How to Respond When Somebody Comments about Your Food or Your Body
Allow me to introduce you to two hypothetical characters on the extreme ends of a spectrum: Extreme Mean and Means Well.
Extreme Mean is someone who’s being intentionally mean. They know it’s mean, you know it’s mean, everybody knows they’re mean. They don’t try to hide it. They might think it’s funny. But it’s definitely not “all in good fun.”
Means Well is someone who’s well-intentioned but doesn’t know how to help well. And by this I mean they actually care about you and want your best.
(Remember, we’re talking about extremes here. There’s a mix of both in the real world)
Because this is such a big topic, with many possible scenarios, we’re talking about two extreme examples so you can put together a strategy that works for you in any situation that falls between them.
Sometimes the Extreme Mean sounds like Means Well, but they’re not the same. When Extreme Mean says “Oh, I was just trying to tell you to be healthy because I care about you,” they don’t mean they care about you, they want to cover up or excuse their comment as “concern.”
Means Well will say the same, but actually be confused. They genuinely thought this was the best way to express their care for you. If they knew it was harmful in any way, they’d try to change the way they’re acting or talking, they just don’t know how to be helpful or they don’t know that it’s not helpful in this moment.
How to Respond When Somebody Comments about Your Food or Your Body
- Look for opportunities for discussion vs debate
- Remember that discussions take energy
- Find the common ground
- Respond in a way your future best self will like
- Change the subject
- Refuse to play the game
- Remember that it still hurts sometimes
- Recognize patterns
- Create and practice your own strategy
Look for opportunities for discussion vs debate
One of the biggest things to look for is the opportunity for Discussion vs Debate. Discussion is a conversation, debate is a battle.
A debate is where one person faces off against another person with an opposing view and the goal is to convince the other person to be on your side. There’s no middle ground, and there’s a whole lot of not listening–except to plan your rebuttal. Debates also have a winner and a loser.
In a discussion, there’s a conversation with lots of listening. There’s no expectation to convince the other person to join your side, you’re just sharing your experiences and listening to theirs.
So if you feel there’s an opening for a discussion with Means Well, then the next step is to decide whether it’s actually worth it for you, in this moment, to engage in that discussion.
Remember that discussions take energy
It may be the end of a long week and you’re so tired and so overwhelmed and you’ve had 300 people commenting about your weight and your eating habits, and this is now the One Last Thing.
Even if Means Well actually would be totally open to a discussion, if you’re not in a place where you’re actually going to be able to educate, calmly and politely discuss, or even say “That wasn’t very helpful, can we talk about something else?” – then don’t do it.
You can simply say something like, “I’m so glad you care about me,” and then move on. This is an example of seeking the part you can agree on (even if implied, not explicitly stated).
Find the common ground
In a situation with Means Well, you probably have more common ground than not common ground.
So if this is our most extreme Means Well and it’s a healthy relationship, but they just don’t know how to express that in a way that is how actually helpful for you, finding common ground and simply thanking them for caring could be an appropriate and healthy response.
There could also be a lot of other responses, but I like and use this one personally because it makes them feel heard and understood. I’m not arguing or even addressing the other part of the comment. (Although, if they keep bringing it up, then I might say something, but if it’s one and done, I just thank them and move on). And thankfulness helps because I emphasize the good, and the negative loses some of its importance.
Respond in a way your future best self will like
We’re not perfect, but in general, it’s always a good idea to try to respond in a way that the best version of your future self will look back on and say, “Oh, I’d still do that in the same way.”
So retract those claws, even if you’re going with a more pointed statement (whether for Means Well or Extreme Mean). In this case, we’re not looking for a confrontation, but for a helpful way to move forward.
For Means Well, if you choose to respond to the comment, you might say something like, “I’m really thankful you care about me. It might be even more helpful to…” This gives them a different way of expressing their care, love, or concern, so that you’re both happy.
