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Triggering talk of food and weight around the holidays: how to avoid and handle it

By Francesca Johnson

Dec 24, 2021

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All I want for Christmas is… to not be triggered. The festive season is full of fun, friends and family—big or small, in the same room or on Zoom. But there’s a fourth ‘f’ that I, like many others, absolutely dread around this time of year: food. You can’t celebrate Christmas without a hefty Christmas dinner. Food, be it rows of mince pies, crispy roast potatoes drowned in delicious gravy or sticky figgy pudding, is as much part of the festive cheer as the carols and binge-watching Home Alone. But the Christmas season comes with its own dark side, one that contains a myriad of issues some of us seem to be unaware of. It’s time we discuss harmful diet talk around the holidays, and, more importantly, how to avoid it.

‘Tis the season to be jolly, but some people have a hard time finding their inner cheer when they are continuously triggered by talk about weight and diets. Much like being more considerate of sober people, we need to be careful of the ones that may be dealing with an eating disorder. We all know how toxic body standards like the bikini bridge and the thigh gap trickle their way into our insecurities via social media. Between BBLs becoming all the rage and slimming drugs like Apetamin being peddled by influencers, there’s almost nowhere to turn in order to feel comfortable and confident in our own skin.

What’s more insidious is what happens when we think we can switch our phones off and head into the no man’s land of the real world. Declawing the internet’s hold on us is already hard as it is, so it’s even harder to accept that the offscreen world isn’t that much different from its digital counterpart.

You probably already know it too, which is why so many of us dread the family gatherings around the dinner table—the perfect segway to triggering talk around food and weight. Face to face, the festive season can bring up a lot of comments about weight loss, weight gain as well as sly comments suggesting to skip dessert. It’s not even just others we have to be cautious of, but ourselves too. Self-deprecating jokes—like rushing to the Turkey Trot to shave off the added pounds of the festive feast—are not uncommon either. For most of us, a comment on someone ‘looking good’ is genuine and a way to compliment them. However, there’s a thin line between picking up on the effects of someone’s newfound gym regimen and making people and those around them focus on physical appearance, especially weight.

For Mic, writer Melissa Pandika wrote about the “palm-sized portions” she found herself limited to in accordance with the glowing praise she received for losing weight. Spotting the harm in encouraging disordered eating usually surrounds conditions like anorexia and bulimia. However, there are also issues surrounding fitness and wellness culture pushing orthorexia—a condition that has an ironically unhealthy obsession with ‘health’ foods. ‘Clean eating’ and other terms have simply put a mask on the same problematic ideas about weight—which are entirely focused on the outside rather than what’s within.

This headed-hydra of diet culture has reappeared in conversations on body image, and it only seems to culminate around Christmas time. Lockdown hasn’t made any of this easier, in fact, there appears to be more pressure—now, more than ever—to speedily achieve our ‘glow ups’ and show off the end result around a roast turkey. Not only that but almost two years of social isolation and distancing is bound to take a toll on our body image—the long-term impact of which has yet to be seen.

Coming from a non-white background can also make it even trickier to avoid conversations on food. It’s an integral part of life for me as a black person from an incredibly culturally rich Caribbean background and family. Food is everywhere! In my own experience, growing up on the skinnier side, food has always been a sore spot in conversations that were often cutting and direct. Comments like “you need to put on weight” or “you must be anorexic”—accompanied with a deadpan tone—are unfortunately delivered far too often. Such concern is also built on unfounded beliefs surrounding eating disorders and how they can first be noticed within someone’s habits.

Now that we’ve understood what many of us go through during the holidays, it’s time to address the culprits of such conversations and how they can do better. How we can all do better to make our loved ones feel safe and comfortable. Here are some dos and don’ts of dinner table etiquette around diet talk.

DO take note of changes people are making to their lifestyle

Erring on the side of caution doesn’t mean you have to avoid talking about health altogether. If someone is excited about sharing their weight journey with you, congratulate them on their progress and ask them about how it’s going. Let them guide the conversation and share only what they are willing to and comfortable with.

DON’T be critical or negative at the dinner table

We pick up on changes in appearance, and naturally, we want to say something about them. Sometimes, this can come across as concern and a genuine want to help, but that isn’t necessarily the way to go. Especially in front of those nearest and dearest to whom you’re questioning. Learn to be careful when having these conversations and be considerate of the comments you make out loud. Some people may not be as comfortable talking in public about their bodies. It’s a common perception that asking about a person’s finances is impolite, maybe it’s time we follow that very same thinking when it comes to the weight conversation—let’s just keep the word ‘pounds’ out of our mouths, shall we? Scale or sterling.

