Dear Virgie: How Do I Deal With my Mom’s Fatphobia and Concern Trolling?
I just wanted to say THANK YOU for all of the amazing (and VITAL) work you do for fat people. Thank you.
My mom is convinced that weight inevitably leads to (early and otherwise avoidable) death. She cites older people’s hip replacements and knee surgeries and losing feet as indisputable proof that fat will — always no matter what — lead to physical health problems and death.
This hurts because she doesn’t actually know what the people who have surgery go through. One of her coworkers died and he had diabetes. She was shaken up, but she told me that it motivated her to “get healthy.” And that’s so gross to me. Forget what these people actually go through, what really matters is that they can “motivate” you.
I don’t know what to do or say to her, or if I should say anything at all. It hurts me to be around her when she talks about this.
How do I deal with my mom’s fatphobia?
I think your writing indicates to me that you are already one step ahead in the compassion game, and that’s really, really important and amazing. Not everyone has the space or the desire to practice compassion, and I think it’s so important that you can see people like your mom’s coworker as fully human.
It sounds like your mom — like probably most people — is pretty disassociated. Our culture doesn’t do a very good job of teaching us to truly see others or the totality of our individual complexities.
Instead, we are taught to view people through the lens of normativity, which ascribes value to people based on their ability to conform, and through the lens of capitalism, which values people based on their ability get things for us (sexual, social, financial capital as well, yes, things like “motivation”). Our culture teaches us that fat people aren’t fully human and therefore don’t deserve the consideration (and even mourning) that thin people do.
There is a tendency to offer praise to people with thin bodies, and a tendency to offer disparagement to people with fat bodies. This massively flattens the complexity of what our bodies are and what our bodies do. This behavior also over-ascribes responsibility. In actuality, we know that on the whole, measures taken to control weight prove unsuccessful.
Thinness is not evidence of moral virtue.
Nor is fatness evidence of the lack of moral virtue.
I think you totally get this, and that makes you one step ahead of the Game of Being a Present & Engaged Human.
When it comes to your mom, I want to offer you permission to disengage and set boundaries. When you write “It hurts me to be around her when she talks about this,” it seems like you might still be healing yourself. When we are in the tender stage of healing (and our wounds still feel fresh) it is important to remind ourselves that we need to be in extra self-protection mode. The same way that if you recently got a cut on your hand, you would probably intuitively do things to protect your hand from experiencing greater harm or pain.
Sometimes with emotions, it is harder to recognize the size of the wound or predict how long it will take to heal. Our emotional wounds heal often much more slowly than our physical wounds. It sounds like your mom is wounded, but isn’t even at the place where she can hold enough space for HERSELF, let alone you.
I want to use the metaphor often offered to me in therapy: imagine the speech we get during take-off in a plane. The flight attendants always remind us to put our own oxygen mask on before we put on the masks of others. If you’re still putting your own mask on (metaphorically), then you need to work that out and then maybe, if you want to, then you can start supporting and helping others.
When I’m having a communication issue with my family, I often remind myself that I am not a child anymore (because we often regress during communication with the people we grew up with) and that it is appropriate to set boundaries and honor what I need. This kind of self-care can be especially challenging if you have dysfunctional dynamics with your family. I am not saying this is the case with you, simply pointing out something I know to be true. It is important to remind ourselves that we are not responsible for the mindset of another person. We are only responsible for our own mindset.
Be intentional — and make a plan — when it comes to time spent with Mom. Making a plan can look like deciding to refuse to engage when the topic comes up, or scheduling less time with your mom. If you know this is likely going to be a topic of conversation, I would mentally prepare by having something brief you say when she brings it up. Even something simple like, “I am not going to talk about this” or, “I know you think this is helpful to me, but it isn’t.” If you have to say it a bunch of times, broken record style, that’s OK. Choose words that feel authentic to you and don’t waver. If you know that, no matter what, you are not getting into it, it allows you to exert a measure of control over the conversation.
Another way to prepare is to say this mantra (one of my favorites!): “This is unpleasant, but it will not last forever.” This helps to remind us that we are in fact individuals, with different opinions and needs, and you can take care of yourself in the way that works for you while your mom takes care of herself in the way that works for her. This is called individuation — the opposite of co-dependency.
Finally, in case I haven’t made this clear: it’s not your job to change your mom’s (or anyone else’s) mind. Period. It’s your job to take care of you. It’s your job to heal yourself first and foremost.
Hope this helps!