Author: Annie Davis
There are a few things that I need to categorize before I dive in. The first being – I am an able bodied, mainstream sized, cis-het, white, female who has more or less always fit into the social norm with my appearance. My mother was not abusive, hateful, or mean spirited, but she did raise me on the tail end of a particularly brutal battle with bulimia. Her dangerous relationship with her body and how it correlated to her value was an undercurrent in our relationship for the majority of my adolescence. I do not know what it is like to exist in this world in a body that is marginalized or made to feel unsafe. I will readily admit that some of my own personal methods will not work for, or include, the needs of every person. I do hope, however, that they can help steer someone in the right direction; one towards safety, empowerment, and self determination when it comes to conversations about our bodies – especially with our mothers.
That being said, let's get into it.
My mother is one of those mothers who always meant well. Her comments or suggestions about or around my body and my diet came from a place of concern and love. She had been bullied as a kid and she didn’t want me to be bullied as a kid. She heard me cry about the belly that I had, that none of the other girls at my overly privileged, white washed, suburban elementary school had. So, she tried to help me “fix” it. She hated to see me cry. Over the years my mom was vegan, she did Atkins, she was gluten free, dairy free, gluten and dairy free, she did weight watchers, and I did it all with her. Not because I was forced to, but because she was my mom – she was the epitome of what it meant to be a woman. To be beautiful. So if that was what it took to be beautiful, you could count me in. While the disordered relationship with food that I developed was a very obvious consequence of the spiral I, along with most women in society, get caught up in . This has turned out to be the worst side effect: the challenges that I have faced in the relationship I have with my mom and our ability to talk about the ways that she inadvertently contributes to - and sometimes even causes - my inability to see my value without attributing it to the number on the tag on my jeans.
Over the years, with lots of tears and misdirected attempts, my mom and I have found a rhythm together, one that I am very grateful for. The following are my top five pieces of advice for trying to find your own rhythm – albeit no two experiences will look the same.
Come up with a safe word- or phrase
This may seem simple but honestly, it has been a game changer for me in hard conversations. It works like this: when you are not actively in conflict, bring up the idea with your mom that sometimes it is difficult for you to bring up topics of conversation because you have anxiety around how they might devolve into conflict or get a judgmental response that will hurt your feelings. Sometimes, people need to mentally shift into a listening headspace or prepare themselves to be a supportive ear by putting their own baggage aside, and having a predetermined phrase that you can preface the conversation with, or bring up when things start to go south, can really help keep both parties centered on the goal – which is listening and supporting in a safe way. For my mom and I, we have come up with the phrase “Are you in a good head space for a safe conversation?”. This tells my mom that I want to talk to her about something that is sensitive and a little scary for me, so she can take care to be extra thoughtful in her response. Usually the answer is yes, but sometimes she takes that opportunity to say no. She may be stressed or busy, etc, and asks if she can call me back when she is in a better place. We have saved ourselves from a lot of heartache by implementing this tactic in a real and serious way.
Have an exit strategy
Feeling backed into a corner often makes me feel overly defensive or overstimulated in a way that makes difficult conversations more stressful than they might be otherwise. I always (if possible) drive separately from my mom or plan ahead for something that I can do to remove myself from the situation of a conversation goes to a place that is not useful for me. For example, if I am at dinner and my mom brings up calories, and I don’t feel able to verbally set a boundary in that moment, I will excuse myself to go to the bathroom, or take some kind of space in order to bring the topic to a close and give myself some physical space from the situation. Triggering topics of conversation put us in a fight or flight mode. That heightened level of anxiety and energy is really dangerous for our own mental health but also prevents productive and successful conversations around the topics that upset us.
Acknowledge her perspective
Like I said before, my mother has never had harmful intentions in the way she has talked to me about food or my body. I know that is not the same for everyone, and I feel very lucky she has not. Because of that, I have come to understand that part of my job in the dynamic is to give my mom grace, and to allow for our differences in perspective and understanding. My mom grew up in a household where they did not talk about their feelings with a mother who turned heads everywhere she went. My mom is stunningly beautiful, but never saw herself that way, and never heard it from her parents either. She also grew up in an era where therapy, body positivity/neutrality, and boundary setting were not popular topics of discussion. As a mom, she did her best with the tools she had, and I can acknowledge her perspective without taking it on as my own. Her feelings and thoughts are completely valid, as long as they are not harmful to my own relationship with my body, and it is important to verbalize that validity.
Use “I” statements
When I am talking to my mom, I try to stay really focused on my side of the street. I want her to understand that “I don’t want to talk about how many calories are in my salad” or that “I don’t think it's useful to use words like ‘earn’ when we have ice cream after dinner”, etc, etc. She has her own internal dialogue that is none of my business nor is it my job to change. It is my job to advocate for myself and the kind of language and subject matter that I am comfortable with. She does not have to agree with me or adopt my mentality, but I do make it very clear that those are my personal boundaries.
Give yourself permission to walk away
Bodies and weight and body image are extremely difficult to talk about, especially in such tenuous contexts as between daughters (or sons) and their mothers. So much generational baggage is woven into the fabric of what our bodies represent in society that sometimes there is no winning. In those cases, it is 100% okay to walk away. I would recommend phrases like:
- “I can tell that we are not in alignment with our values and if you are not interested in an open conversation with me about that then I cannot continue to have this conversation right now. “
- “I understand that you may not agree with me but these are important boundaries for me to maintain and if you are not willing to respect them then I am going to remove myself from this conversation.”
- “Thank you for your input but comments about my body or the food that I use to fuel it are actually not useful for me right now and if you are not able to respect that boundary then I cannot participate in this conversation with you.”
- “I understand that you want to share thoughts you are having about your body, and while I support you and your journey, I am trying to change my thought patterns regarding those topics and if you need someone to share those things with I have to ask you to find someone else.”
- And if you need to be a little more firm: “Please do not continue to comment on my body or my eating habits, it is hurtful and unproductive and if you cannot stop I will not be able to continue to interact with you at this moment.”