Dear Imprudence: Speaking of Holiday Tensions…

Dear Imprudence’s recent reader livechat featured a question that made me go ‘oooh, ouch, been there,’ from a reader writing on behalf of a daughter hounded by family members, specifically her grandmother, about her weight.

Q. Grandmother’s Obsession With Weight: My daughter is a recent grad of a top 3 in the country school. She’s kind, pretty, has friends and is employed, going back to grad school. She’s a former college athlete but since school, has put on a huge amount of weight. While it’s a less than ideal situation, she’s seeking help for it. The issue is Grandmother. She’s old-school, from a certain area of the country that values looks and femininity trumps all, especially weight. She’s not at all slim herself, her kids have had eating disorders and her husband has been grossly obese for as long as I’ve known them. She’s terrible to my daughter and what she doesn’t say outright, she implies. My husband’s attempted many times to talk to her, but to no avail. We try to avoid seeing them, but during the holidays, it’ll be difficult. She always has the last word. Is there a polite way to shut her down? Sincerely, not a Belle.

I note two things about this article:

One, the grandmother is definitely behaving inappropriately and I think it’s good that the letter writer is asking for advice on how to handle the situation. I suspect the letter resonated with a lot of readers because this tends to be a time of year when these kinds of things start coming up a lot and having a little library of sharp reports to draw upon can be useful for navigating unpleasant social situations.

Two, the letter writer has got some fat hatred to deal with. Despite being disparaging about how the grandmother views weight, suggesting that grandmother’s ideas aren’t shared, the letter writer makes sure to mention that grandfather is ‘grossly obese,’ and that gaining weight after stopping high energy college athletics is ‘a less than ideal situation1.’ The letter writer notes that the grandmother is ‘not at all slim,’ evidence that she, of course, would have no room to talk, and the letter leads right there with that damning one-two punch that gets thrown at fat people: well, you’re fat, but at least you’re ‘pretty’ and ‘kind.’ And ‘have friends’ despite the fact that you’re fat! Gosh, it’s almost like fat people are human beings.

Here’s what Prudence said in response:

A: Your daughter is an adult so she’s the one who needs to handle this situation. You can have a talk with your daughter and say that you dread hearing her grandmother’s nasty remarks and you want her to be ready to parry them. “Thank you” is an all-purpose non sequitur. Your daughter can also be more direct: “It’s good to see you Grandma. You’ve expressed your feelings about my weight many times, so I know how you feel. I’d like to enjoy the holiday, so I’d appreciate it if we don’t discuss this anymore.” If grandmother won’t stop, your daughter just needs to say, “Good to talk to you. Excuse me, I’m going to see Uncle Ed.”

Prudence covered the first topic with some pretty solid advice. But she didn’t touch the second. Was it a good move?

I think there’s a solid argument to be made for covering the question ostensibly being asked in the letter and focusing on the issue of making the daughter feel more comfortable at family gatherings while choosing to elide the letter writer’s own embedded bigotry, with the goal of not alienating the letter writer and making sure the advice gets where it needs to go. On the other hand, though, what is the daughter internalising at home around the letter writer, and how are comments made by the letter writer contributing to the distress she experiences as a result of family pressure about her weight?

But I’m not sure the logic here is that complex; I honestly suspect those snide comments slid right past Prudence when she was drafting her response, because they’re a reflection of attitudes that are so common, so widespread, so ubiquitous, that they don’t even attract attention unless you’re specifically looking for them. They just pop right past.

Yes, that’s me, looking for something to get offended about. No, really, I think that these kind of dogwhistles and codewords are evidence of the uphill struggle we have when it comes to fighting social attitudes. This is a situation where the letter writer could have used some advice too, and didn’t get it.

  1. Newsflash: What happens when you stop engaging in athletics? You tend to put on some weight as your body adjusts.

About s.e. smith

s.e. smith is a recalcitrant, grumpy person with disabilities who enjoys riling people up, talking about language, tearing apart poor science reporting, and chasing cats around the house with squeaky mice in hand. Ou personal website can be found at this ain't livin'.

