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‘Tis the season to listen to our relative’s comments about our bodies

The end of the year is hard. Family dynamics are hard. But bearing the pressures regarding one’s physical appearance is even harder

Cenas de Navidad
Jena Ardell (Getty Images)

The holidays are probably one of the most stressful parts of the year, despite the colorful ornaments and the bright lights that cover all that anxiety. Work or school periods end, there are final exams, reports, and the terrible need to take stock of goals or dreams that were impossible to achieve in a world, and a generation, for which foresight is a monumental fiction. And to top off all these tensions, there is one of the biggest sources of anxiety for many people these days: family reunions.

Of course, you can always not go; not subject yourself to the emotional distress of a family dinner. Much has been discussed in recent years about the family we choose, and how seeing our actual family should be voluntary, driven by a real desire to see them. Rivers of ink have been devoted to how toxic kinship can be and to deconstructing its mandatory nature. Still, even though we know the theory, we agree with the postulates and we can build other types of networks that support us, families and their roots in our emotions are not so easy to eradicate. And even though I deeply admire that determination, I am often suspicious of those people who casually advise: “Just don’t go!” As if the cost of distancing yourself from your family was not high, complex and extremely painful, too.

What has worked best for me over the years is to embrace the theoretical-practical contradiction and seek the reconciliation of my family ties with all the other aspects of my life. I do not consider myself less critical for wanting to spend Christmas or New Year’s Eve with my nephew, my mother and my aunts; on the contrary, trying to build bridges in conversations, choosing my battles and using humor as an overcoming, pedagogical, therapeutic tool, has been very useful to me. All of this has worked better than absenteeism, which always ended with me dying of guilt and feeling a strange regret, because even though my family is often a source of conflict and annoyance, it has also been a source of love, support and identity.

One of the things that used to cause me the most anxiety was my changing body. I’m a girl who grew up in the 1990s, a child of diet culture, raised to dread ghosts, serial killers and carbs almost equally. And although I have been through many years of work regarding food, relearning, working to abandon all eating disorders and be able to enjoy eating, I must admit that this is one of the most complex and difficult roads to retrace in my psyche. If I could undergo a bit of a lobotomy, the only thing I would like to alter forever is everything I learned as a child about eating and how “wrong” my body was, issues that remain with me to this day. Of course, the extended family reunion, with aunts, uncles, cousins and other relatives is the equivalent of Vietnam for my bodily traumas.

I remember feeling anxious weeks before December 24th and 31st arrived, already imagining all the comments about whether I gained or lost weight. If it was the former, a look of disappointment accompanied the faces of my aunts and uncles as they pointed it out before talking about anything else. If it was the latter, then came the congratulations, the flattery, “you look so beautiful,” “you are taking such good care of yourself,” “how sensible and wise you are.” Many years have passed since I was a teenager, and a few since feminism filled almost every aspect of our lives, and yet I still fear many of those encounters. Both remarks make me very nervous, and are real triggers in my relationship with food. I wish they weren’t. It seems ridiculous to me that, being a rational person (as I think I am), any casual reference to my body still has the power to destabilize my bond with eating, to resonate in my head for who knows how long.

Although I am a person who pathologically avoids conflict, even during the holidays (especially during the holidays), a few years ago, as the parade of close and distant relatives said “hi” and remarks about other people’s bodies were being handed out, I, rather resigned, trying not to make much of it, saw a younger cousin being subjected to the same treatment. That did it. I could not bear to imagine another childhood and adolescence of deep, unfair self-body hate. My life is not miserable, but my relationship with my body is quite complicated (mine and that of almost all the women I know) and I am sure that, had I been spared those comments from my family, I would have found there a haven from the violence and fatphobia that is exercised by all other institutions in the world. So I told them, kindly and firmly, to please refrain from talking about other people’s bodies, that this had caused me a lot of problems in the past and that, furthermore, commenting on other people’s bodies in any way was quite passé.

That’s all it took. It never happened again — at least not in front of me, and that is what matters. In my little manual on choosing family battles, that simple act of rebellion greatly altered coexistence at Christmas. It did away with one of the issues that cause me the greatest anxiety with my family and solved one aspect of that contradictory, complex matter that is our bond with our biological relatives. I don’t care if it led to any interesting reflections, or if it made my aunts and cousins think about the reasons why it is not okay to talk about other people’s bodies; for me, it is enough that this habit has been eradicated from the holidays because I, the niece that is “too sensitive” and “gets offended by everything,” might feel bad. I have no problem being that person as long as it guarantees a better coexistence. Besides, I cannot resist the priceless opportunity to scandalize my relatives and make them uncomfortable by calling them out. No one is offended and it is quite worth it.

The end of the year is hard. Seeing people we care about, but whom we need to keep at an arm’s length, such as family, is hard. Bearing the pressures regarding one’s body is hard. But if there is something valuable that I have learned by going back to those gatherings every year is that expressing yourself is more than enough. I don’t need real learning from my relatives, nor a genuine reflection about bodies (or about their constant question “When are you planning to start a family?”). Them keeping quiet about it is enough for me. This is also a boundary, an act of rebellion that deserves recognition, as silly as it may seem, and above all: a truce in the constant war with our bodies, how we see ourselves and how society sees us.

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