Ask Aunt Fattie: How do I talk sense into my dieting friend?

Dear Aunt Fattie,

I have a bit of a conundrum. One of my friends used to be slightly overweight, now she’s quite thin. I’ve been concerned about her body image (she looked fantastic with a bit of extra weight but she never believed me when I told her so) and worried that she might take it too far and become underweight, or worse, develop (or already have) an eating disorder. I think her mother was part of the problem, as she has forced diets on her in the past.

I’ve tried talking to her, telling her she was beautiful the way she was, but all she says is “I was fat, and I didn’t like it.” She seems as happy as she was before, so should I leave it alone? I don’t want her to be unhappy with the way she looks. Is there anything else I could say to her to convince her that she is amazing no matter what her weight is? I don’t want to sound like a nag either or to preach statistics. I need help!

Love from A Concerned Friend.

Dear Concerned Friend,

It sounds like you want the best for your friend, but be wary of overreaching your boundaries. You can’t decide what will make her healthy or happy, any more than you could if she were still fat and you were downright convinced she’d be better off thin. Treating her with compassion also means stepping back and allowing her to decide what she thinks is best for her, even if you don’t agree.

If you think she’s engaging in behaviors that are putting her in immediate danger — purging, for instance, or taking pills, or eating at starvation levels — then you should have a calm, quiet talk with her about your worries. As far as dieting and disliking her body, though, you have to respect the fact that she’s an adult. She gets to choose what makes her happy, or even choose to be unhappy. You show her that you think she’s amazing no matter what size she is by continuing to be a friend to her no matter what size she is — which means telling her she’s beautiful when she’s fatter, but also means backing off the lectures when she’s not.

Here’s what you can do: model mentally and physically healthy behaviors. Don’t restrict what you eat around her — it can be very tempting to deny your own hunger around dieting friends because it’s uncomfortable to have someone sit around and watch you eat a sandwich, but that serves neither of you. Enjoy your food, and turn conversations about fat and calories into conversations about tastiness and energy. Subvert exercise talk from a retribution mindset (“I have to go to the gym to burn off that cookie”) to a celebration mindset (“I just started a pilates class and I feel amazing”). Be there for her if she starts to have doubts; be open and willing to listen if she chooses to talk about her body image. And if she can’t break out of the cycle, be there for her then, too. (Though if things get bad, you are perfectly within your rights to say “I can’t listen to you dog on yourself like this.” You’re her friend, not her therapist.)

Do we all wish that everyone could come to the fat acceptance movement, and experience the profound freedom that comes with casting off the dieting and body-hatred shackles? Of course we do. Aunt Fattie in particular also wishes that everyone could be pro-choice, feminist, well-read, and grammatically savvy. But we can’t force our friends into those positions, beneficial and sensible as they may be. All we can do is live according to our beliefs, as joyously as we can, and hope those we love see the wisdom in them. And love them anyway if they don’t.

If you’ve got your own questions on fat, fatphobia, fatshion, and fatiquette, send them to auntfattie@gmail.com.

37 thoughts on “Ask Aunt Fattie: How do I talk sense into my dieting friend?

  1. All we can do is live according to our beliefs, as joyously as we can, and hope those we love see the wisdom in them. And love them anyway if they don’t.

    Right. The Hell. ON.

  2. I don’t know what you call thin people who love fat acceptance, but that’s me. I think “Aunt Fattie” is a really cool forum for people to get sound advice on issues that face all of us, either directly or through a friend.

    Allow me to be a curmudgeon for a moment, and point out that being “pro-choice” shouldn’t be something that we look for in other people, since I sense that you mean “pro-legal abortion”. Trust me, if they isolate the “fat genes” and can test for them prenatally, they will, and you know what that will mean. Obviously a lot of people already think it is better to be dead than fat, and already abort children because they think it’s better to be dead than adopted.

    I am pro-woman, pro-child, pro-health-at-every-size, and pro-life. I sure hope there is room in this movement for me, and my unborn son too! Life begins at conception, and EVERY life deserves to be protected and respected, from conception until natural death, regardless of size. (If you think about it, abortion argues that because a child is tiny and hard to see, he or she is not a person. Isn’t that the flipside of the same sizest coin that denies the dignity and personhood of fat people?)

