Have you ever experienced that uncomfortable, I-don’t-know-what-to-say feeling when you’re in a conversation that turns toward dieting?
Whether it’s a friend making the routine self-deprecating comment or a family member commenting on how he couldn’t possibly share your appetizer without bloating, it can be difficult to know how to respond.
Regardless of where you’re at on the diet/anti-diet spectrum, we can all benefit from learning to recognize and respond to diet talk. You might actually be a diet-talker, and that’s ok!
My hope is to shed some light on the reasons why we talk this way and to equip you to respond in a loving way, even if that only means responding to yourself.
What is Diet Talk?
“Diet talk” is any statement that elevates dieting as a solution to perceived problems with someone’s appearance and/or weight.
When people engage in diet talk, they almost always do so in reference to themselves. They may say things like:
- “All I’ve eaten today is an apple.” (expecting you to be impressed)
- “This girl I follow on Instagram is so thin.” (admiration implied)
- “I haven’t worked out all week – I’m disgusting.”
These are just a few examples, but you get the picture.
Diet talk can be difficult to hear, especially when you’re working on breaking free from the diet mentality and healing your own body image.
But diet talk is also a great opportunity to remind our fellow humans of their dignity and beauty.
Respond with Empathy
Before we discuss any verbal responses to diet talk, I think it’s important to first address what goes on inside our own heads and hearts when we hear a friend talk like this about themselves.
If you’re someone who is working to make peace with your body, you’ll likely start noticing diet talk all over the place. Diets are so normalized in our culture, and they’re a much more common topic of conversation than we even realize.
It can be tempting to become frustrated and even aggravated with people who bring diet talk into every conversation. I experience this temptation a lot. But what helps snap me out of that place of anger or frustration is remembering that I used to say those exact same things about myself.
The sad truth is that at this moment in time, diet culture is alive and well. It’s completely normal to dislike your body and to want to change it by dieting. It is, in my opinion, justified to be angry and frustrated at these cultural influences. It is counterproductive, however, to be angry and frustrated at the people who the culture is influencing.
Brene Brown, my favorite shame researcher, says empathy is the antidote to shame. People who talk negatively about themselves, whether or not they are aware of it, are experiencing shame. Diet talk craves an empathetic response.
So, how do you respond with empathy? According to Brown, empathy requires us to revisit that place of shame that exists inside each of us. And this can be tough work.
When I hear someone I love say something negative about their body or about wanting to lose weight, I feel a bit of righteous anger rise up in me – anger toward the cultural influences that have convinced this person they need to diet.
Then, I remember what it was like to feel that way about myself. This is the hard part because those feelings aren’t fun. But this puts me in the right frame of mind to empathize with the person sitting across from me.
Refute the Lie
When it comes to verbally responding to diet talk, I don’t believe there is one miraculous statement that will suddenly make every person see themselves differently and realize that dieting is a trap.
Every person’s situation, and every instance of diet talk, is different.
There is one core principle, however, that I think is the most important part of any verbal response to diet talk, and that’s refuting the lie.
What does that mean?
At the core of every type of diet talk exists a lie that the speaker is believing. Using the above examples, we can identify the lies at the root of each statement; click the statements below to uncover the lies:
“All I’ve eaten today is an apple.”
Eating less makes me better.
“This girl I follow on Instagram is so thin.”
If I was thinner, I’d be happier like her.
“I haven’t worked out all week – I’m disgusting.”
I’m bad for not working out.
This isn’t an exact science, but if you listen carefully, you’ll be able to hear the underlying belief implied by someone’s diet-talk statement. And if it’s unclear to you, ask questions to get a better idea of what’s going through their head.
Understanding the lie carves out a clearer path for your response. For instance, some sample responses to the above statements might sound like:
- Wow, you must be hungry! Is there a reason you haven’t eaten more today? (It’s a good idea to seek a better understanding of why someone says this rather than assuming.)
- Being thin isn’t everything.
- You’re not disgusting – I’d still love you even if you hadn’t worked out in years.
Don’t put pressure on yourself to always respond perfectly. People oftentimes say things like this about themselves without consciously thinking about it. Any attempt to refute the lies makes them stop and think about what they’re saying, and that’s a good thing.
State Your Needs
There are times when you may find yourself in frequent, close proximity with a diet-talker, whether it’s a parent, coworker, roommate, or significant other.
We obviously can’t control what others say or do, but if another person’s behavior or speech is impeding your own healing, you have the responsibility to share that with them.
When I was in the midst of recovering from disordered eating, I constantly talked about food, and I didn’t even realize it. Until, that is, my roommate at the time told me that my incessant blabber about food was making her feel self-conscious. I had no idea that I was hurting her, and I never would have known if she hadn’t told me.
If someone’s diet talk is driving you crazy, don’t be afraid to offer specific examples, discuss how such statements affect you, and make a kind request to limit those statements around you.
Whether or not people honor those requests is, of course, up to them. There may never be an end to diet talk, but you can always choose how you respond to it.
When you hear it, I invite you to be grateful for how far you’ve come in your own journey toward making peace with your body.
How do you deal with diet talk, whether it’s coming from others or from yourself? Let me know in the comments below.