How to Handle Unsolicited Diet & Weight Conversations This Christmas

Content warning: This article discusses eating disorders in a way that some readers may find distressing. 
The Christmas holidays are fast approaching and with them, a calendar packed full of social occasions and events with an unlikely amalgamation of social circles. It’s certainly a joyous time of year, but also one that can be difficult for those who have lost loved ones, or those without family or close friends around.
The silly season is also one involving an abundance of food and drink – often paired with a side of unsolicited opinions and advice on everything from politics to career choices and relationships. And with the focus of many social occasions surrounding food consumption, these unwanted opinions can often sway towards conversations around dieting and weight.
For those who have suffered from eating disorders or body image issues and dysmorphia, it can be distressing to hear constant (usually negative) commentary about “needing to burn off Christmas lunch” or “starting a diet in the new year”, and how “a minute on the lips is forever on the hips". So how exactly can we navigate this discourse, and is there any polite way to tell a family member you’re uncomfortable with these discussions? 

Why are conversations around weight and dieting harmful?

As someone who has grappled with body image and experienced various forms of disordered eating in the past, I often find myself entering a state of fight-or-flight response when social conversations veer towards diet culture. And speaking with friends and peers who have suffered from similar issues at varying degrees of severity, I know that I’m not alone. An off-handed comment of “I won’t need to eat for the rest of the day after this” following an indulgent meal might seem harmless, but it can also create a sense of judgement around food and eating where someone who does want to eat again later might feel a cloud of shame or guilt shadow their choices. 
“Conversations or off-hand comments about food, weight and dieting can be harmful because it can reinforce problematic beliefs in society which overvalues weight, shape and the control of each of these via dieting, food rules and restrictions,” Tara Gannon, a clinical psychologist at Focused Psychology, tells Refinery29 Australia. “These comments can be particularly harmful if directed towards someone who is struggling with body image or eating difficulties, reinforcing their negative beliefs about themselves and fuelling their disorder. Even if someone’s intentions are to be complimentary, it can send a message that what is valued about that person is how they look, how slim they are or how good they are at keeping to strict self-control measures.”
The reason diet culture exists in the first place is because of the societal focus on appearances as a measure of self-worth, particularly among women, which has been ingrained in us for centuries. “Appearance and diet-focused culture moves us away from connecting with ourselves and each other over shared values, experiences, challenges, strengths, inner qualities and what makes us unique,” says Gannon. 

What can I do to prepare for diet culture discussions over Christmas?

If you know that your Aunt Sharon is likely to have a couple of glasses of Veuve and divulge the details of the new diet she undertook to fit into her Christmas outfit, it’s good to have a plan in place. It's important to remember that your friends and family aren’t necessarily trying to be malicious in talking negatively about eating and weight; it’s unfortunately just commonplace in our society. According to Gannon, it can be helpful, if possible, to talk with a trusted support person or team prior to holiday events to discuss how they can be there for you on the day. 
“This might include your support team being aware of trying to help redirect conversations away from weight or diet, or supporting you [by taking] some time out and using some calming or distraction techniques,” she says. “Everyone has different limits and it’s important to connect with what feels okay and not okay to you as a guide on setting your own boundaries with regard to exposure to weight or diet conversations.”
Having tactics in place for when you’re uncomfortable, such as removing yourself from conversations (hot tip: going to the bathroom or grabbing a drink is an easy excuse without drawing attention to yourself) can help to ease any pre-event anxieties you may have. “It’s also fine to be direct and say that the conversation is upsetting and ask to talk about something else,” adds Gannon. “It’s great to remind people that what we weigh, just like the size of our shoes, is possibly one of the least interesting things about us and there are plenty of other things to talk about.”
Despite all this, if you find yourself panicking, Gannon advises practising techniques to calm your body such as walking, slow breathing, having a refreshing drink and focusing on what you can experience with your senses. “Distraction can also be a good tool to use in the moment, such as watching your favourite video clips, playing a game on your phone or listening to music,” she says.

How can I make the holidays less stressful for someone who's struggling? 

If you know that someone close to you has struggled with disordered eating or body dysmorphia, know that the Christmas holidays might be a difficult time for them. Of course you want to respect their boundaries, but it can be worth checking in to see if they need support or to talk about how they’re feeling — or even to learn about whether they’d that you don't mention it, and for diet and body-focused discussions be taken off the menu completely. 
Gannon says it’s also important for friends and family to avoid jumping in with advice, however well-meaning it is. “Eating and body image disorders are often complex, and suggestions of quick fixes, special programs or positive thinking as solutions are likely to be received as very invalidating and uninformed,” she says. “Ask a loved one if there are some safe foods that they would like available to them and give them agency about where and when they eat, and for them to not be monitored by everyone on the day.”
Everyone wants to enjoy the holidays. It can be an incredibly fun time of year and, as Gannon says, if we focus on supporting, connecting with and valuing each other for who we are and the shared experience of being together, then everyone can join in on the fun. 
If you or anyone you know is struggling with disordered eating, please contact the Butterfly Foundation at 1800 33 4673. Support and information are available 7 days a week.
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