Food shaming is the worst holiday tradition

Are you going to eat all that?
Are you going to eat all that?
Image: AP Photo/Dan Grossi
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I grew up in a family of three girls. We first two were solidly built little kids, with convex bellies and broad shoulders. My youngest sister though, after a deliciously chubby babyhood, morphed into a classic string bean of a girl, all elbows, knees, and long limbs. Every time the three of us sat down to eat a holiday feast with my extended family, my grandmother would look at us, and note approvingly that my skinny sister must have gotten a tapeworm.

In this proclamation, she managed to imply that there was something wrong with her for being thin, but also to suggest that the other two of us should look into getting set up with gastrointestinal parasites of our own—ideally before dessert.

It’s a truism that food is an expression of love, a way to communicate care, both offered and received. It’s also true that, in many families, food is an expression of judgement and control. There is no time when this is more pronounced than during the holidays.

We eat our first meals with family. Pictures of cake-smeared first birthday parties and toddlers messily learning how to eat spaghetti find their way into cherished photo albums. Family recipes get passed along, defining the flavor of the holidays across generations.

In the same way that we learn how to grasp a fork, use a napkin, or master chopsticks at the family dinner table, we also learn a set of moral judgements and hierarchies surrounding food, and the bodies it builds.

In some families sugar and “junk foods” are forbidden; in others, mom skips dessert, citing her diet. Men are commended for having hearty appetites, while women worry about appearing gluttonous. And social boundaries are different once you enter the family sphere. It’s nearly impossible to imagine another setting in which adults openly critique one another’s eating habits and bodies: ”Do you really need a second helping?” or “Let’s put some meat on those bones!”

Pleasure, guilt, labeling some foods as “good” and others as “bad”—there’s a coded language enforcing what we are allowed to eat, when, and how much. It’s a code we learn from an early age, and one that’s very hard to dismantle, long into adulthood. There’s rarely malice involved, but the subtext is shame. And research shows that body shaming has a negative effect, especially on children, and it does not prompt weight loss or healthier habits.

The good news is there’s a growing community of nutritionists, activists, and therapists who are pushing back against the idea that food is either virtuous or sinful, that there is just one way for a body to be healthy, and that your body and its size and weight is anyone’s business at all.

They concur: the holidays can be incredibly difficult, but they are also an opportunity to move the conversation about weight, health, and body shaming forward, one family gathering at a time.

The holidays are complicated

No matter what holidays you do or don’t celebrate, the end of the year is a festival of peak diet culture. And this narrative of indulgence and penance around holiday eating—that you should dive into all those baked bries, mugs of rum-spiked eggnog, and cookie trays in December; but then you must sweat and starve off those extra pounds in January—isn’t just expressed within families.

It’s everywhere you look this time of year—in magazines, social media feeds, and casual work chitchat. As Sangeeta Singh-Kurtz wrote recently, “The onslaught of holiday cookie recipes and cocktail suggestions go to war with the endless stream of advice on eating mindfully: tips to use tiny plates, drink a gallon of water before a meal, or chew 30 times before swallowing.

All this works like lighter fluid to the flames of anxiety that many of us carry around about bodies and eating. The message is clear—relax and enjoy yourself at your own peril. And, no matter what, come Jan. 1, get thee to the gym, juice cleanse in hand.

Holiday spread.
Holiday spread.
Image: Annaliese Griffin

It’s no exaggeration to call this societal dysfunction. It is classic disordered eating behavior, Virgie Tovar, author of the book You Have the Right to Remain Fat, told me over the phone. “The holidays are the way that the culture normalizes dieting and binging and restricting behavior on a grand scale,” she said. “It’s okay to indulge during socially sanctioned, culturally approved moments, and then it’s quickly followed up by an expectation of restriction…we have this kind of feasting period as a culture and then January is the deadline of when that has to stop.”

Family is complicated

The profits from our resolutions to atone for overindulgence in January are clear for diet companies and gyms, which rely on post-holiday guilt for much of their yearly revenue. It’s less clear what families get out of promoting this disfunction, but it’s in the home where the compulsion around body and diet generally starts.

It’s not just blatant criticisms or expressions of concern about our bodies that are harmful. Comments about other family members, strangers in the grocery store, or talking about “fat people” generally in way that is negative and degrading—all these behaviors send the message to everyone present that bodies are being policed, that we are all in danger of becoming unacceptable at any moment.

Observations that are intended as compliments can be just as uncomfortable. “You look great! Have you lost weight?” is the kind of comment that’s often meant entirely generously, but can quickly convey to the receiver you’re assuming that they are (and you think they should be) trying to lose weight. This is especially awkward, of course, if the person hasn’t lost weight, or has lost weight for a less-than-cheerful reason, such as depression, an eating disorder, or an illness.

