Navigating conversations with loved ones about body image during the holidays
Every year, we talk about the subject of holidays and body image, and every year it brings up a lot of conversation and chatter.
Body image issues and the holidays are like that old-school cartoon, Tom and Jerry. The two fight against each other every time, yet typically, nothing changes, and the same ol' fight ensues the following year with the same results.
So, let's talk about it.
We all know body image issues can affect anyone over the holidays, as evident by the numerous diet-guilt comments we hear from people in our lives once they've done something as dastardly as … eat. (cue my sarcasm.)
Sarcasm aside, I know this topic is a big one for a lot of people. It's still a hard one for me.
How do you deal with conversations around body image and eating during the holidays? They're inevitable and deeply programmed into our culture. And yet, when we hear our cousin or aunt or uncle make the 'joke,' patting their stomachs as they do it, it's still just as annoying and off-putting as the year before.
Cue, my own experience. I love my parents deeply; of course, I do. But this is a relentless topic over the years - the body image comments my dad makes, in jest, about his own body after eating at the holidays. Or the way my mom looks at my dad "jokingly" when he dares try to eat another cookie.
It's a patterning between them that they share. While I disagree with and dislike witnessing the conversation, I've had to practice how to anticipate, react, and move past with every year that I've been in recovery.
Does it annoy me? Of course. Do I think they're doing it consciously? No. I think my dad feels some diet-culture-infused-guilt, and it's up to me to decide how to live with the comment, equally with my mom.
I think that's important to acknowledge here. Just because we have had an eating disorder doesn't give us the sole right to have body image issues. Our parents may struggle too. Our siblings may feel guilt the same way we did back when we were in the throes of our eating struggles.
To extend empathy in these situations seems to be one of the only ways I've been able to cope with it. There were years where I felt preemptively resentful about the inevitable conversations that I knew would happen. But, all that anger ever did was eat me alive and cause me to lose out on enjoying the limited time I get with family every year.
It doesn't mean we necessarily have to endure the conversations. There are just better ways to gracefully exit or move the situation than being mad and bitter about the whole day.
Here are a few ways we've heard from clinicians and people just like you!
If you're in the middle of a conversation, remind yourself that you can leave it.
I think it's important to remember that you don't have to come in hot with all your strong body-positive info and mantras to try and sway and move your family members from the guilt and shame that they carry.
Sometimes, it's just too hard to say something after a triggering comment. And I think it's important to remind ourselves that we can simply excuse ourselves from a situation by saying we want to get a drink, check on X person, help clean the dishes, etc.
If you're dreading comments about your body, or about bodies in general, it can be worth attempting to have a conversation with those around you.
Now, as I mentioned above, it doesn't necessarily mean you'll be able to change the inevitable comment (or three) because of how conditioned it is in people to do. Still, when you try to have heartfelt conversations with family or friends about being supportive, they will hopefully try to avoid making harmful comments about food or bodies. If anything, it forces them to become aware of their habits, however brief.
It can be good to have scripts for these conversations so that if you feel overwhelmed or upset, you can fall back on prepared statements to help in the moment. Something to the effect of "worrying about calories is stressful and unhelpful for me," or "I'm working on being okay with my body as it is, so it's better for me to focus on how I feel and not my size or what I eat."
Once you decide what phrases you want to practice using, write them down or put them in your phone to help you remember.
Built-in Support With Someone You Trust
Over the years, my younger brother has had to hear a lot of my 5-minute rants about comments made at our family dinners (poor guy).
It's been nice to have him as my support, the one there that will always shake his head, validate the annoyance of it, and help me move into letting the initial irritation go. He's pragmatic without lacking empathy, and I appreciate that about him.
My point? Find your pragmatic-empathetic person and ask them preemptively if they're open to you talking to them if a conversation gets too difficult.
Sometimes it helps to have the validation of my brother shaking his head too, saying, "yeah, I don't know why they have to say that kinda stuff every year. I don't think they even realize what they're doing."
It helps me feel like I'm not alone in my feelings or the "only one" who notices the comments, which usually feels isolating.
These situations are complex, and there's no right way to respond, as each family dynamic is different. But, there are ways to navigate it that align with your specific family and what you go through, and it's beneficial to have a strategy in place.
Sending good cheer to all of you out there this holiday season, slightly bemoaning-while-loving our families, however they come.