It's The Most Diet Culture-y Time of the Year!
Updated: Mar 22, 2020
It’s the most diet-culture-y time of the year!! From now until after the New Year, we can all expect to experience a jubilee of diet-y messaging and shaming. The holidays are a veritable celebration of of body shaming, food shaming, exercise shaming, and fatphobia. Your aunt will want to tell you about the keto diet, your coworker will want to talk about Crossfit, your mom will want to gossip about your cousin’s weight, your friends will want to discuss how bad they are for eating holiday treats, and everyone will be trying to offer “healthy hacks” and “tips & tricks” for controlling ourselves through the holidays.
But guess what? You don’t need tips & tricks! Because the holidays are no different than any other day of the year! You don’t need to be controlled any more on holidays than you do on any other day. You don’t need to follow rules any more on holidays than you do on any other day. You don’t need to monitor yourself more closely on holidays than you do on any other day.
Tips & tricks for the holiday season are only necessary if you buy into the diet culture nonsense that dictates what’s acceptable for you and your body: You must eat less. You must weigh less. You must follow exercise routines & diets. And if you don’t follow those rules for even one day, then you’re in trouble. You’re unworthy. You’re a problem. You’re a failure. You’d better be burning off that turkey dinner. You’d better be working extra hard to earn those cookies. You’d better be “back on track” as soon as you take that last bite of your holiday dinner. You’d better make sure you fill up on veggies and protein so you don’t eat too much pie.
All of the efforts to help you “stay on track” or “survive” the holidays are rooted in the idea that there’s a right way to exist in this world. Whether that’s smaller, or fitter, or even healthier or happier. All of these are judgments about how you show up in the world.
The truth is that holidays should come with the same do’s & don’ts as every other day. Do whatever makes you happy. Do whatever gives you comfort. Do whatever energizes you. Do whatever satisfies you. Do whatever makes you feel powerful. Do whatever makes you feel loved. Don’t do things that cause you anxiety. Don’t do things that make you feel deprived. Don’t do things that make you sick. Don’t do things that make you uncomfortable. Don’t do things that you don’t want to do. Don’t do things that feel out of line with your values. It all boils down to: Do you. Every day. All year. Who you are and what you value don’t change just because it’s a holiday. So why should anything else?
Having said all of that, even when we know that we don’t need to buy into the diet culture bonanza, it can still feel really stressful to be surrounded by it. So, I want to offer some practical advice about how to handle some issues that might pop up around this time.
Eyes on your own plate. This is a good rule and also a good response if someone feels the need to comment on what we’re eating (or not eating). It’s hard not to get caught up in comparing our behavior to the behavior of others at the holiday table. Are we eating too much? Are we not eating enough? Are people noticing that we skipped the brussel sprouts? Did anyone see us try two different kinds of pie? If we eat too much salad, will people think we’re dieting? I get it. It’s so easy to be all up in each other’s business about what’s on our plates. But we don’t have to participate! Remember that we know what’s best for us, and also that everyone else can make their own decisions. Just because your sister is doing keto and skipping the stuffing doesn’t mean that you’re wrong for eating it. Just because your cousin is cleaning his plate doesn’t mean that you need to worry about insulting your grandma if you don’t finish everything on yours. Autonomy applies to everyone, and we all deserve to make our own choices. Keeping our focus on ourselves can help us avoid judging our own choices against the choices of other people.
Change the subject. This one seems obvious, but it’s way too easy to get caught up in conversations we don’t want to be in if we don’t go in with a plan. We don’t want to be impolite, and we get roped into uncomfortable exchanges because we’re too afraid of insulting people by changing the subject. But remember that you don’t need to have a conversation with your sister about her new exercise routine. You don’t need to have a family conversation about who has “let themselves go” or who is really “in shape”. You don’t have to discuss food, or bodies, or exercise at all. So, try to come up with some ideas in advance for ways to change the subject if these conversations come up. My personal favorite way to do this is to ask something about the person that you actually want to know. For instance, let’s say your aunt is an excellent knitter who also wants to tell you all about her latest attempt at weight loss. When she starts a conversation about how badly she’s cheating, try responding with a question about her newest knitting project instead. Is your brother a record collector who also has a habit of bringing up Crossfit every time he sees you? Maybe this time when he starts describing his pre-Thanksgiving WOD you can respond by asking if he’s found any interesting new additions to his vinyl collection. Diet and exercise talk is not bonding. So redirect the conversation to topics that actually do connect you with the people you care about!
Non-sequitur compliments. As we all know, the fact that the holidays are drenched in diet culture means that it’s very common for people to start feeling bad about themselves around the holidays. They feel guilty for getting out of their exercise routines, or for eating things they consider “bad”. They feel shame for “failing” at their diets or “letting themselves go”. And all that guilt and shame leads them to a lot of body bashing and negative self-talk. Every conversation becomes an opportunity to make self-deprecating statements about their habits or their appearance, and especially their body size. So how do we provide the reassurance that they’re clearly seeking without feeding into the diet culture mentality? Enter non-sequitur compliments. The next time your coworker starts talking about how she’s put on weight, don’t respond with the usual “No you haven’t! You look great!” Those kinds of responses only reinforce fatphobic ideas about what bodies are acceptable. Instead, try complimenting her on something that has nothing to do with her body at all. Try telling her how much you love her holiday manicure, or her outfit, or her festive holiday spirit. The compliment will leave her feeling good about herself, and you will have effectively changed the conversation from toxic to positive!
Be honest. I saved this one for last because, while it’s probably the most effective, it can also be the hardest. I love honesty, and I think it serves the dual purposes of protecting ourselves and opening up the lines of communication to discuss different points of view about dieting and diet culture with people who might not be exposed to them otherwise. But whether we can use this technique depends entirely on our comfort levels, our energy resources, and our relationships with our family and friends. Having said that, if we’re up for it, being honest about our progress in opting out of diet culture and dieting behaviors can be great. Try saying something along the lines of “I would prefer it if diet, exercise, and bodies were not the topics of conversation. It makes me uncomfortable. It’s something that I’m actively trying to separate myself from. So could we talk about something else?” There is nothing unreasonable about this request, and you can, of course, have as much or as little follow up discussion about it as you want. A benefit of this method is that it can help prevent these issues in the future, too. But remember, energy is finite, family gatherings can be volatile, and not everybody is receptive to honesty. Trust yourself to know if this is a good choice for you in the moment. There’s no shame in preserving your energy and using one of the other options listed here!
Here’s wishing you a happy, non-diet-y holiday season!
(And if you’re looking for a way to reinforce your anti-diet culture armor a bit before embarking on the holiday season, go sign up for my FREE 7-day email course 7 Days to Dumping Diet Culture!)