Holidays & Eating Disorders
The holidays are supposed to be a joyous time of visiting family and friends, religious ceremony, gift giving, giving thanks, et cetera. Paradoxically, the holidays often bring the opposite of joy—depression, unhappiness, or a sense of disappointment. Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky explains that high expectations, especially expectations of joy and excitement, are frequently erroneous and toxic. Research shows that slight annoyances are more frequent and more detrimental than major calamities and daily delights impact our well-being more than the major events.
An eating disorder is a daily, constant calamity. Holidays that celebrate gluttony and merriment are difficult for those of us who have struggled or are still struggling with disordered eating behaviors or thoughts. Food is our number one trigger, and food is everywhere. People’s assumptions about our bodies and the foods we put into our bodies is our number two trigger and they are everywhere, too.
The day before Thanksgiving I connected with a business colleague through an app called Shapr. He messaged me on Thanksgiving night to wish me well and added, “I pray for no weight gain!” As if weight gain is the most detrimental, horrendous, and ugly thing to ever occur. His language was triggering because it demonized larger bodies. As I moved through the process of Recovery, I gained necessary weight and had to do the difficult, deep work of loving my new, larger, healthy body. Weight gain is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. Holidays are confusing and paradoxical: we celebrate with rich foods and drinks in a culture where diets are more common that breathing, and where fat shaming is second nature. If you know someone who has struggled with an eating disorder, avoid topics like weight, body size, the calorie content of food, “good” or “bad” foods, et cetera. This small gesture will make their holiday celebrations far less difficult.
The day before Thanksgiving, I watched a YouTube video about how gluttony is wasteful and detrimental to the environment. The YouTuber tied food waste—a national epidemic with widespread global implications—to eating one too many dinner rolls on Thanksgiving. I believe their intention was good, but it is implausible to take personal responsibility for all food waste just as it is implausible to take responsibility for all pollution. I recycle and buy environmentally sustainable clothes, but I cannot dictate that everyone else does too. Food waste is a massive problem that requires both individual and top down change from government, food producers, food distributors, and food regulators. Attitudes that associate overeating with massive food waste invoke anxiety and shame, even though it is completely normal and healthy to occasionally overeat, especially during the holidays.
As a vegan, it is highly unlikely that I complete a holiday meal without someone questioning my diet. While I do not question anyone’s choice to eat a corpse full of stuffing, my decision to eat plants seems almost insulting. I find myself, time and again, in the odd position of explaining how I maintain a diet comprised of fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, and seeds. The experience of having my food scrutinized and questioned brings me back to my most disordered times. I fight the urge to run into the bathroom, hide, purge, and numb my feelings. It brings up very old, very shameful experiences and does not make me feel welcome or safe. Just as it is rude to ask someone how much they weigh or how much money they earn, it is rude to question someone about how they feed themselves.
A few years ago, I wrote a poem about the holidays and how difficult they are for someone with an eating disorder. If you know someone who has struggled, be kind. Do not talk about body size, food, diets, or weight loss. The holidays are hard enough already.
becomes a debate:
add butter or margarine
to mashed potatoes?
Gravy-lined mouths question my plate:
how can I stand to be vegan?
How much do I weigh?
How large is my waist?
A tiny grey mass, somewhere in my brain
puppeteers my mouth to avoid answering.
The therapist said someday I’ll love pizza,
ice cream, and Thanksgiving dinners
but he never taught me
to look at my mother and say
I want to throw up your potatoes.
She asks for more turkey, smiles at me
I smile back, wanting to scream.
P.S. This poem is from my book, Surviving 23, available Here.