A collection of gingerbread men on a decorated table

Managing Disordered Eating During the Holidays

I’m eating my breakfast of toast and eggs on the stairs this morning when my sister arrives for work. She is quick to inform me about her juice cleanse, which starts today. Three days, 24 juices, she says. It is to counter all the eating and drinking the silly season requires of us, she says. I feel my appetite diminish. The food in my hands takes on a different quality, one of gluttony and guilt. Did you go for your walk this morning, she asks. I wag my head no and while I do not return the question, she tells me she did ‘Hit 45’ at the gym this morning. I am relieved when my dear friend Daisy walks in and slides on her apron. I am especially relieved to see she is at the end of a Banh Mi roll. There is one bite left on my plate. Winded, I take it with me upstairs and fall on the couch to think about why I want to throw my plate and slap my wonderful sister across her juice-cleansing face.

Triggers are all around us this holiday season.

Even having recovered, I still sometimes experience the unique rage characteristic of the disordered eater. It is a confused and jealous rage, which swells like an emotional hot flush from the floor up. As I move further away from those years, the flushes are experienced less. However, when they present, they do so with the same potency as when I was unwell. I cannot help but notice -feel- the way diet culture ramps up at the tail end of the year. I recognise it is likely a combination of holiday indulgence, surplus social outings, and the pressure for sculptured beach bodies. In my family the holiday season is not so much about gifts and religious rituals as it is food and drink. I recognise, in a predominantly secular Melbourne, this is not unique to my family. It is inevitable that over the month of December one will consume richer qualities and higher quantities of food and drink than the rest of the calendar year. And while I find it easy to reassure myself this is okay, I cannot help but feel worn down and triggered by diet culture that tries to persuade me otherwise.

A trigger is the working of diet culture.

Renown psychologist and Butterfly Foundation treatment team leader Anila Azhar defines diet culture as placing ‘thinness at the height of success and beauty and perpetuates the idea that a person is morally ‘bad’ if they gain weight or live in a larger body’. Azhar adds it also conditions a mentality that there is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ way to eat and encourages unhealthy practices around exercise and eating. In the West, diet culture has become our dominant culture and, having been raised in it, we are all more complicit in its raging success than we may believe. Diet culture is woven into everyday language when we say, I haven’t eaten anything all day! A statement that suggests we have really ‘earned’ the next meal. It is manifest in our behaviours via our implicit response to and explicit treatment of larger bodies. As well as patterns of thinking where we might unconsciously equate thinness with health, success and worth.

Nobody is winning from diet culture, yet we’re all participating.

Diet culture today takes on many forms. On one hand there is the explicit kind like Kim Kardashian’s 2018 Instagram ad promoting appetite-suppressant lollipops or the 2012 Skinny-Me-Tea fad. However, it is the implicit version I find more challenging, for it is harder to acknowledge and distance yourself from. This version is evident in the family member sitting opposite you after a meal you thoroughly enjoyed without a second thought. They say they are going to need to hit the gym extra hard this week while gesticulating towards their empty plate. Azhar flags another kind of diet culture that has emerged with unbelievable momentum; the kind that is ‘masked in the noise of wellness and health focused food changes’. Here, Azhar is referring to fasting, cleanses and sugar-free or gluten-free episodes. Reading this, I immediately visualise the 24 colourful juices chilling in the fridge downstairs. My mind ponders how this stark contrast provides an opportunity for guilt for what is a benign and happy approach to eating and drinking in the silly season.

Knowing how to recognise the harm from diet culture is the first useful tool.

Language like this, which communicates the urge to undo what has just been done, to detox our bodies of the “bad” choices we have just made, encourages a dichotomous approach to food choices that is not only unrealistic but unproductive to wellbeing. By separating foods into ‘good’ and ‘bad’, one will inevitably always feel good or bad by sticking to these mandates. But categorising food in this way ignores essential components to healthy eating. For example, what about food that is emotionally nourishing or food that satisfies a craving? Where a craving is usually indicative of a specific deficit the body is trying to bring our attention to, diet culture suggests we exercise willpower and resist. F%@* willpower, I say. And f%@* ‘good’ and f%!* ‘bad’. All through the year, but particularly around the holidays, we should be practicing intuitive eating. The intuitive approach promotes honouring the social and enjoyment aspect of eating, appreciating one’s hunger, challenging food policing, and bringing gratitude and kindness to the eating experience.

