Opinion

This Christmas, let’s change the language we use about food and exercise

“I’ve got to start exercising properly or I’m going to gain so much weight over lockdown.” “I had a few too many slices of pizza for dinner last night, I’m so bad.” “Today’s my cheat day, but tomorrow I’ll be back to cutting out carbs.” To many, these kinds of statements might seem harmless, just self-deprecating, ‘relatable’ comments about food and dieting – but might they in fact be a symptom of a wider problem?

Many people notice a change in their relationship towards food and exercise throughout the festive period and the start of the New Year. As early as 1st November, we’re presented with adverts and magazine articles showing us hundreds of different kinds of rich foods, inviting us to indulge, telling us it’s been a long and hard year (especially this year!) and we’ve ‘earned it’. But then as soon as Christmas is over, the adverts start showing us green smoothies and vegan recipes, gyms start offering reduced subscriptions, and women’s magazines advertise whatever new diet and exercise regime that will reportedly “help shed those Christmas pounds – and ACTUALLY WORKS!” This is the message until Valentine’s day comes around, and we’re told we can eat chocolate again, this time in the name of romance. 

This cycle happens every year, and it’s so normalised we might not notice how exhausting and damaging it truly is for everyone. Media and advertising seem to alternate constantly between telling us to treat ourselves and punish ourselves – it’s a calculated attempt to get us to spend as much as we can, both on the food itself during the Christmas period, and on the diet products for afterwards. It relies upon us viewing some foods as inherently good, and some as inherently bad, and viewing food as something you need to earn, not something humans need to live. 

So for people with eating disorders, the Christmas period can be an especially hard time of year, partially because of the amount of different, rich kinds of food available, but also because of the social pressure around food at family gatherings or Christmas parties, and the toxic media messaging that comes with the period. Lockdown especially won’t have helped; Beat, a UK-based eating disorder charity, reported that the number of people using their services rose by 73% over the nationwide lockdown earlier this year, most likely because of everyone’s lives naturally becoming more sedentary when people are ordered to stay at home.

Because of this extra pressure, the language we use surrounding diet and exercise matters to those with eating disorders far more than we think. It’s understandable that people make self-deprecating remarks after, say, a much-wanted second helping of Christmas pudding –  when consuming foods which are not considered healthy, it can seem like we have to feel guilty, and vocalise that guilt. But someone with an eating disorder may well be at the table with you, and to them, on what might already be a difficult day, the remark will sting. And what’s more, negative comments relating to gaining weight is, of course, rooted in fatphobia and presents thinness as the ideal. Saying that you ‘feel fat’ as if it’s a bad thing is incredibly hurtful.

When recovering from a restrictive eating disorder, you’re constantly in conflict with it, with the inner voice which tells you to eat less, exercise more, choose the lower-fat option, stay hungry. So it’s even harder when that inner voice seems transported out of your head and speaks from the mouth of one of your relatives or friends. It legitimises every harmful instinct you’re trying to suppress; it suggests that the rest of the world thinks like that inner voice, that the inner voice is right. In terms of recovery, hearing people speak like that can undo a lot of progress. It also simply turns the atmosphere at Christmas lunch – which might be a stressful event for someone in recovery anyway – into an even more nerve-wracking and hostile one.

But when we say things like this, it’s not really us speaking, it’s diet culture. We have internalised harmful media messaging and are repeating it unknowingly in conversations with our friends and our families. Diet culture is linked integrally to capitalism and the beauty industry, so it’s a difficult structure to topple, but the smallest things can make a difference. If you’ve eaten, for example, a lot of roast potatoes, maybe don’t comment on how “bad” you are, or say that you need to go for a run later – instead just comment on how lovely they were. When we discard the arbitrary moralities that we place upon food, we can have a Christmas that is truly ‘guilt-free’.

Image from Pxfuel (CC)