In the past weeks I gave several examples of comments made to friends about their being overweight. The motivation behind these comments was, of course, concern for the other’s health and welfare. The fact that the comments were hurtful and, more often than not, did harm instead of good, as well as helped perpetuate the problem instead of curing it, was irrelevant.
How does one deal with this type of comment? Sometimes a request for clarity is the best defense. Simply by asking, “Why did you say that?” may put the speaker on the defensive and force him to think about the hurtful comments that he just made. Should his response be that he only said what he did because he cares and is concerned about your health, you might respond with, “Do you really think your comments help?” Walking him through these questions one response at a time may actually get a well meaning friend to re-evaluate how he talks to you and a not-so-well meaning one to be confronted with his own inappropriate and hurtful words. All you have to do is keep asking, “Why did you say that?” and let the speaker deal with his own actions.
Think about the Bar Mitzvah Mom I wrote about, who compared her female relative to the size of a football player. What would have happened if, instead of silence, the response were, “Why did you say that?” The discomfiture and hurt would have gone right back to where it belonged, to the person making the comment, who at that moment would have had to justify what she had just said. Further, if she had made this disparaging comment in a group, the question of “Why did you say that?” would place the focus of the group back where it belonged and off the overweight visitor.
It would also work for the book club member who informed an overweight contributor to the group that the Holocaust experience would have solved her weight problem. “Why did you say that?” said in calm, non-aggressive manner would hold up a mirror to the person making the comment. It would force her to see how inappropriate her comments are in general and particularly in this setting. Comparing going through the Holocaust to dieting, comparing living through such cruelty that was perpetuated on innocents to a spa experience that helps with decisions on food intake, truly speaks for itself once a person is forced to look at what they have said.
For the owner of the repair shop who in the middle of casual conversation with his customer informed her of her need to loose weight, an attempt at enlightenment might be tempting. “You know I am very glad you volunteered these comments at this time. It will certainly allow me to make better decisions about how I spend my time, whom I talk to, what I talk about and where I get my car fixed in the future.” However, doing this invites defensiveness and the threat of lost business. This can create reactions other than reflection. It is also difficult to come up with a zinger of a response on the spur of the moment. Whereas, “Why do you say that?” asked calmly, invites people to re-evaluate instead of defend, and has a better chance of actually changing the person’s behavior than a zinger. It might even get the person to think about what they have said and why they said it, long after the actual experience.
Invisibility is a repetitive theme that comes up again and again for well spouses. People just don’t see them. They don’t see their workload, their pain and their need for help. However, should a well spouse be overweight they are no longer invisible, at least not in that area. Their needs may remain invisible, but their weight becomes something everyone sees and feels they have a right to comment on.
I have asked why people say these destructive comments about weight and perhaps the answer is simply because they can. They can and will continue to until they are forced to stop and think about what they are saying. A simple question like “Why did you say that?” may make all the difference.
You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org