The Soapbox: How To Handle Food Shame During The Holidays
This piece was cross-posted with permission from FatNutritionist.com. It was originally published before Thanksgiving but we are crossposting it here with the rest of the holiday season in mind.
It’s true, Thanksgiving is a weirdly imperialist semi-genocidal sort of holiday, but hey, at least we can enjoy the tradition of getting together with family and eating a bunch of mashed potatoes!
Or can we?
If some people’s relatives had their way, the answer would be a resounding HAHA, SUCKER! Because certain people exist only to make your food-eating life as a fat person (or a whatever-sized person) miserable.
So, here’s the thing: whether or not you are fat, you are the only person who gets to decide what food goes in your mouth, what tastes good, and how much of it makes you feel full and satisfied. No matter how many busybodies and dietary conspiracy theorists get in your face, you are still the only one who can decide.
This goes for holidays just as much as any other time of the year. And maybe especially for holidays, given that they have been specifically set aside for centuries as feast days. A time to get your feast on. A time to enjoy food without the usual constraints of looming scarcity, whether naturally- or artificially-imposed.
So, with that in mind, I have a few holiday tips for you. And they are not of the “fill up on celery before the party!” variety.
1. You have permission to eat. Period. You have permission to eat what and how much you want. Food is not poison, your body belongs to you, and you are a grown-up who gets to decide what to eat. That’s it. That’s all. It’s the plain truth. So give yourself explicit permission to eat when you sit down to eat. Remind yourself who is really in charge (it’s you.)
2. It’s your job to take care of your body. I mean, I guess you don’t really have to if you don’t want to, but your body is going to make you pay for any sort of neglect. And when I say “take care of it” that is not code for “eat some ridiculously restrictive diet predicated on the notion that food is poisonous.” It means to take care of yourself in a way that feels good and allows you to function well, both physically and emotionally. When it comes to food, taking care of yourself usually means eating often enough so that you’re not starvingly, desperately hungry in between times, and that you eat enough to feel pleasantly satisfied, maybe even really full, but not physically ill. So, even on holidays, the mandate to take care of yourself with food stands: eat some breakfast. If you’re having an early afternoon dinner, maybe have a snack around midday, or a light lunch. If you’re eating your holiday dinner at regular dinner time, then have a regular lunch. You will actually enjoy your holiday meal more on moderate hunger. Desperation makes things exciting and dramatic, but actually can make it more difficult to taste and enjoy your food. It also makes you cranky and more prone to family blow-outs. Drama-free is the way to go.
3. Eat foods that are enjoyable, but that also make you feel good. For me, this means including roughage and fruits and veggies and whatnot with my meals. Your mileage may vary. You know what foods make you feel good. Milk? Bananas? Chocolate on the side? Provided you like eating them well enough, just add them onto whatever you’re already eating. Make it as easy on yourself as possible. Raw baby carrots will get the job done, as will pre-cut, pre-washed salad from a bag, or some mandarins, or a cut-up apple, or even some applesauce or orange juice. Supplement your meal with feel-good foods, no matter how imperfect.
4. Don’t eat stuff you don’t like, either before the holiday meal, or AT the holiday meal. It is not your job to appease Aunt Bessie’s conscience about her horrible cooking. “No, thanks” is all adults need to say. Repeat it, repeat it, repeat it if they pressure you. “No, thanks.” It’s a complete sentence. It can stand as an answer even to follow-up questions like, “But don’t you like it? You used to always like it!” Just, “No, thanks.” If they push, they are the ones making things weird, not you. In the wise words of Captain Awkward, “Let it be awkward.” It’s not your job to smooth over the awkwardness from their neurosis. It is your job to do right by your body and not force yourself to eat stuff you don’t enjoy, or that will make you feel overfull and terrible later.
5. Don’t engage with the inevitable weight talk, or talk of food-related sinning (“I’m so bad! This is so bad for you! Watch me eat the entire thing because I am totally in denial about my own neurosis!”) Don’t engage. It’s not your job to educate people about eating, or self-acceptance, or health at every size, although a light reassurance that food is good, and it’s a holiday so lighten up, Francis, may not go amiss — if you think it won’t set off further self-flagellation or lecturing. Gauge the situation. You know your relatives better than I do. But it’s a holiday — you should not have to be educating other people about how to eat on a holiday. It’s your day off. And, here’s a hint, they probably won’t listen to you anyway. So keep your own counsel and save your energy for pie.
6. One simple phrase, “Let’s just enjoy this,” can work wonders. If people are insistent on indicting the food sitting on the table (while everyone around them partakes in it and then feels vaguely dirty), say lightly, “Let’s just enjoy this,” and keep eating. Again – repeat and repeat as often as necessary until they lay off. They don’t have to eat the food if it’s giving them anxiety-hives, or if they don’t like it, or if it doesn’t sit well in their body, but it’s rude for them to vomit their issues all over the food that other people are actively eating and enjoying.
7. In case you were tempted, lay off other people’s eating. Put down that responsibility today. Don’t push food on people. Don’t comment on how much or how little they take. Don’t ask them “Should you be eating that?” or “How’s your blood sugar?” It is not your, or anyone’s, place to police what other people eat, even if they have honest-to-goodness dietary issues. They are grown-ups. If they have health issues, presumably they have seen a doctor and have been made aware of what they should be doing. It is their choice to follow those guidelines or not, and it is not your place to play food cop — doing so is a great way to totally spoil a holiday and potentially wreck your relationship. So sit on your hands, zip the lip, do whatever you need to do to stay out of other people’s business.
8. If the food police descend on you, hear them, then drop it. You can go the passive-aggressive-Southerner/Miss-Manners route and give them a “Bless your heart! Thank you for your concern,” and keep eating or walk away. Or you could go the blunt honest route and say, “I know you mean well, but I know what I’m doing,” and try to change the subject or walk away (warning, this one is likely to start a fight if you have contentious family members. Use with caution.) Mostly, someone just wants to make sure their (usually obnoxious) opinion has been heard and validated, so to save your sanity you can just nod gravely and say, “I see! How interesting. Thanks for the advice,” then completely disregard it and go about your meal. Pick whichever strategy matches best with the unique flavor of neurosis present in your family. Then debrief with an understanding friend or family member later on and get a hug. If you expect this kind of thing, see if you can set up a phone hotline situation with a friend ahead of time – agree to text or phone each other to check in at some point during the day, and offer each other support.
9. Focus on your own food and enjoy it. Eyes on your own plate, if you will. This can be really hard to do on a holiday, ironically, because of all the distraction and hubbub of the holiday itself. So, before diving into the plate of delectation set before you, take a good, deep breath. Give your mind two seconds to settle itself. Take a good look at your food, and smile to yourself, and feel how your stomach is feeling. Smell the food and taste the food. It is usually pretty awesome.
10. If all else fails, go sit at the kiddie table. Sure, they don’t want their food touching other food, and will often end up with peas in their nose, but otherwise they tend to be pretty chill about letting people eat what they eat.
Dig in. Be thankful for your food. That’s what this is all about, right?
Michelle Allison blogs at FatNutritionist.com.