    Fight the good fight for a more loving world!

  3. “Aunt Fattie in particular also wishes that everyone could be pro-choice, feminist, well-read, and grammatically savvy.”

    That’s it; tea all over the keyboard.

  4. God, it’s so tempting to evangelize. Once you’ve discovered fat acceptance and realized that you can love yourself as you are–that it’s *possible*, even if you’re not there yet–obviously you want to share that with those you care about. But you can’t have other people’s epiphanies for them.

    Thank you so much for reminding me! I really needed to see this today.

  5. being “pro-choice” shouldn’t be something that we look for in other people

    This hardly seems fair. You are free to hope that others are pro-life. I, and the other two heads of Aunt Fattie, hope they are pro-choice.

  6. Hi Fillyjonk, I definitely wasn’t trying to be unfair, I just felt slighted when I read it. I’ve been reading FA sites for about a year now, and I am amazed by how helpful they are at reconditioning the way I think about size, health, and beauty. I’ve read a number of times that thin people are welcome to the FA movement, and so I felt like, “wait, I’m somehow ‘less than’ because I believe in the sanctity of human life starting at conception?” Imagine that you were a fan of my feminist website and I had some blurb about hoping that not only did people agree with my views on feminism, but that they were also smart enough to agree with my views on X, Y, and Z. Like I did, you might feel like, “do we really need to exclude people from the winner’s circle over side issues like this? Where’s the unity?”

    And I too, for the record, am pro-choice. I think a woman has a right to choose what to do with her body; but abortion isn’t about that woman’s body anymore. If a woman wants to abstain/use contraceptives/be open to children/whatever, those are all valid choices. But all those choices have to take place BEFORE conception. After that, we’re not dealing with one body, but two. To say otherwise would mean that for the remaining 16 weeks of my pregnancy, I would technically have a penis, scrotum, and a total of four arms and four legs, on top of finally having two heads.

    Anyway, I hope I’m not rubbing you the wrong way, just trying to bring light to my earlier comment.

    Like I said before, I adore the FA movement, and in particular, this site. Keep up the good work! As someone with five sisters, most of whom have struggled with body image disorders, I can tell you that what you’re doing here is an incredible, and much-needed challenge to a culture that only has room for people who are the right size, right age, right gender, etc.

  7. Terese, there are a couple of different questions going on here. If you’re saying “can I be involved in the FA movement as a pro-life person,” the answer is yes, and nothing in the post said differently. If you’re saying “will Kate, FJ, and SM personally agree with me and never wish that I thought otherwise,” which is what the post was about, the answer is “dream on.”

    I find it interesting that, in the comments to a post about how sometimes you just need to stop proselytizing, you are continuing to lay out your pro-life arguments to an audience that’s identified as pro-choice.

  8. Not to ‘jack, but why would you WANT a kid to be born to a parent who’s going to hate their fat so much that they’d abort it given the chance? Why subject a child to that kind of torture? Besides, the figures I’ve seen suggest that 89% of parents would NOT choose this option, and that’s actually down from the 85% it was a decade earlier. So it’s hardly a matter of “as soon as they test for fat in utero, there go all the fat people.”

    Me, I have a VERY hard time being friends with people who are all “yay weight loss.” Aunt Fattie is much cooler than I am.

  9. I love Aunt Fattie.

    What would “Fattie” be short for?

    Fatima? Fate?

    And yeah – having dieting friends is a bit awkward. I generally don’t mind just letting my friends know what my personal stance on dieting is, and then not being ashamed of what I eat around them. Most of my friends and I are able to get along without issues that way.

