I received an e-mail from reader Jeany saying “When someone says something to me that’s rude, often the only thing that I can think to do is be rude in return, or I can’t think of anything at all. Do you have some kind of “go to” phrase that can help start a conversation?”
First of all, being rude and/or walking away without saying anything are both completely valid options. Each of us gets to deal with the oppression and bullying in whatever way we choose- just like we don’t owe anyone else “thin” by whatever definition, we also don’t owe anybody else a teachable moment or a “polite” response.
That said, there is a phrase I have found helps start a conversation if that’s my goal. The phrase is “Help me understand…”
A doctor tells me that I should lose weight to be healthier (or cure strep throat, a broken toe, or a separated shoulder). I say “Can you help me understand what research you are basing this recommendation on?”
Someone comments on what I’m eating. I say “Please help me understand what made you think I wanted your opinion about my food choices.”
Someone insists that I should stop talking about what a massive failure Weight Watchers is because they did it 6 times and it worked every time. I say “help me understand your definition of ‘worked’”
Obviously, this isn’t for all situations, or for all people – you get to decide what works for you. I like it because it puts the onus on the person who began the interaction.
It can also have a number of different connotations depending on what tone of voice I use. In situations where I’m actually interested in an answer (like with the doctor) it can be a conversation starter and be less combative than, for example, saying “I don’t think that weight loss meets the requirements of evidence-based medicine.” In the case where someone has just been inappropriate it gives them the opportunity to make that determination on their own and apologize, which I have found often happens.
If you’re going to do this, I think it helps to understand that you are inviting conversation – the person who commented on my food may come back with “your body shows me that you need somebody’s advice” and so I don’t use this unless I feel like I’m prepared to engage. Also, please be clear that you are not under any obligation to engage in these conversations.
It’s perfectly ok to say “I’m not taking unsolicited opinions about my food choices” in a way that does not invite conversation. Being fat in a society where people are encouraged to participate in stereotyping, bullying, and oppressing people based on their sizes leads to a lot of effed up situations. So to me, it’s all about empowerment and whatever makes each of us feel the most empowered in a situation that should never have happened. If you have suggestions I hope you’ll put them in the comments.
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