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.
Model the behaviour you want to see
This won’t be for everyone – if you’re in a body in which you feel unsafe already, please don’t compromise your mental health. If you’re feeling secure enough and are ready to model some new behaviours for people, go for it, it can actually be fun and empowering. As humans we learn socially, and if we’re not exposed to new ways of being it’s almost as if alternate ways don’t exist. This makes it a challenge for social change because someone needs to be the first in a group to do something different requiring courage and bravery. Even if people become vocal in opposition about what you’re doing, there will be people observing you who are both curious and interested in your change of behaviour. Modelling behaviour is related to circuit breaking as well but may be more subtle. For example, modelling behaviour change in opposition to diet culture norms may look like expressing joy for the taste of food and satiation, or expressing how much you enjoy someone’s company instead of bonding over body hate or reassuring them.
Use clear and assertive communication for boundary talks
This is one we hear more frequently and that’s because it’s essential. Many of us are still learning that we need to communicate what our needs are without them being magically fulfilled by another, especially our caregivers. One of the first steps to communicating your boundaries is believing you are worthy of having boundaries and of having them met so you can express them as clearly as possible. This doesn’t mean that your boundaries will always be respected - just believing you are worthy of boundaries and having them respected isn’t enough, it will depend on the integrity of the other person and what they are bringing to the interaction.
When you express boundaries it’s important to use assertive language. For example, if you frequently go to gatherings and people tell you your weight has changed and this impacts you, you may benefit from communicating a boundary. It can be helpful to express why the boundary is needed, what the boundary is and what will happen if it’s not respected. A way I might express this boundary with this example may look like: ‘Dad, when I come home for xyz, I hear you tell me about my weight changes (the behaviour you observe). This makes me feel hurt, devalued and impacts my health (how the behaviour impacts you). As I value my mental health, when I come home I need a space where my body isn’t commented on (communicating the boundary need). This is really important to me so if I hear you commenting on my body, I will remind you of this conversation, and if my need continues to be disrespected I wont be able to make it to family gatherings in the future. (clearly explaining the consequences of a boundary violation)’
It’s okay if your boundary conversations are done in person, over the phone or via an email. However you need to communicate your boundary needs is okay especially if it’s not something people expect from you, it can feel very intimidating.
If you've got a specific holiday gathering coming up that you'd like some support for, I have limited 90 minute virtual coaching session bookings open for December 2019 for $145USD. During these one-off sessions we can get down to the core of the issue of your particular experience and come up with strategies to buffer the impact of the holiday season on your body and food relationship. Click here to learn more, or send me an email!