Example
Sometimes you can set the tone before the shame speech even occurs. If you're entering a scenario where you've dealt with this kind of talk in the past, be proactive in changing the script. When you start conversations about affirming and interesting topics, you're setting an example. If you're forced to leave the anti-diet or anti-shaming bubble you've built yourself, be the person who starts a new one for others. As you continue to fill the space with meaningful conversation all that shame-ridden diet-talk and body commentary will drift further into the back of the conversation vault. Here it will stay and gather dust from lack of use until, eventually, it fades away for good.