Thanksgiving is right around the corner. Are you counting down the days or is your mind filled with worry and stressful thoughts? When you are going through recovery or living with an eating disorder, Thanksgiving can be one of the most challenging and stressful holidays of the year. You may worry about the menu that will be served, the portion of the food and how to follow your meal plan. On top of this, you might have to deal with potentially insensitive comments made by family members. How will you cope with these triggers and deal with negative eating disorder thoughts that arise?
Prepare yourself by reading these tips on how to respond to some of the most common triggering comments.
1. “You look like you’ve gained/lost weight. Good for you!”
Thanksgiving often implies coming together with family members or friends you haven’t seen in months. Most of those family members or friends have no clue about how emotionally, exhausting, and scary going through eating disorder recovery is. They also haven’t seen you gradually gain or lose weight over the past months, meaning they will only have a ‘before and after’ image in their minds. In addition,
in the weight-obsessed, wellness and diet-focused world we’re living in, commenting on someone’s appearance is often the first thing people do.
2. “Are you sure you want that turkey? There are loads of fat in the stuffing.”
Sounds familiar? It sure does for me and makes me travel back in time. I can instantly feel what a comment like this did to me during those moments. As I mentioned, it’s usually said with the best intentions, but the result is often a state of distress and increased discomfort around the remaining courses of the Thanksgiving dinner.
A comment like this also sends the message that ‘fat’ automatically means ‘bad’ and it’s fueling a disordered way of thinking. Try to prepare yourself for this comment. What you can do is write down a list of potential responses. This will result in the actual moment being less stressful because you are able to think “You see, I knew she was going to say that.” When the situation becomes more predictable it becomes less stressful.
3. “I thought you would be afraid of eating that.”
This is another typical example of what someone might say to you during Thanksgiving – or any other – family gathering. Of course, someone says this with the best intentions and is not aware of the triggering effect it has on you. I would suggest telling the person in a kind way that it’s nice he/she cares about your struggle, but that you’re old enough to make your own decisions. Even more, it is totally okay to tell someone that you are working towards overcoming fear foods and so that comments like these are not helpful. This will also strengthen your self-confidence and self-esteem.
I remember a specific situation when I was struggling with an eating disorder and especially when I was in recovery. One of my aunts told me how great I looked and that she could really tell I gained a lot of weight. Obviously, this comment was made with the best intentions. They had been so concerned for years and to them, a fuller body meant things were going better. However, it got filtered through the eating disorder voice in my head and all I heard was, “You see. They think it’s about the food and I am fat and ugly now”. This distorted way of thinking is an immediate result of the eating disorder. Nonetheless, being aware of that doesn’t change the actual feeling so what can you do?
Change the topic of the conversation. Develop a list of topics beforehand so you’re prepared and able to change the topic strategically. Think of television programs you are watching, work, the new Taylor Swift album, or plans for your next vacation. Anything that helps you divert the topic of weight. Remind yourself that most people don’t know what it’s like to have an eating disorder and that looking recovered doesn’t have anything to do with being recovered.
4. “Wow that is a big piece, I am proud of you!”
Something like this can really encourage eating disorder thoughts and urges. I had someone say this to me when I was in recovery and I remember it made me really confused and hyperfocused on food portions, not just my own but everyone else’s too. I would have tons of thoughts circulating in my mind such as, ‘oh is this really that big?’, ‘should I have taken a smaller piece?’, ‘how big of a piece are they eating?’. It really made me doubt my food choices. Situations like these can be challenging, especially in the early stages of recovery when you’ve worked so hard to overcome certain (food) fears.
What has really helped me is responding with a question. For example, when someone says ‘wow that is a big piece’, you can respond by saying ‘yeah, do you want some too, it’s really good!’. That ends the conversation and it’s empowering in the sense that you choose to stay true to your recovery.
5. “One piece of pumpkin pie won’t make you fat, you can work it off tomorrow.”
I am sure a lot of people recognize this one, an eating disorder or not. Diet talks are inevitable during the holidays and family members often don’t realize they encourage eating disorder or disordered eating thoughts. Remember that this is something media and society focus on by the end of the year and has nothing to do with you. It used to make me very upset and defensive but now I can see it’s just a common topic of conversation normalized by diet- and wellness culture.
Comments like these also send the wrong message that enjoying an elaborate Thanksgiving dinner isn’t normal. We’ve all seen the memes, ‘gobble till you wobble’, used to make it seem bad to enjoy a Thanksgiving meal. Something you can say is that you are working very hard to get rid of weight (and food) related feelings and that something like this only makes you feel very guilty and upset. Don’t feel bad when calling it out when someone makes you feel like that.
6. “You are so lucky for being so thin.”
I can be very short on this one. I’ve had this comment many times when I was struggling with a severe eating disorder – and even after I was fully recovered. My therapists taught me that I could easily cut off this subject by simply saying “I only look like this because I have a life-threatening disease and I’m far from being healthy (or happy), so saying something like this is really hurting me.” The other person will instantly realize it wasn’t the most clever thing to say. In general, commenting on people’s bodies is never a good idea since you never know what they’re dealing with in their lives.
7. “I assume you don’t want dessert.”
This is a common, but annoying and frustrating comment. I’ve struggled with this comment, even years after I officially finished treatment. Even today, when I don’t want something, people automatically assume it’s because of my eating disorder past and ask me questions like “Is everything alright with you?”. The responses used in the previous comments would work here as well. Say that you can make your own decisions and that, instead of making you feel guilty and upset, they can help by offering support or changing the topic.
8. “Is that everything you’re eating?”
Remember that this is always said with the best intentions. Your family cares about you and may actually think they help you by saying something like this. You can explain that you would appreciate them not paying attention to the portions you’re eating and that focusing on portion sizes will increase your anxiety and fear relating to food or weight gain.
Remind yourself that whatever your family members will say to you, they are just trying to compliment and help you and their comments are well-intentioned. It’s simply not possible for a person who had never had an eating disorder to fully understand what it’s like.
Discuss your worries and fears with your treatment team. Also, look out for a family member who can provide you with the support you need. It can really help you prepare and predict typical conversations that may arise without leading to self-destructive coping behaviors.
Be compassionate to yourself and try to enjoy this holiday.