Here are just a few unfortunately common scenarios you might be in for this holiday season: Mom guilt for denying seconds of her homemade meal. Your aunt lamenting that she’s being “so bad” as she grabs a slice of pie. Your colleague going on about how they worked out to make up for the holiday office party apps.
Basically, these last few months of the year are rife with opportunities to be surrounded by triggering food talk. “Where there is an abundance of food, diet culture does what it does best and swoops in with an abundance of moralizing food comments (i.e., “good” foods and “bad” foods) and body shaming messages,” says Sarah Davis, LMHC, a licensed psychotherapist and certified eating disorders specialist. “This can impact our own perception of ourselves based on the food we are eating: I am good because I am eating ‘good’ foods, and I am bad because I am eating ‘bad’ foods. This brings about negative self-talk and wreaks havoc on our body image.” Love! That! For! Us!
Here’s the thing: Weird food convos can make anyone feel some type of way about their body, but they can be particularly tough for people with a history of disordered eating, potentially even triggering a relapse in their symptoms. “Being around these conversations can create heightened anxiety and shame resulting in increased urges to engage in disordered eating behaviors,” says Davis.
To prevent the spiral, we talked to therapists who specialize in disordered eating for ways you can navigate the diet culture hellscape that is a holiday dinner.
Don’t go in cold.
Picture this: You’re at a family gathering enthusiastically getting your charcuterie board on, when—bam!—your diet-obsessed cousin makes a judgey comment about how much cheese is on your plate. Suddenly, the fun flies out the window and you’re in a pit of shame. Even if you logically know you have nothing to be ashamed of, any commentary about what you’re eating can make you feel real bad.
In this case, the best offense is a good defense. That’s because when we’re taken by surprise, it can heighten the entire experience and make the impact of these types of comments feel even stronger. Simply knowing that you could face something tricky can help you brace yourself—and maybe even come up with a go-to response to shut that shit down.
So, whether it’s a family meal, a friend’s party, or something else, take a little time beforehand to prepare yourself mentally and emotionally for what might come up and how you can handle it. Chances are, you’ll easily be able to identify a potential triggering occurrence (like your rude cousin coming for your cheese intake) and your rebuttal.
Enlist an anti-diet ally.
Some jerks may make stupid food comments, but that doesn’t mean everyone around you is a lost cause. In fact, you likely have a few people in your support system who get just how toxic these comments can be—or who at least have your back enough to sympathize.
Think about who will be at whatever event you’re going to and identify one or two allies. This can be a friend, cousin, or colleague—really, anyone you trust and feel like just gets it. Tell them what your pain points are and how you’re worried that constant diet culture talk may mess with your head. Having someone you can give a side eye to when you hear something obnoxious or who can help you change the subject can alleviate so much stress. And, hey, you can always repay the favor by asking if there are any topics they’re trying to avoid (Politics! Their dating life! Work issues!) and promise to step in if those come up.
Consider skipping the truly triggering events.
Another benefit of preparing yourself for potential landmines before attending an event or gathering is giving yourself permission to stay TF home. So if you feel like fat-phobic comments coming from people at the party are going to mess with your otherwise stable self-esteem, bail if you need to. “If skipping one holiday event gives you time to heal so you can enjoy all the events to come, that is a worthwhile sacrifice,” says Joseph Sciarretta, LCSW, a licensed therapist and member of the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals.
This is really only a tactic to deploy when you know that putting yourself in a certain situation will be truly damaging to your mental health. Passing up the annual family party may not be that easy—or worth the grief you’ll get from mom. But what about all the other only semi-necessary things filling up your iCal? Sitting out of the random holiday happy hour thrown by an acquaintance when you know it has the potential to upset you is likely fine.
Again, we’re not telling you to pass on every invite. If you do, you risk feeling lonely and getting resentful that your history of disordered eating is preventing you from having fun.
Try talking to yourself like a friend.
Let’s say a family member criticizes you for going back for seconds or makes some remark about how they could never eat that much. You may start stressing and assume that everyone in the room is hyper-focused on your eating habits. But, if you heard that family member say the exact same thing to your best friend, you'd probably tell them they’re perfect and to ignore all that noise.
“I ask my clients, ‘What advice would you give to someone else who is having the same thoughts you are having?’” suggests Sciarretta. You’d probably suggest they go take a walk, be kind to themselves, and remember that these comments say more about the other person’s relationship with food and bodies than it does about theirs.
To help snap yourself out of a self-esteem pit of despair, you might tell yourself, “OMG, don’t worry, that’s just aunt Susan’s internalized body shame talking. It has no business making you feel like crap.”
If you feel comfortable, speak up.
Here’s something you may not realize: You are allowed to ask people to kindly STFU when it comes to food conversations.
Obviously, this feels more doable with family and friends than it will with acquaintances or strangers you meet at a party. But this tactic can be particularly helpful with people you care for who may not even realize how damaging their words can be—like a pal who makes an off-handed comment about “earning dessert.” “Explain that you would appreciate it if body size and negative food talk were not topics of conversation this holiday season,” says Davis.
Or maybe just change the subject when someone starts assigning moral value to foods with something like, “Have you ever listened to the Maintenance Phase podcast? It totally changed the way I think about diet culture. Highly recommend.”
That said, it’s also helpful to manage your expectations around this. Things will probably not change overnight. “You will probably have to set those boundaries more than once and remind them when they slip up,” advises Davis. “Use the broken record technique and stick firmly to your boundaries.”
Get a little extra support if you need it.
Reminder: The holidays can be A Lot. So if you have a feeling that it’ll be hard for you to navigate conversations about food or weight in the coming months, it’s not a bad idea to seek out help before you truly need it. If you already see a therapist, consider scheduling more frequent check-ins during the winter season to ensure you have support when things get hard. Not seeing someone? Maybe it’s time to look for a therapist who specializes in this so that you know you have someone in your corner who can help.
While you can’t actually abolish all rude food talk over the holidays (wouldn’t that be nice?!), sharpening the tools in your toolkit before you attend all those holiday events can help you feel more chill when triggers pop up.
Wondermind does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Any information published on this website or by this brand is not intended as a replacement for medical advice. Always consult a qualified health or mental health professional with any questions or concerns about your mental health.