We know that body image can be greatly shaped by those around us, be it intentional or not, they stick with us. And now we know that even the small act of sucking in your stomach can turn into a habit with dire consequences—I think it’s best to avoid pointing out changes in someone’s body so loudly that aliens in space can hear you.

If you do spot changes that concern you (ones based on health and not just appearance) maybe take the person to the side and offer them an ear to really get a better sense of what might be going on.

DO keep your cool

On the receiving end of such commentary, it can be easy to blow up or retreat into your safety shell of silence, praying for the night to be over—trust me, we’ve all been there. It can be incredibly overwhelming to even try and steer the conversation to something else. In an interview with Pandika for Mic, Chicago-based psychologist Christy Querol explained how to navigate the harmful food and diet talk that can emerge during the holidays. Querol specialises in challenges related to body image. In the interview, she touched on how these conversations can look different in communities of colour than they do in white communities. Her own experience as a member of the Latinx community informed her take that “the talk is more direct.”

“It’s not as sugar-coated,” she said. It’s certainly not uncommon to hear questions like ‘Are you sure you want to eat that?’ or to seek gratification and validation by sharing updates about your weight loss or gain journey. Querol even pointed out that family members and friends may even talk about changes in another family member’s weight before or after a get-together—something I always feel guilty for being privy to and unable to ignore.

DO create boundaries

Although it would be daft of me to make assumptions about all people of colour, as a black person who, like I previously mentioned, is rather on the skinnier side, I can definitely relate. And while it is nowhere near the same depths as the fatphobia those bigger than me experience, there is still the archaic notion that defines anyone on the skinnier end of the spectrum as being ‘sickly’. I have shed my share of real tears at such comments, regardless of whether they were well-intentioned ones from people who are worried about me or my weight. I’ve even had ‘jokes’ from family members at my expense asking if I should be hospitalised for my weight and appearance.

For those on the other end of the spectrum—particularly for those who fall prey to fatphobia rampant in their homes and families—there are added layers of complexity to their emotional abuse. Sadly, body shaming is all too common in a lot of minority households, especially for those who do not fit the exact beauty standard that is often eurocentric and revolves around white thin women. Though the petite feminine ideal exists, it is a particular kind of vision peddled by the Kardashian-Jenner family which exacts its harshest glare on black women.

Querol believes that the conversations exerting this sense of ownership might be due to a misunderstanding of boundaries. They might also see talking about family members’ bodies as normal. Being kind to yourself means you have a right to defend your space as well as your inner peace. Establishing healthy boundaries and firmly saying you don’t wish to talk about your body can be affirming and incredibly helpful to keeping you happy.

DO find proactive ways to combat the negatives

It can be tough, but actively choosing to love yourself is showing up for yourself even when you don’t want to. Take opportunities to love your body and feel confident in it—sport that outfit you hesitantly bought for the occasion. Feeling good about yourself internally may not happen overnight but feeling comfortable is surely not far away if you wear what you want to.

DON’T feel forced to engage at all

You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to. That is the biggest takeaway of all. At no point do you have to stomach anything other than dessert. If you find yourself backed into a corner conversation-wise, go grab some water, take a walk or even help yourself to a second serving. Even if it’s for two seconds, people will most likely move on if you cut things short. It can be a quick, easy way to come up for some air and come back more collected and calm. It might even give you the chance to flip the script and talk about something else.

DO be kind

One final thing for good luck: be kind, to everyone. That could be the little cousin that’s slowly retreating inwards under fire, the aunt who just wanted to feel confident in her fabulous festive fit, or, here’s a shocker—yourself. Self-talk and kind words in these scenarios are crucial. Learning how to speak nicely to yourself and others and refusing to regurgitate all the negatives is hard, but it’s definitely worth it. Maybe interject a compliment during dinner and uplift someone else. For yourself, try by practising in the mirror (or your head if you can’t get to one, just make it look like you’re thinking real hard about what to eat) and switch the negative words for more positive ones.

And remember, if you tend to struggle with the holiday season for this very reason, you are much more than just your physical appearance and shouldn’t be made to feel like that’s the only thing that matters when it comes to celebrating your time with family and friends.