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Help! My Family Keeps Making Weird Food Comments Around My Kids

You can’t control what’s said around your kids, but you can control how you respond.

by Nancy Reddy
Originally Published: 

Maybe, like me and so many women I know, you love your mom, but the way she talks about bodies drives you nuts. Maybe you’re dealing with a grandmother sharing the details of her latest new diet over breakfast, or a grandfather whose exercise regimen is a constant subject of discussion. Maybe your aunt casts a judging eye on your kid’s second helping, or your mother-in-law can’t help herself from commenting on your kid’s size.

Like so many of us, I grew up with really wild and conflicting ideas about bodies and size. My grandmother would serve her granddaughters bacon and Entenmann’s coffee cake while singing the praises of the new WeightWatchers Points system for easy weight loss. It’s what inside that counts, I was always told, but are you really sure that dress is flattering? I have no doubt that the wild fatphobia of the ’90s would have found me one way or another — we all remember heroin chic and low-rise jeans and Atkins and SnackWell’s. But it’s especially inescapable when fatphobia starts at home.

And now that I’m a mom, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to talk about bodies and size and weight differently with my own kids. Like so many mothers of my generation, I’m trying to nurture a kinder relationship to my own body at the same time as I work to shield my kids from the worst elements of diet culture.

Whatever the particular challenges in your family, these conversations have consequences beyond just body image, and they matter for thin kids as well as fat kids. No one’s done more to help me understand this, and taught me to think better about bodies and food than writer Virginia Sole-Smith. Her wildly popular newsletter, Burnt Toast, is required reading for anyone trying to divest from diet culture and anti-fat bias. Sole-Smith describes Burnt Toast as “a place where we lead with science, but we also interrogate the anti-fat bias that is rampant in science.” (Burnt Toast is also just a really great read — it’s got deeply reported pieces on issues like the new AAP Guidelines around pediatric obesity alongside interviews with smart folks and Jeans Science, one of my favorite features, which concluded, after exhaustive research into jeans at every price point that “the science is in: all jeans are bad.”)

In her new book, Fat Talk: Parenting in the Age of Diet Culture, Sole-Smith aims to reshape our conversations around food and weight so that “fat” is no longer a powerful insult to hurl at others or ourselves. Against our culture’s fatphobic insistence that “fat” is the worst thing a body could be, Sole-Smith encourages us to see fat instead as “a perfectly fine way to have a body.”

Reading Fat Talk inspired me to think more deeply about having better fat talks with the people in my own life. I talked to other moms about their own struggles with confronting fatphobia in their family and came away with strategies you can use at your next family gathering, or wherever else food and fatphobia might show up.

Be mindful of what messages you’re passing on.

Emily-Erin’s kids are just 2 and 4, but one message she’s worked really hard to share with her kids is that “your body is not your enemy.” Growing up in an evangelical family, she was taught primarily that her body was something to be covered up and ashamed of, an instrument of temptation to men. Now, as a fitness instructor and doula, she’s noticed how much of our narrative postpartum has to do with controlling the body. “I’m just not willing to tell my kids that they need to be at odds and at war with their physical body their entire life,” she told me. Since her kids are so small, this plays out in really practical ways, particularly in how she asks them to pay attention to what they’re experiencing in their bodies. Rather than telling them to finish their dinner, she’ll say, “How’s your belly feeling?”

Another mom, writer Amanda Montei, who writes the newsletter Mad Woman and is the author of the forthcoming Touched Out: Motherhood, Misogyny, Consent, and Control, helped me think about the longterm consequences of teaching our kids their bodies need to be controlled. She argued that fatphobia is a tool of misogyny and explained, “If I want my kids to feel a sense of autonomy, that means I can’t get away with forcing or restricting certain foods.” Like Emily-Erin, Amanda wants her kids to focus on listening to their own bodies, rather than looking for external approval.

Conversations like this, about how our bodies feel, rather than just how they look, can give kids important resources for navigating diet culture.

