Authored by Lily Sloane for Psyched in San Francisco Magazine. Lily is a licensed psychotherapist in San Francisco. She specializes in working with sensitive, creative young adults struggling with eating disorders, substance use/misuse, perfectionism, and relationships.
Winter is cold and rough. So, for centuries people have come up with ingenious ways to ride it out. We've built fires to gather around. We've learned how to preserve food that can't grow in such a hostile environment. We've built narratives and rituals to comfort our souls and bring us together so we don't feel so hopeless and alone. The industrial revolution has brought us coal, gas, and electricity and with it tiny colorful lights, heaters, ovens, and much more to help us warm our homes and our bellies.
But over the centuries we've invented other things too - less beautiful things like hate, oppression, pollution, white-washed histories, the illusion that buying a bunch of stuff will bring us lasting peace and joy, and my favorite: a 20 billion dollar diet industry.
Heading into a season known for family time, big meals, extravagant soirees, and spending lots of money, can bring up a lot of mixed feelings for most of us - from connection to isolation, fear to excitement, joy to despair, or all of the above. If you struggle with your relationship to food and body image, the holidays can be particularly challenging. And I don't know many people (or media outlets) who don't start disparagingly commenting this time of year about the various ways they'll be "bad" by eating pies and other rich foods for the next couple of months and then start punishing themselves in January. Tis the season for stressing out about every calorie to the point of avoiding the joys of rich winter meals, or overdoing it while all your body really needs is to get warm and cozy and eat good food with people you love while we ride out the darkness together.
Considering stressful family interactions (or isolation), mass consumerism (or poverty), unrealistic beauty standards, and cold weather, no wonder the Holidays can be so hard. For some of us, even when enjoying those mashed potatoes and pie, a voice still hovers in the background - the ghost of New Year's Resolutions Past, perhaps - warning us of the hell we'll have to pay later for such horrid transgressions. And all this yucky stuff we're feeling - the stress, the shame, the isolation - often translates into war on our bodies, the very thing making us alive, capable of experiencing all that yummy food and warmth and connection.
So how to escape this dreadful pattern? How to stop the constant war on your body and actually find some warmth, joy, and connection this holiday season?
Reconnecting to the Why
Remember all that stuff I said about fire, warmth, ritual, community, etc.? Try to imagine what it is you really need in the winter. What brings you joy, comfort, safety? What helps you feel connected to others? How do you create these experiences and how do your choices get in the way? Why do you celebrate (or not celebrate) these holidays in the first place? Pondering the "why" and not just going along with the status quo can potentially open you up to a sense of choice. Sometimes we do things for years and years because we think we have to, only to discover other options exist.
For instance, maybe you spend Thanksgiving with your family, and that's always really stressful and painful, but you feel obligated and guilty. Or maybe you want to spend Thanksgiving with your family but you can't afford a trip to see them, and so you feel alone. What choices exist to help you get your needs met? Can you shorten family time or skip it altogether? Can you video chat with your family, find an orphans' Thanksgiving to attend, or volunteer at a soup kitchen so you can feel connected?
Notice I don't talk about food here. The reason is that often our feelings about food are connected to other fears we have about getting our needs for connection and safety met.
Health as a Broader Concept
The U.S. is facing high obesity rates coupled with an unhealthy obsession with thinness (these two go hand in hand in fact). Because "health" is supposedly visible and measurable according to body size (despite studies that show how wrong we are about this), it's easy to forget that health is actually determined by so much more. Diet and exercise are important, but in isolation they mean very little. Our emotional, social, and spiritual well-being are equal players in the larger picture of our health.
Normal, reasonable eating includes eating as a pleasurable experience. Normal eating around the holidays can include eating past full because we're really getting into it and having a good time. Sometimes, we eat too much at family Thanksgiving because we're anxious - which is a little different, but not terribly shocking or unforgivable. It's ALL forgivable because when we look at the broader picture of our health, imposing strict rules that rob us of pleasure and fill us with shame when we "slip" do more damage than occasional over-indulgence. In fact, for some of us, such rules can lead to even more mindless eating either in rebellion or because we are constantly trying to numb the part that feels ashamed.
Finding Alternative Ways to Experience Your Body
When we fixate on how we look and how we think we should look rather than on how we feel it's easy to feel dissatisfied. Mindfulness can help us reconnect to our bodies in a sensing sort of way and help us intuit what we need or find gratitude and acceptance in what we have. Living in California where the weather is pretty mild, one of my favorite things to do around the holidays is hike in the redwoods. I love the smell and feel of the damp, fresh, cool, air. I love exploring hollowed out trees and running up and down the hills in Armstrong Woods. Nothing makes me forget about how I look and just enjoy how I feel like getting out into nature and being present.
There are lots of ways to practice this kind of presence. Guided meditations focusing on physical sensations in the body can help us feel connected to what we're feeling in a less judging way. As do pleasurable activities like soaking in a tub or at a hot springs. Or you can try to, at least for a moment, really savor that apple pie and vanilla ice cream as the sweet warmth and shocking cold swirl around in your mouth and fill your belly with goodness. When I'm worrying about how fat I'm going to get because of the calories I ate or standing in front of the mirror thinking if only I could lose __ pounds then I will finally feel ___________, I'm like the walking dead. I'm a zombie. I'm not living my life.
So here's wishing you weightless holidays...
Free from the weight of hating your body.
Free from the weight of feeling guilty for not being who you think people need you to be.
Free from the weight of racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, sizeism, ableism, religious persecution and oppression of all kinds.
Free from the weight of poverty -- both physical and emotional.
Free from the weight of trauma -- both personal and collective.
Free from the weight of feeling alone and cold in the dark.
And maybe, just maybe, with all this emotional weight off your gut, you can feel free from the war you wage with calorie counting, numbers on the scale, and unreasonable New Year's resolutions. You will find peace in the natural cycles of life and seasons that demand our flexibility. You will find yourself moving from war with your body to compassion and connection on the coldest and darkest nights of the year.