When the Body-Shaming Bully on Social Media Is Mom

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The “Dear Sugars” podcast is an advice program hosted by Steve Almond and Cheryl Strayed. The audio contains more letters; submissions are welcome at dearsugars@nytimes.com. If you’re reading this on desktop, click the play button below to listen. Mobile readers can find “Dear Sugars” on the Podcasts app (iPhone and iPad) or Radio Public (Android and tablet).

Dear Sugars,

I’m a 37-year-old woman with two children and a fantastic husband. I enjoy my career and have a fruitful social life. I’m also obese, though I do my best to eat healthfully. I have spent a lot of energy on self-acceptance, and mostly I feel good about how I look. The problem is my mother.

She has always been critical of my looks and has never shied away from telling me that I need to lose weight. Recently, she has started posting about my body on Facebook. Whether it’s a negative comment on a photo or a post about weight loss on my wall, the message is clear: Your body is not acceptable. I delete the comments and hide the posts, but that doesn’t make them any less hurtful.

I’m nervous to talk to her about this because she’ll likely claim she didn’t mean it the way I’m taking it, and I’ll end up apologizing and nothing will change. Her self-esteem is low, she’s an alcoholic, and she has depression. I’ve read that alcoholics tend to be hypercritical of others, but sensitive to feedback of their own behaviors. I’m also sensitive to the fact that her behavior is learned — her mother is likewise critical. But I want to make sure she understands how uncomfortable it is to have your mom talk about your body critically in general, but especially in a public forum. What advice do you have for me in approaching this?

Feeling Shamed

Cheryl Strayed: I’m sorry your mother does that to you. It’s mean and it’s wrong. You don’t say whether you’ve talked to your mother in the past about her hurtful criticism of your body, but your description of the dynamic you expect tells me previous conversations of this nature have been dysfunctional and ineffective. Take note of that. You aren’t going to get the results you’re hoping for if you go in with the same mind-set as you have previously when addressing such conflicts. You can’t change what your mother says or does, but you can change what you say and do.

You write that you want your mother to understand “how uncomfortable it is” to have her “talk about your body critically,” but here’s the thing, Feeling Shamed: She already does. She wants to make you feel uncomfortable. That is her very intention. She’s using shame the way shame is used — as a weapon to compel people to do what they wouldn’t otherwise do or pay a price.

I encourage you to let go of any notion about changing your mother’s mind. Instead of imploring her to consider your feelings, protect yourself from her by setting and holding a clear boundary. Don’t beg for her compassion. Tell her you will no longer accept her behavior.

Steve Almond: Amen to all of the above. Your mother is a bully. It sounds like she grew up under the care of a bully and, as often happens, her version of love became infected by a compulsion to shame. Whatever its source, her behavior is emotionally abusive and has been for a long time.

This will sound odd, but I suspect the reason you haven’t confronted her more forcefully is because you feel guilty. You of all people recognize how sad and isolated she is, and like all loving children, you wish to remain connected to her, even if the price of that connection is withstanding her abuse. It’s a doomed form of loyalty. Your job now is not to abandon her, but to defend yourself from the parts of her that are broken and destructive.

You’ve done the hard work of finding self-acceptance in other areas of your life. Now it’s time to demand acceptance from your mother. She may not be able to handle this shift in the terms of your engagement, at least initially. But that’s something for her to work out. Which is to say, it’s her decision and not one you can control.

CS: As a woman who has worked hard for self-acceptance, you already know the importance of shutting out messages that are detrimental to you, whether they be from the culture or individuals. I suggest you use that same approach with your mother. Tell her calmly but firmly that you will block her on social media if she posts any more negative comments about your weight or appearance and then do it if she does. One strike, and she’s out.

Refusing to allow your mother to have access to you on social media doesn’t mean you have to cut her out of your life. It means you’re closing down a portal through which she has repeatedly chosen to hurt and shame you even after you’ve explicitly asked her not to. Likewise, when she brings up the subject in conversation, tell her you will not discuss your body with her. I suggest you practice ahead of time so you won’t lose your nerve. Write down the sentence you’ll say in response to her criticisms and rehearse it so you’re ready when the time comes.

SA: You wouldn’t have written us, Shamed, if you weren’t ready to set this boundary. That’s why you wrote us. But it’s still a big deal. For years, you’ve been protecting your mother by absorbing her criticism and swallowing your real feelings. You’ve allowed her to make your weight the issue, rather than her cruelty.

For all the reasons we’ve enumerated, that has to stop. But here’s a final one to consider, one that may stiffen your resolve: your children. You’ve clearly worked hard to build a happy and meaningful life. Your marriage, career and social life attest to this, and your success in each area sends a positive message to your children.

But the ways in which your mother has been able to chip away at your self-esteem sends quite a different message. The point isn’t that you owe it to your children to stand up to your mother. You owe it to yourself. But in doing so, you’re also sending a powerful message to your children about how to set limits with troubled people — even troubled grandmas — who attempt to inflict their self-hatred on you.