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How to Cultivate Body Positivity This Holiday Season

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The holidays are often a fun and festive time of celebration. But for many people, the holidays can also be tough. It goes without saying that they’re even tougher if you are someone who struggles with body image issues, anxiety and perfectionism.

As someone who’s struggled with body image and as an eating disorder therapist, I get it. The holiday season is full of mixed messages — we’re told to diet and indulge at the same time. We’re told to love one another, yet many of the side conversations are focused on criticizing another family member or friend’s body size or life situation. Perhaps you even find yourself sucked into those types of toxic conversations.

So we hear the message that it’s OK to treat ourselves, yet every time we put something in our mouths we hear a side comment, and the guilt ensues. Maybe this is brought on by Aunt Karen commenting on the “richness” or caloric content of every treat and dish, maybe it’s because the second someone departs ways for the night, their body size becomes the topic of conversation and you fear same will happen you. But at the root if it, perhaps it’s because you’ve internalized the messages you’ve received from the voices around you all of these years implying that you’re unlovable if you gain weight, eat too much, don’t have a regular fitness routine or don’t resolve to drop a few sizes come the New Year.

How do you go against the grain and stay body positive and maintain healthy self-image throughout all of that?!

Most often, becoming and remaining body positive comes down to uprooting, examining and reframing those deeply engrained ideas and messages we’ve internalized about body size and beauty, and how they developed into the frameworks by which we define our own self-worth. This is tough stuff! Not only are those message reinforced by loved ones, but there is no denying the fact that we live in a society that profits from our self-doubt. Though necessary, this kind of life-changing work can be beyond challenging. For most, it can take quite a bit of time to disentangle. Do you need to do all of this mental and emotional work before the holidays get here? No! This kind of work takes time and is often a life-long journey.

While you explore this further and take the road towards developing positive body image and cultivating body positivity, here are a couple pointers to help you this holiday season.

Controlling Your Social Media

This is a big one! Not only has the mixed messaging around the holiday season remain unchanged, it seems to have gotten worse, and social media is certainly not helping. The dawn of social media and endless interconnectivity makes all those contradictions instantly more accessible than ever before.

For many people, a valuable tool has been controlling their social media. This may mean disengaging from social media or becoming more critical of the people you follow and the things you post. While I do not want to minimize the benefits of social media (keeping in contact with friends/family, connecting with communities of interest, etc.), the truth is that many social media-based visual platforms like Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat provide space that allows individuals to earn approval for their appearance and compare themselves to others.

According to research, the most vulnerable users are the ones who spend most of their time posting, commenting on and comparing themselves to photos of others. Nowadays it is nearly impossible to isolate yourself from all forms of social media, but you can learn to become more mindful of it. Remember, people typically curate their social media feeds in an attempt to present the best version of themselves. These can be difficult things to see throughout your feeds when you are experiencing the stress of the holidays, feeling as though everything is out of control, cannot find the time to get to the gym and so on.

A few tips to help you out when it comes to social media:

  • Engage in self-protective filtering.

    There are likely particular user accounts or hashtags that consistently leave you feeling less-than, not good enough or damage your self-confidence. Sure, seeing an account or hashtag that motivates you towards health isn’t the worst thing. But when you find yourself feeling guilt and insecurity as a result, it’s not helping to motivate you towards a healthy lifestyle anymore, it’s harming your mental health. Do yourself a favor now and go through your social media and filter out stuff that makes you feel bad, yes, even if it’s a friend or colleague’s account.
  • Set parameters and limit yourself.

    While choosing to delete a social media app entirely might be the best move, it can sometimes prove challenging if you’re accustomed to using social media frequently. So another protective tactic against the triggers of social media is giving yourself parameters. Set limits with yourself and avoid scrolling through social media during certain vulnerable times of the day, such as mealtimes, mornings or bedtime. Comparing yourself to unrealistic standards on social media as soon as you wake up, go to bed or eat meals is not a good move.
  • Evaluate and reflect.
    Another helpful tip is to evaluate. Engage in reflection and ask yourself what the intended message is of these posts. Remember, they are typically portraying an illusion, sometimes selling something and oftentimes attempting to portray something about themselves or their situation not entirely truthful.
  • Curate your own page and news feeds when you do engage in social media.