These holidays, know how to block out the negative thoughts and practice intuitive eating.

I do wonder, really, what becomes of diet culture? If this is the trajectory we’re on and eating disorders are already peaking, where do we end up? How can we begin to change something so deeply ingrained? I think we can start by breaking the vicious cycle where we see the opportunity.

This could be calling out negative commentary and behaviour or explicitly disengaging. This holiday season it is important that A) the individual subscribing to diet culture is made to recognise the consequences of their comments and behaviours and B) a person in remission, with an ongoing eating disorder or the faintest bit of body image insecurity has the strategies in place to deflect them. Not a diet, exercise, or avoidance plan but a mental health plan for heading into these situations. At the moment, I have to have mine in place every time I walk downstairs for I might encounter my sister on another juice cleanse. It also comes in handy when I witness bronzed taught bodies in ridiculous exercise ensembles prancing around the botanical garden track as well as when I’m sitting opposite that aunty who seems to always succeed in saying the wrong thing.

  1. It can be helpful to make a list of individuals, groups, or environments you know might trigger negative thoughts and behaviours. By anticipating the emotional hot flush you can prepare a healthy reply to counter the unproductive thoughts. I feel having this in place allows me to swat the reaction before any behaviour can evolve. On other occasions, I will internally laugh at the comment or behaviour that is making me feel uncomfortable to ostracise the person in my mind. This creates a degree of separation and deafens the desire to follow suit.
  2. Sit in and with the discomfort of the trigger, acknowledge it, spell it out so you can see the negative thoughts for what they are. Tell yourself this behaviour, and the thoughts the behaviour has incited in you, does not need to dictate your next actions. Approach this as a challenge in itself. A challenge that you will not make any food, body, or lifestyle decisions from this place of panic.
  3. When I’m feeling a little saturated in rich food but must back it up again because there are not enough days in the week, I try to redirect my thoughts to the benefits of the meal in front of me, try and see it as more than just fuel, but as flavours, the emotionally nourishing culture it provides and a resemblance of the occasion. If I’m really struggling to relax about it, I entertain (fabricate) how each ingredient was grown or packaged by a human-being and the labour of the plate I ought to appreciate.
  4. Finally, self-care. Like any anxiety or environmental stressor, the more you take care of yourself the better place you are in to manage the anxious experience. Don’t spread yourself too thin like I did (and I’m sure many others) in late November when we emerged from lockdown. Recognise the things that centre you and treat them with the same importance you would a work meeting or catch up with your partners parents. Self-care is mandatory and is going to make you better equipped for staying calm, treating yourself and loved ones with respect, and deflecting negative vibes.

You’ve got this.

It’s presently the last 2nd last Wednesday before Christmas day. I slide into a booth at a buzzing restaurant in the city. My aunty, who has her arms very folded, says she’s starving – that she hasn’t eaten anything today except for a handful of natural almonds and two milky coffees. It’s presently 8.37 pm. Naturally, I begin piling everything I have consumed so far today on a plate and quickly recognise a plate will not suffice: I need a bench top for I went out for lunch and grazed generously (festively) for hours. In this moment of feeling gluttonous opposite my empty aunty, I must remind myself of the good time I had. I pull the image and feeling of buffalo ricotta with peaches in the sun washed down with a skin contact chenin blanc. You lived today, I reassure myself. There is everything right with that.

I went out for lunch, I say, surprised by the venom in my voice. Where did you go? my aunty asks. What’d you have? She probes. I begin reciting the benchtop, beginning with the smoked salmon and eggs on rye bread I started the day with. Then lunch followed by the sugary cocktails we consumed an hour before now. Wow that’s a lot for you isn’t it, she says. And I am made to see my aunty will always perceive me as The Disordered Eater of the family. And, because my voice seems to have an agenda of its own and afraid of what might come out next, I stare at her blankly for a long moment, then consciously redirect my attention to her daughter: My lovely, full cousin, who is sitting next to me. I ‘opt out’ of the diet talk. And I feel magnificent for it.