There comes a point in every serious relationship when your partner’s family enters the picture…and let’s just say that every family (mine included) has its fair share of quirks. I was recently—and repeatedly—reminded of this fact by my fiancé’s mom, who has a bizarre fixation with other people’s bodies that can occasionally take the form of unsolicited and unflattering observations. OK, I’ll cut to the chase: My future mother-in-law has called me fat more than once…and it sucks. (For the record, I’m a petite woman—but that’s beside the point, since her comments would still be completely inappropriate no matter my weight.)
Sean, my partner, is a wonderful person who never calls me fat. He’s also a Chinese American whose parents immigrated from Burma to the United States roughly 30 years ago, and our relationship has introduced me to many new customs and traditions. Some of these cultural differences have been exciting to embrace, like learning how to cook a delicious ohn no khao swè, for example, a rich and comforting chicken coconut noodle soup. Others have been less fun, however, like how it’s seemingly more socially acceptable to comment on someone’s appearance. Of course, his mom’s habit of bringing up my weight isn’t solely a function of cultural differences, but I am pretty sure that it’s a factor. (Sean agrees, remarking how his aunts are always calling him skinny and pushing food on him, only to tell him that he’s going to get fat once he’s done eating. “That’s just how it is in Asian families,” he says.)
At any rate, it certainly didn’t feel like a new and interesting cultural experience when a friendly video call with my kids in the room became an inquiry into how much I like food and how much I’ve been eating, simply because my loose-fitting nightgown and the angle of the camera suggested I’d gained a few since she first met me six months prior: “Emma, you’ve been eating a lot, haven’t you? When you came to Chicago you were so skinny. Now you got big, right?” Call me closed-minded, if you wish, but that was just awkward and downright hurtful.
It was the same deal this September when, about six months after said video call, I made my second trip to Chicago to spend time with his family. At one point, she abruptly interrupted our heartfelt conversation about her family history by pointedly asking me why my stomach looked so big. I reminded her that I was recovering from a very unfortunate tango with Salmonella at the time (true story) and nervously joked that I was, in fact, just full of gas. She persisted: “So that’s just gas, right? Or water? Is it fat? I saw you in that T-shirt the other day…” and, turning to Sean, “She’s not pregnant, right?” Oh, and this all happened while we were leaving flowers on the graves of Sean’s relatives at the cemetery where they were buried. Needless to say, I was stunned.
At the time, I did my best to laugh it off. I felt OK about my body—as good about it as I could in the aftermath of food poisoning, at least—and I knew her behavior was bad. Still, thinking about it later that evening (and even now!), I couldn’t help but feel humiliated, self-conscious and, well, decidedly less enthusiastic about bonding with her.
I’m happy to report that in both instances, Sean went to bat for me and called his mom out on being rude. But both times, she scoffed at the criticism: “If I look fat, you tell me. I don’t care.”
Given her unbudging attitude, I was prepared to just accept this particular future mother-in-law “quirk.” After all, it had only happened twice. I figured that I would just cross my fingers and hope that it wouldn’t happen again—and if it did, I would try my best not to take it personally. That proved harder than expected when, two months later, she came to visit us and met my children for the first time. Though very sweet and loving with them, she still thought it was OK to “compliment” them on how they looked skinnier and cuter than in the pictures she’d seen.
Both my kids are healthy, beautiful and, yes, lean; they’re also only five and seven years old. At the moment, I couldn’t think of anything to do but awkwardly laugh and say, “Yep, well here they are!” But her comments rattled me and so after she left, I decided to reach out to Dr. Lauren Cook, clinical psychologist and founder of Heartship Psychological Services, for some expert advice on how to handle this problem that clearly wasn’t going to go away on its own. Here’s what the therapist recommended I do in the future.
Tell a friend…
… Who can then confirm how messed up my MIL’s behavior is (aka find validation). Speaking with the therapist, I attempted to describe my real-time reaction to these experiences and struggled to do so. Dr. Cook, however, hit the nail on the head: “Comments like this can often leave you feeling dumbfounded…like it just doesn’t feel real,” she said. Yep, pretty much.
In fact, one consequence of being so caught off guard by my future MIL’s behavior is that it was really difficult to pinpoint my own emotions in the moment. I knew that it wasn’t cool, and I could feel myself getting annoyed, but the overriding feeling was…confusion. For this reason, the expert strongly recommended that I first take a minute alone to feel all the feelings, and then turn to a close friend or trusted support person who can validate those emotions from an outsider’s perspective (and help me avoid minimizing them).
“It can be part of the healing process just to hear from others that what happened really wasn’t OK,” she explained. And for those of us who sometimes struggle with boundary setting, this is pretty key, because it’s the “first step towards taking power back in the situation.”
Talk it out with my partner
While there’d be nothing wrong with going directly to my SO for validation, Dr. Cook said that a friend who’s slightly removed from the situation might be the best person to talk to when I’m still reeling. Once that’s done and some clarity has been achieved, I should not hesitate to talk it over with my partner, since “he’s familiar with the culture he grew up in and could provide a helpful perspective and context for [the behavior].” Oh, and he can also be an important ally moving forward. (Note: We have talked about this extensively and he has, in fact, been great.)
Choose how to respond
It turns out there’s a big difference between responding and reacting from a place of raw emotion—namely that the latter is liable to result in escalation and regret (like getting into a screaming match with the offending party and saying something you can’t take back). Fortunately, the first two pieces of advice—talking to a friend and to my partner— should go a long way towards avoiding such a scenario. As such, next time my partner’s mom makes a hurtful comment, I’d be wise to take a moment to ask myself if it’s a battle worth fighting or something I’d rather choose to let go. And lest you think that letting hurtful comments slide is a sign of weakness, per the expert, “choosing how you respond is the empowerment piece.”
If I do choose to say something next time (eek, confrontation!), the key is to respond—not react—confidently and resolutely. Dr. Cook reassured me that there’s no wrong way to be assertive. The most important thing is that feedback is given and given firmly…but the rest is just a matter of style. In other words, I can keep it quick and casual (“Hey, that’s not cool!”), I can take a more aggressive approach (“Please don’t talk about my body anymore. That doesn’t sit well with me”—delivered with a death stare) or I can try to keep things light by offsetting a similarly firm statement with a bit of humor and a good-natured tone (I attempted to do this when I admitted to being gassy, but I forgot the firm feedback component.)
For what it’s worth, Dr. Cook told me that she has worked with many couples that have experienced unsavory incidents not unlike mine. And after consulting with the expert, I now know I need to speak with my fiancé about how I felt about his mom’s strange (read: tactless) attempt to flatter my kids and be more assertive the next time she says anything untoward. I haven’t quite figured out exactly what I’m going to say to her just yet, but for now I’ll be serving myself an extra helping of ohn no khao swè, thank you very much.