Change the subject
Maybe they said, “Do you really want to eat that? I know you’re trying to eat mindfully, and it’s your third one.”
You could reply and say, “It’s so nice that you listened when I mentioned I was trying mindful eating. Actually, mindfulness has really helped me in another way…”
And now you can talk about anything else you want to talk about, or even substitute some other way of helping that you’d appreciate more (“…mindfulness has made more more aware in general, and I realize that what would be more helpful is if you keep me accountable for how I’m doing on the job applications, because I’m looking for a new job right now”).
Refuse to play the game
Changing the subject also works well for Extreme Mean, who wants to get under your skin, to cause an impulsively emotional reaction.
While some might say it’s always beneficial to call out bad behavior at the moment it happens, I feel like in real world scenarios, this can sometimes aggravate the situation. Even if you have the right to stand up for yourself (because you always have the right to stand up for yourself) you might make a different choice to protect yourself from further harm.
If you do decide to call them out on their comment, try to do it without playing their game. Here’s what that might look like: calmly saying that’s not okay and setting and enforcing your boundaries without engaging in debate.
Remember, we don’t want to sink down to insulting them back. Depending on who’s saying it, if there’s a middle situation between the extremes, you could say something in a pointed but respectfully joking way, but if it’s going to go over as an insult, maybe consider not saying it. Be aware of the situation.
We don’t want to cause harm, because that’s what’s happening to you already, and you don’t want to just push that back to others. If you’re expecting to be treated kindly, I hope that you’re also extending kindness toward other people.
Kindness doesn’t mean being a doormat. You don’t have to engage at all. You could walk away. That’s not a rude behavior in that moment, when everyone knows Extreme Mean is being just that. If you want, you could do a little transition out of that conversation, but it’s never rude to enforce your boundaries or to expect that you’re treated with respect.
Remember that it still hurts sometimes
Even with these strategies, the words and the emotions caused by the words don’t’ automatically go away. Comments, whether they’re well-intentioned or not, can hurt. Sometimes you’ll be able to say something in the moment (“Ouch, that was hurtful”), and sometimes you’re going to have to package them up to hold on to for later when you can safely unpack them.
But in all of this, I want to remind you:
- you are worth having boundaries
- you are worth enforcing those boundaries
- you are worth standing up for yourself
- you are worth taking a break when you don’t feel like you can engage
If you’re always choosing to disengage and distance yourself, you might want to look at patterns. Are these specific friends that maybe you need to spend less time with and consider new friends? Or maybe this is a specific repeated trigger for you.
For example, I’ve had comments in the past that have really made me feel like I don’t belong, so every time I get another that makes me feel this way, I react really strongly, way more than the situation calls for. Part of being able to respond in an appropriate way to the situations I face moving forward is to learn to deal with the past situations, to heal those hurts.
We all have experiences that we bring with us, but many of us are still responding to the memories of past experiences, and that informs the way we respond to future experiences.
Quick note: It might not be about you at all
Maybe it’s about them, the motivation for their comment is really more about “I don’t know how else I’m supposed to be helping so I’m gonna try this comment.” Or maybe making the comment makes them feel more in control of a situation they feel out of place in.
Whatever their motivation, their intentions, thoughts, and comments are their responsibility. Your responsibility is how you respond.
Create and practice your own strategy
You probably have some example in mind, in the past or an ongoing situation, that may be helped by some of these strategies. Now it’s your turn. Take what stands out most for you and start to develop a framework of your own. It can help to practice thinking through situations before they come up, so that you’ll have more confidence and it won’t feel as new in the moment.
If you want more specific ideas of how to respond (some actual words to say) I have a resource for you called Silencing the Food Police 25+ Ideas for when People Overstep Your Boundaries. They’re a mix of polite, bold, and somewhat snarky comments meant to spark your own ideas, and there’s some room on that pdf to start working on your own responses.
Share in the comments (or message me privately if you don’t want to share publicly): What do you do when someone comments about your food, weight, or body?