How to navigate awkward family conversations this Christmas

The appearance appraisers: how to deflect comments from the ‘body police’

If there is one thing that is guaranteed to make me sweaty with discomfort, it’s unsolicited comments about my appearance. Whether it’s an overtly rude comment such as “I don’t like those pants” to someone thinking they are paying me a compliment by asking if I’ve lost weight, I have always detested the feeling that others are scrutinising my appearance.

I have always struggled with disordered eating and body dysmorphia, so my main goal is to reach a place of body neutrality. I want my body to be a vessel for my lived experience, not something to be ogled at and appraised by people who have no idea what it’s like to live in my skin.

“Unfortunately, many people have internalised fat phobia, diet culture and narrow beauty standards,” said Athanasiadis.

“These have been ingrained into Western culture over many, many years. If you feel comfortable, it’s perfectly okay to politely open up a discussion about these issues or about your desire to move away from weight and appearance-based concerns.”

This might be a statement such as “I’m trying to focus more on other areas of my life”, or “one of my goals is to challenge outdated, unrealistic beauty standards or diet culture”.

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This can be a great opportunity to educate your loved ones, and even help them to improve their own relationship with their body.

However, not all people are receptive or interested in this, so it’s important to know when your energy is best preserved. Deflecting these comments by changing the subject is also perfectly acceptable.

The milestone micromanagers: coping with criticism about your progress in life

Most people are hard enough on themselves, thanks to false societal expectations about reaching certain milestones by a particular age.

This is only made worse by those family members who are always hassling us about when we are getting married, or having children, or getting a promotion or a ‘proper job’.

These comments can be degrading, rude and minimise all the achievements we have made in our lives, but it can also be difficult to tell your (probably) well-intended aunty to mind her own business.

“Unfortunately, many people make assumptions about what other people may want in their lives,” said Athanasiadis.

“Some people may feel comfortable sharing their goals or milestones with others, some may not. Regardless, everyone is on their own journey in life, and we should respect everyone’s choices. Not everyone wants the same things in life, nor is it a race or competition.

“It’s perfectly okay to say, ‘I am quite happy with how my life is tracking along’ or ‘that’s not something I want for myself, but thank you for asking’. It’s also okay to share your own goals or plans, even if they don’t fit in with traditional rules or expectations.”

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Regardless of how we choose to handle these comments in the moment, remember that you don’t owe anyone an explanation for the choices you make, even if they are a beloved family member.

The controversy connoisseur: escaping the ‘devil’s advocate’ of the family

Just when you think everything is going smoothly, there is that one uncle, in-law, or cousin that loves to bring up a controversial or politically loaded issue.

Often hiding behind a guise of just ‘opening a dialogue’, too often these people go on to make unfounded, unhelpful assumptions on issues they have little-to-no knowledge or experience with.

While sometimes it’s easy to dismiss these people as out of touch, ignorant or from a different generation, sometimes it’s too triggering to ignore.

Athanasiadis confirmed that many people feel challenged when family members, particularly those from privileged backgrounds, discuss important social justice issues on which they are not well educated.

“It can be rather exhausting to always educate people on these issues, and particularly during the holiday season, which is a time when we usually want to unwind, relax and enjoy ourselves,” she said.

One option for how to respond is to entirely avoid engaging with the problematic family member, instead choosing to join in on other conversations with people we feel align better with our values.

You can also check in with yourself, and determine if you have the energy and capacity to engage with the relative to explain how their comment is unkind or unhelpful. It’s important to pick your battles, so if you feel it will be too taxing on you or that they will be defensive or dismissive, you can always just agree to disagree and move on.

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“Disengaging from conflict with that person on the day doesn’t mean you like or approve of them or their comment, it just grants you the permission to enjoy your own experience,” said Athanasiadis.

Need help during the holidays?

If you are struggling during the holiday season and you need some support, please contact your GP, psychologist or psychiatrist. Alternatively, you may also wish to contact one of these free Australian helplines:

Lifeline: 13 11 14

Kids Helpline: 1800 551 800

Mensline Australia: 1300 789 978

Suicide Callback Service: 1300 659 467

Beyond Blue: 1300 22 46 36

Headspace: 1800 650 890

QLife: 1800 184 527