    *dances*

  10. Er, that is, that’s UP from the 85% it was a decade earlier. The 11% that WOULD abort is the figure that’s “down.”

    (crawls off in search of dopaminergic chemicals)

  11. Aunt Fattie has a hard time with it too, but got the sense from the letter that the weight talk in this relationship was coming from the writer, not the friend. It’s a slightly different story if they’re constantly trying to talk diet, workouts, and ephedra dosages with you, in that a foot must be put down, and sometimes you have to take time off from them because they’re so aggressively boring or triggering. But if you’re instigating the weight talk by saying “why are you dieting, you looked so good before,” you just have to back off, as hard as it may be.

  12. Arania, whoops! There’s supposed to be a line at the end that says ” If you’ve got your own questions on fat, fatphobia, fatshion, and fatiquette, send them to auntfattie@gmail.com,” but SOMEONE forgot to put it in. And is going to go put it in right now.

  13. the weight talk in this relationship was coming from the writer, not the friend.

    Ok, that’s a clarification that I definitely needed! I’ve mentioned my WW-obsessed best friend before; when she starts with the diet talk, I generally try to counter with IE stuff, for example, as much for her as to distract me from getting too annoyed and snarky! So as long as I’m not initiating those discussions, I’m not overstepping my bounds too much, yes?

  14. Personally, and not speaking for Aunt F. here as I’ve not consulted with anyone though I expect they’d say the same, I would say that if a friend continuously brings up diet talk, you are free to counter with not-diet talk. Just as Concerned’s friend is free to counter with “I was fat and I didn’t like it.”

    If they really can’t stop, in the interest of personal sanity it’s usually best to start steering the conversation away from diet talk when it comes up, or just to flat-out say “hey, can we talk about something else, I’ve mentioned that I really don’t diet and it’s not something I like talking or hearing about.” But no, I certainly don’t think you have a responsibility as a friend to pretend you’re thrilled about listening to points-counting, and I don’t think you’re overstepping if you reply by saying “actually, I eat what I want when I want it and I’ve never felt better.”

  15. Oh, I’m definitely at least a silver medalist at changing the subject! It’s just that sometimes she definitely won’t stop, and sometimes things she says actually worry me and thus I feel like someone needs to let her know that not dieting is a perfectly valid option!

  16. Well, if your brain can stand it, you’re well within your rights to keep letting her know that you don’t diet and why you don’t diet. In fact, I’d say that responding to continuous diet talk that way falls under “model healthy behaviors” above.

    But that’s telling her about what you do and what others do, not what she SHOULD do, which is another important (and I swear to god I originally just wrote “pimportant”) difference, besides who brings it up.

  17. Terese–and anyone else who’s wondering… Anti-choice people are welcome in the movement, and there may very well be other bloggers who share that position. Anti-choice people are not, however, welcome to espouse their views on when life begins, etc., on this blog. At all. Any more comments like those above will be deleted without warning.

    The subject of abortion is way beyond the scope of this blog, and personally, as the blog owner and a staunchly pro-choice feminist, I don’t want to hear anti-choice arguments here. (And no, claiming you’re pro-choice until there’s a fetus involved does not count.) Period. There are literally thousands of other places on the internet where that discussion would be appropriate. This is not one of them.

    Terese, I hope you understand that this is not me trying to drive you away–it’s me setting a firm limit on the discourse here at my own blog.

  18. I always miss opprotune moments to drop hints about my stance on diets and fat. I’ll have a conversation with someone and fat or dieting will come up, and it’s not until the conversation is over that I have one of those moments where I’ll think “dang it, I could have said…” I think I need a Kate Harding t-shirt…they speak for themselves. :)

  19. Aunt Fattie has a hard time with it too, but got the sense from the letter that the weight talk in this relationship was coming from the writer, not the friend.

    More than that, she didn’t even say her friend was dieting or mentioning it at all, so her telling her friend ‘you looked better heavier, but I’m worried about your health’ struck me as a little bit like the reverse (but the same) of ‘you’d look so much better if you lost a little weight, but I’m worried about your health.’

    If there’s an eating disorder to worry about, that’s one thing. But there’s nothing like that mentioned, leaving it entirely possible that all her friend has done is start exercising and eating well for the first time in her life, and her body is finding out what its natural weight is. Sometimes that’s lower, and sometimes that’s higher.

