How to Exit Diet Culture Conversations Without Losing Friends
For your mental health, growth, and well-being.by Miranda Martin
For anyone struggling with their body image, diet and weight loss conversations by friends and strangers alike can be triggering.
Positive affirmations given for food restriction creates a norm where weight loss is part of our culture and universal. This can push people trying to break out of restrictive behaviors to jump back into bad habits.
“A lot of my clients are deep into a severe eating disorder, and hearing that kind of language can tap into that whole pattern and old language they have within themselves, saying, ‘Oh my gosh if they think they should be doing this, do they think that I should be doing this?'” said Cristina Hoyt, an integrative clinical nutritionist and body image coach.
Even if you’re practicing positive self-talk internally, hearing negativity around you makes it difficult to ignore these messages.
“Diet culture is so pervasive, it’s the air we breathe in this culture, so something that someone could consider completely benign could actually be a risk for somebody who is trying to heal,” said Megan Black Uy, a licensed mental health counselor.
You can unfollow negativity on Instagram and stop buying magazines that promote weight loss to avoid certain words and images, but how can you tell the people around you that their negative diet talk and body shaming is harmful?
Let your social media do the work
One way to avoid these conversations is to warn others ahead of time that you don’t want to partake, especially in online spaces.
“The fact that I’ve been really active on social media channels about my relationship to my body has screened out the necessity of having those conversations, because people see that from me and know that I’m not going to be a part of their body shaming,” said Amelia Hruby, author, PhD candidate, and micro influencer in the body-positive space.
It doesn’t have to be just on social media, either: you can let your life speak for you in many different ways, such as doing a presentation on diet culture at school or work, decorating your room with models of every size, and more.
If you make your stance clear, it will force people to rethink conversations that they know you won’t agree with or stand for.
“All of my friends know from my work to not have those conversations with me because I’m not here for it,” said Leah Vernon, an inclusive content creator, public speaker, and plus-size hijabi model.
Tell others how you’re feeling
Though it can be difficult, being open and honest with people helps them understand how you're feeling and why it’s important for them to stop.
“Coming from a place of self-vulnerability can be really empowering to people.
"Something as simple as, ‘I’m creating a better relationship with myself, food, and my body, and this kind of talk just doesn’t do well for me,’” said Hoyt.
Those perpetuating the diet talk may not know how their statements make others feel until you speak up. If you’re able to, sharing your personal experience can let them see your point of view.
“It can be really helpful to share any stories of how and why diet talk impacts you negatively...I find that in closer relationships, people are able to understand that feeling and respect it,” said Hruby.
Keeping your tone positive rather than getting defensive will help you get your point across. It can also help the other person examine their own relationship with their body and diet culture.
“I give the benefit of the doubt to people and educate them, because fatphobia and diet culture is so ingrained in our society...for some people it’s hard for them to see that it’s not right, and it’s fatphobic, and it’s body policing, it’s not feminist at all," said Vernon.
"But if they continue, then there’s the next level where I don’t think I can have that relationship, because I’ve explained how this is triggering for me and you still keep doing it."
Set firm boundaries
Being open and vulnerable about the situation is a good first step, but if people aren’t respecting your request, you may need to set a firmer boundary or leave the relationship completely.
“You want people around you who have the same values as you, or at least care about some of your values, and if these types of things harm you, you probably don’t want to be around them anyway,” said Vernon.
If the person is repeatedly asked and won’t stop, you may need to leave the relationship completely.
“You need to be okay setting boundaries, saying ‘This person’s life is diet talk, and it’s not my life, so we’re probably not going to mesh. We can still be cordial.’ That’s just self-preservation, honestly,” Vernon said.
If a close family member or housemate is at fault, it might be easiest to stop explaining how you feel, and just set a hard boundary with a simple, direct statement.
“I have a client who really beautifully stated, ‘My body is not up for discussion.’ Or ‘Thank you for your concern, but I’m more than my body.’
"If they don’t respect the boundary, you can say ‘I’m going to leave this conversation, I’m not going to talk to you about this,’” said Hoyt.
Though setting hard boundaries is difficult, preserving your mental health is more important than any relationship where someone doesn’t respect you.
What about at work?
Leaving diet conversations at work is difficult, but you need to feel comfortable in your work space.
Unfortunately, traditional offices are one place where diet culture is frequently found.
“In [work] instances what I’ve found to be effective is one of two things: speaking to my coworkers that I feel most comfortable with and trying to start a conversation at the peer level organically, or going to whoever is in charge of gatherings and trying to have a conversation about if there’s a way to do these events differently so they don’t feel...so stigmatizing around certain foods in the office space,” said Hruby.
Though the professional space is more delicate, it can be helpful to approach your coworkers the same way you would a friend, by giving them the benefit of the doubt and trying to provide solution-focused explanations.