For some people, skinny-shaming can feel just a bad as fat shaming (though in the US, people with thin bodies don’t generally face the same kinds of workplace and healthcare discrimination that those with larger bodies do).

The same sort of dialogue about our bodies often extends to what we choose to avoid eating for health or ethical reasons, or simply because of personal preferences. The holidays can be a minefield of obligatory eating, in which these food choices—sticking to a vegetarian or vegan diet, avoiding gluten, or following a low-carb regimen, for example—can come under intense and humiliating scrutiny.

That complicated mix of family traditions around food was at every family gathering for Patrilie Hernandez, an intersectional body positivity activist. Growing up in a large Puerto Rican family—her mother was the youngest of 16 children—celebrations were feasts. “We didn’t just get together and just have coffee and cake,” she told me in a phone call. “No, it was an event. And so I was used to these kinds of very lavish but comforting homestyle meals.”

Over slow-roasted pork lechon, the women in the family would talk about how delicious and also unhealthy what they were eating was, while critiquing their own bodies. It was anxiety-producing, Hernandez said: “There were a lot of things that were really beautiful about it, but as far as me being a woman in the family and [my] relationship with food as it relates to my body? That aspect wasn’t necessarily healthy.”

Body shame functions as intimacy

It’s cruel twist of family dynamics that the same intimacy that creates loving bonds makes it seem okay, or even helpful, to talk about weight in ways that can be extraordinarily damaging. Your crass uncle who always remarks on female bottoms is just a creep, and everyone knows it. But when your concerned mother grills you about your cholesterol numbers because your body is larger than the last time she saw you, that’s more complicated, and more difficult to address.

In a strange, sad way, talk about bodies can be a way to connect within families. ”Dieting and eating restrictions, weight restriction, is extraordinarily intimate,” said Tovar. “This conversation around shame and how you kind of hate your body… that’s an intimate conversation.”

As the traditional keepers of the home kitchen and the primary targets of diet culture, women are often both the victims and the perpetrators of family food shaming. Of course, men and boys are also involved in this cycle of anxiety, but it has traditionally been women and girls that have been made to feel most self-conscious and judged about what and how they eat in public, and it’s more likely that mothers, aunts, and grandmothers will see it as their duty to pronounce a judgment on what their relatives are or are not eating.

My other grandmother, my nana, once outdid herself when my mother complimented my then-boyfriend on having lost weight: “Don’t lie to him!” she snapped. “He’s just as fat as ever.” To his credit, he took the retort as a badge of honor, signaling that he had become a real member of the family. Food. Intimacy. Shame.

It’s normal to want to eat a lot sometimes

Eating more than usual a few times in one month is not the end of the world, but it’s a lot less fun if you didn’t actually enjoy the meal because you’re filled with moralistic anxiety. ”Diet culture, it tells us that like we’re not allowed to eat certain things, that we’re bad people if we eat certain things,” said Dr. Jenna Daku, a psychotherapist and disordered eating specialist. “It moralizes food.”

In fact, as Kat Kinsman wrote last year in Cooking Light, there’s nothing sinful about overeating: “Food—even sweet, gooey, calorie-laden, carb-heavy, and fatty fare—is morally neutral.”

Not sinful. Just food.
Not sinful. Just food.
Image: AP/Matthew Mead

All the special dishes we prepare during the holidays are special because they are delicious. It’s completely normal to want to eat more of them than is strictly necessary for our energy needs. It’s even normal to eat so much that you feel uncomfortable, every so often. This is not to downplay behaviors that are harmful because they are part of a larger pattern of disordered eating, or to say that it’s a good idea to eat until you feel ill. But what overindulgence in food is not, whatever you are told, is a moral failing.

The entire idea of holiday weight gain is likely vastly oversold to us, too. “A lot of research shows that all of the marketing that goes towards a preventing or treating holiday weight gain is actually very exaggerated,” said Hernandez. “It’s a very clever marketing scheme, I think by the diet companies.”

From a psychological point of view, diet culture celebrates a model of deprivation, in which we’re either restricting ourselves, living in starvation mode, or gobbling everything we can get our hands on, Daku says—a dysfunctional cycle of feast and famine. “We’re all restricting, we’re dieting, we’re all trying to change our bodies,” she said. “And then Christmas rolls around and it’s like there’s all these bad, naughty foods that are prevalent everywhere. And we have been in deprivation, mind and body all year basically, and we’re presented with these foods and we’re like, oh my God, I’m not going to get them again until next year.”

This mentality leads us to eat more, and enjoy it less, than we would if we just ate food we wanted to eat on a regular basis, without rules or restrictions, Daku says.

