The reality of recovering from an eating disorder is that it’s extremely likely your family WILL make comments during the holidays. And this means it also is likely that the comments may be food-focused or centered around your body. I’ve had my fair share of comments, stare-downs, and uncomfortable situations at holiday gatherings that had me wanting to AVOID them completely for years. I can also vividly remember the year that I stayed home out of anxiety over those comments. This ultimately served me no purpose: I wasn’t empowered, I was bored as shit staying home alone, and I didn’t have a voice for myself that year.
Do I still deal with comments? Yeah, just in an entirely different way. I get told how “healthy” I look, or “how full of life” I look. Notice a theme? Comments still tend to be so heavily appearance-focused; and despite the comments coming from good intentions, it still brings up a lot of different emotions for me. So, let’s mentally prepare ourselves for WHEREVER we are in recovery that the reality is: our bodies may be a (significant) focus of conversation.
Recovery isn’t only about rebuilding your relationship with food and with your body, but also being able to identify your triggers and setting boundaries with others. Often, I think the very thought of “setting boundaries” gets a bad rep. For whatever reason, it has a negative connotation to it that somehow setting boundaries is disrespectful or inconsiderate. The purpose of boundaries isn’t only to serve yourself, but also to help others become more aware of your needs.
Consider asking family members ahead of time if they could refrain from commenting on your body or your appearance. Remember to state WHY this boundary is important to you. This isn’t a form of justifying why we need our boundaries; but rather, it can be helpful to hear for ourselves out loud why our boundaries are important to us.
Potential comment: “wow, you look like you’ve lost even more weight.”
Boundary: “comments about my body are extremely triggering and hurtful. I’d really appreciate it if my body wasn’t the focus today, or any day.”
Potential comment: “it’s just a cookie, have one.” (Repeated a minimum of 3 more times)
Boundary: “these are my food choices for the night and I ask that you please respect them.”
I wish I had used some boundaries throughout high school and college! Instead, I just took in the comments, sat there uncomfortably at the table, and tried with all my effort to hold back tears (and anger.) Your family may not always know the right way to support you; these comments may be their way of just trying to show concern. Of course, we know it does the opposite. Sometimes it is our responsibility to educate others and to communicate where our trigger points are. It might feel uncomfortable initially; however, I would rather have a brief moment of discomfort, versus a whole night of it.
Shift the focus
I think what used to hurt me the most that when my body was emphasized, it ignored everything else that I may have been accomplishing in life. Why wasn’t I being asked about school? Why wasn’t I being asked about what I wanted to do with my degree? Comments about what we look like just emphasize the perception that appearance is what matters the most. And obviously, this perception isn’t a helpful one for recovery.
Take charge and gain some control back over the conversations at holiday parties. Shift the focus onto the person in front of you, or literally anything else. The conversation is perpetuated only when there is no one putting a stop to it.
Suggestion: “hey, I think we’ve talked about my body enough, haven’t we? How’s _____ going for you? What are you guys doing for the New Year?”
This is when small talk will become your best friend. Make sure that your family is aware that you’re shifting the conversation from YOUR BODY to something ELSE. Make very clear that the shift is a permanent one, and that you do not intend for the conversation to circle back.
Be honest with yourself and others
And when you’re struggling to switch the conversation topic? Use the buddy system. It’s not always easy to ask for what we need in the beginning stages of recovery, so use a trusted family member to support you through it. I used my dad for this, who wins the award for being able to talk anyone’s ear off. Give your “buddy” a heads up before the holiday party, and ask for exactly what you need. The main thing here is to be honest about where you’re at in recovery, and to accept that it’s okay if you need a little extra support in the moment.
My guess is that your family is actually well-aware that you may be going through an eating disorder. What they may NOT be aware of, however, is what that experience is actually like. The misconception is that it’s just about the food or a “weight issue.” In reality, it’s so much more. Consider using the uncomfortable comments made by relatives as an opportunity for you to advocate for yourself, to educate, and to open the door for having honest conversations about recovery and eating disorders.
“The comments you’re making may not affect someone without an eating disorder, but I actually have one. And I’m happy to share what I’ve been going through if you’re willing to listen.”