    Avoid tags and headlines you know will be packed full of diet talk, highly filtered and edited images of others, “fitspiration” and so on. Purposely search for affirming and uplifting hashtags and accounts so when you do find yourself scrolling through social media in a vulnerable time, you are inundated with positivity and compassion. Some ideas: #bodypositive, #healthateverysize, #Effyourbeautystandards, #honormycurves, #selflove. Consider following these Body positive influencers.

Setting Boundaries With Yourself and Others

Avoid engaging in weight and body talk or the latest diet trends and fitness routines. At some point during the holiday get-togethers, conversation about calories, weight-loss goals, exercising and diets will emerge, which may cause anxiety or trigger you. Have a plan when these topics come up. Retreat to another room or seek out a loved one who is not involved in the conversation. This is also a great time to practice assertiveness and ask that the subject to be changed.

Set boundaries with people and their food. This can be a particularly challenging task when it comes to setting boundaries with the people you love. I’ll let you in on a little secret: You can still love someone and set boundaries with them. A matter of fact, research shows again and again it will actually strengthen your relationship with them. Yes, some family members or friends will be harder to crack, but most will at least budge a bit. Consider setting the boundary before coming together with the people you know are most prone to body shaming, general body commenting and food policing. Explain ahead of time you would appreciate it if body size and calorie/food intake were not topics of conversation this holiday season. You will probably have to set those boundaries again and remind them when they slip up. Use the broken record technique and stick firmly to your boundaries — because if you don’t, no one else will.

When setting boundaries with others in regard to their body, weight and food comments, it’s important you stick to those boundaries as well. Avoid commenting on what you and other people are eating. If you want that second cookie, have it — no need to make an announcement or commentary shaming yourself or justifying your actions.On the same note, avoid commenting on anyone’s weight and body size, including your own. This includes what we may perceive as “positive” body size comments — for instance, “wow, you look great, how did you lose all of that weight?” or “you’re so good, I wish I had that much self-control.” While it may seem as though you’re complimenting someone, comments like these are further validating the harmful messages we get every day — that we are “good” or “bad” based upon our food choices or body size.

Model body positivity for the kids. Need another reason to help empower you to set boundaries around body talk to family and friends during the holidays? Your kids or nieces and nephews, younger cousins or siblings, all hear you. I can certainly remember the conversations during holiday feasts and get-togethers where the adult topic of conversation always seemed to find it’s way at one point or another to how many calories were being consumed, how they were being “bad” for eating certain things or the current diet trends.

As a child, this can open room towards self-questioning — Am I bad for eating certain things too? Should I be trying to change my body? This can set the foundation for negative body image. It may seem like harmless comments to you, or you may think the younger ones aren’t paying attention, but trust me, developing minds are taking it all in. We are not born with poor body image. It is developed. We don’t fall out of an apple tree disliking our body size and feeling guilt for having a treat. Of course there are many contributors to the development of negative body image; but by modeling body positivity, we are at least lessening this load.

Practice Self-Compassion

One of the most important things to remember this holiday season is self-compassion. Don’t be so damn hard on yourself! The holiday season is stressful. Life is stressful. You deserve a break, just like anyone else. This concept can be difficult for many people. With lack of body confidence typically comes lack of self-worth. In that is the belief you must go-go-go and do-do-do. With this mindset, the holidays often push us to our limits. To top it all off, we beat ourselves up because we fear we haven’t done enough. Self-compassion is vital for mental wellness and body positivity. Take time for yourself, slow down, practice mindfulness and engage in gratitude.

Memories are to be made, not missed. The holidays are a prime opportunity to make incredible memories. Think about what you want to look back and remember 20 years from now — it is likely not the diets you tried, the clothes that did or didn’t fit or your body size.

There are many concerns that influence body image, such as depression, anxiety or eating disorders. If negative body image is impacting your ability to thrive and live fully, it is important to seek out professional help​ to appropriately address the various factors you may be dealing with.

Getty image by Rawpixel

Originally published: November 25, 2019
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