My family knows how to do Thanksgiving. It’s our holiday. It’s an extended family affair—dear friends make most of the food, my uncle makes a parallel vegetarian/vegan feast, we go through nearly a case of wine. Everyone seems to end up in heartfelt, jubilant conversations, or singing, or dancing. It’s my favorite way to spend time with my favorite people: cooking, eating, talking, connecting.
But my family has been steadily trickling away from my hometown, so last year, I opted to spend Thanksgiving with my dad’s side of the family & his friends. I couldn’t wait for the awesome, boozey, reckless good time that I’ve come to love so dearly with my mom’s side of the family. But as the day unfolded, it was clear that this was something else: something quieter, less comfortable, more reserved.
No matter. We’d get to the food and the wine, and the conversation would come. Once dinner was served, I sat down at one of the two tables in the dining room, between two family friends’ family members. The dishes began to make their way around the table, and I helped myself to a spoonful of mashed potatoes. A friend’s aunt leaned over and said, “you should start with the salad,” then, laughing, added, “and maybe finish with the salad! Just salad for you.” As she said it, she took the bowl of mashed potatoes from my hands.
My face flushed red, and I could feel myself recede beneath my skin. I felt so small and so big, cumbersome, unwieldy, all at the same time. I couldn’t seem to gather my thoughts, make my eyes focus, bring myself back to the conversation at hand. When I finally came to, I realized that other people at the table had taken notice. They were laughing.
I didn’t know what to do. I felt certain for a moment that I couldn’t move. When I tested my legs and realized I could, I got up and went for a walk in the rain. I came back just a few minutes later, but found myself struggling to participate. I wasn’t my usual hammy self—I just sat quietly, responded to small talk when it was directed at me, and disengaged.
I’m not generally a crier. But when I got home that night, I cried and cried. It wasn’t about what that one person said—it was knowing that that was the one person who said it. It was feeling as if everyone there came ready to laugh at me as soon as they were given the opportunity. And it was about the times—usually weekly, sometimes daily—that strangers, acquaintances, friends & family feel entitled to shame me in public.
For all the love and connection I got from my mom’s side of the family, I got just as much in alienation and dysphoria from my Dad’s. All I could think about was my body, my gender, and the widening chasm between how others see me and how I understand myself.
That’s what these moments of food policing mean to me. Despite being a generally take-charge lady in my personal and professional lives, when people voice those kinds of judgments, I feel completely and utterly powerless. It’s a flood of all my memories of being judged, excluded, or humiliated. And that’s true of many of us—these passing moments come to feel like combat, like unprovoked assault, like emotional violence. We get triggered. And we respond like people who are triggered—which, while absolutely valid, doesn’t always get the point across.
This year, I’m having Thanksgiving with my mom’s family. Will it be better? By a mile. Will it be free of food policing? Maybe not. Whether you celebrate Thanksgiving, Thankstaking, harvest, or something else entirely, holidays and family gatherings are prime times for these kinds of interactions. So here are some ways to respond to food policing wherever it comes up.
What food policing sound like.
Food policing ranges from official policies to unprompted remarks. Whatever form it takes, food policing seek to approve of certain behaviors and choices while dismissing, blaming or pathologizing others. Regardless of the intent of the speaker, food policing can have serious social and mental health impacts on individuals and communities. Food policing is there to remind you that your food choices and your body are not solely your own—that they are public property.
We’ve all heard it. Remarks on our food, usually unprompted “Are you going to eat all of that?” “If you want to feel full, you should just drink water!” They come out of nowhere, presuming that we’re on a diet, that we hate our bodies and desperately need to change them ASAP, that our plates are anyone else’s business.
Even comments that just refer to oneself can be food policing. “I’m being so bad!” “I’ll have to spend the next week in the gym.” “I shouldn’t, but I might just have to indulge!” While ostensibly about food, these statements have serious social/interpersonal impacts. They turn food into an issue of morality or personal responsibility. They make food into a battleground or a judgment day. They make a social statement about kinds of food that are acceptable (“good”) and kinds of food that are unacceptable (“bad,” “sinful,” “trouble”). Any which way, this kind of policing makes for fertile ground for eating disorders, and hostile territory for any kind of eating.
How to resist.
As with any oppressive moments, there are a few key ways to interrupt these challenging interactions. Here are some options:
- Affirm good intentions and identify impacts. “I know you’re trying to look out for me, but when you talk about my food choices publicly, it’s really embarrassing and it makes me feel powerless over my own experience.”
- Use humor. “It’s a good thing you said something. I was just going to keep eating until I passed out. I’m glad you stopped me from that.” “You know what’s on this plate isn’t the sole measure of my health, right?”
- Articulate your understanding of yourself. “I’m fat, and I’m pretty happy being fat—I don’t have a goal of losing weight.”
- Ask questions. “When you say that, what do you mean?” “When you say that, it makes me think you have some judgments about my body or my choices. Do you want to talk about them?” (Note: you should only use this method if you want to discuss their comments further.)
Whatever tactic you choose, be sure to make a clear ask. What do you want the person in question to do, do differently, or stop doing? Do they need to change their behavior? Read up and learn more? Think about their own experience or yours? Clear direction provides a path forward for the person you’re talking to, and it paves the way for follow-up conversations if that person doesn’t respond to your requests.
Things to remember, no matter what.
Thanksgiving is a holiday about eating. Shaming someone for eating at Thanksgiving is like shaming someone for opening gifts on Christmas. It doesn’t make any sense.
One meal isn’t the difference between being fat and being beauty-standard thin. No single meal determines your body size or shape. And even if it did, it’s nobody’s business.
Food policing is rooted in social scripts that are all about control. Food policing isn’t about helping anyone make healthy choices—if it were, it wouldn’t be so public or so passive aggressive, and it definitely wouldn’t hinge on one meal. This kind of policing presumes that you can tell how healthy someone is just by looking at them (congratulations, doctors, you’re out of a job!), that being fat or eating rich foods are failures of personal responsibility, and that it’s the job of those around you to remind you of those failings.
Setting boundaries and holding your family accountable can strengthen your relationship. Being clear about who you are and what you need isn’t a jerk move—it’s the cornerstone of any meaningful, reciprocal relationship. Don’t hesitate to have loving, clear conversations with your families. And if they’ve got some accountability for you, accept it thoughtfully. That’s how relationships adapt and grow.
As you move into winter holidays and more time with your family of origin &/or your chosen family, remember your favorite holidays, think about the relationships you aspire to have. Food policing doesn’t have to stand in the way of that. Create the environment you aspire to have with some caring, clear interruptions of fatphobia & food policing. That’s what I plan to do.