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