It’s *normal* for food and body image issues to spike around now.
If you live in the US and struggle with anxiety, guilt, or shame around food or weight… this might be a very stressful week for you.
Let’s be honest for a minute, and acknowledge that Thanksgiving is a very weird holiday.
When I was a kid, school taught me that Thanksgiving was based on the beautiful story of how the pilgrims and the native people of Wampanoag—both of whom were facing food scarcity due to a particularly harsh winter—were able to set aside their differences to come together and celebrate a successful harvest with a multi-day feast.
I’ve since learned a very different story (including the origins of the National Day of Mourning), and now understand how deeply whitewashed, false, and oppressive that narrative was. And since I’m not really a holiday person anyway, I would gladly do away with the whole thing altogether.
That said, most people who celebrate Thanksgiving nowadays aren’t actually thinking about the story of pilgrims and Natives. The holiday has evolved to represent personal gratitude and the ritualistic giving of thanks, which is an admittedly lovely and benign thing to celebrate. But the holiday’s roots are still visible, insofar as our gratitude is expected to center around two things in particular:
The gathering of friends, family, or loved ones.
The abundance of food.
Our focus on gathering and feasting clearly highlight the holiday’s whitewashed origin story, but it’s that second one–feasting–that I want to talk about today. While most holidays feature food rituals or traditions in one way or another, the Thanksgiving tradition of feasting has often meant that the holiday feels uniquely centered around the experience of stuffing yourself, or eating until you feel sick. And that makes it feel uniquely triggering or threatening to anyone struggling in their relationship to food, weight, or their body. Every year around this time, my clients tend to see a spike in their body image issues, a desire to diet, and guilt/stress around food. This might seem really obvious when we’re talking about someone still stuck in diet culture, weight stigma, body dysmorphia, or disordered eating, right? Like, sure: a food-based holiday probably would be really stressful for someone who is actively trying to lose weight, or who believes their worth, health, or the safety of their relationships is based on their body shape/size. But actually, this time of year can cause a spike in negative body image thoughts, feelings, or behaviors can spike for anyone, including those who have long-since rejected diet culture, unlearned weight stigma, learned to eat intuitively, or adopted body neutrality! The reasons for this can vary, but often includes:
Increased stress. For a lot of people, family gatherings come with a lot of stress, whether logistical (like the stress of traveling, cooking, or hosting), emotional (like the stress of loneliness or interpersonal conflict), financial, or otherwise. Our brains will instinctively reach for whatever coping mechanisms or strategies are available during times of high stress, including the familiar old thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that we’ve learned can soothe, comfort, numb, distract, or protect us. So if you have a history of struggling with food or body image issues, and holidays like this stress you out, you might notice old thoughts, feelings, or behaviors creeping back in to help you cope.
Being around people who are fatphobic, bought into diet culture, or appearance-focused. Even if you’ve rejected diet culture, unlearned weight stigma, or detached your self-worth from your appearance, it can be very stressful to spend time with people who make comments or judgments about people based on their weight, appearance, or eating habits. It’s normal to feel anxious about what people will think of you and your body (especially when you crave their approval, acceptance, or love, as is often the case with family!), and being around the same people and relationship dynamics that caused your core wounds and insecurities is very stressful! Given all that, it makes sense that your food and body image might spike again, in an attempt to help you cope, get your needs met, or make you feel safe.
Feeling powerless. For many people, the desire to control food, weight, or their body stems from a feeling of not having autonomy, agency, or power in other areas of their life. The path to food and body neutrality in such cases is often centered around restoring those feelings, by cultivating skills like self-advocacy, boundary setting, direct communication, and authentic self-expression, so that there’s less of a pull to exert control over the body. This is easiest to do when you have total control over your own schedule, space, and routine, of course, and when you’re surrounded by people who respect and honor your boundaries and autonomy. Holidays have a way of disrupting all that, and of making people feel disempowered, out of control, or at other people’s mercy again. When this happens, old thoughts and feelings about controlling your body are likely to pop back up.
All of this is to say that if your relationship to food or body image gets worse around the holidays (especially Thanksgiving!) you are not alone. Your food and body image issues are always trying to help or protect you in some way, and holidays tend to make people feel more stressed, needy, triggered, or vulnerable than normal. By the way, if you’re looking for some extra love and support in your relationship with food right now, this week’s episode of my podcast is for you. Featuring the brilliant anti-diet dietician (yes that’s a thing!) Mya Kwon, this episode tackles food anxiety, food guilt, and food freedom in a way you have probably never heard before.
Ready to soak in all the wisdom and goodness??
Sending you so much love, this week and always. Jessi