Navigating Food and Body Image During the Holidays

Helen Zhong
Helen Zhong

As the holiday season approaches and we reach the end of 2020, many of us start to experience mixed emotions. Over the years, the holidays have come to represent warmth and celebration, in addition to the signal of a fresh start. But the holiday season can also be a major source of stress, particularly for those of us who have struggled in the past or who are currently struggling with unhealthy body image, disordered eating, or eating disorders. This can be due to an increased emphasis on food around this time of year with a heightened conversation about fitness and dieting, usually in the context of New Year’s resolutions. 

If you are struggling this holiday season, know that you are not alone. We live in a diet culture that promotes a very narrow idea of health and can certainly take a toll on our mental health. In a cultural moment, so obsessed with changing our bodies and becoming the “healthiest” versions of ourselves, how do we just let ourselves be? Here is some advice to consider to help you navigate the next several weeks with care and empathy toward yourself. 

Remember that you know your body best

When others talk about changes they want to make, it’s easy to feel like you should be making those same changes. Remind yourself that you know your body better than anyone else. For instance, consider a common New Year’s resolution: the intention to start eating healthy.

While this might initially sound straightforward, what exactly does “healthy eating” mean? After all, health looks different for everyone, depending on our unique experiences and relationships with food – whether emotional, such as a history of disordered eating, or physical, including any food intolerances or allergies. There is no one right way to be healthy, and what’s healthy for one person might not be healthy for another. 

Treat your body with forgiveness

During the pandemic and otherwise, it’s absolutely normal to experience changes in your body. We are going through a time of heightened fear and uncertainty, and our bodies are simply responding, even if it’s in ways we aren’t used to. Things like weight, appetite, and energy levels fluctuate throughout our lives, and that’s okay! If you find yourself needing more rest than usual, remember that simply coping in such an intense time can be exhausting and should be considered an accomplishment in itself. Try to honor your body’s hunger cues and cravings without feeling like you have to make up for eating; you deserve to treat your body with kindness and understanding.

Set boundaries with loved ones

While our loved ones likely have good intentions, they don’t always realize the impact their words can have. If your friends or family members are engaging in conversation that is upsetting to you, it’s okay to excuse yourself from the conversation or to request that they refrain from discussing certain topics with you. This might sound like: “Hey, all this talk of food and exercise is pretty triggering for me. I don’t think I can engage in these kinds of conversations; I hope you understand.” 

Reach out for support

Support can take many forms. You can try exploring teletherapy options, like attending a virtual support group or reach out to several friends who know about your experiences. Try to surround yourself with safe and supportive people, whether that means talking with your friends, confiding in family members, or even being intentional about the accounts you follow on social media.

Find joy where you can

Though much of this year has felt bleak, we can nevertheless seek out moments of joy, however big or small. If you are experiencing negative feelings around food, switch your focus to how food can bring you happiness. Eating meals together is a wonderful way to connect with others and to show love; you can spend some quality time with your roommates or family and try out a new recipe, or maybe schedule a time to share a meal virtually with your friends.