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Your Stories: Bethany on Having Non-triggering Conversations Around Food this Christmas

I have always been a big fan of the holidays and am well known in my circle of friends for being festive to a fault (my response to complaints about playing Christmas music in July is #nevertooearly). However, for almost 8 years the holidays brought equal parts joy and terror as I battled with an eating disorder. Although I am in recovery now, the holidays can still bring up panic for both myself and so many others as we are thrust into social situations that combine large amounts of food with seeing people we don’t normally see.

I do hold onto the somewhat naïve belief that every person should be able to experience at least a little bit of the joy that the holidays can bring. Therefore, I have a few tips on how to create a healthy holiday environment that would not trigger anyone who struggles with food and/or their appearance.

1. Choose your compliments wisely

Unfortunately, we live in a society that places high value on our outward appearance and it is all too easy to compliment someone on either their weight loss or their effort to lose weight. Although meant with the best of intentions, such compliments have the high potential to either trigger the receiver or to trigger someone within earshot of the compliment. By telling someone that they look good having lost weight, the implication that is heard by someone who struggles with an eating disorder is that their value as a person increases as their size decreases. This is an incredibly toxic thought that can very quickly consume someone’s mind.

Instead of complimenting someone on their size, try complimenting them another way. Some of my favourites that my family and friends have taken to are:

  • “You have such a beautiful smile!”
  • “It’s so good to hear your laugh again.”
  • “You are an awesome person!”
  • “You are so much fun to be around.”

2. Monitor table conversation

The number of times that I have been enjoying a meal with others and the topic of conversation becomes engrossed in diet culture is far too many to count. These conversations usually include talk around calorie-counting, fad diets, and exercising as a means of compensation. When I was really struggling with my ED, these conversations were incredibly triggering. I needed to learn how to eat without feeling shame, but conversations like these only cemented in my mind a guilt and shame complex surrounding food.

If you find yourself at a table and the conversation begins to push the ideals of diet culture, don’t be afraid to change the subject. It doesn’t matter whether you know if someone at the table struggles with an ED. It is simply good to put an end to the toxicity that diet culture creates.

3. Don’t be afraid to ask for help

If you yourself are worried about food this holiday season, please don’t be afraid to reach out for help. Find someone you trust who can support you and advocate for you.

If you know one of your loved ones struggles with food, don’t be afraid to ask what you can do to support them. I know that my recovery got a lot easier when my friends and family started asking me what they could do to support me. I have had trusted loved ones do everything from hold me accountable with my meal plan to interrupting a conversation just to change the subject if they knew that the topic was triggering. Eating disorders will only be able to grow if they are suffered through in silence, so don’t be afraid to talk about it.

4. Remember, FOOD HAS NO MORAL VALUE

This is something that I continually emphasize to people, whether they want to hear it or not. It has become far too commonplace to both hear and say sentences like “I’ve been so good this month, I’ve completely given up dessert!” or “I’ve been very naughty today, I’m going to have to go to the gym tomorrow.” Unfortunately, phrases like these are even more common during the holiday season. You don’t even have to have an eating disorder to know what it feels like when your great Aunt Ruth looks at you, looks at your plate, then says “Are you sure you should be getting seconds?”

This holiday season, I ask you with the utmost sincerity, please don’t be your great Aunt Ruth. Please don’t feel guilty about what you are eating or thrust that guilt onto others.

Food is one of life’s simplest pleasures, but for those who struggle with an eating disorder, that pleasure is replaced by fear, guilt and shame. You don’t need to be an expert in eating disorders to do your part in creating a healthy, safe, and non-triggering environment for everyone. This holiday season, remember the four points above as you take part in festive merry-making. You never know, your thoughtfulness could play a key part in helping someone on their journey to recovery.

Bethany is an HR specialist from the States who has now made London her home. She is enthusiastic about sharing her journey to recovery from anorexia and loves inspiring others to do the same.

If you would like to join our blogging community and write a piece on your experiences with mental health, email elizabeth.woods@mindchwf.org.uk