Change the conversation

So, what is there to do about all this? Every person I spoke with while researching this article emphasized that taking care of yourself emotionally is the top priority at all times, and especially during a difficult season. Tovar wants you to know that you are not required to participate in any holiday gathering. “It’s always an option to skip Christmas or Thanksgiving—and I know that it’s really taboo, but we need to de-taboo-ify it,” she said. “You don’t need to feel bad about it.”

Of course, often the people who body- and food-shame us are the ones we love and treasure time with the most—our family—so skipping the communal meal isn’t an easy option. If you know that you’re headed into dicey emotional territory where judgement, weight talk, and diet culture are lurking, prepare yourself. Think about what you’d like to say in response to the comments you anticipate. Simple, declarative statements like, “Let’s skip that conversation this time,” or, “I don’t want to talk about that,” can work well. Just settle on one and make it your mantra.

Another way to deflect is to have a bit of personal information to share that you feel happy about: an achievement at work or school, a new friend, a hobby you’ve taken up, or something fun you did recently. It can shut down the body talk, and create a way in for your family member, who most likely just wants to connect anyway. It also reminds everyone in earshot that there is more to you than your pant size.

If you really want to get into it, Daku recommends what she calls “the shit sandwich”: “You start off with kindness and compassion always, and holding in mind that that person may not know that what they’re talking about is harmful,” she says, noting it should be done in a private setting, not across the dinner table. Acknowledge how nice it is to be together for the holidays. “Then you put the shit in there. You could go, ‘but it makes me feel really uncomfortable when you talk about your body that way.’ Or ‘it makes me feel really anxious when you talk about food that way because I’m trying to heal my relationship.'”  Then you close with something nice about appreciating their willingness to connect and to be open to your thoughts.

There’s a tendency to think that our experiences around food are unique. It’s worth remembering, however, that whatever anxieties, apprehensions, and misconceptions you carry, others probably have plenty of their own—especially those who go out of their way to food-shame others. Until I started reading up on diet culture and chatting with nutritionists who work to dismantle it, I didn’t realize that other people also ate until they were uncomfortably full on occasion. Until my mid-30s, exercise was mainly about trying to change how my body looks—which dozens of studies say is usually futile—and not about how it made me feel, or my overall health. Everyone has a different, and ongoing, relationship with their body, and coming to any conversations you end up having from a place of compassion is never the wrong answer—especially if you’re clear about your personal boundaries.

The other thing you can do is model positivity. Daku used the example of someone who speaks about their own body in a deprecating way. Try to counteract that by being positive about and grateful for your own body. If you’re way into yoga, or jogging, or any physical activity that brings you joy, talk about it in those terms, to counter all the talk of the gym as penance. Eat that second slice of pie, if you want it. And take your space in a room.

The bigger conversation is already changing

Here’s the other thing—all that body shaming talk is on the wrong side of history. Most of what we think we know about obesity is wrong. There’s an awakening underway to the reality that healthy bodies can come in a variety of shapes and sizes, thanks to activists like Hernandez and Tovar; nutritionists and trainers who help clients feel energetic and alive, rather than shooting for a specific number on the scale; and clothing brands that are designed for a wide range of bodies. Tess Holliday, a plus-size model, was on the cover of Cosmopolitan UK this fall.

In a highly informal poll that I did on Facebook, I found some signs of generational progress, at least within a few dozen responses, mostly from my demographic of white women in the US. I asked whether people had experienced unwelcome comments about their bodies from family. Clearly, I struck a nerve. All of the older women who chimed in reported harsh critiques and unkind comments about their bodies—outright and nasty shaming.

Their daughters—my peers who are younger Gen X women and older millennials—had fewer stories of being insulted, but they hated being told that they had lost weight, or when the women in their lives said unkind things about their own bodies. They displayed more sensitivity to implied shaming, rather than explicit comments.

My grandmother would often instruct my sister and me to watch how our littlest sister ate, so that we could learn her secret to being so slender. The first time I remember her making this suggestion, I was almost a teenager, and a 5-year-old was being elected the voice of dietary authority for our family, simply because of how she looked.

But in retrospect, she was actually right to point to a young child as a model of how to eat. “Children are born intuitive eaters,” Daku told me. My 5-year-old sister then, and my small children today, have an internal drive to eat until they’re full, to run and dance and move their bodies in ways that feel good. When we demonize foods, when we grind out exercise for penance, when we model hatred of our own body parts, we dampen that drive.

I hope to raise humans who are at peace with their bodies, and I know a part of that is being at peace with my own. So as I watch my children slurp noodles with gusto and explode onto the playground in a frenzy of joy, I’m not trying to override those signals of pleasure, of satiation, and delight. I’m trying to hear them for myself.