When you have an eating disorder, it’s helpful to avoid situations that focus on diet culture, weight loss, food fear, and exercise addiction. Unfortunately, Thanksgiving is a national holiday that brings out all of these cultural tendencies.
As a food-based event, Thanksgiving puts those of us who have/had eating disorders at risk of exposure to disordered ideas and beliefs. But it doesn’t have to be this way. All of us can introduce our families to new ways of relating to each other in ways that don’t include body and food.
As human beings, we have a powerful need to connect with the people we love, and there is no holiday that is more about connection than Thanksgiving. It just so happens that in our culture we have developed connection scripts based on bodies and food. It’s time to seek other ways to connect with the people we love.
Here are some examples of how we can practice a new script this Thanksgiving:
Many of us are trained that it is polite to mention that someone looks good or otherwise compliment their appearance when we greet them. However, this focus on appearance keeps us stuck in limited relations with each other. Sure, it’s easy to tell someone they look good, and a lot of people want us to tell them that we look good, but we must seek deeper connections with the people we love, and superficial comments keep us on the surface. When we make appearance-based greetings, we miss the opportunity to connect with the actual person – who they are, what they mean to us, and what makes them loveable.
Instead of: You look great! Have you lost weight?
Try: I’m so happy to see you!
Instead of: Have you gained weight?
Try: It’s wonderful to see you!
Instead of: What have you been doing? You look great!
Try: How have you been doing? Tell me all about it!
Instead of: You look so pretty today!
Try: I’m thrilled to see you today!
Instead of: You look so skinny! Let’s fatten you up!
Try: I’m really glad you came!
Thanksgiving is a food-based holiday, and so, of course, it brings out many of our diet culture scripts, which basically assume that we are “bad” if we eat rich, delicious foods, and we are “good” if we restrict our foods to “healthy” options like salad. But our bodies are not machines, and dieting and restricting food results in binge eating for most of us. Have you ever gone to Thanksgiving and been “good” all day, only to find yourself eating an entire pumpkin pie that night while standing in front of the refrigerator? It doesn’t have to be this way. Allow yourself to eat delicious foods that you enjoy every single day, and you will find your instinct to binge eat disappear.
Instead of: Uh-oh – I’m going to blow my diet today!
Try: This food looks delicious!
Instead of: I guess this is a cheat day!
Try: I’m looking forward to enjoying this day with you.
Instead of: I guess the diet starts tomorrow!
Try: I love being here with you.
Instead of: I’m trying to lose weight, so I’m not going to eat that.
Try: Tell me about how you’ve been doing.
So many of us live our lives in some form of dietary restriction, and then we may “let it all hang out” at a big meal like Thanksgiving. There is nothing wrong with feasting, but it comes dangerously close to binge eating, which is an eating disorder behavior. When we allow ourselves to enjoy a Thanksgiving feast, we don’t need to talk about how much we are eating or what we are eating. We don’t need to talk about how many calories, points, macros, fat, carbs, nutrients, or other elements are in the food we are eating. We don’t need to obsess about what we eat and how much we eat. We can simply enjoy the food and move on.
Instead of: I’m stuffed!
Try: That was delicious!
Instead of: How many points does this have?
Try: Thank you for being here today.
Instead of: I’m “eating clean” so I can’t eat any of this food
Try: I’m so happy to see you all.
Instead of: Are you really going to eat all that?
Try: I love being with you.
Instead of: Are you sure you need seconds?
Try: Isn’t it wonderful to be together today?
Instead of: Oh my gosh! That’s a lot of food!
Try: This is a great day!
Most of us think of Thanksgiving as something we need to “work up to” or “work off.” We may go for an extra-long run in the morning or immediately following the meal. This is called compensatory exercise and is a form of disordered eating. When we eat food we enjoy, we will naturally stop when we are full. Our bodies will balance the intake with our outtake and drive our appetites accordingly. So that extra-long run in the morning? It will just make you hungrier and therefore more likely to eat more. That long run after the meal? It will just make you hungry again sooner. When we eat in a balanced way and move our bodies in ways that feel pleasant and natural, we don’t need to compensate with special exercise plans.
Instead of: I need to take a walk so I have space in my belly for all this food.
Try: I’m going to take a walk because it feels so good to be outside.
Instead of: I’m going to have to go to the gym after this!
Try: This has been a wonderful meal.
Instead of: It’s going to take weeks to work off all the food I ate!
Try: I have been really enjoying this day and being with you.
Consider talking to your family and friends before this year’s Thanksgiving and see if you can agree to dump diet culture and gather with the intention of celebrating people, not bodies. See if you can avoid making comments about bodies and food and instead make comments about souls and inspiration. Thanksgiving doesn’t have to be a minefield for someone who has an eating disorder, and it will be more fun for everyone involved if we reduce the focus on food and bodies and focus instead on the many other things that make being together so meaningful.