5 thoughts on “Dear Imprudence: Speaking of Holiday Tensions…

  1. I think that these kind of dogwhistles and codewords are evidence of the uphill struggle we have when it comes to fighting social attitudes.

    Completely agree, s.e.s. The clear implication from the letter is that if the grandmother were slim and the granddaughter were some subjective-line-in-the-sand-crossing measure of “obese”, then the letter writer wouldn’t be so hurt by the grandmother’s behaviour. And if the grandfather weren’t “grossly obese” himself then the grandmother would be more justified in her comments. AND it’s important to mention the daughter in question is a high performer academically and kind and pretty and employed, so it’s, like, unfair to question her weight because at least she’s succeeding in spite of it.

    Who needs to “look” for things to be offended by when a smorgasboard like that pulls up to your window?

  2. Yeah. The letter writer is making the distinction between Grandmother’s outright rudeness and the letterwriter’s own politer approach, but bottom line is that *both* think there’s something wrong and bad and commentworthy about granddaughter’s shape. Granddaughter surely isn’t oblivious; she catches the attitude, NO MATTER HOW IT’S EXPRESSED. The letterwriter is kidding herself if she thinks year-round hints and nudges are less of a problem than an annual encounter with blatant nagging.

  3. Hm! It seems to me that the columnist is also all but telling the parents to leave their daughter to fend for herself with Grandma, and while I like that she offered helpful ways for the daughter to politely extricate herself from offensive conversations, I also think it’s really important for people to have support (that is, visible support) when facing bigots. The daughter should be supported to stand up for herself, *and* Mom and Dad should continue to make it clear that they don’t think it’s okay for Grandma to bully their kid. Because really, people engage in this kind of mean behavior because they think they won’t get called on it. It’s that lack of response from everyone else that helps bigots feel so entitled to hurt others.

  4. I agree with Penny: the only difference between the letter-writer’s year-round fat-shaming and the grandmother’s abuse is a matter of degree and duration. I have no doubt that, from the mom’s tone, she’s not terribly supportive of her daughter’s health and is equating it with being thin.

    Now, if someone has rapidly gained weight, the writer may be right that something is “less than ideal.” The body has a natural set point and doesn’t like either gaining or losing much weight very quickly; it’s a homeostatic mechanism. It’s not the weight itself, but the rapidity thereof that would be worrisome. The letter-writer linked it to the end of college athletics, but that could very well be false causation and the letter-writer’s insistence that it’s related to athletics could be preventing her daughter from seeking other possible causes. If she has thyroid problems and that’s why she’s gaining weight, for instance, that needs to be fixed whether or not she loses weight as a result of treatment for it.

    Regardless, I personally think Prudence is wrong. It’s different for many families, the younger generations are told to respect their elders and not talk back to them. Even abuse like the daughter is receiving is supposed to be tolerated in the name of “respect.” Emily Yoffe is a white USian whose family has been here a while, so the advice she gives may not be appropriate if the letter-writer is not from the same cultural background, even if it might be fitting for many USians. The letter-writer needs to be an advocate for her daughter if that’s what she needs, and shape up her own attitudes. I’d like to see an answer that was more understanding of different possible cultural contexts, rather than just assuming that the advice that would fit a white, USian, middle-class family would be one-size-fits-all.

  5. What actually struck me most about the question wasn’t so much the less-than-subtle adipophobia but the fact that the entire question seemed to be framed in the context that she’s already trying to do something about her weight. It’s as if the question was that because she’s already trying to loose weight her grandmother’s hounding was just abusive but out of context, had she been happy in her body, she might have needed the hounding “for her own good.”

    I feel that, too often, harassment is only viewed as harassment so long as the person who is being harassed is already doing their best to conform to the expectations of the harasser, or at least the people witnessing the altercation.

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