Pat yourself on the back, everyone: We’re (kinda sorta) almost done with the annual food-centric holiday gauntlet. The time between Halloween and New Year’s can present myriad dietary temptations for anyone, but for eating disorder patients and survivors like me, it’s an absolute minefield. Halloween is, literally, a holiday about candy; Thanksgiving is basically dedicated to the overconsumption of food, alcohol, and products; and the run-up to Christmas is full of office parties, cookie exchanges, and family gatherings. As January 1 rolls in, cue the onslaught of guilt-based marketing for dieting and exercise regimens. It’s enough to make one, uh, barf. (Sorry, too soon?)
Lest you write me off as some kind of unfestive Scrooge, I’ve actually always enjoyed Christmas. (Halloween has gotten more fun since having a small child to dress up with, but I’m still pretty lukewarm about Thanksgiving.) I like Christmas music and don’t care that much if you want to start playing it early. Until recently, I lived in my hometown so Christmas was an opportunity to welcome home friends who had moved away. And I’ve always taken a fairly low-key approach to gifting and decorating, so that piece doesn’t stress me out.
But it often feels like food is waiting to ambush me.
The run-up to Christmas is full of office parties, cookie exchanges, and family gatherings. As January 1 rolls in, cue the onslaught of guilt-based marketing for dieting and exercise regimens.
One year in high school, my parents gave me several packs of fun-size candy bars for Christmas. (I come by my low-key gift-giving honestly, folks.) One of my friends also gave me a tin of homemade fudge, which I remember being very delicious. Maybe too delicious. I stashed these treats in my room to eat in secret and felt deeply ashamed when my mom pointed out how quickly I finished them. This was the first instance I can remember of the secretive, shame-based eating behavior that would follow me into adulthood.
When I was in college, every year around Christmas time, high school friends would come home from their various universities and want to meet up. By this point, I was tightly restricting my diet and exercising compulsively. Before going out to see friends, I had to scout out menus and nutrition information ahead of time. I would rehearse my stories for why I wasn’t eating meat, cheese, or grains. (The prevalence of lactose-intolerance in Asian populations was a useful excuse.) Afterward, I calculated how long I’d need to work out later to accommodate what I ate. My most vivid memories of holiday breaks at home are of spending hours in the basement on my parents’ wobbly treadmill since the world-class recreation center at school wasn’t available.
One holiday bright spot during this anorexic period was baking loads of sugary, fatty, festive desserts (that I never ate myself) for various groups and events. (I did this year-round, but with particular vigor during the holidays.) Baking for others and watching them delight in my creations was a way to vicariously enjoy them myself. But after my disorder swung over into bulimia several years later, I had to stop participating in cookie exchanges and decorating parties because the temptation presented by dozens of cookies was simply too great. To this day, I tread around these festivities with caution depending on where my stress levels are.
My most vivid memories of holiday breaks at home are of spending hours in the basement on my parents’ wobbly treadmill since the world-class recreation center at school wasn’t available.
Family gatherings are also fraught with triggers, mostly in the form of well-meaning (or just plain passive-aggressive) comments and questions, often from the very people and relationship dynamics that helped confuse my relationship with food in the first place.
“Are you going to eat all of that?”
“Why aren’t you eating __________?”
“Have you gained weight? You need to eat more!” (Yes, usually said in the same breath.)
“Don’t worry, Christmas calories don’t count!”
“My diet starts tomorrow!”
My body image has improved to the point where I can usually tune out explicit weight loss messaging. But it’s stressful being bombarded by subtler diet culture beliefs that some foods are “bad” or that indulgence deserves some sort of punishment or penance. It’s enough to make me wonder, “Should I eat this?” which can be a gateway thought to more negative feelings and actions. I’ve started making myself scarce at the gym in January, not just because it’s always more crowded, but because the overall atmosphere tends to be one of shame- or fear-driven striving.
I’ve started making myself scarce at the gym in January, not just because it’s always more crowded, but because the overall atmosphere tends to be one of shame- or fear-driven striving.
Getting married added another layer of complexity (and stress) to the holidays for me. Now I’m expected to attend other people’s holiday celebrations. It can still be triggering to be around unfamiliar food (and people). Two years ago, we leveled up our adulting and hosted Thanksgiving for the first time but that wasn’t a perfect solution either. While I got to stay in the comfort of my own home and direct the menu, preparing and serving large quantities of food for a large group of people is definitely not my idea of a relaxing holiday.
So this year we’ve started implementing some supportive practices around the winter holidays. As I started making a battle plan for the holiday season, I realized that even people who don’t have eating disorders might benefit from some of these practices.
On designated feast days, I make sure to eat lightly before the main meal. I think ahead to what and how much I can eat comfortably, while giving myself the freedom to follow my appetite (and the space to pay attention to what my body is telling me). I make sure to clear away leftovers promptly after the meal. We’re consolidating family visits and keeping lots of margin in our schedules. I’m on a bit of a social media hiatus and taking a break from client work. I’m doing short, high-intensity workouts. These give me lots of endorphins and a sense of achievement but won’t tempt me to spend hours doing cardio. Eating out is pretty safe for me now, but I may still suggest getting together with hometown friends somewhere besides a restaurant.
I don’t expect or need everyone to tiptoe around me. Bring on the Christmas cookies and casseroles! Bring on your New Year fitness goals — I will cheer you on happily! (But I won’t buy your diet shakes or fat-shaming Saran wrap, thank you.) More than anything else, all I want for Christmas is to have as healthy and easy a relationship with food and my body as possible. And I wish that for you, too.