Shut down weird comments in the moment — quickly.

You can’t control what’s said around your kids, but you can control how you respond. You can make sure your child always hears you stick up for them.

If you’re facing more direct comments about your body or food choices, or your kid’s, feel free to shut that right down. I like the zippy “No thank you!” one mom told me she uses when her dad, say, praises her 5-year-old for her snack choice of “tasty and low-cal” strawberries.

In Fat Talk, Sole-Smith suggests a quick “Oh, let’s not talk about weight!” said in the same breezy way you might try to move right past a political conversation you don’t want to have. I’ve found so many of Sole-Smith’s script suggestions really helpful: “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.”

My favorite all-purpose response comes from a mom, Britton, who shared that her own mom has come a long way, but it had to start with a firm shutdown: “We don’t talk about bodies like that.” She says she repeated that over and over until it finally sunk in, and she was able to elaborate: “All bodies are good bodies, all bodies are worthy of love and care. We don’t talk about our bodies with anything but love.”

Head off the comments ahead of time.

If you’re concerned that your child’s eating habits or size will be the target of discussion at an upcoming gathering, Sole-Smith suggests heading it off (or trying to) with a conversation before the event. If you’re as conflict-avoidant as I am, this might sound wildly stressful, but if you’re armed with a breezy tone and some prewritten scripts, setting boundaries ahead of time can be both easier and more effective.

Having a preemptive conversation like this also frees you up to respond quickly in the moment, since you can say something like, “This is what we talked about — no calorie talk at dinner!”

Talk to your kids afterward.

If you’re not up to tackling diet talk or body comments directly with your own parents, you can make sure you check in with your kids after the fact. Sole-Smith argues that talking to our kids is more important anyway, and encourages a “debrief” after a meal that involved a lot of diet talk from a grandparent. You don’t need to blame or shame or put limits around their relationship with their grandparent, but you can offer your own take on what they’re hearing.

For me, the trickiest thing to handle is the kind of ambient fatphobia that shows up so often in our parents’ generation — a quick comment about who should or shouldn’t be wearing a particular kind of bathing suit on an otherwise lovely beach day, or about having “earned” dessert with a long walk or a “good weigh-in.”

Teresa, a mother of two kids in Vancouver, British Columbia, also has one of those Boomer moms. When her mom says something negative about her own body, Teresa doesn’t always directly respond, or replies with, “I think you’re beautiful.” Eventually, it spurred a conversation with her children. “I’ve told my kids that my mom grew up in a time and place that didn’t value how gorgeous she really is, and she internalized that. When they hear her say stuff about dieting and fatness, they need to have compassion because she grew up in a misogynistic climate,” she says.

We can have empathy for a generation that grew up with truly destructive ideas about bodies and weight and health — while also working hard to limit our kids’ exposure to those ideas. As Sole-Smith notes in her book, “We don’t need to excuse or downplay the harm caused when older relatives make fatphobic comments. But putting their comments in this larger context can help us find compassion for the ways they’ve struggled to feel safe in their own bodies.”

Ultimately, there’s no one right way to have a fat talk. The same way you wouldn’t try to have just one official “sex talk,” Sole-Smith explains, the fat talks we need to have with our kids and our loved ones aren’t just one-and-done, but an evolving, long conversation. One thing I’ve found really helpful is the reminder that we’re our kids’ most important point of contact for how we think about bodies and how we uncouple thinness from our value as people. What matters most is how we talk to our kids, and how they see us talking about ourselves. If you start with kindness — for your kids and their growing bodies, for our own imperfect parenting, and for the sometimes tricky ways the people we love talk about bodies — you’ll be well on your way.

Nancy Reddy is the author of Pocket Universe and co-editor of the anthology The Long Devotion: Poets Writing Motherhood. Her first book of nonfiction, The Good Mother Myth, will be published by St. Martin's in 2025. She writes the newsletter Write More, Be Less Careful, about why writing is hard and how to do it anyway.

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