Notes on a Napkin: Holiday How-To for Eating Disorder (ED) Professionals

The holiday season brings more parties and social gatherings with friends and family, and these occasions of catch-up-conversations and swapping of stories are a year-end tradition for many. Food and eating are almost always a big part of any social gathering, and this certainly adds to the merriment. There are festive fall foods, seasonal favorites and cold-weather comforts, all of which can provide nourishment, mutual enjoyment with others and sometimes even conversation starters.

The problem with the presence of food in any social gathering — aside from those events with primarily other ED professionals — is that it then adds in the complicated element of diet-talk and body-judgment so automatically for many. Adding a meal to mix leads to many individuals feeling compelled to comment on “I am being bad” or “I’m blowing my diet” or “I won’t be able to eat for the next week.” Our culture is so awash with these food restriction messages and the sociocultural norms for thin ideal striving that such conversation is considered normative among many, especially women. This tendency is present all year long, but there are multifactorial reasons that such talk becomes more prominent during the holidays and towards the approach to the new year.

Fortunately, there is some evidence of beginning changes in this approach. There is the movement of “strong is new skinny” which does seem to be an improvement of sorts, though there is still the over-focus on external body parts rather than internal self-worth. We see more proud posts of larger women in amazing yoga poses and some wellness over weight headlines. There is also recent research demonstrating, for instance, that individuals endorsing more feminist ideology may be buffered against the pressure for the thin ideal, though the more important factor for less disordered eating was found to be self-efficacy[1] . Yet the over-riding focus on good-bad food categories and self-judgment continues in many circles.

In preparation for the upcoming holiday parties, I proposed a question this past month to my ED Supervision Group: “How do you respond when people at a party start to talk about dieting and to make disparaging body comments?” Our group of 8 includes local therapists and nutritionists who meet regularly to discuss cases and support each other in our ongoing ED clinical work. We also encourage and strategize with one another in our pursuit of advocacy in ED prevention, through articles, presentations but mostly through our day-to-day contact with others in our community, from professionals to lay people.

The answers to this open-ended question ranged. Some seemed to find it easiest to simply leave the conversation, choosing to find another topic or other subject matter of interest to them across the room. Several shared creative ways they have changed the subject to something non-food and non-body focused, such as “Sorry to interrupt, but I have been meaning to ask you about your vacation last summer!” Others used the opportunity to provide a mini-lesson on how to approach food differently, making remarks such as, “This is delicious!” or “What a shame you aren’t enjoying this dessert.” Several described ways of being able to engage in more meaningful conversations about body shaming, making statements such as “Of course our bodies change over time” and “It’s such a shame how women are so critical of their outer shells.” We all agreed that these sorts of conversations are easier if we are among friends who know what we do in our professional work, though we were all acutely aware that less discussion among those closer friends in our presence doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist for them. With closer friends, however, we can more easily make bolder commentary, such as “I don’t care about your size, I care about you!” or “I feel so sad when you judge yourself so harshly” or “Let’s not keep analyzing the food, let’s just eat it!” When hosting the party ourselves, we recalled feeling proud of not promoting some “low fat” recipe and could more easily proclaim to our guests if needed, “Don’t forget: this is a body positivity zone!”

Attending parties can turn into a busman’s holiday for ED clinicians. We do so much of this work in our clinical world and are prepared for needing some comeback quips with our clients; however, we validated for each other how most of us feel less enthusiastic about doing this spontaneously outside of the office during our down time. There are no quick-fix solutions but conversing among like-minded professionals about such dilemmas certainly seemed cathartic for us all.

So maybe, if we feel so inclined, we might choose to add a sprinkling of advocacy now and then at upcoming social events, much like one of my favorite Marian Wright Edelman’s quotes suggests: “You just need to be a flea against injustice. Enough committed fleas biting strategically can make even the biggest dog uncomfortable and transform even the biggest nation.” Or maybe we just eat, be merry and enjoy our holiday gatherings.

[1] Kinsaul, J. A., Curtin, L., Bazzini, D., & Martz, D. (2014, January). Empowerment, feminism, and self-efficacy: relationships to body image and disordered eating. Retrieved November 26, 2017, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24018338

Sandra Wartski, Psy.D., CEDS is a licensed psychologist who has been working with Eating Disorders over the past 25 years. She works as an outpatient therapist at Silber Psychological Services in Raleigh, NC. She enjoys providing presentations and writing articles on a variety of mental health topics, particularly ED-related subject matter. Send comments to sandra@wartski.org

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders and not intended as endorsement by iaedp Foundation or its Board of Directors.

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