"The best bit of Christmas is the food," my friends tell each other over Yorkshire puddings and honey-glazed parsnips. "I’m going to be so fat after all this," they also tell the group, but it feels pointed at me, the only plus-size person, squeezed onto the end of a bench in a bar we’ve frequented since it opened. This kind of commentary follows me throughout the Christmas season – overindulgence followed by overcompensation in the form of excessive diet talk. Promising new year diets even as they shovel pigs in blankets into their mouths, my mates, my family and my colleagues can pig out at Christmas parties, while I feel conscious of being compared to an actual pig.
Studies show that the pressure of Christmas affects sleep and mental health – particularly for those with eating disorders. The need to socialise constantly, with endless offerings of food and drink you can’t turn down, is enough stress for any person, but when a plus-sizer has to pick between cake or fruit from the buffet, with everyone’s eyes widening at their choice, the pressure mounts. Marie Southard-Ospina, a writer and editor, recounts an excruciating experience at a family gathering while she was recovering from anorexia: "A cousin saw me put cheesecake and brownies on my plate and literally took the plate away. 'Your body is never going to be as beautiful as your face if you eat like that,' he said. I'd heard things like this before, of course, but everyone in my family knew I was in recovery — and still, they couldn't keep their fatphobia to themselves."
Coming from a long line of fat women, my experience of Christmas is of us stuffing our faces before January hits. As soon as the bell chimes for midnight on New Year's Eve, every female in my family digs around for the three quid per week necessary to join Slimming World for the next 11 months. The contrast in our attitude towards food from one month to the next is deeply rooted in tradition and diet culture; our New Year’s resolution, 'to become a thin woman' – never achieved by the following Christmas – emulates the smaller goaled mindset of 'always start a diet on a Monday'. The inference being that indulgence is acceptable provided you chastise yourself for it in the future: food-inspired self-flagellation.
One fat friend, who wishes to remain anonymous, says she suffers the wrath of diet culture even at Christmas. "Going home for Christmas definitely adversely affects my mental health and triggers feelings of extreme self-loathing," she laments. "I've had my Christmas dinner portion restricted in previous years. In general getting unsolicited comments from family you may not have seen since the last Christmas, or feeling uncomfortable with the people you are around and how they feel about how you look, is enough to make me avoid the holiday altogether."
These issues with food, family and friends don't just occur at Christmas, of course. Every month seems to come with new diet talk – whether we’re meant to be working towards a "summer body" or lamenting how the cold weather makes us want stodgy dinners, there’s always an issue with food and what that food does to our bodies. My mother complains that she’s not worn a swimsuit in public since she was younger than I am now, and I wonder whether I should wear one on my next holiday. Meanwhile every single skinny friend debates which bikini is more flattering, by which they mean 'will make me look skinnier'. I know nothing I wear will make me look not-fat.
This year-round problem with diet culture and fatphobia doesn’t disappear with a new season but morphs to market self-hate in a new way. But for me and many plus-size people, Christmas is when it hurts the most. "Christmas seems to pose a lot of contradictions," Southard-Ospina muses. "On the one hand, we become obsessed with the food. The roast dinners, the chocolate advent calendars, the puddings, and the sweet treats in our stockings. I don't think there's any time of year that revolves around eating quite as poignantly as this holiday. At the same time, however, social attitudes towards calorie-counting and weight loss are at an absolute high too. Every magazine seems to have some 'how to prevent the holiday flab' headline on its cover. The idea that fat people, in particular, should be especially careful not to consume 'too much' food is usually at an all-time high in December as well."
A sense of othering occurs during the festive season, allowing our thin peers to indulge while we fat women have to be extra careful about how many biscuits we accept with a brew at our nan’s house. There's an unshakeable feeling that the fun is only for those under a size 16. For plus-sizers, blogger Stephanie Yeboah tells me, "the season seems to always be clouded by a lining of guilt".
At this time of year, eating in public as a plus-size person is a terror rather than a treat.
Feeling alienated due to food is common among fat people, and a season dedicated to food makes those feelings of separation all the worse. So much so, it makes eating in public as a plus-size person a terror rather than a treat. "As a fat woman I always feel extremely embarrassed eating in public, no matter the time of year or setting to be honest," reveals Ione Gamble, editor-in-chief of Polyester zine. "Eating at a restaurant, I'm always second guessing my choices around my skinny friends. Hearing them count calories down the menu makes me extremely paranoid about how those around me view my body, to the point where I have had to air my discomfort to the people I'm sitting at the table with."
She continues: "I wish people would realise talking about dieting or exercise is probably inappropriate regardless of the setting or company and start discussing things a bit more interesting than what’s on our plates or in our bodies." Gamble makes a serious point – discussing food intake or internalised fatphobia at the dinner table should be considered, at the very least, in bad taste. When discussing anything to do with food or bodies, even in regards to our own insecurities, it’s important to consider the company you’re in. If a size 10 friend complains about her thick thighs, I feel compelled to pull down my skirt and pretend I have none at all.
With moments like these occurring throughout the year and worsening over Christmas, we plus-size gals have to be prepared to persevere regardless. While putting Baileys in your coffee definitely soothes the sting, making sure you have a fat friend to text, ring or meet up with during this period will soften any blow.
There’s a much-needed sympathy in solidarity, and even if you and your best plus-size pal only end up complaining and crying over the fatphobia you’ve endured, at least you’re not alone in this feeling. Instead of simply suffering, however, hopefully we can find confidence in our shared experiences and build up the courage to confront our family, friends and loved ones about their diet talk, food shaming and fatphobia.
Often, those who love us most don’t realise how much harm there is in an offhand comment about how many sausages you’re eating. By making them aware, we’re also stopping others from having to hear this kind of talk. By sharing our stories and being persistent in ending diet talk, food shaming and fatphobia during any and all seasons, hopefully we’ll be able to enjoy a comfortable Christmas in years to come.