How to make peace with Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is less than two weeks away. If you’re one of the many, many people who struggle with body image issues or disordered eating, then you may be experiencing anticipatory anxiety in advance of a holiday that can promote intense stress and feelings of shame or guilt. You may be tempted to engaged in disordered eating behaviors, like not eating at all prior to the meal to give yourself “permission” to eat what you want, or you may be planning to engage in excessive exercise or other compensatory measures to “make amends”.

I’m proposing an alternative - to give yourself permission to eat what you want at Thanksgiving and make peace with your body image issues for at least one day. Easier said than done, to be sure, since we live in a culture that promotes a thin ideal and a narrow band of “cosmetic fitness”, but I think it’s a worthy and liberating challenge. Here’s a 4-step plan that I hope will make it easier:

  1. Notice and challenge “all or nothing thinking”: One meal, one item or one day doesn’t make or break you. If you eat more than you intended to or foods you usually view as “bad” or off limits, that’s ok. Actually, that’s pretty much expected - Thanksgiving is generally a time when it is socially normal to “overeat”. Which leads me to my next point…

  2. Remember that “overeating” is actually a normal part of eating. There are certain times where eating more than you normally would (and feeling overly full) is actually very normal, and even expected, and Thanksgiving is definitely one of them. I sometimes give my clients this wonderful definition of normal eating by Ellyn Satter (emphasis my own)

Normal eating is going to the table hungry and eating until you are satisfied. It is being able to choose food you enjoy and eat it and truly get enough of it – not just stop eating because you think you should. Normal eating is being able to give some thought to your food selection so you get nutritious food, but not being so wary and restrictive that you miss out on enjoyable food. Normal eating is giving yourself permission to eat sometimes because you are happy, sad or bored, or just because it feels good. Normal eating is mostly three meals a day, or four or five, or it can be choosing to munch along the way. It is leaving some cookies on the plate because you know you can have some again tomorrow, or it is eating more now because they taste so wonderful.

Normal eating is overeating at times, feeling stuffed and uncomfortable. And it can be undereating at times and wishing you had more. Normal eating is trusting your body to make up for your mistakes in eating. Normal eating takes up some of your time and attention, but keeps its place as only one important area of your life. In short, normal eating is flexible. It varies in response to your hunger, your schedule, your proximity to food and your feelings.

© Copyright 2018 by Ellyn Satter

3. Be kind to yourself - talk to yourself as you would a friend. Think about it - would you talk to a friend the same you talk to yourself? If you’re a parent or have children in your life that you care about, would you want to speak to them the same way you’re treating yourself? Berating yourself for perceived mistakes doesn’t help matters, and often makes things worse. Being kind and compassion helps you move forward and do the next right thing, whatever that means for you right now.

4. Prepare for potentially negative interactions. Being around family and friends can be lovely, and it can also be highly challenging. Maybe you have relatives who tend to make negative comments on your weight or food choices, who engage in fat shaming or health concern trolling, or who push food on you even if unwanted. It’s good to create a script for beforehand so you can figure out how you want to respond before you’re in the heat of the moment. Talk it over with a trusted friend in advance so you can practice and feel prepared and confident.