    For some people that means being heavy and for others it means being thin. Absent disordered eating or an illness, Concerned should really back off.

  20. Thanks, Kate! I was going to start countering, but then realized that *that* is also beyond the scope of this blog. We’re sticking to the subject at hand: fat.

    Great advice, Auntie.

  21. I have one friend who talks about diet-related things, and I don’t mind, because she’s a lot more sensible about it. (She’s watching what she eats as part of a recovery from binge-eating disorder. While I’m not 100% sure of the methods, I approve of her recovering.) I have another friend who’s a slightly-recovered but horribly proselytizing anorexic/bulimic, and for my own sanity I won’t let her talk about diets at all.

    So for me at least it’s possible to talk to some people about diets without wanting to scream . . . but sometimes not.

  22. I can generally handle diet talk on a very limited basis, depending on who it’s coming from. But I’ve dropped people out of my life for not being able to accept the concept that I don’t want to hear an endless litany of diet-related horseshit in a not-terribly-subtle campaign to make me more “healthy” (read: thin). I don’t have the patience anymore.

  23. In response to the “what do you call a thin person who loves fat acceptance” question, I was recently referred to by a friend as a “nonfat fat activist.” Which sounds like a Starbucks order to me, so I amended it – I’m a short nonfat fat activist, extra hot, with cinnamon.

  24. Having spent time with a lot of anorexics and bulimics, I’d caution about harping on how much weight your friend has lost in a situation like this. If there’s a real eating disorder fueling the weight loss, that sort of affirmation will likely only work in a negative way.

    I had a best friend who was anorexic and we all learned to be very careful about what we said to her regarding her appearance. Anything could be taken out of context and turned into “I’m doing great, I’ve gotten thinner” or “Oh, no – I must be looking fatter today.”

    So we circumvented her appearance at all costs, and eventually she did get therapy and gained some weight, though I think it is still a consistent struggle for her (despite having three kids, there isn’t a single picture of her pregnant, for example, because she hates looking fat). That’s the only thing I’d say that I don’t think was said (got sort of lost in the pro-choice debate).

  25. Dear Kate,

    You are marvellous. On behalf of my daughters and myself, thank you.

    A.

    Thank you kindly, though I literally wrote one word of this particular post. Aunt Fattie’s a group effort, and I was the last to take a pass at this one. :)

  26. Actually, it was moving the abortion debate out the door I was particularly grateful for this time. I grew up in Ireland, where there is still almost no legal abortion.

  27. More than that, she didn’t even say her friend was dieting or mentioning it at all, so her telling her friend ‘you looked better heavier, but I’m worried about your health’ struck me as a little bit like the reverse (but the same) of ‘you’d look so much better if you lost a little weight, but I’m worried about your health.’ –Cala

    Thank you for writing that and putting it so well. I was thinking the same. I have family and friends that constantly state the same or are always harping on the fact that I’m underweight. Even though they know why (meds for bipolar I and epilepsy) and know that I’m doing my best to maintain/gain.

    Something that may not have occurred to “Concerned” is that her friend may be taking medication/s for a mental or other health issue that may be affecting her weight. Not everyone talks about being “mentally interesting” openly, even with friends and family. There’s still a lot of stigma out there.

  28. Oh, you answered my question! That was unexpected, thank you. I haven’t brought it up since I wrote in – as I said, I don’t want to nag or make her think she’s unattractive. I just brought it up beacuse I kind of wanted to make her feel like she WAS beautiful, even if she didn’t realise it. I wish we lived in a perfect world where every woman was happy with the way they looked :(

  29. TwitchyHug, it’s an admirable goal! But in this case you achieve it by telling her she’s always been beautiful, not that she was more beautiful before.

    I wish we lived in a perfect world where every woman was happy with the way they looked

    Man, you and me both.

  30. It’s so refreshing to read this. I have a dieting friend who counts the calories and fat grams in everything, going so far as to complain that bananas have “too much fat in them”. I wasn’t sure whether or not to try and talk IE to her, but after reading this I’ve decided to go for a “lead by example” approach.

    Thanks, Aunt Fattie ;)

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