Navigating body image, self-esteem, and our relationship with food can be a struggle year-round—and even more of a struggle at the holidays. Seasonal activities that center around meals combined with so many New Year’s resolutions harping on weight loss mean that the holidays can come with a lot of mixed messaging that can make this time difficult to navigate.
If the idea of holiday meals, spending time with friends and family who might comment on or judge our bodies, or food in general makes you anxious, know that you’re not alone. So how do we reduce the fear, guilt, and shame we may feel about food and stay body positive during the holidays?
Oftentimes, family and friends feel entitled to comment on your body, health, and weight. But here’s the thing: no one needs to talk about your body at all. Even positive comments about our appearance can lead to greater body dissatisfaction because they imply that other people are watching or monitoring our bodies. There are other, more fun things to talk about!
If you are comfortable doing so, share your boundaries ahead of holiday gatherings. Ask family members to refrain from making conversation or comments about body image or dieting. If someone makes a comment you’re uncomfortable with, change the subject or simply leave the conversation.
Especially with family, we often feel required to participate in conversations we don’t want to engage in and keep the peace even when others are being antagonistic. But you are not obligated to spend your time and mental and emotional energy on someone who is doing you harm!
It can be incredibly scary to be direct, honest, and open with friends and family about your relationship with your body and your body image, especially if they are the ones who instilled or reinforced these feelings throughout your life, but it’s totally okay to communicate your needs.
Sometimes setting boundaries and explaining that people’s hurtful words are causing pain won’t help, and that could be because the situation isn’t actually about you: critical people tend to be unhappy with themselves. That doesn’t mean their words should be excused, it just means that you might have to take a different approach.
We can’t always change or influence those around us, especially in the short term, but we can cultivate our own self-awareness that those around us might be projecting their own anxiety and body image issues onto us. If someone says something hurtful—especially if they double down after you point out that their comments are unwelcome—pause, remind yourself that what they’re saying is more about them than it is about you, and move on.
You deserve to feel safe and in control of your own experience and you are well within your right to leave a conversation or to change the subject if someone decides to bring up topics that are harmful or even uninteresting to you. Even when it’s with family—especially if it’s with family!
Our diet-centered culture has delineated which foods are “good” and “bad,” creating a moral value system which can often solicit shame and guilt when we have not followed “the rules” or when we perceive that we have stepped out of line. The labels and moral judgments can quickly lead us to internalize the negative value we have assigned to our food.
While food has a nutritional value, it does not have a moral value: food is not good or bad and you are, by extension, not good or bad for eating it. And beyond its nutritional value, food serves a cultural and celebratory purpose. You are one hundred percent allowed to enjoy what you eat and enjoy what you’re doing while you eat it.
Attaching our worth to what we consume can cause shame and guilt, but your worth is not defined by what you eat. You are not better when you avoid sugar, processed foods, and fat or worse when you choose to eat those things. And living by societal-driven food rules like cheat days, guilty pleasures, “earning” calories, “working off” that piece of pie, or “saving up” for a big meal cause more harm than good.
“For many, fasting or restricting food during the day is a way to compensate or ‘allow’ oneself to have a larger dinner,” said Sydney Greene, a MyWellbeing community member and registered dietitian who has an upcoming online mindful eating and body image support group for women this December.
“This always backfires,” she said. “Keep yourself nourished throughout the day starting with a nourishing breakfast. If snacking is a challenge, stay grounded and mindful by plating your snacks or appetizer. This is a simple way to bring attention to food choices, serving sizes and hunger/fullness levels.”
It’s okay to not be okay—the holidays can be stressful and overwhelming. That’s why it’s important to practice self compassion and self care.
If you know you’re going into a stressful situation, have some self care tools in place ahead of time. If it helps, practice saying a few affirmations that make you feel valued and empowered, like, “I am grateful for everything my body allows me to do,” or “Others’ opinions of my body do not affect or involve me,” or “I joyfully observe the tastes and textures of this food.”
“Holiday gatherings may look different this year but they are still an opportunity to dress up, something that has been lost during COVID-19,” said Sydney. “For many, our nicer clothes have been pushed to the back of the closet and may fit differently than last year. Be gentle with yourself when getting dressed. Plan an outfit that is comfortable instead of squeezing into something. Clothes are meant to fit us, we are not meant to fit the clothes.”
Be kind to yourself. If things get really rough, you could put it in perspective: this is one weekend, one day, one meal, or one conversation to deal with. As soon as I make my escape, it’s back to videos of unlikely animal friendships.
It’s important to have a support system you can trust year-round—and that includes the holidays. A therapist, dietitian, or trusted friend or family member can talk through a situation with you and help you identify potential triggers beforehand so you’re not caught off guard.
If you’re often stressed around food, fearful of weight gain or weight loss, find yourself feeling guilty after eating, or feel compelled to skip events that are food-focused, those could be signs of disordered eating. A therapist who specializes in body image or disordered eating can help and work with you to come up with some healthy ways to cope with triggering situations or foods.
“Sitting down to a meal can be overwhelming,” said Sydney. “Before taking the first bite, take three breaths to calm the nervous system and prepare the body for food. I also suggest saying a prayer or simply saying ‘thank you’ before eating to get more connected to the food itself.”
For people who struggle with things like body image, food, and eating disorders, this time of year can be incredibly stressful. But at its core, the holidays are about celebrating life with the people you love—and that includes yourself. Body image struggles during the holidays are real, but they don't have to be the star of your holidays. You deserve support, care, joy, and love this season and always.
Caitlin is an organizational change strategist, advisor, writer, and the founder of Commcoterie, a change management communication consultancy. She helps leaders and the consultants who work with them communicate change for long-lasting impact. Caitlin is a frequent speaker, workshop facilitator, panelist, and podcast guest on topics such as organizational change, internal communication strategy, DEIBA, leadership and learning, management and coaching, women in the workplace, mental health and wellness at work, and company culture. Find out more, including how to work with her, at www.commcoterie.com.