Navigating Fairs and Festivals with an Eating Disorder

A person pictured from behind, holding cotton candy and looking up at a Ferris wheel

The tail end of summer is here, indicating the start of state fair season in much of the country. For many, the fairs and festivals dotting the calendar are considered among the buzziest, most anticipated events of the year. However, someone with a complicated relationship with food might feel less inclined to “step right up” to these events often characterized by plentiful confections and deep-fried reputations.

If food anxiety gives you ambivalence around fairs and festivals, we want you to know that it IS possible to not only tolerate these settings, but to even enjoy your experience. In this blog, we’ll examine sources of potential triggers at these events, provide suggestions on how to challenge your eating disorder, and ultimately, equip you with strategies to make your fair experience a blue ribbon win.

Challenges of Fairs and Festivals for Those with Eating Disorders

While no time of the year is easy for those with eating disorders, fair and festival season presents unique difficulties that can trigger and worsen symptoms if left unchecked. Social events and get-togethers can be high-anxiety situations for people with body image concerns, particularly in warmer-weather months. Add to this discomfort the triggers related to a change in routine and eating around others, within an environment where control around food preparation is not possible, and the fair can be an incredibly challenging occasion.

Activities involving food

Nothing is as quintessential to the fair experience as the plethora of food options available. In fact, in some locations, the state fair is considered the biggest culinary event of the year. Triggers associated with food-centric gatherings range from a change in structure around meals to the presence of fear foods. 

Potential food-related triggers at fairs and festivals can involve:

  • An overwhelming amount of rich foods, categorically mislabeled as “bad” 
  • Prepared, pre-portioned dishes with a lack of nutrition information available
  • Socializing with alcohol, a substance with its own unique challenges for people with an eating disorder

Changes in routine

Fairs and festivals bring a change in routine, a key trigger for those with eating disorders. These events often span a good portion of the day, which could significantly impact daily eating patterns. Like any disruption to regular eating habits, these changes create an opportunity for eating disorder symptoms to rear their head or worsen among those most susceptible.  

Potential triggers from a change in routine include:

  • Feeling out of control with the disruptions to regular meal and snack times
  • Exposure to more fear foods and less access to familiar foods
  • Feeling pressure to commit to diet culture’s food rules 
  • Feeling the need to “budget” for fair foods or engage in compensatory measures following the event

Eating in public

A hallmark of eating disorders is an association with social withdrawal and secrecy, which can cause fear or guilt surrounding eating in public. The largest fairs can draw millions to their grounds every year. Attending such a highly trafficked event can invite food and body commentary from others. Navigating a new food environment with negative talk about food and eating can cause significant stress, as well as prompt body checking behaviors.

Eating in public can spark eating and body image struggles, such as the following:

  • Overhearing and internalizing diet culture rhetoric
  • Feeling exposed when wearing season-appropriate clothing
  • Comparing the amount and type of food you’re eating to those around you

Getting Recovery-Ready for Fair Day

Now that you have considered the triggers you may encounter, let’s talk about strategies. Arming yourself with the right toolkit to combat potential challenges is essential to eating disorder recovery.

1. Plan your day with grace.

At The Emily Program, we believe in a food philosophy where “all foods fit” into a healthy lifestyle. Food does not exist on a “good or bad” binary. It’s essential to release food judgment, as well as perfectionism and control—all of which are the domain of disordered eating. Depending on where you are in your recovery journey, we encourage you to honor your hunger cues. If that seems too daunting, follow your meal plan as your guide. Restricting or denying your hunger is likely to add stress to the day and could even trigger other eating disorder behaviors—not to mention, take away from your event experience.

Here are a few planning tips:

  • Know the day’s schedule and prioritize your recovery before, during, and after the fair. Knowing when you are leaving and how long you’ll be there will be helpful in sticking to an eating schedule. This can also allow you to formulate a plan for incorporating a favorite or feared food into your eating schedule. (Mini donuts can make a great snack!)
  • Eat regularly before you go—it’s a gift to your body and your recovery! Don’t restrict yourself to “save up” calories. This will only increase the likelihood of overeating later on.
  • Check out the vendors beforehand, if appropriate. Many event websites list their food offerings ahead of time. It might be helpful to know what you are going to eat before you go. Lots of fairs place such a premium on culinary innovation. With the support of your treatment team, could you identify an exciting food to incorporate into your day?

2. Find your people.

Fair season can be a true community-building time (Minnesota’s state fair is referred to as “The Great Minnesota Get-Together”), especially with the right people. Allow yourself to ask for more support from others you trust, whether that be family, friends, or your treatment team.

  • Identify your supports. Are you attending with your partner, family, friends, or a mix? If the event experience feels particularly intimidating or charged for you, make sure you’re attending it with those who support your recovery.
  • Share your concerns with a family member, friend, partner, or your treatment team. It can help to have someone who understands your circumstances. Sharing details of your situation and game plan for the day can enable your support people to look out for you when you need it most, as well as assist in keeping you accountable to your recovery goals. 
  • Use your phone if your support people cannot be there with you. Who could you text or call if you need a quick message of validation or someone to vent to? Recovery is hard work, and sometimes just having someone that can listen or send off a “you’ve got this!” text can make a huge difference.

3. Practice self-compassion.

A peaceful time at the fair is one that’s based on self-care, not self-control. Your fair experience can be one of pleasure and enjoyment. Release yourself from an “all-or-nothing” mentality, and allow for flexibility and spontaneity where appropriate. 

  • Consider other activities that might bring you joy. If you find yourself beginning to experience overwhelm around food, could you find another aspect of the occasion that’s meaningful and enjoyable to you? Most fair settings showcase local agriculture and art, as well as talent shows or live music. Maybe amusement rides are more your thing! Regardless, find an element that connects with you and embrace it.
  • Bring awareness to your surroundings with mindfulness. There is substantial evidence to support the effectiveness of a mindfulness practice in moments of stress. Pausing for a deep breath and allowing yourself to consider the unique sights, sounds, and smells of the day can bring you back to yourself.
  • Put self-care at the forefront of your day. Wear something that makes you feel comfortable. Get the food, water, movement, and rest that makes sense for your body and your recovery. Connect with others. Speak kindly to yourself and respect your own boundaries.

While fairs and festivals may present additional challenges for those with eating disorders, they can also be an opportunity to challenge eating disorder thoughts and rituals and apply the skills in your treatment toolkit.

If you or someone you know is struggling with food or body image amid fair season – or any season – The Emily Program is here for you. We provide specialized treatment and care for all types of eating disorders. Give us a call at 1-888-364-5977 or complete our online form to get started.

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