Navigating Unwanted Food and Body Comments During The Holidays

Young people talking beside a holiday tree

Before attending a holiday event in eating disorder recovery, it is wise to prepare for comments you may receive about food or your body. Navigating these conversations can be tricky any day of the year, but they may be even more challenging as the pandemic continues to loom and flare. COVID-19 has caused numerous family get-togethers to be postponed or canceled in the past two years. For those getting together this holiday season, there may be increased anxiety after not seeing family after an extended period of time. For those with eating disorders—many who experienced a worsening of symptoms or new symptoms due to the pandemic—the anxiety is likely only compounded by the holiday hyperfocus on food.

In addition to the anxiety surrounding food-centric get-togethers, the holidays can bring uncomfortable or triggering conversations with family or friends. For those in eating disorder recovery, learning how to navigate these conversations is a useful skill. In this article, we will discuss how to set boundaries, change the subject, or excuse yourself from conversations that may be unhelpful to your recovery this holiday season.

Set Boundaries

You may have to set boundaries with your loved ones to protect your recovery and mental health. Think about the conversations you’d rather not have with your friends and family and make a list of what is off-limits. Share the unwanted conversation topics with the support people in your life. Some examples of these off-limits topics of conversation may be:

  • Diet talk
  • Negative body image talk
  • Clothing sizes or shopping
  • Food, including comments on how much someone is or is not eating
  • Comments on anyone’s body

You may eventually get to a place where these types of conversations won’t exist in your household. But, if that is not currently the case, add the specific topics that cause you stress to a list of off-limit conversations. If someone brings up one of the discussions you set as off-limits, you may find it best to respond with something like, “Can we talk about something else? This conversation is making me uncomfortable.” Such a statement will help identify the issue as well as state your desire to change the subject. If needed, practice having this conversation in your head. Doing so can help you stay calm and lower anxiety by being prepared.

Change the Subject

When someone brings up a conversation that is difficult for you to talk about, changing the subject can move the conversation in a different direction or allow it to be picked up by someone else. There are many conversations that you can have instead, and thinking of these beforehand can be tremendously helpful.

If someone brings up that they are planning on losing weight in January, for example, you could counter with something that you are planning on doing in January. Are you picking up a new hobby in the new year? Painting, crafting, woodworking, or gardening might be your fun new adventure that you can discuss with family members. “I didn’t know you liked to paint!” a family member may chime in, allowing a more creative conversation to roll from there. Below is an example of such conversation:

  • “I’m going to be starting a new diet in You should diet with me!”
    • “Oh, speaking of January, my friend and I are taking painting classes in the new year. What stuff do you think I should paint? Would you want one of my paintings?”

If a family member makes an unwanted comment about the food on your plate, you could quickly change the subject by asking them “Hey, which one is the better Christmas movie, Die Hard or Home Alone?” then let the conversation go from there. Hopefully, enough people will chime in, and your support people can help you guide the conversation away from triggering topics. 

Excuse Yourself

Sometimes the best thing to do is to excuse yourself and walk away from a difficult conversation. If you need it, take a step back, find a quiet room, and take a break. Excuse yourself for as much time as needed. There is nothing wrong with removing yourself from a situation that you feel is not helpful for your mental health.  

There may be a moment when you need your support person to help remove you from one of these challenging conversations. If a family member really wants to discuss their diet and they are not taking your hint, for example, a support person may need to take the conversation completely away from you so that you can step away politely. Otherwise, the person may have to step in by saying, “This is not an appropriate conversation. Surely there is something more interesting to talk about.” 

Overall, do what is best for you and your recovery. If topics are hard, you can always politely decline to discuss them by being very honest and say, “I struggle (or have struggled) with disordered eating (or an eating disorder) and I would really prefer if we talked about something else.” Rely on your support people and professional recovery team as needed.  

Remember that recovery should always be a top priority, during the holidays and otherwise. Ask for support from those you trust and remember to take care of yourself first. Be mindful of your needs and remember there is always hope for the new year.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder this holiday season—or any season—please reach out to The Emily Program. 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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