When I was younger I loved every holiday, especially Christmas. I’d beg my parents to go to the all the events; light switch-ons and Christmas markets. I would look forward to finishing school and getting to see all my family altogether. Not forgetting the films, the food, the presents. I loved it all, but one year it changed and all of my love for Christmas was taken from me.
I joined my local gym when I finished school as a way to stay in touch with friends. I wasn’t ever really fussed about fitness before but we decided it would be our excuse to make sure we were still seeing each other weekly whilst our lives started to change.
And it worked. We were seeing each other each week, sometimes a few of us couldn’t make it but generally speaking we made the effort. After a few months I started getting those comments saying how good I was looking and how impressed they were at my ‘willpower’ and it made me feel invincible. Suddenly, this was my THING and I loved it.
Eventually I would leave the gym I would meet my friends at to go to the more ‘serious’ and expensive gym in town. I started doing my own food shops and cooking which confused my parents, but I think it pleased them a little to know I was, in their eyes, learning to look after myself. But I suppose none of us really knew at the time the hold that this ‘culture’ had on me.
Diet culture is a strange beast. On the surface, we are told that this is what we all need to be doing to be the best kind of human. To be healthy, to be pretty, to be fit (in all contexts) and to be your ‘best self.’ Anything less and you’re made to feel like a failure.
This is how diet culture stole Christmas from me.
I remember still being excited for Christmas and it wasn’t until the festivities started that everything felt wrong. To love Christmas the way I used to would be to do an injustice to all the things the gym and this new life had given me.
The advent calendars, chocolate tins and mince pies were a no-no. I was worried about what people would think and whether other people like me would be having advent calendars and Christmas ‘treats’. I wouldn’t make a big deal of it, just a polite ‘no, thank you’ or a sneaky lie to say ‘oops, I’ve just had one!’
Every day throughout December I had this fear of over-eating. I knew what I could eat in a day which met my needs, but it felt like no one else cared. I’d be invited for hot chocolates at the markets and family meals at the pub and it all felt out of my control. I’d try and compensate afterwards, whether that be through exercise or restricting my food later in the day.
A trainer at the gym would warn me about drinking at the work Christmas party and how too many roast potatoes might ‘undo’ my gains and because of that I’d feel quite smug about my rigidity around food this time of year. I was totally in control and Christmas was NOT worth sacrificing my health and this physique I had worked so hard for. I was so obsessed with food and fitness throughout December that I was hardly present at all. I’d either turn up at events totally spaced out, thinking about what I could eat or why I shouldn’t eat, or I’d just not turn up at all.
It actually all came to a head one Christmas evening when my family finally called me out on my compulsive behaviours. I was the Grinch that had been stealing away bits of their Christmas joy over the years until they couldn’t take any more. I wasn’t fully convinced but the tears from my parents pushed me to speak to my GP and eventually getting support from a local counselling service.
Today, I like Christmas. It is a month-long challenge and elements still scare the hell out of me. I cry when things get tough and when I think of all the Christmas memories I destroyed but I can move forward. i remind myself that there are new memories to be made now and ones that aren’t defined by fear and the nonsensical rules of diet culture.
Therapy taught me a lot of things, and all of that comes into practice at Christmas.
The first is to be healthy is to be flexible. This is an important one for me at Christmas, because a lot of what my friends and family like to do requires a little bit of flexibility or spontaneity. An example being trips to Christmas markets and having to decide what to have for dinner – reminding myself that it’s good to try new things and to choose something I WANT, rather than what I think I SHOULD have.
I also have to remember that no food is inherently good or bad, even if diet culture tries to teach us that. When I read ‘guilty pleasure’ on advertising or in the supermarket now it makes me want to rage. I can enjoy things in moderation, without shame or guilt to my body.
This won’t be relevant to everyone, but I delete social media off my phone this time of year. I recognise that I’m still drawn in by what others post so I need to set those boundaries. This helps me experience Christmas how I want to and on my own terms.
When it comes to exercising, after a period of nothing, I am trying to reintroduce it back into my life (with the help of professionals and my family.) I try to have an understanding of what I hope to gain through exercise and at Christmas when I go for a walk with my family, I know that I want to engage in that tradition. If I feel like those intentions might be false, I speak to someone who can remind me of this journey I’m on and why I don’t need to ‘earn’ food.
Diet Culture impacted me in a number of ways and still does (at least the Grinch saved Christmas in the end!) And I hope that we become wiser to the fake news that we absorb and recognise that these people are making money from our insecurities and need to conform to the perfect bodies.