The month of December is typically a time of joyful craziness. Young parents are scrambling to get everything on a child’s Christmas list, co-workers are organizing cookie swaps, friends are wanting to get together to make a holiday toast, toy drives and food drives are happening, the malls are insane, and on and on.
But something else is also occurring at this time of year. People are thinking about their “New Year’s Resolution”and at the top of the list is anything to do with losing weight and/or getting fit. Besides all the energy given to the fun stuff, some people are spending a lot of time thinking about and talking about how they want to change their bodies. Sometimes, the talk occurs because of a recent medical diagnosis, such as newly discovered diabetes or hypertension, or even elevated liver enzymes where it is important to make dietary changes. This is not what I am referring to. I am talking about those people who have spent much of their lives focusing on their weight and body size.
The things I hear come out of people’s mouths at social gatherings probably irritate me more than most (such as my husband) because of my work experience with individuals suffering from eating disorders, especially teenagers. Our culture’s focus on bodies has made it acceptable to promote disordered behavior around eating and exercise. Conversations abound regarding how to lose weight, diet products, and even how to supposedly mold specific body parts into your dream “whatever”. When young people hear adults (especially parents) discussing these things, it becomes clear that trying to achieve weight loss and a certain body size is a good life goal indeed. Is this really what we want our children to grow up with as an ideal that is important enough to take up all that time and energy? It makes me so uncomfortable when an adult is talking about their own body or dieting in front of young adults or children. I typically change the subject, or at lest try to. And it is not just children who are affected by this type of talk. Adults struggling with eating issues and weight are also affected in ways you may not be able to understand. One of the big struggles some of my patients experienced was having to convince themselves to stay on track with their recovery despite what felt like the entire world was doing around them. Why was it important for them to continue eating their meals and snacks when clearly it was alright for everyone else in their lives to restrict and diet? It would take a lot of work to help a patient get grounded again and fight the eating disorder voice that tortured them.
Besides focusing on their own dieting and weight goals, another topic of discussion is OTHER people’s bodies. My husband does not get it (he is an engineer and not at all familiar with a non-diet approach or the great divide in the professional world of weight management). Why would you not tell someone how great they look if you have not seen them in a long time and they lost a lot of weight? Won’t that make them feel good?
The problem is, you don’t know what they did to lose that weight. I have known countless patients who dread the holidays because of the focus on them and their bodies. Again, it gets confusing. For example, a young woman I worked with had finally been successful with gaining enough weight to stay out of an inpatient facility. She had stopped purging for several months but did not gain enough weight yet to restore herself back to her normal weight and was not menstruating. At her holiday family party, those who did not know what she had been through (and was continuing to work on) made the usual comments about how great she looked. Those who knew she had gained weight with much hard work complimented her on that too (also not good as this almost always makes someone who is recovering feel “fat”). Those who knew nothing of her ordeal told her she looked great with all that weight loss and “how did you do it?!”. Ugh. After the holidays and all of these conflicting messages, the work is never easy to get back on track.
With that said, you may know someone who you know for sure had been working hard to change habits and get healthy. Doing things like quitting smoking, taking up physical activity, eating more vegetables and learning how to cook healthier does result in weight loss for some. Instead of focusing too much on their bodies, giving praise or positive feedback for the healthy changes is different (“You must feel so good! You have so much more energy, that is great! Your blood sugar is back to normal, yay!)
So this is what I am asking you to do: Make a pledge.
- Please pledge to try to recognize dieting and body talk.
- Pledge to catch yourself doing it.
- Pledge to stop doing it in front of children or young people.
- Pledge to try to stop doing it constantly even with close friends.
- Pledge to (try to) change the topic when others are doing it.
- Pledge to avoid commenting on anyone’s body, especially someone you don’t know well because you will never know what they are going through and how it will affect them.
Thank you! Here’s to a wonderful holiday season and remembering what the season is about……