Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Dear Carolyn: I have a sister-in-law, “Lula,” who is both very snarky and very overweight. When I joined the family this year, she apparently made it her mission to inform me that I am no better than she is just because I am slim.
Of course being slimmer does not make me a better person.
But she takes it a step beyond, and undercuts all compliments others give me (including ON MY WEDDING DAY). I’m not Sherlock Holmes, but I suspect this is rooted in her insecurities about her own appearance. One of these days I’ll have babies or fall off the diet wagon or just thicken with time, but until then, must I take the high ground every time she attacks me?
Snark and overeating are both indicators of protectiveness and self-soothing, so I suspect Lula has some real unhappiness at the core – with her weight more a symptom than a source of self-doubt. I also suspect she won’t back down as you thicken – not if you continue to live in a way she feels she has been denied.
It’s her battle to fight regardless, but you can at least not open another front by mistaking this for a weight issue. Instead, respond only in terms of feelings, the real issue here. “That hurt.” Or, “I’m sorry to hear you feel that way.” Or, “Lula, I hope someday we can be friends.” Think of it as a campaign of ruthless humanizing, of both of you.
It might not stop the snark or start a friendship or otherwise work how you’d like. However, it will block the door to her – or your – making this about weight.
You’re essentially saying, I have feelings, and I know you do too, and I’m not going to take any bait that changes the subject.
It’s playing the long game, which always takes patience, but kindness tends to pay off.
Re: High Ground: I liked your advice (for an ideal world), but there is simply no way to “win” here.
No matter what she says, I suspect it will be twisted into a perceived put-down of Lula. I was thin to the point of self-consciousness through my 30s, and I was stunned at what I sometimes got.
For example, the first words out of a woman’s mouth upon introduction, no hello or anything: “My God you’re thin! I hate you!” She obviously thought it was funny. Or: “Why does your boyfriend waste money on buying you dinner? You don’t eat!” Even now that the skinny ship sailed years ago, I still am not heavy enough to be safe from snarky comments.
All she can do is laugh it off. Seriously. Anything else will be misconstrued and worsen it all.
“That hurt” can be twisted into a perceived put-down?
I see what you’re saying, and laughing it off is a fine approach for the stranger-snark you describe.
This is someone inside the family, though, and I plainly stated no expectations that it would “work.” Instead what I suggested was that HG strip away any illusion that this is about anything but two people’s feelings.
So the win is in the words themselves – “That was really hurtful.” Call it what it is. Humanize, humanize. With apologies to Thoreau.
Email Carolyn at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/carolyn.hax or chat with her online at 10 a.m. each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.