How to set a boundary when Grandma talks about weight and diet

Grandma's weight and diet talk

Do you have a grandma who talks about weight and diet a lot? If you do, then I’m going to walk you through how you can protect your child from the dangers of weight and diet talk. This is especially important if your child has an eating disorder. But even if they don’t, intervening in Grandma’s weight and diet talk may help you start conversations about body acceptance and possibly even prevent future eating issues.

The letter

Dear Ginny, 

My daughter went into treatment for bulimia a few months ago, and things seem to be going pretty well. She’s following her treatment plan, going to therapy, and it seems like her behaviors are way down. The problem is my wife’s mother, Grandma, loves her daughter very much, but she talks about weight and diet a lot. She’s has been on Weight Watchers and other diets her whole life. She’s pretty obsessed with her own weight, which makes her quick to comment on everyone else’s weight.

It’s kind of her favorite topic. Who gained weight, who lost weight, what people are eating and what they’re doing to lose weight. We used to think this was just an annoying quirk, but it’s becoming a huge problem now that our daughter has an eating disorder.

Do you think this is something we should put a stop to? If so, how?

Signed, Jess 

My response

Well, Jess, this can be such a frustrating situation and I can completely understand why you’re feeling so uneasy with grandma’s weight talk. So let’s just take a little time to break it down.

First of all, it sounds like Grandma grew up in a family in which weight and diet were a concern. Perhaps she had a mother who dieted and it’s very likely that her mother is the one who put her on her first diet.

Dieting often runs in families and women in particular, often lose weight and diets as a way to connect with each other, feel close to each other and even show love to each other.

The diet cycle

For example, when young grandma showed up at a family event, she and her cousins might have compared waistlines and shared weight loss and diet tricks. It might have been perfectly normal for Grandma’s mother to tell her she was looking chunky and that she needed to go on a diet.

Then if she lost weight, she would be praised by her mother, cousins, aunts, and others. When she gained the weight back, she could turn to them for advice and support as she tried to lose the weight again.

We can see how this cycle of connection and sharing can build community between people, and it still happens today. You can walk around and hear women everywhere bemoaning their weight and sharing diet strategies.

The wellness diet

The only real difference is today we’re a lot less likely to call it dieting. We call it a lifestyle change or eating healthy or eating clean. And we rarely talk about it in direct terms in terms of weight.

But the underlying concept beneath it all is weight loss. But of course, when your child develops an eating disorder, you start to see these conversations really differently. Suddenly something that seems benign or slightly irritating, it all of a sudden seems dangerous.

And it is. 

There are so many ways that women can connect with each other. And it’s so sad to me that we’ve been trained to connect over a shared desire to shrink ourselves.

The truth about dieting

Dieting is a useless and devastating pursuit that saps us of energy, time, money, and health. Not only our diets not effective at weight loss, they actually harm our health and they also lead to eating disorders.

Eating disorders are about so much more than weight. And at the same time, almost all eating disorders begin with a diet.

And we know that teens who diet are up to 15 times more likely to develop an eating disorder. In fact, diets are a blueprint for eating disorder behaviors.

The data for this article is available in my Research Library

If we wanted to create a guidebook for an eating disorder, well, we already have them. Just go to your local bookstore and look at the hundreds of books on how to lose weight, eat “healthy” or pursue wellness through diet.

These books train us to restrict food and override our body signals for hunger and what the body wants to eat.

Where eating disorders begin

And this is where almost all eating disorders begin. And I’m not just talking about anorexia. It also applies to binge eating disorder, bulimia, and the catch-all EDNOS or eating disorder not otherwise specified.

They begin with restriction and dominating the body in exchange for what the mind says is healthy or good, or the only way to live this domination over the body is that the root of both diets and eating disorders.

In other words, diets are bad news. So while I have compassion for Grandma, and understand her diet and weight talk, it needs to stop. At least while she’s around your daughter.

Talk to your wife

So the first thing I would ask is how your wife feels about this. It’s her mother. So what does she say? Does she share your concern?

Remember that your wife grew up at a table filled with diet culture so she may not be able to see it as clearly as you. I’d even be wondering, does your wife have residual beliefs about weight and dieting based on being raised by grandma?

There’s no shame in this. Most of us were raised in families that dieted or restricted in some way. The important thing is to recognize and uncover our hidden biases and beliefs. So I would start there.

Talk to your wife about the dangers of diet culture and the truth about diets.

Talking about grandma’s weight bias is a great way to uncover your own weight biases and beliefs about dieting.

Set a boundary

Next, I’d love for your wife to talk to her mom. Sure, you can do it, but it’s usually better when the direct family member challenges long-held beliefs like this.

Your wife needs to set a firm but loving boundary with Grandma to keep your daughter safe. Here’s an example of a good boundary to set with Grandma.

Mom, I know you love seeing us and we love seeing you, but I need you to know that your talk of weight and dieting just isn’t going to work for us anymore.

If you bring up weight or dieting, even if it’s just a casual remark about Aunt Lucy’s weight gain or the new diet you’re trying, I’m going to remind you that we don’t talk about weight or diets.

And if you do it a second time, we will say goodbye for the day. I know this is asking a lot of you. Talking about weight and diets is completely natural for you.

I know you mean well, but we’re going to stand firm on this. And I hope you can understand it’s not for lack of love, but it’s important enough that we are going to follow through.

Now, the key to this conversation is to hold grandma to the boundary.

You have to follow through.

Follow through

Of course, grandma may get sad or even furious. I would actually plan on her getting quite upset, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do it or that you’re doing it wrong. It just means she doesn’t like it. And that’s OK.

Once we become parents, we need to put our parenting role above our child role. That means that while we still love and respect our parents, we put our child’s needs above theirs, depending on how you grew up, this may feel like a rebellious thing to do. But I assure you that it’s necessary and it will go a long way to supporting your daughter in her recovery.

Because the most important thing here is that your daughter needs to see that her needs the need to be free from people who judge her body are important. She needs to know that you have her back and that you will protect her when you can.

And in this case, while it may be hard, you do have the power to protect her.

I hope this has been helpful. And I wish you the best of luck with grandma. And, of course, I hope that your daughter continues to do well in recovery, and thank you for protecting her.

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Published by Ginny Jones

My mission is to help reduce body hate, disordered eating, and eating disorders.