"I stopped going home for vacations because my family constantly body-shamed me"
Strategies on how to heal and rebuild those burnt bridges
A study found that we tend to change our friends every seven years. If a friendship does last longer than that, it’s likely to last a lifetime. I’ve held onto my best friend for over a decade. But it took shifting cities, a pandemic, a lockdown and a long-distance friendship for us to realise that we had inherited the most toxic trait from our respective families. They say the colour of your eyes, hair, muscle and bone structure are the most common things passed down in a family, but I beg to differ. Our collective chronic condition is the unscratchable itch, that uncontrollable reflex to weigh in, pun intended, on someone else’s physical appearance.
I’d comment on his cheeks, he would retort on the size of my behind. His ‘chicken legs’, my jiggly arms; we’d poke and prod and comment in jest. But we remembered and held onto every comment made. After all, they were things we’d heard countless times from family members. It didn’t dawn on me until I travelled back home for the first time since the pandemic started. I avoided meeting him for weeks, the same way I’d avoid going to certain family members’ homes, not wanting to hear their taunts.
Getting body-shamed by family and friends is as common for desis as motichoor ladoos at a Diwali party. How can it be bad or insensitive to comment on someone’s appearance when all you wish for is their good health and wellbeing? What about the elders, who don’t follow Lizzo on Instagram — is it okay for them at least?
At my sister’s recent birthday celebration, I was among the handful of sober people present, and I admit that I took advantage of the liquid courage the others had gained. I asked our friends to think back and tell me the first thing family members say to them when they meet.
“It’s always something physical. I’ve either lost or gained weight. My skin is dull, or my hair is frizzy. They don’t like my nose ring,” said Aneesh Nayak, who consented to be quoted after he’d sobered up the next day. He couldn’t care less, he says, but recalls that his sister Shailija would constantly get body-shamed by family members while she was growing up.
Shailija describes herself as a “peppy potato” for whom it has taken years of self-work and therapy to build confidence and self-esteem. “My family is in Bengaluru, I came to Mumbai for college. During this time, I developed PCOS and put on a lot of weight. There was a lot of weird hair growth and acne that really took a toll on my mental health. Every holiday, when I went home, I’d get comments about how I looked.” While Aneesh supported Shailija, these expressions of concern from her family were too much for her — especially when she was already on a doctor-recommended regimen. “I stopped going back home and would give some excuse or the other to get out of family gatherings.”
She understands that the comments are largely well-intentioned. The people we love want us to do well, look our best, be healthy and happy. “But that doesn’t mean that it’s alright. We need to change this method of communication because these comments stay with you,” she says.
General practitioner Dr Anmol Singh and psychologist Antrakshi Kanoria concur that weight or size is not the best indicator of one’s health. “Weight is one factor. But the thinnest of people could have health issues, while someone who is bigger built might be in the pink of health. As a society, we haven’t broadened our understanding of what healthy means,” says Singh. He adds that so much of our body composition, how we store or burn fat, and body type is genetic. So if they want to start pointing fingers at you about your body, you can thank them for these genes.
Anuj* was terrified of coming out to his family. When one of his closest friends died by suicide, he decided he needed to fully embrace his identity and open up to his family. They took it well enough, he says, and with time, got more comfortable. Part of his mental health journey was also related to body image, as he gave up on restrictive dieting. “I allowed myself to indulge, let my hair grow out, and finally felt happy. I didn’t need to have muscles like Hrithik Roshan,” he explains. Instead of seeking external validation from his peers and family, Anuj decided it was time to focus on being healthy and happy.
He never imagined that his weight gain would become a more contentious matter in the family than his sexual orientation. At every gathering, there would be comments and ‘advice’ on workouts, diets, and more. “At first it triggered that same disordered thinking that I had worked so hard to shed in therapy. Maybe they are right, maybe I should go back to working out twice a day and only eat boiled eggs and crackers.” One uncle even asked him if his ‘new look’ was a “gay thing”. Anuj has stopped attending family gatherings altogether. “My parents are angry with me, they think I’m overreacting,” he says, counting himself lucky that he’s financially secure and living on his own, so he can draw these hard boundaries.
Kanoria, on the other hand, has had patients as young as nine years old develop disordered eating patterns and other mental health issues because of comments about their appearance. “Whether it’s a joke or a genuine question of concern, these things stick in your head long after the interaction. For years, it can linger and impact so many aspects of your behaviour and lifestyle choices,” warns Kanoria. Friends Ujjwal Singh and Neha Mathur, both 35, remember the first time someone commented on their body. “I wasn’t allowed to wear a swimming costume because my aunt thought my bum was too big for it. Even now I’m not comfortable with being in a swimsuit,” confesses Mathur. For a long time, Singh thought being called ‘Ladybug’ by her cousins was a cute nickname. She still hasn’t forgotten the day one of her cousins let it slip: “They gave me that name because I was short, round and dark, in their words.”
When the lockdown lifted and people started travelling to connect with family members, Kanoria says that several of her clients expressed anxiety and even anger about returning home. “Many of them refused to go because they were sick of the constant commentary, and unwillingness of the other person to listen when asked to stop.”
As Tweak founder Twinkle Khanna once said, the only thing free in life is bad advice. According to Kanoria, in most cases the family member thinks they are giving you guidance or a compliment when commenting on your appearance.
