I’m fat. My family has a lot of opinions about my size but they have learned not to express them. However, I’ll be seeing them for the holidays and have lost considerable weight due to a chronic illness. I know they’re going to all want to “compliment” my weight loss. Should I e-mail in advance and explain the situation and ask them not to say anything, knowing some of them will get oppositional and say something like, “I know you said not to say anything but I can’t help it.” Or slog through shutting them down one by one when it comes up?
J.F. / Arlington
Yours is not the only body that has changed in 2021 — so many people have gained or lost weight, grown or lost hair, collapsed into themselves or gotten fanatically in shape, changed their style out of boredom or to reflect new priorities. So let me review a few basics, and then circle back to you.
If someone has deliberately changed their look — a new hairstyle or body art, a punk-to-cottagecore transformation or vice versa — say something nice or don’t say anything. It’s astonishing that this kindergarten-level point still needs to be made. It does, though, because while kindergartners get it, adults learn to cite concern for health or morality or professionalism or some other high-minded notion as an excuse to insult people for their own good. Don’t do that, and if anyone does it to you, try that “insult me for my own good” phrase with them. (If you’re asked your opinion of a new look you find dreadful, “You look so happy/confident this way, tell me more about it” is fine.)
If it’s some other change you weren’t anticipating, trust that the other person knows what they look like. There’s no need to point their newly gray hair out to them, nor to assure them that they haven’t changed a bit since 2018. We all have, and some of us show it more on the outside.
That said, a change in appearance means something, and it’s only natural to want to know exactly what it means. If you look considerably different than you did the last time loved ones saw you, it’s a courtesy to let them know how you feel about the change, and how you’d like them to behave.
So I vote for the advance e-mail, because even if your family had been well behaved all along, your weight loss is either voluntary or involuntary, and it’s kind to let them know which. And this way, anyone who comments is in the wrong simply because you asked them not to, and can’t argue the supposed merits of their statement. If people do comment, you have many options: You could repeat “I asked people not to do that” over and over and over, or simply stare silently at them, until they apologize or go away. You could relate graphic anecdotes from your illness. Or, if you insist on taking the high road, you could extend forgiveness rather than thanks for their “compliment.”
Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology.