Taking on Food and Festivities

Tis the season to be jolly, isn’t it? The lights, the revelry, the joyous air and the endless delicacies define the holiday season. The sheer excess is a welcoming bliss for most of us, to flag off yet another hectic year. Everything, from the bright advertisements to the sweet rom-coms to the upbeat music, tells us that this is the most magical time of the year and we should be extremely excited about it. But it is also an undeniable fact that this excess comes with plenty of baggage. It pressures one to look happy, put-together and be sociable- a fair trade-off for the average person. Unfortunately, many individuals, specifically those battling eating disorders cannot afford that luxury.

While food has always been a central aspect of social festivities, the consumerism of the holiday season has further accentuated this. One cannot waft past Diwali, Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Years without stumbling upon some signature dishes. Thus, from the stress associated with the holiday season, to the food centrism of it, the whole thing is a terrifying affair for those with eating disorders. In an article by Deseret News, personal experiences of eating disorder patients during the holidays were chronicled (Click here to see the article). One patient summarized the troubles of the holiday season-

I always hated it when the holiday season would roll around. It meant that I would have to face my two worst enemies – food and people – and a lot of them.”

There is a plethora of eating disorders, each characterized by very specific behaviours. The most well-known disorders are Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa. Let us explore them in greater detail. 

According to The National Eating Disorder Association , Anorexia Nervosa is “a serious, potentially life-threatening eating disorder characterized by self starvation and excessive weight loss”

(https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/what-are-eating-disorders). These behaviors are guided by an intense fear of gaining weight, or of becoming fat, and an accompanying need to look thin. Similar goals steer the behaviors of those with Bulimia Nervosa, which is characterized by “a cycle of bingeing and compensatory behaviors, such as self-induced vomiting, designed to undo or compensate for the effects of binge eating” 

Besides the guiding principles, many symptoms are common to both disorders. They include continuous weight checking; regularly surveying how some clothes fit; comparison of one’s own body to that of others; having unrealistic and far-reaching benchmarks; body dysmorphia and so on. Such disorders are triggered by much more than the desire to look thin and feel empty. Emotional upheavals and downward spirals also contribute to eating disorders, since the adoption of such eating routines give one a sense of control over their body, as observed by Dr. Hilde Burch (Click here to learn more about her observations). Furthermore, disordered eating habits also sometimes make for routes of escape from a tumultuous reality. Such coping mechanisms, however, end up being counter-productive, as they intensify feelings of guilt and self-hatred (sci-hub.se/10.1037/h0079241).

How do the holidays pose a threat to those with eating disorders? The food centrism of holidays ensures that such occasions are filled with stressors and triggers. Having anorexia, on one hand, can make one feel cornered at the idea of consuming any food, especially in the presence of other people. Dr. Randy Hardman, a doctor at Center for Change, offered some perspective (https://journals.psu.edu/ne/article/view/59255/58982, pp.8)-

I have had patients describe that they would rather jump off a cliff without a parachute than to have somebody watch them eat food.”

Those with bulimia may have ample opportunity to indulge in binge sessions. One patient told Deseret News-

“So much food, so much love and so much joy, but I could not feel the love or joy, so I indulged in the food as a replacement.”

Thus, fear sets in- those with anorexia find themselves trying to avoid food without raising eyebrows; those with bulimia find themselves surrounded by opportunities to binge eat. Such scenarios end up emotionally wrecking one’s state of mind. Shame, guilt and self-loathe sets in.

While most of us casually speak of “packing on holiday weight”, this looms as a matter of life and death for someone with an eating disorder. Festivities may derail them from their usual routine of maintaining strict vigil on their food intake and weight. This in turn may lead compensatory behaviors such as over-exercising, purging and so on to take  a whole new significance in their lives. In this context, Dr. Timothy Walsh points out that “For people with eating disorders, guilt feelings become so distorted they lose all perspective” (https://journals.psu.edu/ne/article/view/59255/58982, pp.8). To illustrate this point, Kaitlin Dannibale explains, “The destructive thoughts consume every inch of their brain and the meal becomes the only thing they can obsess over for a fixed period of time. This is when the compensatory behaviors will most likely begin. For those with anorexia, they may restrict dramatically over the next day, week or month. Those who over exercise will try to compensate by participating in vigorous physical activity. People with bulimia will attempt to purge their meals immediately after completion” (https://journals.psu.edu/ne/article/view/59255/58982, pp.8)  

Another key trigger during the holidays can be resurfacing of negative emotions and trauma, particularly with respect to family. Oftentimes, unsupportive familial environments are where eating disorders begin. This is particularly significant in the Indian context, where weight shaming is common. In a blogpost, Gwen details into how the weight shaming culture proved to be detrimental for her body-image-

I know calling someone “fat” in India is not the same as in the US. But it doesn’t change years of baggage I am carrying with me.” (read the full blog-post here)

Thus, the rehashing of past trauma may intensify the need to use disordered eating habits as a coping mechanism. This is further accentuated by the lack of understanding or awareness on part of the family about eating disorders.

Dr. Hardman explains, “most family members think it is about food and weight, but it is about self-rejection”(https://journals.psu.edu/ne/article/view/59255/58982, pp.9).  Hence, the family environment isn’t conducive for one to feel secure in the midst of a stress-filled situation. Oftentimes, the family isn’t even aware of one’s eating disorder.

Unfortunately, such obstacles make even survivors of eating disorders stumble. As Ginean Crawford explains, eating disorders are different from other addictive disorders, in that one cannot completely abstain from food, as can be done in the case of alcohol (https://journals.psu.edu/ne/article/view/59255/58982, pp. 8) . Thus, they encounter stressors and triggers on the daily, more so during the holidays.

How can one help someone cope with an eating disorder during the holidays?

  • Make sure that the person battling such a disorder has a support group. This ensures that they are able to communicate how they feel about the triggers around them, and can help alleviate feelings of guilt. A supportive family setting would be ideal. If the individual has even a single friend or family member to rely on during arduous festivities, it would make a huge difference.
  • Restrict the disruption of routine as much as possible. If meal times can be close to that of the individual’s schedule, it will be less stressful for them.
  • It is also worth noting that celebrations with few loved ones won’t be as overwhelming as large gatherings.

Overall, helping the sufferer of the eating disorder to plan ahead, encouraging them to voice their concerns, letting them indulge in the festivities at their own pace will help them tackle the holidays.

A pivotal concern specific to the Indian context, is the startling lack of discourse and awareness, which has further fuelled the ‘weight-shaming’ culture. Oftentimes, remarks about appearance and weight are hardly driven by malicious intent, given the lack of understanding about body image. There are very few studies documenting the prevalence of eating disorders in India, most of them confined to relatively small regions. The larger picture is unknown. Moreover, the scanty discourse that does exist, purports the notion that it is mainly a result of ‘western import’. In one study in the International Journal of Social Psychiatry, it is said that “The process of admixture of western attitudes and behaviour now occurring at a rapid rate in India may soon lead to emergence of severe eating disorders in the vulnerable populations” (sci-hub.se/10.1177/002076409804400305, pp. 196).

This brings to the forefront, the individual responsibility of each and every one of us, to educate ourselves as well as those around us. We can take it upon ourselves to contribute to the scanty discourse and mend the environment which enables eating disorders. Let us all strive to inspire such conversations and be more mindful of the not-so-jolly aspects of the holiday season.

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