How to deal with diet culture at holiday gatherings
There are plenty of reasons why holiday gatherings can make you want to turn around and go home before you’ve even arrived – which doesn’t take into account the added challenge if you’re the one actually hosting! When you really think about it, holiday gatherings, for many, can be more about honouring whatever meaning the holiday is given, and that ranges from person to person from spiritual all the way to obligation. A gathering of people you may not necessarily elect to spend time with outside of these events, will likely include people who represent aspects of culture you’ve been distancing yourself from. Putting all these people together: conflicting worldviews, beliefs, life experiences, relational histories, capacity for abstract thinking and how they’re feeling on the day – is bound to be a challenge especially if you’re already feeling resentment about going.
Some have managed to work around this by opting out of these events – and I also recognise that for many of you, that isn’t an option right now. So what now? You’ve been working on creating safe enough spaces in your daily life to support healing your relationship with your body, food, even trauma and these events can threaten that. Below I’m going to expand on some ideas which may help you manage some of this threat that will range from passive to active:
Give yourself a pep talk and establish your internal boundaries
In the lead up before the event, have some moments with yourself to get clear about how you’re going to respect and honour the work you’ve been doing with your body and food relationship. Establish your internal boundaries – these are different, but can be related to the boundaries you actually communicate externally to others. Internal boundaries are the boundaries you set from your wise, compassionate adult self for the more vulnerable parts of yourself in your inner world. For example, you may be going to a family gathering back to your childhood home, and there’s a young part of you that is filled with worry and shame – the job of your wise adult self is to help that younger part of you feel more safe in that environment – how might you do that? What does that young part of you need you to do or not do? Checking in with yourself prior and letting your inner world know you’ll be there and wont leave them out in the cold will do wonders for your sense of safety.
Avoid making it your job to change people
Pick your battles. Most general advice over the holiday period, particularly for extended family gatherings, is to not make it a time to bring up family issues to be unpacked or repaired. When we learn about diet culture, Health At Every Size® (HAES) or body positivity, there can be this urge to make sure everyone knows – which is okay and it can easily backfire in these settings as it’s not the time and place, and it’s already a charged space. There’s a difference between standing up for others or yourself if you’re experiencing microaggressions or being attacked, and going in with an agenda to change Aunty Karen who is currently highly invested in Keto, because you want to free as many people from diet culture as possible. I get it so much, when you know there’s an alternative to diet culture and body hatred you want to scream it from the roof tops. It doesn’t mean you need to agree with everything Aunty Karen is saying, be yourself, just be realistic with your expectations. Remember back to the days where no one could talk you out of a diet. Sometimes it’s more about sitting with and soothing our own distress when someone flat out disagrees or doesn’t understand where we’re coming from.
All people at holiday gatherings have body autonomy
One of the concepts we talk about in HAES is body autonomy. This means that each person is entitled to decisions they make about their body without influence or coercion. We could argue that any decision we make about our body contains external influence, yes, but on this level, someone’s decision to partake in diet culture is there's to make with the information they have available, coupled with what’s motivating them (which usually goes beyond what we can know about them). This does not give them a free pass for bad behaviour, as they need to respect your body autonomy as well, and you can communicate this.
Use radical acceptance for diet talk
Hoping you’ll go to a holiday event and not hear diet talk in mainstream spaces is almost wishful thinking – and I know, it sucks! Reminding yourself that you will hear diet talk, people commenting on their bodies and using moralistic language around food and bodies can help you prepare at least a little for it. Diet culture is such a ritual - it’s a form of small talk, social bonding, and attempts to display positive characteristics - look at how disciplined I am. Socially and sadly, we have a lot invested in diet culture that goes beyond the surface. Using the concept of radical acceptance - not the same as agreeing, liking or resigning to it – just accepting that in this space it will be there will be diet culture can help reduce some of the distress around not being able to change it in the moment, and increase your resilience in future situations.
Be a circuit breaker for diet and body talk
Many conversations in social settings, especially small talk, tend to go around in a circuit, informed by social and group norms entrenched by broader culture. Our brains really like saving power and it goes onto autopilot when it can. Often, we don’t question what we’re saying, we're more focused on the predictability and performance of the social exchange – and how predictable is diet culture related talk!? If you’re ready to be a circuit breaker at your holiday event, do or say something that’s not expected – that’s enough to bring our brains back online. When someone says ‘Oh are you really having another piece? I’m already going to need to run tomorrow to burn this off!’ - look at them a little confused and ask say ‘oh really? Why?’ When you ask why enough times to their responses, they will have dug their way down to a place where they will recognise their deep fat phobia, or recognise they’ve never questioned their assumptions about food, movement and bodies. Your job is done here.