Updated: Oct 16
I am a member of a brown family that loves the holiday season. Although we are practicing Hindus, Christmas time has always been an excuse for my family to gather, chow down on festive foods, and watch Home Alone 2.
But the holidays can also be a trying and triggering time for those of us in the South Asian community with challenging, albeit well meaning, family members. Hurtful comments ranging from, “Wow, you’ve become fat/too thin,” to “Now it’s your turn (to get married/have kids),” can make returning home for the holidays a stressful experience.
As adults, some of us have set clear boundaries and cut these individuals out of our lives. However, this may be impractical or even impossible if, for example, the challenging family members live in the same town or will be visiting your parents’ place during your stay. Additionally, the Western definition of boundary setting can be uncompromising and zero sum; i.e., if the family member makes insensitive comments towards you, shut them down and cut them out. This solution may feel unrealistic and even fantastical in the face of South Asian social norms, which include showing deference to elders, respecting one’s parents, and maintaining, at the very least, cordial relationships with both immediate and extended family.
Moreover, we may hold esteem or love for the family members making the toxic comments. Despite the pain these remarks may cause, it’s likely that they come from a place of misguided love and concern. For example, my grandmother continuously pushes marriage on me because she wants to see me “settled”, and by extension, happy. Unfortunately this concern for my well being is steeped in heteronormative, archaic values, making it stifling and frustrating.
Though I have struggled to respond to family members’ toxic remarks, I have developed a set of well-worn responses to the most recurrent ones. I don’t pretend to be an expert and have been the cause of many a verbal tête a tête within my family, so take my advice with a grain of salt. Some will find my responses too abrupt, while others will feel I don’t go far enough. In any case, I hope these examples galvanize you to think through your own responses to these triggering questions and comments.
“Wow, you’ve gained/lost weight. Is that why you have so much/little on your plate?”
Ah, a classic. I inevitably hear one of the above at every family gathering and can be certain that no matter what number I hit on the scale, someone will have something to say about it. As someone who continues to struggle with accepting her body and mending her relationship with food, these comments feel especially triggering. My response to this jibe is rarely artful. If the questioner has remarked on an abundance of food on my plate, I usually blithely say, “Well, I’m hungry!” or “I know, everything looks delicious, doesn’t it?” If I feel motivated, I might redirect the conversation. “Oh, there are so many more interesting things to talk about. How is your garden doing? Does your daughter/son still love drawing?” As a bonus, this redirect acts as a subtle reminder of the shallowness of the subject they have chosen to pursue.
“It’s time for you to get married. It’s not right for a girl/boy your age to be living alone.”
After I turned 23, I began to hear this remark at every wedding I attended, causing me to dread friends’ nuptials. If I, as a straight person, find this comment wearing, I can only imagine how it might frustrate queer folks in the South Asian community. At 26, I now expect an interrogation about my relationship status at every family event.
My response varies based on the individual. When my grandmother tells me I need to get married yesterday, I smile, nod, and agree that I will keep my eye out for someone. If she persists, I redirect the conversation to something I feel proud of, such as an accomplishment at work or a new dish I learned to cook. I intend for these stories to assuage her fears about my being “settled”. Despite being single, I have found stability through other means. If the individual is a prying aunty or other relative, I cheerfully quip that, I’m only 26, and unfortunately, I don’t believe in child marriage.
"You should grow your hair out. You look like a boy."
This comment may seem particular to me (I have had a pixie cut for four years), but many South Asian women receive similar criticism about changes to their appearance, be it a new piercing, hair color, or choice of make-up. Everyone in my community seems to have an opinion about my hair cut; from being misgendered by people who know me to constant entreaties to grow my hair out, I have heard it all.
I still don’t know how to respond to being misgendered. It feels hurtful, but If someone genuinely perceives me as man/boy, is that their fault, or that of heteronormative gender norms? My first response is to nervously laugh it off. However, when family members beg me to grow my hair out, I respond honestly: “I feel confident in this haircut and love the way I look in it. Thank you for complimenting my long hair, but I still plan on getting a trim next month.”
As the truism goes, these remarks say more about “them” than they do about me. For example, Aunty’s comment on my weight serves only to highlight her insecurities about her body. Subverting these insecurities with curiosity and humor can assist in coping with these remarks. But, formulating such responses is easier said than done and takes practice. There is no shame in removing oneself from unhealthy situations and shutting down comments intended to belittle and shame. I continue to struggle with and learn from my interactions with my family; though I understand that I will never be immune to their comments, I can develop strategies to protect my mental health. Whether you choose to respond to these comments with spicy quips or nervous laughter, I hope you take care this holiday.
If you would respond differently to these comments or face a another set of remarks during the holidays, please share in the comments or DM us on Instagram @projstree.