It's that time of year again: Thanksgiving. A time for food, family, friends, and football. Or, at my place, the National Dog Show, because puppies > football.
Actually, puppies > almost everything.
But for people dealing with an eating disorder (ED), the warm fuzzy aspects of Thanksgiving are often overshadowed by the looming threat in the middle of the holiday.
The giant meal, and all the emotional baggage that goes with it.
If you're hosting Thanksgiving for a guest with a history of food-related issues, you can't eliminate every single trigger from your table. But there are some small things you can do that will have a huge impact -- for them, and for all your guests.
1. Stop asking people if they've lost / gained weight
Say a relative you haven't seen in a year walks through the door. Within about 30 seconds, you can bet someone will exclaim, "Oh wow, you look fantastic. Have you lost weight?" (Weight gain could be remarked on, too -- though fatphobia tends to make people wary of doing so.)
This is a "don't" for three main reasons:
a. You're essentially saying, "Weight is the very first thing we notice in this house." I'm sure you can see why this isn't super-relaxing for guests in recovery.
b. You're not telling that person anything they don't already know. Obviously they look fantastic, whatever their weight. And if you aren't 110 percent sure their weight changes are intentional, not from stress / depression / chronic or invisible illnesses, just steer clear.
c. Weight is boring as hell. You're basically asking "Has your gravitational relationship with the earth altered slightly?"
Ask how their job's going. Ask about their kids. Ask about that surprise twist last night on Scandal. Anything.
2. Talk about things other than food
"Isn't this turkey delicious?" might sound like a polite conversation-starter to you, but for someone with food-related stressors, it sounds like this:
"You aren't eating the turkey. I noticed. We're all watching you."
"You're eating so much of that turkey. I noticed. We're all watching you."
If food were the point of Thanksgiving, we could make an extravagant meal and eat it by ourselves any given Thursday, but we don't. The day's about togetherness and reconnecting with family (or friends, depending on how you choose to spend the holiday).
I'm not here to tell you what to talk about. You know your invitees better than I do. For example, at my house, I can guarantee you someone will shout "democratic socialism" at least once. And whatever your opinion on that, it's at least more interesting -- and less triggering -- than food.
3. Stop rationalizing your food choices
Stop me if you've heard this before:
"I skipped breakfast this morning, so it's OK if I have another slice of pie."
"Oh, I really shouldn't eat this! I'll go to the gym tomorrow morning."
Though you may not have a personal history with a restrictive ED, for someone who does, you're echoing the same kind of disordered thoughts they experience regularly.
And not only is this stressful, but it's also dangerously validating. "Normal" people think this way, they can reason, so it must be right, and I should keep doing it.
Newsflash: You can have dessert, and the world will not end. You don't need to justify yourself to anyone. Also, no one really cares when you go to the gym.
Just eat your pie and carry on.
4. Put your bathroom scale away
This takes 30 seconds, and could save your guest so much stress. Why wouldn't you?
5. Don't use ED-specific language as a joke
"I wish I had the willpower to be anorexic -- I can't stop eating these rolls!"
"Ugh, I totally binged on sweet potato casserole."
I hear these things all the time. Please do not.
A simple "yum" or "I'm full" will suffice, thanks.
6. Offer something to do before and after the meal
It's not just the meal itself that can cause stress. Before and after dinner, negative thought cycling can really get out of control.
And while it's not your responsibility -- or within your power -- to make your guest think positive thoughts, you can offer distractions. By giving your guest something else to do, they can replace obsessive thoughts with more neutral, task-based ones.
Fortunately, this is Thanksgiving. I'm sure you have tons of things that need doing.
Ask for help doing the dishes. If they like kids, enlist them to entertain younger siblings and cousins. Go for a leisurely walk after dinner and talk about whatever comes to mind. If they know origami, have them help you make elaborately folded napkins for the table.
(This may just be part of my dream to have elaborately folded napkins at every meal. But the point stands.)
7. Don't make observations about what they're eating
Yes, even if the person is on a recovery-geared meal plan. There's enough food-related stress around Thanksgiving without someone reminding you to get XX carbohydrates on your plate.
Of course, if you're worried about the person's immediate well-being, don't ignore that. Thanksgiving shouldn't be an excuse to engage in disordered behaviors.
The National Eating Disorders Association has a toll-free helpline your guest can call if needed. And if they're on Twitter, they can use the #Thx4Support hashtag all day on Thanksgiving, where people are standing by to listen and offer real-time support.
But if that's not the case, and you're just concerned they're eating a bit too much or a bit too little, don't make a scene. They'll be fine. Trust that they're doing the best they can under unusually stressful circumstances.
You might notice a lot of these tips sound pretty general.
Don't engage in diet talk. Don't weigh yourself or judge others by your weight. Don't treat food as a moral indicator.
That's because the key to throwing a recovery-friendly Thanksgiving is simple: create a body-image safe space, and the rest will follow.
These tips aren't just for Thanksgiving -- they're for everyone, every day of the year.
Now, if you'll excuse me, there are puppies I should be watching.
If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.