Food Shame, the Holidays, and You: How to Foster Compassion This Holiday Season

A freshly baked pie

Mmmmm . . . pie

The holidays can be a wonderful time for coming together with loved ones, but they can also be an uncomfortable time full of shame and doubt. While shared meals can bring people together, they can sometimes be the fuel that drives them apart.

If the practice in your family gatherings in the past has been centered around food shame, you don’t need to keep that going. If you’ve decided that this behavior no longer serves you, you can change the cycle right now. Practice compassion this holiday season—compassion for yourself as well as for others.

There’s a saying in yoga: keep your eyes on your own mat. The concept behind this saying is that it isn’t mindful to look around at what other people are doing. We don’t need to have our practice look the same as someone else’s, nor do we have the right to judge how our mat neighbor is practicing. In this same vein, I have a suggestion for you this holiday season: keep your eyes on your own plate, and find compassion for whatever is on your plate as well. Here are five examples of ways you can respect your own, as well as other people’s food choices and maintain your integrity this holiday season.

Scenario 1

You notice that your cousin has taken a second slice of pie, and because she has a curvy figure, you believe that this choice is unhealthy. Take a moment and notice your feelings. Before you speak up to ask her whether she’s sure she wants another piece, consider what business it is of yours to make comments on other people’s food choices. Additionally, take some time to reflect on what right you have to voice opinions about your cousin’s body in any respect. Then return your eyes to your own plate.

Scenario 2

You notice that your uncle has left a few bites of food on his plate and consider this rude—you were raised to believe that you should always finish your meal or else you are disrespecting those who are starving. Take this opportunity to acknowledge your feelings, then ask yourself why you feel the need to perpetuate the cycle of force-feeding others. Your uncle is a grown man who knows when he is fully sated and he has every right to stop eating at any time. And then return your eyes to your own plate.

Scenario 3

You notice that your aunt is filling up her plate and remember that she mentioned last year she was trying to lose weight. Your impulse is to remind her of her previous weight-loss goals in order to help her get back on track. Again, notice these feelings, and ask yourself what gives you permission to police someone else’s body. Then return your eyes to your own plate.

Scenario 4

You notice that your brother’s girlfriend only has vegetables on her plate and want to ask her about her food choices. Realize that what she eats is her business; she might be vegetarian or vegan or just not very hungry, maybe because she’s nervous meeting the family for the first time. Then return your eyes to your own plate.

Scenario 5

This one is for you, yourself. You finish your dinner and realize that you’re still hungry. You feel the need to justify having another scoop of something, so you are sure to mention how you had a small lunch and that you’ll be “working this off later.” Then, after you’re done eating, you suddenly feel guilt for this decision and find yourself saying how you didn’t “need” that last scoop (even though you weren’t sated). Ask yourself: Why do I feel the need to justify how I feed my body? How is my body anybody else’s business? Even if you do wind up eating past satiation, remember that this isn’t a moral failing; it’s merely information. Realize, “Okay, I maybe wasn’t eating mindfully just then—I’ll be aware of that in the future.” And look up from your plate with pride over your self-compassion.

Now that you’ve tuned in to what’s going on around you, you might notice these food and body microaggressions going on all around you. You’ll notice the side-eye and the comments of “Are you going to eat all that?” or “Finish everything on your plate!” You might notice people commenting on each other’s weight or their own. You might find that the vegetarian at the table is asked to justify her eating choices and demonstrate how she gets enough protein, as well as being put down by others for her choices. You may begin to notice that the amount of shame that exists around food and eating and bodies is so pervasive that it feels insurmountable. But you don’t need to solve all of society’s ills. You can make a radical statement just by enjoying your holiday and not engaging in this behavior.

When you’re hungry, give yourself permission to eat. When you’re sated, give yourself permission to stop. Your body and your choices are your own and no one else’s.

Happy holidays.

A woman holding up a plate with a slice of pie and a glob of whipped cream

This woman is unapologetic as she enjoys this damn fine slice of pie.

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