When I was younger, I began to notice a strange thing that happens at social gatherings. I’ve seen it frequently at all kinds of celebrations but there is something about Christmas that sends it into overdrive. When we gather with our nearest and dearest, we generally provide food that we love the taste of and feel we are expected to provide for others, that meets the theme of the occasion.
It also tends to be food, that many of us feel we shouldn’t allow ourselves to enjoy.
The ‘good/bad stuff’; the chips, candy canes, the pavlova, cakes, the bubbly stuff. It tastes good, we have fond memories of enjoying it carefree when we were younger, but somewhere along the way, the joy got squashed out of that experience. Making food choices, particularly the ones we make around others, fraught with anxiety, self-loathing and shame.
I remember overhearing conversations among females at one of these parties. The overall theme ‘how cruel it was that New Zealand celebrated Christmas during summer’. Not because we missed out on carols by an open fire or mulled wine, or an actual white Christmas like we hear about in songs, but about how they couldn’t possibly enjoy the tasty food and still be in a swimsuit on the beach a week later.
According to these women, and countless other similar conversations I've heard since, the food at these sorts of celebrations is not actually there to enjoy. These delights are a test, a trial to endure, and should you submit to temptation, then you better be ready to take a decent helping of guilt and judgement for your plate too.
Now although these gatherings are usually with people that we know and love, whether it’s the end of year reflection on our goals, the idea of being seen in a swimsuit, or just being acutely aware that this appearance weight-obsessed culture exists, we feel we always have to justify our choices.
It’s unthinkable to take a bite of cake without saying something along the lines of “Oh I really shouldn’t” or “I’ll be running for days to work off all these calories!”. Custom dictates we must also watch the choices others made and give feedback “Oh you’re so good having a salad”. Talk of diets, ‘bad food’ and self-hatred of different body parts are all commonplace and certainly on our minds before and after.
Somehow, many of us have managed to link our morality and self-worth with our appearance and the food choices we make. It also seems we inadvertently pass these customs on, from generation to generation.
Research shows children as young as 5 report feelings of anxiety and shame associated with overeating and fears of gaining weight. We seriously need to have a rethink the way we ‘celebrate’ and how we talk about food and bodies in general.
Now that I am regularly a host of these gatherings, with a young child of my own, I’m also thinking about strategies to change this shame-filled custom or at least raise my daughter to dismiss it as not relevant to her and her friends, so they can at least live and celebrate differently.
Here is our plan so far:
● Choose words carefully — In our house, we talk about our own bodies with respect. We show gratitude for the wonderful things our bodies do for us on a daily basis. My arms allow me to hug and hold my child, that is certainly something I’m thankful for. We don’t talk about the appearance or food choices of others. Our discussion around food and appearance is generally neutral, rather than food being healthy/bad/clean/good.
● I provide: She decides. As the adult I decide what to provide for my daughter to eat, she then decides if and how much she eats of it. In this way, she learns to eat what is right for her. Part of this is exposing her to a range of foods, including *those* ones. Sweet and salty foods sometimes feature, and they generally always feature at celebrations. This exposure teaches her how to manage them in a way that she can feel both happy and healthy.
● Actively role model a positive body image. Naturally, because we have spent years in a diet-obsessed culture this might be hard at first, so start simple. I’m lucky to have a lovely round tummy, that allowed me to grow and nourish my daughter. I grew an entire human in there — how cool is that? My daughter (just turned 3) will look at her own rounded belly in the mirror with pride. Giving it a rub and remembering fondly the food she put in there! Children model what they see- this is your most powerful tool in nurturing a positive body image.
● Call out diet-culture if it tries to sneak in the door- we usually do this with humour. What is a beach-ready body? One with flippers and scales so you can swim like a fish? How silly.
● Let food be food. We talk about the crunch, the taste. It isn’t good or bad, healthy or unhealthy and for our little one, who is still very much in a stage of ‘concrete concept understanding, this is one step in preventing the connection of her morality and worth with her food choices.
● Provide and eat food that makes us feel good. We are huge foodies. We actively role model joyful eating. It is a-OK to have a decent helping of what you love in our house. Food has such potential to bring people together, the shared experience of enjoying something delicious. Everyone should be free to enjoy those moments.
● Provide variety — some options are things we just like the taste of, others are those that help us to feel energised and comfortable. I am a huge chip and dip fan, so that is always there, after a while, I find them too salty to eat a lot of, so I also like to have fresh fruit and salads available. My toddler naturally does the same, she self selects from a range of foods, and listens to her body.
When our food choices aren’t complicated with judgement and shame, we learn to tune into what our body needs. When we think of our nearest and dearest, and all the things we wish for them, surely health and happiness are at the top of the list. If we can use some of these strategies to create parties with a different vibe, a change of conversation and the next generation learning to make choices that are right for them, that is actually something worth celebrating.
If you feel like you need some support putting these strategies into place, contact us here at The Food tree.