“Shame is not motivational. There are plenty of studies that prove how counterproductive it is in this situation,” she says. She also believes it’s not right to have to disconnect from your family or feel like you cannot go home to your support system. “With a little work, there’s never an age when you stop self-improvement.”
The onus shouldn’t be on the person having to deal with it, but in this case, we will have to take the first step towards change. If you have family members who get stuck on body talk, there are a few strategies we can employ to redirect the conversation, protect our mental health, and hopefully improve our family dynamics along the way.
5 ways to cope with getting body-shamed by family or friends
Silence speaks louder than words
When Romi uncle passes a ‘funny’ comment about the shape of your nose or your ‘healthy’ physique, your best response, according to Kanoria, can be no response at all. Let the silence speak louder than anything you could say. “Look them in the eye and pause. It shows them that you’ve heard what they said and you’re not amused nor enthused. It makes them question what they have said and think about it over and over again.”
If you do want to respond, she recommends asking for calm clarifications. “My nose is big? What makes you think so? I’m not sure I understand, can you explain again?” Such a tactic will make the other person feel like their ‘joke’ has fallen flat, in fact, you don’t find it amusing in any way. “In a way, you are trying to mildly embarrass the other person into not making such statements again,” add Kanoria. It’s a subtle yet effective way to communicate your disapproval without outwardly having to say anything.
Practice assertive communication
One way you can engage in effective communication about your feelings without making the other person feel attacked and go into fight mode is by practising what psychologist and author Emily Sandoz, an assistant professor at the University of Louisiana, calls assertive communication.
“It has three parts,” Sandoz said in an interview with Insider. “You state exactly what happened, and not in emotional or judgmental terms. Then you offer some vulnerability — actually state what that [comment] makes you think or feel. And then the third component is really saying clearly what you need from that other person.”
For example, you could say: “When you make comments about my weight, I feel hurt, and I feel like you care more about the way that I look than anything else I have going on in my life. I would like you to stop making comments about my appearance and ask me more questions about my job, hobbies or friends.”
Aggressive communication, on the other hand, isn’t likely to get you anywhere without some tu-tu main-main involved. Sandoz adds that going in with an aggressive stance doesn’t clearly express your needs and will turn the conversation into an argument rather than a discussion.
Have an advocate in your corner
There’s strength in numbers; for example, eating three french fries is always better than one. In this case, counselling psychologist Dr Ishina Choudhary, founder of Insight Alchemy, says that you should have someone in your corner. Someone to whom you can vent your emotions instead of bottling it all up and having it explode at inopportune moments. This confidante can be a friend or supportive family member who will be present when you’re trying to address a rude remark or accompany you to a family gathering you’re avoiding. Having a safe person in your corner can give you the extra confidence to speak up.
When you’re both on the same page, they can reinforce your needs, help you explain where you’re coming from, what you’re feeling, and what led to this discussion — especially if you get overwhelmed with emotion.
Let yourself get angry
Pretending you’re not feeling what you’re feeling is going to end up making you bubble and boil like a fried bhatura. Kanoria wants you to give yourself permission to feel all your feelings. Get angry, upset, sad or annoyed. “Accepting your emotions and letting them flow through you can help you face them better in the future. Suppressing your emotions can make us feel so much worse.” She’s not saying you should stew in a bathtub full of feelings, but accept, acclimatise, and then pull the plug to let it flow and move on.
No one should be required to grow a thick skin but in the big bad world we live in, realistically speaking, it helps to have one. Making yourself familiar with your feelings can also help you not get overwhelmed when you’re getting body-shamed by family. Instead, you will find yourself approaching the conversation more calmly, with your mental health protected and your point made.
Create a relationship priority list
The hard truth for us people-pleasers is that you can’t. You’re about to rock the boat of rules and it’s what we’re most afraid of. Just like when you tweet your opinion on which Godfather film is the best, be ready for the backlash.
We tend to fear negative reactions and overthink the extent of the possible ripple effect. “By not bringing up our feelings, emotions and boundaries, we’re saying, ‘I’m not going to stir the pot’. But it’s coming at a cost. I have to do this for the sake of my mental health even if it comes with chaos,” says psychotherapist Rhea Kishnani. Get comfortable with making someone else uncomfortable.
Kanoria advises first assessing how important this relationship is in your life. Based on that, you need to decide how deep you’re willing to get into the matter. Is this a distant cousin you meet only at family weddings so you wouldn’t mind offending them a little bit? Is it your grandmother who isn’t able to understand why you’re upset?
When you’re trying to address getting body-shamed by family, it can be a tremendous exercise in boundary setting (this guide can help). Making peace can mean creating space, or accepting that some people are never going to change, and that indulging in the conversation is a wasted effort.
Kanoria says it’s worth addressing, especially if this is someone you’re close to. Resentment is a bitter pill that festers in your gut, popping up like acidity every time you meet this person. There’s only so much you can ignore before it comes out as uncontrolled, emotional word vomit. It’s not a pretty picture, but given generational differences and evolving conversations on mental health, physical health and identity, talking about something like this doesn’t have to be as messy as you fear. With a little mental preparation, these strategies could be the Pudin Hara you need to get some relief.